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Counting the Public In:
Presidents, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
By Douglas C. Foyle
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Pp. ix, 377. $24 paper.)

  The Man in the Street and
Uncle Sam and the World, Redux

By David W. Thornton*

DOUGLAS C. FOYLE’S volume is useful in many respects to students of both Cold War American foreign policy and the theory and practice of international relations because he is working at the crucial nexus linking political psychology to state behavior. Instructive for the diplomatic historian and political scientist alike are the several case studies that examine the perceptions of modern American statesmen concerning the proper place of public opinion in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy in connection to their behavior in actual crises. Most detailed are those concerning the turbulent 1950s, which effectively employ both primary sources and secondary accounts of how Eisenhower and Dulles perceived and responded to crises including Dien Bien Phu, Quemoy and Matsu, and Sputnik. Less developed but equally informative and intriguing are discussions of Truman (which begs for a more thorough treatment!) and all of the presidents since Eisenhower as they faced major foreign policy decisions.

But Foyle does far more than examine personalities and recount events seminal in defining the character and pattern of the American response to the multidimensional threat of Communism. In the best tradition of social science, he constructs and tests a model to analyze and explain the connections between public opinion and executive behavior. Foyle advocates what he calls a “beliefs model” of foreign policy behavior, which argues “that an individual’s normative beliefs about the desirability of the public’s influencing foreign policy decisions and practical beliefs about the necessity of public support for a policy to succeed largely define the range of influence that public opinion will have on that person’s choices.”

In his framework, Foyle adopts a political-psychological typology of leaders that combines two key aspects of their attitudes toward public input into foreign policy — whether public input is inherently desirable, and whether public support is necessary to the policy’s success. This approach allows leaders to be placed neatly into one of four categories — delegate, executor, pragmatist, and guardian. Delegates believe that public input is desirable and that public opinion is a requisite to viable policy, while guardians believe the opposite — that there is never a need to consult the public on foreign policy decisions. Executors believe that while public input is often desirable, policymaking can proceed successfully in the absence of public support, while pragmatists might well deny the intrinsic legitimacy of public input, but recognize the need for public support as a practical matter. Foyle argues that knowing a given leader’s profile is extremely useful in predicting how that leader would respond to “high-threat” situations demanding decision and action, ranging from a crisis (characterized by a surprise circumstance and allowing only a short time for response) to more deliberative situations (an anticipated circumstance leaving a long time for consideration of action).

Foyle sets out to test the explanatory power of this beliefs model against the realist paradigm of foreign policymaking — which allows for little or no public influence in decisions of national security — and also against what he labels the “Wilsonian” approach — in which public opinion should and does affect leaders’ foreign policy choices throughout the policymaking process. By considering a total of twelve high-stakes situations, Foyle shows that his model is superior in “predicting” leadership behavior with respect to the influence of public opinion, from setting the agenda right through to policy implementation. Where a “Wilsonian” understanding might expect a leader to be properly constrained in his or her deliberation of options and choosing the actions eventually taken, Foyle finds that “the Wilsonian liberal model fully explains public opinion’s influence in only two of the twelve cases examined.” As an example, Foyle observes that even Jimmy Carter — whose foreign policy orientation might be expected to fit well in the Wilsonian tradition — could and did buck Congressional opposition and public sentiment in negotiating and signing the Panama Canal Treaties because such a stance fit with his “executor” approach to foreign affairs. Realism — which expects that leaders should not and will not take into account the public’s views on crucial foreign policy questions — fares substantially better in accounting for policy outcomes “but does not explain the dynamics of the policy process.” In this respect, Foyle notes that as pragmatists almost all presidents will concern themselves with public reaction at some point in determining a course of action, even if only to mold and lead opinion more effectively to support a possibly controversial decision.

Yet, for all its heuristic value, Foyle’s model as conceived and applied at many points encumbers as much as it enables understanding of the individual cases, and it clouds as much as it clarifies the relationship between beliefs and behavior in the making of American foreign policy. Emphasis throughout the text on the research process — the putative strengths of Foyle’s qualitative research design, the labored discussion of the process of content analysis (especially concerning the coding of the statements and phrases for purposes of categorization), the jargonistic way in which seemingly straightforward ideas are stated and conclusions drawn — all speak to the fact that this book is barely evolved from its origins as a solid but still somewhat inelegant political science dissertation. Students of this important topic are thus encouraged to consult on their own the actual diplomatic record, (auto) biographical accounts of events by the leaders themselves (and their advisers, rivals, and enemies) alongside perceptive historical narratives of those with no particular paradigms to push.

Despite its overly formalistic approach, Counting the Public In would serve well as a supplemental text for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses that examine the conduct and formulation of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy. Foyle’s systematic analysis of domestic influences in connection with the personal characteristics of leaders as illustrated by specific historical examples indicates a number of fruitful avenues of inquiry, while his ample bibliography and informative end notes provide a quite adequate basis to begin that exploration.

*David W. Thornton is associate professor and director of government studies at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina.

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