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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

For faster downloading, Part I of this conference report is divided into the following linked sections:

·  Background & Introduction:
Prof. Richard Kohn

·  Roundtable I: Presentation
by Prof. Ole Holsti

·  Panelists:  Profs.
David Cheshier and
Erik Doxtader

·  Questions from the Floor

·  About TISS

Part II of the report will appear in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy

You may send comments or questions by e-mail in care of the Editor,
American Diplomacy

(click here).

TISS Conference Report:

Bridging Gaps in the Study of
Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy


Editor’s Note:We have the pleasure to present below the first of three segments that will appear in this journal, extracts from the taped proceedings of a one-day conference held at Chapel Hill, NC, on January 10, 1998, sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Forty-six area and visiting scholars and foreign affairs professionals attended.

The names of moderators, presenters, and panelists may be found at the beginning of each of the four roundtable presentations and discussions. The transcript of the proceedings has been edited for consistency and clarity, but we have retained all significant details of the arguments made by the participants.

There has been much discussion in recent years about a so-called “CNN effect.” What kind of impact does press coverage have on American foreign policy? Has, for example, press coverage of humanitarian disasters pushed the United States into military intervention? The way in which public opinion, the press, and the foreign policy establishment interact with one another is an issue which has for some time aroused interest among social scientists.

Further, there has been growing debate in the humanities about the nature of some of the assumptions which underlie our discussion of public opinion. What, for example, do we mean when we refer to “the public”? Do opinion polls themselves influence public opinion? How should the public role be conceptualized? How do arguments made in the public sphere influence — or get influenced by — arguments made in the technical sphere? Are there normative notions of good argument?

This conference did not expect to answer all of these questions. It did, however, bring together persons from intellectual communities that examine foreign policy and the public in distinctly, sometimes radically, different ways. A dialogue between scholars and practitioners who operate on very different assumptions revealed new approaches to tough issues and in so doing, likely made future cross- and inter-disciplinary work more feasible and productive.

~ Ed.


Richard H. Kohn*
Univ. of N. C. at Chapel Hill

I’m Dick Kohn, the executive secretary of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. I want to welcome you all to our conference this year on the subject of public opinion and foreign policy.

The Triangle Institute is a consortium of faculty, not only sponsored by the three research universities in the North Carolina Research Triangle area, but also including other research and teaching universities and colleges in the Triangle and in North Carolina. Our membership, as you know, extends to seven or eight hundred people on our mailing list all up and down the east coast.

TISS is really a consortium in the best sense of that word. We are an umbrella organization. We sponsor programs and we sponsor people. We try to advance education, research, and public understanding of national and international security, broadly defined, widely practiced, and hopefully effectively understood.

Along those lines, some announcements of TISS projects that you may or may not know of, one being the wonderful internet journal edited by Henry Mattox, American Diplomacy, which was founded and is run by our very vigorous retired Foreign Service officer community. Volume III, Number 1, the latest issue, is in fact out.

The second item I would bring to your attention is a large research project that’s going to be undertaken under TISS auspices by myself, but really even more by Peter Feaver [Duke University], on the gap between the military and American society. This is a two-year project underwritten by a major foundation in which we will study the nature of the relationship and the gap between the military and society in the United States, where it might be heading, and what its implications are for military effectiveness and for the American government.

Let me now turn to today’s proceedings and to bid a special welcome to our panelists and participants, who have come from near and from far to probe the issue of public opinion and American foreign policy. We have three presentation panels on and then a wrap-up panel.

The occasion for this conference is Ole Holsti’s recent book. It came out in 1996 from the University of Michigan Press and is in a sense the culmination of much work that Ole has been doing on the subject this last twenty-plus years. I might note also that one of our presenters, Warren Strobel [The Washington Times] has a book out on the subject: Warren’s book is Late Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations, which was published in 1997 by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Last, I want to review the way in which we’re handling today’s program. Our presenters will have varying times to present their work and they will then be questioned by the panelists. We are charging the moderators, Tom Hynes, Carol Winkler, Cori Dauber, and myself to hold to the various time limits on each presenter and questioner. There will be, in each hour and a half session, at least thirty minutes at the end to engage all of us in what is meant to be a conversation between and among different disciplines with different perspectives. I think it will be a very interesting and enjoyable day for us all.

* Edited transcript text not cleared by speaker.

TISS Conference Report: Bridging Gaps In the Study of
Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy


The Social Science Study of the
Public Role in American Foreign Policy


Ole Holsti’s Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), may be the single most comprehensive analysis and assessment of the impact foreign policy has had on public opinion, and vice versa. At this roundtable, moderated by Professor Thomas Hynes, Professor Holsti reviewed the conclusions and the conceptual underpinnings of his work.

~ Ed.

Timothy Hynes, State University of West Georgia
Ole Holsti, Duke University

Thomas J. Hynes introduced Professor Holsti.

Ole Holsti: First, I would like to thank Dick and especially Cori Dauber for putting this on. It’s certainly a very interesting occasion for me. I would like to make the point that the multidisciplinary makeup of this conference, including people not only within but outside academia, is highly appropriate. If we look back at how this topic developed, certainly political scientists have been interested in this topic for a long, long time, but just to give some examples of people who have contributed a lot, they go well beyond political scientists. A recent dissertation done at the University of Maryland argued that the work of Walter Lippmann, the journalist, is essentially the base from which both people who deal with public opinion and those who deal with the media have started. However, I believe we can find three different Lippmanns.

  •  The Walter Lippmann of the 1920s argued that the liberal model of the democratic citizen is unrealistic. The democratic citizen is simply too busy to be either interested or informed on foreign affairs.
  •  The Walter Lippmann of the 1950s saw the public as a real danger to democratic governance; his solution was to give more power to the executive, rather than to the public, interest groups, or Congress.
  •  And then there was the Lippmann in the twilight of his life who came to see that the public was closer to having it right than Lyndon Johnson on issues like Vietnam.So if you live long enough you’re probably bound to have various viewpoints, but the main point is this is a person who is not a political scientist and yet had a lot of impact.

    But to give some other examples, almost everybody knows of Gabriel Almond’s work in the early 1950s, but actually historian Thomas Bailey of Stanford University beat Almond to the punch with a book that came out two years earlier, a book called The Man in the Street. Hadley Cantril, who was a psychologist and President Roosevelt’s secret and private pollster during World War II, would be another example, and then finally, George Gallup, who was not trained as a political scientist, whose call of the 1936 election really made public opinion and polling appear to be a scientific kind of undertaking.

    Today, as I’m going to argue and as I argue in the book, there’s really been a renaissance of interest in public opinion and foreign policy and that renaissance is certainly built on more than the work of political scientists; it’s the work of people in many disciplines, and also by those outside academia.

    What I want to do is to pick up on several themes from the book briefly and then move on to questions and discussion.

    The first theme is that the whole issue of the role of public opinion and foreign policy is at the core of the long-standing debate between realists’ perspectives on foreign affairs and liberal perspectives.

    The second thing I want to talk about briefly is what I would call the Almond-Lippmann consensus which emerged in the two decades after World War II.

    Third, the kind of challenges that have been made to the Almond-Lippmann consensus through research in the last couple of decades.

    And then finally to discuss some thoughts about an agenda for future research.

    First, let me turn to the realist-liberal debate. While the realists’ perspective is a fairly large tent, there are a variety of self-proclaimed realists. I think that one of the things that brings them together is the notion that public opinion can play a very small constructive role in the conduct of foreign affairs — that is, at best, from the realists’ perspective, one might view the public as passive, uninterested, and essentially willing to leave it to the professionals, who are better informed about national interests and how to pursue them. The worst realist nightmare is that of a relatively uninformed public emotionally aroused about some issue — it might be the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor or it might be the pictures of great human rights violations in Somalia — and that these emotions will drive governments into ill-fated crusades to try to make the world over in the American image, attempt to reform the world, and prevent governments from undertaking things that they know better about.

    This was the view of many of the Founding Fathers. It’s not an accident that in much of foreign affairs the Senate, which was the appointed body at that time, was given a much greater role than the House, which was intended to represent the people more directly. Scholars representative of this realist view include Hans Morgenthau, E.H. Carr, Gabriel Almond, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan, who continues at the age ninety-four, to write — often with a very critical view — of the role of the public and its representatives in Congress in foreign affairs.

    In contrast, we have the liberal perspective, which is that the average citizen, whether terribly well-informed or not, can make sensible judgments on issues of war and peace and can act as an important brake on the ambitions of overly ambitious leaders. We see this in the thesis of “no annihilation without representation,” a slogan during the 50s and 60s. This is also an old tradition, including figures such as Immanuel Kant, Woodrow Wilson, and many others.

    One of the most articulate statements of the liberal perspective comes from one of the most conservative of American political leaders. A man of great distinction, Elihu Root, won a Nobel Peace Prize, served in the Senate, as Secretary of War, and as Secretary of State. In the first article in the first issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, he wrote a piece on popular diplomacy in the period after World War I. I’ll briefly read from this because I haven’t been able to find quite as concise a statement, even the works of Woodrow Wilson, of this liberal perspective. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent the people from having erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as part of their ordinary education with correct information about their relations to other people, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, and about what has happened and is happening in international affairs and about the effects on national life are the things that are done or refused as between nations; so the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice, and passion based upon error. That pretty much summarizes the liberal perspective — that through better international education and similar measures, the public can, in fact, play a constructive role.

    On the Almond-Lippmann consensus, one of the arguments I make in the book is that World War I and the necessity of mobilizing publics for that dreadful four-year long war really put the issue of public opinion in foreign policy on the agenda. It was no longer, as in the writings of Immanuel Kant, just purely a theoretical issue. This led Root to write the article from which I just quoted, and so it became part of the agenda; it was about this issue that Lippmann was writing in his two books of the 1920s.

    World War II coincided with the beginnings of both scientific polling and the work of George Gallup and others. The work on public opinion and foreign policy, particularly in this country, was largely driven by the questions about what the United States was going to do after World War II. Would the country follow the path that it pursued after World War I, essentially of turning its back on international organizations? Thus much of this research was essentially driven by the question whether the U.S. public would turn isolationist after the euphoria of winning the war, as in the past.

    This flurry of research after World War II came to three fundamental conclusions:

    First, public opinion is highly volatile and emotion driven, and therefore provides very weak foundations for effective foreign affairs. This point emerged from Gabriel Almond’s book on the American people in foreign policy, the writings of Walter Lippmann, and many others.

    Second, public opinion lacks structure. That is, people may have isolated bits of information in their heads, but it doesn’t come together in any kind of coherent view of the world.

    Third, Lippmann’s fears to the contrary, public opinion basically has little, if any, impact on foreign affairs. Bernard Cohen’s book published in the early 1970s, based on the work he had done in the 1960s, essentially argued that point. He used a wonderful quotation from a Foreign Service officer: “The hell with public opinion. We should lead and not follow.” One of the limitations of the book is that at the time he was unable to interview people other than the bureaucrats; that is, the elected officials were not a part of his sample, and so it probably presented a little bit of a skewed view of the public’s impact.

    Let me turn now to the challenges to the Almond- Lippmann consensus. I’ve argued that World War I put the issue on the agenda and World War II brought forth a great flurry of research interested largely in what the U.S. was going to do after the war. The Vietnam War brought about a kind of reexamination of this Almond-Lippmann consensus. You had lots of research now that went beyond the Gallup, Harris, and other polls. A study that was initiated by Sidney Verba of Stanford tried to do a more focused kind of research on the war in Vietnam. This led to a lot of other projects that were concerned more specifically with foreign affairs than the usual Gallup poll. One of the questions that drove this research was that, if the public is essentially uninterested, uninformed, and irrelevant, and the leaders are so wise, how is it that we got ourselves into the Vietnam quagmire?

    Essentially what has come out of this research are a lot of questions raised about the three major components of the Almond-Lippmann consensus.

  • One finding that has emerged fairly consistently is that, in fact, public opinion is not volatile and tends to be relatively stable. When it changes. those changes are often easily explained by changes in the real world. For example, in the assessment of the level of threats posed to the United States by the middle 1980s, the Soviet threat was seen as down there about eighth place, along with the greenhouse effect. Long before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the public had changed its views on the level of threat from the Soviet Union. But that’s not necessarily an example of volatility — it’s an example of recognizing that the world was indeed changing.
  • The second challenge is on the question of structure. Survey after survey shows the American public is not well informed. Indeed, studies that have compared the American public with those in Canada and Western Europe, typically find that Americans are less well informed about the world than their counterparts in other Western countries. So the question is, how is it that a relatively poorly informed public can in fact make judgments about the world? One of the terms that a political scientist by the name of Sam Popkin used is an effective way of trying to summarize this; it is what he calls “low information rationality.” There is a great deal of research which now tries to get at how is it that people who don’t have a wealth of information about the world are able, in fact, to make reasonable judgments about the world.

    And there are a variety of approaches and hypotheses that have been put forth, but essentially most of them have a common denominator of the use of cognitive short cuts or rules of thumb. For example, as a rule of thumb, jungle warfare against third world guerrillas is not a good idea. Or conflicts in which there are likely to be high casualties against poorly defined enemies are not a good idea. It ought to be pointed out that, while a lot of these may look like they are simple and maybe even simplistic, élites also use cognitive shortcuts. That is, we all use them. For example, the lessons of Munich would be a kind of cognitive shortcut to dealing with aggressive powers. Or the domino theory would be another one. Or one of the classic principles of realism, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” something that has driven much of our policy in the Middle East area. Our love affair for a while with Saddam Hussein was largely driven by precisely that: our enemy was Iran and Saddam Hussein was also Iran’s enemy, and thus we supported Iraq. So we all use cognitive shortcuts at various times.

  • The third of the challenges was on the question of public opinion being irrelevant. A good deal of research has shown that, in fact, if it were irrelevant, why do presidents spend so much time trying to deal with it? We have an increasing amount of evidence from archival research, interview research, and firsthand accounts about the impact of public opinion. Ronald Hinckley, a public opinion specialist in the Reagan Administration, has written about his experiences. It suggests that policy making really begins with public opinion.

    We know that Roosevelt used a secret pollster because he did not think it was a good idea to be perceived as having a pollster feeding him information. Now we just take it for granted; virtually every public official in Washington has access to polling data, and we hardly take notice of them because it has become commonplace.

    In the post-Cold War environment public opinion is likely to become more important for a variety of reasons. It’s not that the security issues are going to disappear. We’ve certainly seen enough of the post-Cold War environment to know that’s not the case, but issues like trade and protectionism, immigration, environment, and the financial crisis in South Asia are also going to be on the foreign policy agenda. It’s much harder for an administration to make the argument that because they can work on the basis of classified information, they should have a freer hand. For better or worse, on issues like this, public opinion is likely to play a more important, rather than less important role.

    Let me just turn to some things that we ought to be concerned about in terms of a research agenda.

    One of the real weaknesses in the research that has been done is the lack of accumulation. We just don’t have lots of good standard questions that everybody uses. In the electoral politics arena we have now some forty or fifty years of questions which have asked about the level of assessments of presidential performance or presidential popularity. There’s a real accumulation of literature if someone wants to trace that back. We don’t have much in that respect with foreign policy.

    I attended a conference a year and a half ago in San Diego and a number of people who are interested in public opinion and foreign policy made a pledge that we would keep in touch with each other by surveys that we do and share common questions and try to build greater accumulation. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence that that has happened. Richard Sobel has made an effort to develop some common questions that we ought to use. This is an encouraging sign, but we’ve got a long way to go. One of the things that a researcher knows is that responses to questions are sensitive to the way the questions are worded, and if the questions from Study A about Topic X are not worded like questions in Study B, it’s very hard to compare. Are the differences the result of different opinions or are they responses to different questions?

    A second item on the agenda is to do more comparative analyses, particularly with the growth of democracies of the world, as the ability to do polling has certainly increased now that there is a huge industry of surveys on the Soviet Union. My guess is the National Science Foundation probably could use its entire political science or social science budget just for people who want to do such polling. This is all to the good, and again, it would be helpful if all the questions were being used in this so that more valid comparisons could be made.

    The third item that ought to be on the agenda is more archival kind of work on impact. One of the things that I got in an E-mail from Cori Dauber during the last week or ten days was, what about different definitions of public opinion? One that I particularly like feeds directly into this last item is V.O. Key’s definition, which is that public opinion is “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” The point of that is that public opinion then is not just what Gallup reports on a given issue at a given time, but rather, what is it that the policy makers believe public opinion to be? It’s fair to say that every president since Roosevelt and maybe before have been very interested in public opinion, but they don’t necessarily even agree on what are the indicators of public opinion. Roosevelt was fascinated by polling data. Other presidents didn’t care much about polling data, but relied on newspaper editorials or letters coming into the White House or other information. Eisenhower felt that his frequent dinners with friends or golf partners gave him some contact with people, giving him some sense of what public opinion was about. The way that we are going to be able to get at this, particularly with administrations well in the past, is largely archival research.

    I would like to make a point for a book that will come out this year from Columbia University Press by Douglas Foyle. This is a marvelous book of the kind of archival work that can be done for case studies from the Eisenhower administration, but he has many case studies on a number of others in that book. With this we can begin to get some sense of what it is that’s going on with policy makers: What do they believe to be the public opinion that they need that’s prudent to keep? What are the indicators of it? When do they believe that they need to respond to limit certain actions? When do they believe that they need to act contrary to what the public may believe? There’s a lot of work that can be done in this area and certainly this is not the private problem of the political scientists. There are historians, for example, among others who can be of tremendous help in this kind of work.

    To conclude, it is safe to say that by late 1960s this area had become pretty much a dead area. There wasn’t much interest in research because most people really tended to agree with Bernard Cohen that it didn’t have much impact and therefore, if it doesn’t, why even do research unless it’s just a sort of interesting intellectual puzzle. We have seen that in recent decades this has become a growth industry. There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered. The kind of answers we are looking for are likely to be enriched if we can draw people from various disciplinary perspectives into the undertaking. My hope is that when we get to the final session this afternoon we will have a lot to talk about across disciplinary lines.


Timothy Hynes, State University of West Georgia
David Cheshier, Georgia State University
Erik Doxtader, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Ole Holsti, Duke University (Presenter)

Following Professor Holsti’s presentation, a panel composed of two notable young scholars of what might be called “public argument studies,” David Cheshier and Erik Doxtader, raised questions regarding Professor Holsti’s conception of the public, how a public is called into existence on particular issues, and the implications of his research.

~ Ed.

Hynes: To begin the facilitation of that conversation across interdisciplinary lines, let me now call on professors David Cheshire and Erik Doxtader. We will begin with David Cheshier.

David Cheshier: It’s a privilege to be here and to interact with Professor Holsti. I’m an admirer of your work and your book.

I would like to start by describing just for a minute, because it sets up a series of questions I’d like to raise, the way the term “public” is talked about in the field of communication and public argument. One, I consider it a useful adjunct to work that tries objectively to ascertain the public interest, but however we want to put it, there are many who study public argument who emphasize in their work the sense in which the public is always essentially illusory. You are absolutely right to point out the influence of Walter Lippmann’s work on this and his suggestive phrase, “the phantom public.” His sense of that in the early 1920s basically emphasizes that we don’t have the public we need. For legitimate authority to function, we need a certain kind of public that we’ll never have because it lacks certain capacities.

Today in certain forms of public argument scholarship, the argument is made even more forcefully to take the position that the public is always necessarily illusory, which is to say that since the public in contemporary culture is never ascertainable — publics don’t come walking up your driveway — what’s interesting is the way in which the public and its interest is represented in discourse and public controversy. That way of thinking about the public and its interest as constituted in language where polling, for example, is not of the public itself, but a representation of the public and its interest, suggests a series of questions that I’d like to pursue pertinent to your work. To start it at the most general level I’d like to ask in what sense you take the word public in the term public opinion? Who is the public of public opinion?

Holsti: This is an interesting question. The premise of a lot of research is that we can get some handles on that through polls. We know that a lot of the issues that earlier have been quite controversial, for example, sampling problems. Gallup and his ability to call the 1936 election when the Literary Digest, which had been largely seen as the most authoritative survey, demonstrated that, in fact, sampling is a much better way to try to get at the public. For most people, though, in trying to do research and trying to assess trends and trying to do comparisons within cross groups, we have to, for better or worse, rely on what we can get from surveys. The alternative, if we really take the assumption to its logical conclusion, would probably lead to a determination that the undertaking is not worth the ending.

Cheshier: Maybe another way to think about it is, if you start with the assumption that the public is illusory, to stress that even illusory publics are very necessary fictions; the idea of the public interest is evoked by politicians who use it to great benefit to call the nation to a higher moral purpose, for example. But what I’m suggesting is less a mythological point than to suggest that if one starts with the assumption that the public, as represented even in sophisticated polling data, is a representation — admittedly a precise representation — that assumption indicates that perhaps our attention should be focused in some different places. For example, maybe it’s better to attend not so much to the different attitudes structures of élites and the masses, but rather our attention should be focused on looking at the ways in which political leaders who seek authority invoke particular visions of the public and its interests, and how, in turn, groups of citizens respond to those applications in particular ways. Maybe that’s what you’re getting at with your call for archival case-by-case research.

Holsti: That’s part of it, but there’s another related issue which is how in fact the public knows what it knows. That takes us into the media, that takes us into education, and other kinds of issues. But certainly the focus on the leaders is very, very important and it is a mistake to assume, as is often done in the past, that it’s a constant rather than a variable. It’s a mistake to fall either into the hardcore realist’s position or the hardcore liberal position, which tend to argue that the impact of the public is a constant. I would certainly agree the focus on the ways in which leaders are able to evoke things like national interest is very crucial.

Erik Doxtader: I will simply follow up on that idea in terms of the question of how leaders evoke particular ideas in formation of policy and how this may shape public opinion. Before I do that I would echo David’s comments about the book. This is an incredibly impressive book. The depth of analysis and simply the richness of the bibliography makes it invaluable to everyone.

My question is based in part on the claim that you make in the book that the process of polling is a product of the Cold War. During the Cold War institutions — military institutions, foreign policy institutions — employ and develop very precise logics. Here, I’m particularly thinking about nuclear deterrence and the many ways it’s used to define the “state of security.” At the same time these institutions are working under what appear to be enormous legitimacy burdens. The stakes of mistakes are quite high. In both cases, the public may become confused. For instance, in NSC-68 the military claims to represent the interests of all citizens and at the same time, a paragraph later, it argues that criticism of American national security policy is itself evidence of Communist infiltration. Thus it would seem that the military relies on public opinion, but goes to some lengths to shape it.

My question then is, how exactly does and can the process of polling assess how institutions use polls to promote their own programs? Is there a way of separating the formation of opinion from the formation of an institutional agenda which may or may not serve what we are broadly calling public interest?

Holsti: During the later stages of Vietnam War surveys like the Verba Stanford survey sensed that existing polls — which largely asked, Do you approve of the administration’s policy in Vietnam or Southeast Asia? — were really quite inadequate, particularly when we have the kind of argumentation that was so common in the Johnson administration, that we have three choices. We can essentially be cowards and renege on our commitments, we can do what the radical right hawks want and nuke them, or we can pursue current policies. This is a way of trying to use two horrendous examples to try to legitimate a particular position.

It was the sense that the existing surveys simply did not adequately try to get at what, in fact, public opinion was on the war in Southeast Asia. What they did not show was that the public was ready to get out of Vietnam at all costs, but they showed that there was a much more complex reasoning about the war. Lyndon Johnson was famous for always having in his back pocket the latest poll which supported what he wanted. Surveys can at least try to break down some of that relatively simplistic kind of thinking.

One further example on the Cold War concerns reactions to the death of Stalin within the Eisenhower Administration. This is recounted in a book by one of Eisenhower’s speech writers [Emmet John Hughes]. How do you respond to the death of Stalin? One of the arguments that Dulles made over and over again was that we can’t let up because if we do, the public — not only in the U.S., but throughout the Western world — will think that this competition is all over. And so the great trap is to play ball with the post-Stalin leadership, not only because they may not be sincere, but because essentially the public would lose its interest in supporting the existing policies.

Doxtader: Let me follow up with that. On the one side of it, that seems to point out the idea that we need to make polling questions more complex, that simply saying “Are you in favor of a particular policy?” doesn’t really get us very much. At the same time, there’s research that’s come out of economics specifically dealing with the problem of polling and contingent valuation. This work in economics indicates that there’s something which is produced in the process of polling called a “warm glow.” This means that people are answering poll questions the way that they think they ought to be answering the questions. In other words, they reply with what they believe to be a sort of abstract moral imperative, whether it’s waving the flag or something else. The question that I have is, is there a way of assessing this problem, and more fundamentally, what is it that we are studying when we are doing polling? What is it that constitutes an opinion? Is an opinion simply a belief that citizens arrive at independently of others, or is opinion formation a deliberative process?

Holsti: There are a whole lot of questions clearly embedded in that. One of them is do people respond with their true opinions or what they believe to be politically correct? We know that experience, for example, in the 1968 election polls repeatedly found that the number of people who said they would vote for George Wallace turned out to be less than those that actually voted for him. Did you reveal yourself to be a redneck bigot, if you said you were going to vote for George Wallace? That’s a real problem.

Another is the question of the framing effect of previous questions leading up to a specific question. One of the ways we deal with that, particularly now that there are these computer-aided survey techniques that are available in a number of places, is to use an experimental design. For example, a certain number of the people who are surveyed may be given questions in a particular order to be different from questions given in another order. Paul Sniderman, who’s at both Stanford and Berkeley, has done some really interesting studies of an issue that lends itself very much to the whole question of political correctness — affirmative action. By developing an experimental research design you create a kind of interactive effect between the interviewer and the subject, and you can try to cope with some of those kinds of problems that you try to get at the impact of the framing and the order of the questions.

We have taken some useful steps in the right direction, but ultimately the enterprise has to rely to some extent on the assumption that respondents will, whether it’s sort of a gut reaction or deeply held belief, respond in the ways that they really feel. There’s not an attempt to deliberately mess up results. If that assumption turns out to be fundamentally wrong in huge numbers of cases, then the whole enterprise is very much suspect.

Cheshier: This brings us to something I find a little bit of a curiosity. It’s a particular argument you are making. At every point in the book you’re arguing for methodologies which get in various nuanced and sophisticated ways to the public’s opinions on foreign policy issues. That argument is combined with findings that the public has a certain stable attitudinal structure or belief structure, but that on particular issues they are very ignorant of the details of a particular case. That too seems to lead to a conclusion which calls for intensive case study. But then there’s this recommendation you make at the end for standardized questioning and the context of argument for “complexification.” I wonder what standardized questioning really gets us?

Holsti: The argument for standardized questioning is simply that because responses are sensitive to the way in which the issues and questions are framed, in the absence of at least some standard questions it’s very, very hard to accumulate results. It’s very hard to compare results over time. One of the nice things that the Chicago Council has been doing every four years in its surveys on American foreign policy (which deal with both a large general public sample and a small élite sample) is that they carried over a number of their questions. If they do a 1998 survey it will be the seventh in twenty-four years. This gives us at least some ways of gauging changes over time. While I’m not arguing is that everybody ought to do every survey using identical questions, I’m saying that it would be terrific if, for example, Richard Sobel’s list or someone’s became a kind of standard that everyone would build in some parts into their survey. We’d have the opportunity to accumulate results to be able to compare across surveys. Right now it’s very, very hard to do so.

This is one of the insights that Gallup was credited for adding to surveys, but even Gallup did not always follow his own advice. My favorite example of this is that there was a question about, do you support foreign aid, but one year he threw in the clause “in order to undermine Communist threat.” Well, that is a very difficult kind of question. What I’m advocating is not that every survey be a carbon copy of every other one, but if everybody would use some common questions we would be able over a longer period of time to build up the kind of time series comparable to those on presidential approval and performance.

Cheshier: Let me follow that up quickly because I understand that we need to ask both and not just standardized questions, but the question remains, what do the standardized questions add, what extra information do they provide? It seems to me like you offer some of those examples in the book where standardized questions not only didn’t add anything, but they, in fact, diverted us from getting at the heart of what was going on. The Vietnam general questions tended to mask the true subtle changes that were going on. The Desert Storm general polls on whether we ought to intervene militarily tended to mask the growing support for a military response. It was only when we moved to a more precise questioning that we discovered that these general questions were failing us. So what does this kind of longitudinal questioning add?

Holsti: There are two facets. The more standardized questions would deal not with a specific issue because those issues change over time. One of the problems that Almond’s book ran into is that he asked people, what’s on your mind? what is the most important issue? Well, those things change. In periods of high employment, it’s reasonable people think unemployment is a big problem. In a great Cold War crisis, that comes up as most important.

The point is that there are certain things that we know are recurring issues of foreign affairs. For example, how actively should the U.S. be involved in the world? Levels of support for things like foreign aid, United Nations, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the appropriate levels of defense spending, and issues like that. These are long run, recurring kinds of issues. Those are the issues that are appropriate for the kind of standardized questions. If South Korea goes bankrupt tomorrow, pollsters are going to be asking questions about how should we respond. That is not a kind of recurring issue and you wouldn’t want to then build in a standard question dealing with such specifics. It’s a question of being able to separate out the current and non-recurrent kinds of issues from those things that predictably are a recurring part of foreign affairs.

Doxtader: I’d like to ask a general and perhaps a more specific question about what we do with this kind of work. There is an argument to be made which says that simply knowing what people think is intrinsically valuable, that the more we know the better off we are for whatever reason or for no reason at all. In the field of critical security studies, as well as in other places, there is an increasing sense that this argument has become a ruse, and that this is particularly true within the sort of dynamic between realism and liberalism that’s situated at the beginning of the book. On the one hand, there’s an argument to be made that says: realism fractures public opinion into an incoherent babble that re-inscribes what critical security studies have called the “myth of state sovereignty.” On the other hand, there’s an argument that liberalism presupposes that the public is composed of autonomous hyper-rational human beings who more often than not happen to be men.

The question then is, what do we do with polling data and how do we decide what, and who decides, what the role of the public ought to be in the creation of policy? I think that gets a little bit at the question that you talk about when you talked about how we begin to study impact. But prior to the question of how we study impact is do we have some obligation to think about the question of what that impact should be?

Holsti: There’s no consensus now on the question of what the impact of public opinion should be. There has not been in the past, and it’s not likely in the future. There’s going to continue to be a debate which has been with us since the Founding Fathers and earlier.

On the question of to what purposes could the survey be put, these can be largely determined by the people who undertake the surveys. To go back to the example of the Verba Stanford surveys, this emerged out of long agonizing discussions among people at Stanford about the way the Vietnam War was going, about the way it was being portrayed, or misportrayed, by the administration, and that it would be immensely useful, both in a scholarly, but even more in a policy sense, to be able to determine in a much more nuanced way what in fact the American public believed about the war in Vietnam. Each investigator thinks about the purposes of the survey? What are the kinds of questions, perhaps, what kind of samples are appropriate? That kind of pluralism is really quite appropriate. I would assume and hope that among surveys that are being undertaken and will be undertaken are those that try to take this kind of critical stance. This is a very appropriate use of social science methods.

Doxtader: To follow-up, you make what I think is a compelling argument about the need for debate over the problem of public and foreign policy. However, Fishkin’s work on deliberation suggests that polls and the process of polling within our culture have watered down our incentives to have those kinds of debates, that there is a sort of attitude that if we answer the poll we’ve done our civic duty. I’m curious if you can speak a little bit to the differences that may or may not exist between the kinds of polls you’re working with and, for instance, what Fishkin is up to in his models of deliberation in attempting to derive public opinion through a process of debate.

Holsti: Well, I don’t see these as being mutually incompatible. It seems to me that what you’re asking me is the level of public discourse about critical foreign policy issues. Those of you who are not familiar with Fishkin’s work may recall a few years ago he brought a group of citizens into publicly televised discussions for three or four days about critical issues. That’s not incompatible with trying to do the other things, as well. It seems to me that surveys properly used can, in fact, help in trying to generate some of this discussion.

Again, I’ll go back to the example of the Verba Stanford survey. Because that survey hit the front pages of the New York Times and other major newspapers, it did in fact to help in some way to stimulate a kind of a debate about what the war in Vietnam was all about. The administration’s assumption was that as long as fifty-plus percent of the public thought that the course was right, it ended the discussion.

The Verba survey was a very appropriate use of survey data. They can serve to stimulate this kind of public discussion. Thus I don’t see the Fishkin approach or the Gallup approach as being incompatible.



Timothy Hynes, State University of West Georgia
David Cheshier, Georgia State University
Erik Doxtader, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Ole Holsti, Duke University (Presenter)

At the end of the panel discussion of Professor Holsti’s presentation, others in attendance at the conference also commented and queried the presenter on various aspects of the topic.

~ Ed.

Question from floor (William Dale,* U.S. Foreign Service, ret.). In last week’s Washington Post Weekly there was a long article by polling people concerning just this question of foreign policy and American opinion. One of the things they point out is that since the end of the Cold War there has been a downward spiraling of interest in the U.S. public on foreign policy questions in general. That has brought less coverage in the media, which in turn causes less interest in the public and a growth of misinformation. These pollsters point out the egregious example of misinformed public opinion regarding foreign aid. A majority of their sample claims that foreign aid absorbs more of the American national budget than such things as Medicare and social security. Obviously this is very much the opposite of the truth.

To me what is most worrisome is that without an informed public opinion, which is the condition this article claims is being brought about, we’re going to end up with the pressure groups, so often crystallized in the form of lobbies, as the sole determinants of the policy pressures present in the government. You need an informed public in order to counter that and to give a broader view on questions that are very important. I’m afraid that kind of general knowledge, that kind of counter force to pressure groups with specific interests, is going to drop to the point that there will be almost no one to challenge the foreign policy directions toward which particular pressure groups try to force the nation.

So this is just a sad comment.

Holsti: The foreign aid example is a good one because it does illustrate that many surveys, including some that Stephen Cole has done at the University of Maryland, show that the public is really prepared to go well beyond what Robert McNamara thought was an appropriate level of foreign aid — one percent of GNP. The public does believe that they’re spending up to fifteen percent of the national budget, and they think it ought to be somewhat less than that, but certainly more than we are actually spending. There the blame to some extent has to be borne by leaders who make little effort to inform the public.

Question from floor (Kohn): I’m troubled as a historian about the way we are using the terms “public” and “public opinion.” The reason is that the framers of the Constitution had a very real sense of the people. They didn’t use public opinion as the term, but they had a real sense of the people and they constructed a very complex government that was set up on the basis of representation. In going back and reading Madison’s Federalist Number Ten, you sense that the framers of the Constitution had a deep understanding of the differences amongst the public in terms of the concept of faction. There is some thinking — and I tend to agree — that a good deal of the foreign policy thinking at the Constitutional Convention and in the construction of the government was a response to the great divisiveness of the Jay negotiations over the opening of the Mississippi River. It frightened the Virginians and the Southerners that the government under the stewardship of John Jay as secretary of foreign affairs was going to bargain away open access to the West through the use of the Mississippi River as a means for getting exports and trade out to the rest of the world.

So, to talk constantly about public opinion and the public in some kind of gross terms, when American politicians from the very beginning recognized the public as a enormously atomized and shifting series of individual groups that can be appealed to or can be manipulated, as well as whose support can be sought — that bothers me. Can you respond to my concern and comment on how modern public opinion and polling deals with that point?

Holsti: What you say about the Founding Fathers is certainly correct, and with respect to foreign affairs there were special efforts made to try to shield leadership from what was seen as the passions of the public and their problems or factions that Madison talked about. The Senate was given much more responsibility than the House on most issues of foreign affairs. The same exists today, that we have interest groups that. We have a huge amount of writing recently about the impact of ethnicity and other things like this.

Yes, Madison was right. The issue continues. We’ve been talking about public opinion here, but almost every survey will then make efforts to break down almost any variable that you can think of — party ideology, gender, occupation — into trying to get some sense of what are the characteristics of those on this side versus that side versus the other side of an issue. Polling can do something about giving us a more precise sense of what the nature of the factions that Madison was talking about, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Madison’s argument was that to expand the public, more factions, passions over here will be counter-balanced by passions over there and that somehow the worst of those passions will be counteracted and in some sense balanced out. That was his hope, and so we continue to assign Federalist Number Ten in Political Science 1 and probably in American History 1 as being an insightful view. We also assign other scholars writing years later about the impact of public opinion and domestic politics on the inability of democracies to conduct foreign affairs effectively. These old dead white males did have a few insights.

Question from floor (Curtis Jones,* U.S. Foreign Service, Ret.): Following up on Dick Kohn’s remarks, it seems to me that the public is everybody or nobody and it’s really not an adequate term to use when you’re talking about foreign policy. You have to compartmentalize it. As I was listening to the presentation, I was trying to list the various departments. First of all, you have the politicians who sometimes lead the public and sometimes follow. In Lyndon Johnson’s case, he tried to lead and he ended up following and finally collapsing. Then you have the bureaucrats. You mentioned somebody who said, we have to lead the public. But bureaucrats have negligible effect on the formation of foreign policy except in day-to-day implementation. Then you have the media who have a significant effect on those members of the public who actually try to keep up with affairs, and next you have academia. I’ll leave that to you gentlemen as to what effect you have on the formulation of foreign policy. Finally you have, as Dick used the term, factions.

I guess that’s probably the best word, meaning the way in which people fall into interest groups among the electorate. The Irish Catholic Americans who have a strong interest in intervening in the dispute over the future of the two parts of Ireland, for example. I’ve always used the term “special interest groups,” but now I’m thinking maybe that’s misleading and we should say special interest or public interest lobbies. These are distinct from factions because they’re made up of the activists. These are the people who try to mobilize the special factions. I wouldn’t be surprised if in many cases they have more influence on foreign policy than any of the other elements I’ve mentioned.

The question is, have I listed the elements that formulate foreign policy completely and have I divided them accurately?

Holsti: You’ve certainly got the main actors there. The real question then is, what is the complex interplay among these in any particular given incidence? That would certainly vary from case to case. You mentioned the Irish back in the late nineteenth century. It was one of the absolute rules of thumb among presidential candidates that you must take a few blows at the British if you were going to win the votes of Chicago, New York, and so on. Indeed, one presidential candidate who lost, James G. Blaine, would probably have won the election in 1884 except for an error made by one of his supporters. But Blaine was seen as having defamed the Irish and Catholics, and that probably threw the election to Grover Cleveland. This is certainly not a new phenomenon in American politics.

Question from floor (Cori Dauber, Univ. of N.C.-Chapel Hill): I guess the notion of factions and special interests takes us back to an issue of data, that is to say, who’s the culprit? What are the names and addresses, which group of folks are you talking about? It seems to me that when you can see the factions and special interest groups speaking to the public or speaking about the public, polling those people then seems to hint at a certain fluidity. So that perhaps the Irish are the special interest group or the faction when we’re talking about the IRA. But if we are talking about military budgets, they sort of fade back into the woodwork as just another part of the general public. What I’m wondering is, when you say “public,” who is that in your perception?

Holsti: If what you are trying to do is to assess the question of impact, you’re exactly right, it’s very fluid. Another example of a quite small segment of the public that had a huge impact was on the issue of aid to Turkey after the invasion of Cyprus. Greek Americans, who make up between two and three percent of the American population, were effectively aroused and for a number of years prevailed over the Ford and Carter administrations in preventing aid to another NATO ally, Turkey. Presumably, many of these are people that would not be so aroused by an issue of aid to some Far Eastern country.

Dauber: So the public is on to something that exists in potential and needs to be called forth?

Holsti: If you go back to the V.O. Key definition, which is a good one for those interested in the impact of policy — “those opinions held by private individuals with the administration finds it important to heed” — that’s going to vary from issue to issue. When it comes to trade and protectionism, the whole question of fast track authority, a very different group of people represented by labor leaders and others who come to the forefront are able to have some significant impact on policies.

Question from floor (James Abrahamson,* university professor emeritus): A President who requires legislative support — and fast track would be an example for a foreign policy initiative — has to be interested in public opinion, however defined at the moment. But in foreign affairs and military affairs, certainly the President is very often free to initiate action. It would seem to me that his greatest interest would be what opinion will be once it becomes an issue, that is, when people become better informed and more aware of consequences. I can imagine some techniques that would enable you to assess how the public might feel about an issue as it, the public, becomes better informed and even aware of possible consequences. Is anybody making any effort to do that kind of thing?

Holsti: We now have the ability to get almost instantaneously the reactions to issues even as they unfold, and that leads back into the policy making process. On the question of the military versus other kinds of issues, one of the arguments that prevailed during very much of the Cold War, for better or worse, was that, in fact military security issues required the ability to act fast, to act flexibly, and to act on the basis of confidential classified information. There was a general sense in Walter Lippmann’s book, A Public Philosophy , in 1955 that illustrated that if you just give the executive greater leeway and get away from the constraints of the Congress, we’re going to have much more effective policy.

Well, that argument doesn’t much prevail these days, partly because of things like the war in Vietnam and partly because foreign policy in general looks awfully different today than it did back in the 1950s. It’s interesting that Lippmann was writing in that style at a time when, if there was ever a President who was unrestrained by the Congress, it was Dwight Eisenhower, even with a Democratic Congress for six of his eight years. He had a much easier time with the Democrats in Congress than with the Republicans. I think that the sense that the President knows best was pretty much dissolved.

Question from floor (Richard Sobel,* Harvard Univ.): The one public that I have not heard discussed very much yet is the public. I’m hearing a lot about publics. It’s hard to define the “public,” as in public opinion, but I want to give it a try and I hope during the day we can look at this definition at least as the one against which others should be measured.

The public, as I see it, is the predominant sentiment in population; in a democracy a majority of fifty percent plus one is a key benchmark for what the public is. Often it doesn’t need to be fifty percent plus one. It might be a plurality, because no other particular opinion has a larger proportion. But this begins to give us an idea of what the public is.

Part of the problem with identifying the public as a larger force, and not really just a vague undefined force, is that in the areas close to majorities, the public doesn’t have as much power as it has when there is a sixty percent or seventy percent agreement on an issue. Thomas W. Graham has done some very interesting work on this. The correlation between policy and public opinion gets higher and higher as these approval percentages rise. So the public so defined — and the definition, of course, develops as an issue develops — becomes much clearer. Ole’s definition, the one from V. O. Key — “the opinions of the population that are prudent to heed” — also gets at the question of impact. But a lot of what I’m hearing about interest groups and others are what I would call “semi-publics” or even “semi-privates.” We read in political science about the socialization and the privatization of conflict. Most of the interested groups want to privatize public issues for their approach. I think we can distinguish them from a general sense of what a public sentiment consists.

I want to suggest two other things on this. First, the public exists separate from how it is measured. Second, the public can be measured by polling, but also by other forms of communication between people and their representatives. Some Congressmen have an innate sense — often wrong — of what the public thinks, but some politicians have a better sense of this than others. There are ways to arrive at this measurement such as mail or letters to the editor, but a lot of the research on public opinion refers to the marginalization of the majority. Many of the other supposed “publics,” such as the media and interest groups, get more attention, but there is a larger public out there that we can identify, and which in democracies it is important to identify.

Question from floor (Ralph Levering, Davidson College): I’m doing research on the coming of the Cold War in American public opinion from 1945-1948. I’m particularly interested in the role of public opinion in the elections in 1946 and 1948 on foreign policy and the extent to which the economics issue at home was, in fact, the foreign policy issue, in the sense that those issues were connected. They are often thought of as separate, but I think there is actually a connection between them.

The question that I have for you would be, are voters a surrogate for the public? Are those who actually vote what we might call the Dow Jones, a selection that stands for the larger group, or are public opinion polls different from the opinions of those who vote, different from those that are generally represented in public opinion?

Another question that would help me: Are there any suggestions you might have on political scientists in particular who have done research that relates to this issue of the role of public opinion on foreign policy in elections?

Holsti: John Aldrich and two other political scientists looked at every election starting with 1948. The interest that drove him was the kind of folk wisdom which said that elections are won by domestic issues and not by foreign policy issues. What he found was that in five of those nine elections, foreign policy played a crucial role in the outcome. So that’s probably a good starting place. There’s no doubt all kinds of other studies have been done. In the 1948 election, the astounding outcome — Truman beating Dewey contrary to the predictions of all surveys — is probably one that’s been studied a whole lot and it should be relatively easy to develop a good bibliography on and an almost blow-by-blow account. And also, of course, insider accounts and lots of memoirs of Truman years and not only of Truman himself, but others. On the 1946 election — I know this was a big Republican landslide — it’s harder for me to point you in a specific direction on that one.

There’s a question that preceded that.

Levering: The question preceding that is whether the general public that is polled, or what we might call the mass public, is the same in its views as the forty percent or fifty percent or thirty percent or whatever that votes or actually shows up at the polls? Is there any information on that?

Holsti: This will again vary. Go back to the 1948 election. It’s obvious that the segment of the general public that was being polled was not representative of the voting population, because how else could all these surveys been off so much? There was obviously a consequential divergence between the two.

Be sure to look for Part II of the TISS conference report in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy. Additional portions of the conference transcript will appear in succeeding issues of this journal.

~ Ed.

* Edited transcript text not cleared by speaker.


Triangle Institute for Security Studies

Furthering the interest of scholars in issues of national security for nearly four decades, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, T.I.S.S., is a joint effort sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University.

For many years funded by the Ford Foundation, and known as the Triangle Universities Security Seminar (TUSS), the organization sponsors seminars, conferences, and informal meetings of scholars and those interested in a wide range of security issues. The latter questions incorporate, among others, problems in diplomacy, political science, history, the physical sciences, law, philosophy, anthropology, religion, sociology, and communication studies. T.I.S.S. draws its participation from hundreds of scholars and students in these disciplines, as well as former diplomats, military officers, and others concerned with such issues.

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