Tuesday, December 08, 2009

American Public vs FP Elite

As we saw in class and in the readings for this week, American public opinion with respect to foreign policy (and national security) often diverges with that of the foreign policy elite - whether it be the policymakers within the beltway, political pundits or bloggers, or those in academia. The Pew survey on foreign policy attitudes, released last week, confirms this divergence: troop levels in Afghanistan, protectionism levels, national security priorities, and even acceptable torture. As a proxy for the "foreign policy elite," the Pew surveyed 642 members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) while questioning 2000 people of the general public.

As the results show, the major findings reported by Pew are increased isolationism, unilateralism and a sense that China is becoming more powerful, with a clear plurality of 4% (compared to 30% in 2005) seeing China as having the most powerful economy in the world despite pretty clear evidence to the contrary. In general, we can assume the views from these types of surveys taken by the foreign policy elites (which may or may not agree with the predominate views of the American public) will be the ones that influence foreign policy decisions. For instance, 50% of the CFR survey respondents thought troop levels should increase (the questions were asked prior to Obama's speech last week) while a plurality of 40% of the general public said the number of troops should be decreased. Other stark differences in this report may portend future policy decisions against the grain of American opinion. A central question to this trend is, is it likely to continue?

Probably so. As Dan Drezner states, the poll data shows that the American public is pretty realist and pretty dumb/uninformed. Certainly not a surprise to Drezner, who cites his own piece on realists traditions in America, these results reveal undermining values and interests that define the American experience. The U.S. will have to suffer through much greater recessions, wars, and debts for its average citizen to give at least two hoots about foreign affairs. Further, as the James Fallows article on the media showed, the content of today's "mainstream" media outlets, especially on foreign policy, tends to be vacuous and focus more on politics rather than the true matter at hand. Pundits can exacerbate mistrust for politicians especially when lecturing a relatively-uninformed audience.

Another interesting query about public opinion is which political party is more informed (and optimistic) on foreign policy given a certain party's presidency? For instance, is the average American Republican so turned off by Obama and tuned into a Glen Beck-type FP mediator (who can offer more entertainment and criticism than fact) that he/she is less knowledgeable (the same being true for average Democrats under President Bush or any other Republican president and/or Congress)? While certain groups may be less informed than others no matter what, I would posit that this trend would be hard to prove statistically but could be true (I didn't come across any study having done so). Either way, while these polls certainly offer an interesting insight into the opinions of Americans (assuming the polls are accurate to the degree they claim), public opinion alone - without a strong spokesman, interest group, etc. - will likely continue not to significantly influence foreign policy.


Dr. Smellgood said...

I saw a study recently that showed viewer knowledge according to what news sources they used. Statistically, you're actually dumber for watching Fox News. The most accurate and informative news source turned out to be NPR.

Why aren't YOU in the brig? said...

That is a flagrant attempt at propaganda from the Left! Glenn Beck speaks the truth and everyone knows this. Nothing screams veracity like a man wielding chalk.