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The Foreign Policy Disconnect: Multilateralist Public, Unilateralist Officials

Benjamin Page is speaking on this paper:

Data from the 2006 CCGA national survey once again indicate that the American public is much more multilateralist than U.S. foreign policy officials. Large majorities of Americans favor several specific steps to strengthen the UN, support Security Council intervention for peacekeeping and human rights, and favor working more within the UN even if it constrains U.S. actions. Large majorities also favor the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the new inspection agreement on biological weapons. Large majorities favor multilateral uses of U.S. troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes, but majorities oppose most major unilateral engagements.

He continues:

Analysis of more than one thousand survey questions asked of both the public and foreign policy officials over a thirty year period by the CCGA (formerly CCFR) indicates that significant disagreements between officials and the public have been very frequent, occurring 73% of the time. Disagreements between majorities of officials and majorities of citizens have occurred 26% of the time. On Diplomatic issues, gaps have reached a peak in the George W. Bush years. Over the years, however, there have also been many disagreements over Defense issues (the public is more reluctant to use troops and more opposed to military aid and arms sales), and even more disagreement on international Economic issues: citizens are more worried about immigration and drugs, and much more concerned about the effects of trade on Americans’ jobs and wages.

Page concludes that this is more of a problem with the experts than with the public, concluding:

Most gaps between citizens and officials appear to have more to do with differing values and interests than with differing levels of information and expertise. To the extent that this is true and that Americans’ collective policy preferences are coherent and reflective of the best available information, there would seem to be a strong argument, based on democratic theory, that policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes.

This all seems reasonable to me; I just have one question: how does this square with this well-known finding: “In 1995, the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that, while an overwhelming majority supported aid in principle, a majority wanted to cut it. However when asked to estimate how much of the budget was devoted to foreign aid, respondents vastly overestimated its size, and when asked what would be appropriate they proposed an amount far higher than the actual amount.”

P.S. I don’t have a sense of whether 55% support for the United Nations is a high or a low value. It would be interesting to see the correlations between support for the World Health Organization, the U.N., the IMF, multinational corporations, etc. Are the same 50% supporting all of these, or are the responses essentially random? It would also be interesting to see how these responses correlate with party ID, now and during the Clinton admininstration.

P.P.S. More discussion in the comments.


  1. michael vassar says:

    My guess is that the US citizens are using the simple heuristic "defer to the authority of broadest mandate", but lack enough information to make meaningful decisions. Studies of the knowledge of citizenry regarding the most basic questions are pretty conclusive indicators that they simply can't have any meaningful opinions on these issues.

  2. John S. says:

    "To the extent that this is true and that Americans’ collective policy preferences are coherent and reflective of the best available information, there would seem to be a strong argument, based on democratic theory, that policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes."

    Sorry to disagree, but I read that statement as follows: to the extent the American public's wishes coincide with my own, policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes. Vox populi, in other words.

  3. paulse says:

    Politicians shouldn't be confused with a random sampling of the public. Their marketing techniques (campaigning) have certainly evolved considerably over recent years, so the dichotomy might be explained that way.

    But, as Michael Vassar points out, cascading might offer another explanation.

  4. Andrew says:

    I agree with John that Page did not clearly define "coherent and reflective of the best available information." And I agree with Michael that citizens are often pretty uninformed about these issues and lack important information.

    That said, I think Page's paper has interesting data and a valuable insight. The data–showing that a large proportion of Americans continue to favor international cooperation–seem relevant, in that public opinion does come into policy discussions, and it's been sometimes claimed that the U.S. has to act unilaterally because of domestic public opinion. To understand this, we also should separate the idea of international cooperation from specific policy questions, to get away from a unidimensional view of public opinion as either isoloationist or interventionist.

    An interesting insight in Page's paper, which relates to Chris's comment above, is that policymakers may prefer unilateralism because they can envision themselves making the policy and would like more freedom of action. In contrast, citizens in general have a more distant perspective that might actually be more realistic–given what we know from research in psychology about "the illusion of control."

  5. DOD says:

    I think you could tell some kind of strategic delegation story, that voters wish to be represented by agents more unilateralist than themselves. Something like a politician with unilateralist tendencies would compete more strongly with other nations so that the mulilateralist policy adopted is more suitable to our national interest than what a more mulilateralist minded politician would get us.

  6. az4now says:

    I reviewed the 2006 Bouton report, "The United States and the Rise of China and India Results of a 2006 Multination Survey of Public Opinion," cited in the Page paper linked above. It gave a very general overview of the sampling methodology CCGA used. I would like to understand more about the respondents by state, education level, political affiliation, etc., to understand if the CCGA surveys over the years are truly random. Bouton's paper stated "KN’s respondent panel and answered questions on screens in their own homes." Is this truly random? Just wondering about the validity of the survey. Has someone looked at this?