The Role of Public Opinion in Foreign Policy

The issue of public opinion and its influence in foreign policy has been a matter of dispute between scholars of different schools of thought. The theoretical and empirical disagreement centres upon the ‘nature’ and the ‘influence’ of public opinion. This article examines both. Firstly, it looks at the opposing theoretical perspectives on public opinion. It then analyses the empirical evidence on the accuracy or otherwise of those conflicting (theoretical) viewpoints.  Finally, the article throws light on an alternative position on the impact of public opinion on foreign policy, followed by some concluding remarks. 

Theoretical Disagreement

Theoretically, the realism, or ‘the elite-centric model’, claims that public opinion is emotional (or ‘moodish’), irrational, ill-informed, easily shiftable (or volatile), lacks structure and coherence, and can be manipulated by leaders from the top.1 As far as political scientist Gabriel A. Almond is concerned, ‘public opinion is apathetic when it should be concerned, and panicky when it should be calm’.2 For the classical realist Hans Morgenthau, neorealist John J. Mearsheimer, and diplomat-historian George F. Kennan, policymakers make foreign policy on the basis of ‘national interest’ and ignore the ‘emotional’ and ‘subjective’ views of the mass. Policymakers do so because they are responsible officials who usually know what is ‘wise’, ‘necessary’ and more ‘expedient’ for the country.3

For the realists, policymakers opt for the rational choice, a choice which most likely will achieve the best outcome. Their choices are influenced by external forces, such as survival and maximisation of power in an uncertain international system, rather than internal forces, such as public opinion. The public can approve or disapprove of a government, but they cannot administer it; a mass cannot ‘govern’. As far as realism is concerned, the government always leads; it does not follow. Leaders can also lead the public to hold certain views.4 Leaders take steps to convince the public to support their decisions that they have already made. They can do so by ‘framing’ an issue in a particular way and engaging in ‘crafted talk’. They can do so since the American public has less knowledge about foreign affairs than about domestic policies.5 For example, the British and the American governments devoted significant time and resources to convince their electorates that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and therefore his regime constituted a threat.6

The mass media are said to be hardly challenging the executive leadership and instead faithfully support the policy. If there was any correlation between public opinion and foreign policy, public opinion ‘follows the leadership of the executive branch, as presidents have significant control over the dissemination of information and hence considerable latitude in policy selection’.7 In sum, the realist theories argue that policymakers either ‘lead’ the public to support their policies or ‘ignore’ public preferences altogether. Accordingly, there is little direct link between what the public thinks and what leaders do.

The pluralist model, notably the liberal theories, finds public opinion to be relatively stable, sensibly structured, consistent, and consequently impactful on foreign policy, as presidents take into consideration public opinion when making foreign policy decisions.8 Liberal theories, such as the democratic peace theory, claim that presidents take into account public preferences for a number of assumptions, which can be summarised as follows. Firstly, public support is essential because it legitimises the government within democracies. Success in an election is usually essential to secure legitimacy, but it is not always sufficient.9 ‘Were the public to have no say in policymaking, with all power centralised with the governments’ implementers, then policymaking would be subjected to an “elected dictatorship”’.10

Secondly, rational politicians set aside their own beliefs and dutifully follow public preferences because they are responsible for the public’s will.11 Thirdly, presidents want to maintain or even increase their approval rating. Unpopular foreign policy decisions can reduce a president’s chance of support for re-election, or for more important domestic policies, or even for the implementation of (unpopular) policies, and thus presidents are careful not to take risky decisions.12 Finally, due to the fact that citizens bear the burden of war in ‘blood, sweat, tears, and tax dollars’, they would object to becoming involved in foreign wars.13 In sum, as political elites are ultimately accountable to the public, rational politicians attempt to gain an advantage at the polls by enacting policies favoured by the public. They avoid policies that alienate or offend the electorates.

In addition to liberal theories, approaches in the subfield of Foreign Policy Analysis, especially those that focus on the decision-making process, assume that public opinion is a crucial source of analysis and therefore plays a part in shaping foreign policy decisions. Those approaches analyse the role of public opinion in decision-making as part of domestic or ‘internal factors’, which include the impact of Congress, the media and area experts.14

Empirical Evidence

Empirically, each of the above claims is backed by a wealth of evidence. Early influential studies of diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey’s The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy (1948), Almond’s The American People and Foreign Policy (1950), diplomat-historian George F. Kennan’s American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (1951), and journalist Walter Lippmann’s Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), were of the opinion that the American people were poorly informed of world affairs,  their opinions lacked coherence and structure, and their views were volatile and irrational. Consequently, their opinions rarely influenced policymakers.15

In contrast, more and more studies in the past 40 years have found that early studies had not established their case to claim that public attitude had a potent role as far as foreign policymaking was concerned.  The Vietnam War is said to have stimulated those studies, enabling political analysts to challenge the realist views on public opinion. One pioneering research was conducted by John E. Mueller, who ─ using the Vietnam and Korean Wars as a case study ─ convincingly demonstrated that public opinion mattered during wars that become protracted and expensive in terms of US blood and tax dollars.16 

Ole R. Holsti undertook another prominent study that challenged the earlier views. Writing about the role of public opinion in the US, his research showed that World War I changed the role of public participation from a theoretical one into a practical one. World War II and its aftermath further strengthened the role of public opinion. For Holsti, the end of the Cold War, especially the ending of bipartisan foreign policy consensus, facilitated the rise of partisan divides in the US, and consequently raised new questions regarding the role of public opinion in foreign policy decision-making.17 

One vital question that many ask today is whether it is still appropriate to claim that the public is poorly informed, as in today’s world, with advanced information technology, the mass is unquestionably better informed on matters concerning both domestic and foreign affairs.18 Holsti’s research dealt with the same question by addressing the two important issues which were subject to disagreement: the public could not make informed judgments on foreign policy because their knowledge of foreign affairs was limited, and public opinion had no role in decision-making. Holsti used extensive data on public attitude and preferences on foreign events and concluded that, even though the American public was not well-informed on all details of foreign affairs, its opinion was generally stable and reasonable in reaction to real world events, was not lacking in structure, and, in many cases, had a crucial influence on foreign policy decisions.19 

Studies after Holsti (and some before, such as Mueller’s) found that the American public both cared for foreign affairs and held opinions that were ‘rational’, ‘prudent’ and ‘stable’. Sobel’s research is one of the relatively recent studies. In his crucial work, Sobel made a strong case for the power of the people. By focusing on four cases of prominent US interventions in the second half of the 20th century ─ the Vietnam War, the US support for the Contras in Nicaragua, the Gulf War, and the Bosnian crisis ─ he concluded that in each case public opinion ‘constrained’, but did not set, American foreign intervention policy.20 

Sobel added that ‘[s]upport facilitates, while opposition limits’,21 that is, public opinion ‘set the parameters within which policymakers operated’.22 For example, due to the ‘no more Vietnams’ syndrome, the Reagan Administration would not intervene in Nicaragua but only assist the Contra rebels.23 A great communicator like President Ronald Reagan found it difficult to persuade the American public to support overt interventionist policies in Nicaragua. The Bush Senior Administration would deploy a large force to the Gulf War in order to help the public feel secure, and thus gaining and maintaining American support.24 The Clinton Administration refused to send ground forces to fight in Bosnia and was reluctant to intervene for the first three years for fear that the public would react negatively if the US became bogged down in an endless mission. When public attitude approved the Allied action, the Clinton Administration eventually became involved in a multilateral mission.25 (To make matters complicated, there are prominent recent examples which demonstrate that ‘foreign intervention policy’ cannot be constrained by public opinion, for instance, the British Government in 2003 ignored the British public opinion and involved the UK in the Iraq War.26) 

Contemporary studies, however, increasingly support the ‘Holsti-Sobel’ views. They are cited by Holsti, Sobel, Knecht and many others.27 (Some even go further by implying that public opinion determines foreign policy.)28 Page and Shapiro’s research found that public opinion remained remarkably stable (e.g. the American public consistently opposed isolationism and favoured multilateralism) and was driven by specific events (a rational process rather than irrational moodiness) in the past 50 years.29 Bruce W. Jentleson used data and figures to make the same points.30 Samuel L. Popkin found that, even though American citizens were not very well informed about world affairs, they still managed to ‘make reasonably coherent sense’ of international development.31 

A Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness

Marcus Hobley gives an example of two contrasting views by two leaders: Winston Churchill was of the view that there ‘is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.’ But Abraham Lincoln took the view that ‘[p]ublic opinion in this country is everything.’32 

Those advocates who invoke the ‘Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness’ would argue that the two contrasting quotes make clear that there is not a clear-cut answer. The ‘Conditional Theory Political Responsiveness’ claims that the influence of public opinion on foreign policy varies from case to case and from president to president. Presidents do not always lead or follow.33 Presidents could lead, follow or ignore public opinion, depending on the circumstances of the issue and on the president in question. The theory instead has identified factors that increase or decrease a president’s sensitivity to public opinion. For instance, when a large percentage of Americans are attentive to the issue, or when a significant majority of Americans hold the same preference on the issue, presidents seem to feel increased pressure and response to public opinion. But if the public is not focused or, even worse, divided on the issue, political responsiveness decreases accordingly. The theory also finds that crises such as war usually produce a highly attentive public. During crisis, the public remains attentive to how policies are implemented, and are interested in results.34

The book by the author of this article has found the Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness’s arguments convincing. For example, President Barrack Obama was more sensitive to public attitude than was President George W. Bush. However, on a number of occasions Obama even had to ignore public opinion.35


The debate between the liberalists and the realists has continued to date, and will most likely endure in the future. This article therefore will not be able to offer a final solution to such a theoretical dispute. However, as far as empirical evidence is concerned, this article has found the argument of the ‘Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness’ more compelling.

Sharifullah Dorani, Ph.D. from Durham University; Area Editor of South Asian Studies, Cesran International,


  1. The realist arguments are found in: T. KNECHT, & M. S. WEATHERFORD. (2006). Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: The Stages of Presidential Decision Making. International Studies Quarterly. 50, 705-727. Available at: [Accessed April 23. 2015]; LIPPMANN, W. (1995). Essays in public philosophy. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, pp. 3-27; MCCORMICK, J. M. (2014). American foreign policy & process, p. 533; JENTLESON, B. W. (2013). American Foreign Policy 5e- The Dynamics of Choice in the: 21st Century. American Foreign Policy 5e- The Dynamics, W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 76-78; ROBINSON, P. The role of media and public opinion, in SMITH, S., HADFIELD, A., & DUNNE, T. (2008). Foreign policy: theories, actors, cases. Oxford [England], Oxford University Press, pp. 137-141; ROBINSON, P. Media and US foreign policy, in COX, M., & STOKES, D. (2008). US foreign policy. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 166-167.
  2. Almond is quoted in SOBEL, R. (2001). The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam: constraining the colossus. New York, Oxford University Press, p. viii.
  3. Knecht and Weatherford, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, p. 76; Lippmann, Essays in public philosophy, p. 20.
  4. KNECHT, T. (2010). Paying attention to foreign affairs: how public opinion affects presidential decision making. University Park, Pa, Pennsylvania State University Press.; Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p. 138; Lippmann, Essays in public philosophy, p. 14.
  5. Knecht, Paying attention to foreign affairs.
  6. Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p. 141.
  7. Knecht and Weatherford, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; similar realist arguments are put forward in Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p.138.
  8. The liberal views are found in: SHAMIR, YAACOV. (2004-2005). Introduction: What is Public Opinion and Why is it Important to Conflict Resolution?, Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, Vol. 11, Nos 3&4. Available at: [Accessed March 11. 2015]; McCormick, American foreign policy & process, p. 533; HOLSTI, O. R. (1996). Public opinion and American foreign policy. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, pp. 26-37, 39-46, 159-162, 209-216; K. STEVEN, & S. M. PATRICK. (2009). Does Public Opinion Matters? World Attitudes on Global Governance. The Council on Foreign Relations. Available at:[Accessed May 12. 2015]
  9. Shamir, Introduction.
  10. Flint, James. (2015). Foreign policy, the State, International Public Opinion and the Media. E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS. Available at:[Accessed May 5. 2015]
  11. WITTKOPF, E. R., JONES, C. M., & KEGLEY, C. W. (2012). American foreign policy: pattern and process. New York: St Martin’s press, p. 265; Knecht, Paying attention to foreign affairs; Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p. 139. 
  12. CHAN, S., & SAFRAN, W. (2006). Public Opinion as a Constraint against War: Democracies’ Responses to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Foreign Policy Analysis. 2, 137-156; Shamir, Introduction; Knecht, Paying attention to foreign affairs; Kegley and Wittkope, American foreign policy, p. 291.
  13. Chan and Safran, Public Opinion as a Constrain; Robinson, Media and US foreign policy, p. 167.
  14. SNYDER, R. C., BRUCK, H. W., & SAPIN, B. M. (1962). Foreign policy decision-making; an approach to the study of international politics. [New York], Free Press of Glencoe, pp. 85-6; NEACK, L., HEY, J. A. K., & HANEY, P. J. (1995). Foreign policy analysis: continuity and change in its second generation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, pp. 117, 135-138; HUDSON, V. M. (2007). Foreign policy analysis: classic and contemporary theory. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Pub, pp.15, 25-26, 127; Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, pp. 57- 75, 81-84.
  15. These pioneering studies are quoted in almost every academic piece on the correlation between public opinion and foreign policy. Some of the sources include: Sobel, The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, pp. vii-viii; Holsti, Public opinion and American foreign policy, pp. 1-21, 23-37, especially pp. 10-12, 19, 24, 29-31; Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p. 139; Knecht and Weatherford, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy. Knecht and Weatherford, additionally, cite a handful of recent studies that support the views of the early consensus.
  16. MUELLER, J. E. (1973). War, presidents, and public opinion. New York, Wiley, pp. 35-39, 65, 239-241, 266.
  17. Holsti, Public opinion and American foreign policy, pp. 15-19, 39-40, 159-162, 209-216.
  18. Hadfield, and Dunne, Foreign policy, pp. 141, 151; Robinson, Media and US foreign policy, pp. 179-181.
  19. Holsti, Public opinion and American foreign policy, pp. 26-37, 40-62.
  20. Sobel, The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, pp. X, 5, 25.
  21. Ibid., p. 25.
  22. Ibid., p. x.
  23. Ibid., pp. 138-139.
  24. Ibid., pp. 173-174.
  25. Ibid., pp. 4-5, 229-230.
  26. Robinson, The role of media and public opinion, p. 141.
  27. Holsti, Public opinion and American foreign policy, pp. 39- 78, 191-216; Sobel, The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, pp. viii, ix; Knecht and Weatherford, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy.
  28. In their article, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, Knecht and Weatherford name them as follows: SMALL, M. (1988). Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press; BARTELS, L. M. (1991). Constituency Opinion and Congressional Policy Making: Regan Defence Building, American Politics Science Review. 85: 457-474; HARTLEY, T., & RUSSETT, B. (1992). Public Opinion and the Common Defense: Who Governs Military Spending in the United States? American Political Science Review. 86, 905-915; PAGE, B. I., & SHAPIRO, R. Y. (1992). The rational public: fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  29. Page and Shapiro is quoted by Sobel, The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, p. viii; and, Holsti, Public opinion and American foreign policy, pp. 43-44.
  30. Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, pp. 78-79.
  31. POPKIN, S. L. (1991). The reasoning voter: communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. The reasoning voter. Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 20-21; a similar point is also made in Sobel, The impact of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, p. viii.
  32. HOBLEY, MARCUS. (2012). Public Opinion Can Play a Positive Role in Policy Making. The Guardian, September 3.
  33. Hadfield, and Dunne, Foreign policy, p. 141.
  34. The ‘Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness’ is mentioned in Knecht, Paying attention to foreign affairs, and in Knecht and Weatherford, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy.
  35. The book, America in Afghanistan: Foreign Policy and Decision Making from Bush to Trump to Obama, will be published by I.B. Tauris in July 2018.

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How to Cite:

DORANI, S. (2018), ‘The Role of Public Opinion in Foreign Policy’, Political Reflection Magazine, 4(4): 22-28.

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