Opinion and Foreign Policy

William C. Adams
Foreign Service Journal (May 1984)
Abridged and annotations added in brackets

Abstract:  While Americans are cautious about foreign involvement, they believe strongly in the value of both talk and a strong military defense.  For as long as survey data are available, the results are consistent and overwhelming: Americans want to reduce tensions, maintain a strong defensive military shield, promote American economic self-interest, and help the oppressed of the world. Most Americans do not expect to critique the details and tactics used by the president and foreign policy professionals. Their performance will be judged by the product -- by the extent to which they can successfully turn such goals into foreign policy achievements.

Stereotypes abound when it comes to how the world views the American people. Depending on who sketches the caricature, Americans are all jingoistic adventurers eager to assert power, or ethnocentric know-nothings with no capacity for subtle diplomacy, or cowardly isolationists who have lost the will to defend Western interests. In addition, there is the odd impression that the American public treats each foreign policy issue in an ad hoc manner, as if based solely on the information in the last newspaper or newscast.

Generalizations, of course, are often wrong -- markedly so in this case. American public opinion on foreign policy can be broken into several broad orientations, but it does not fit crude categories such as isolationist, militarist, or internationalist.

A series of underlying attitudes forms the basis from which most Americans interpret international news. These fundamental orientations toward world affairs have been remarkably consistent for the better part of this century. Seven major patterns can be supported by decades of opinion polling. New polls offer only an occasional twist. (Unless otherwise noted, polls by the Gallup organization are cited in this essay.)

Universal human decency.  Most Americans assume that people everywhere are basically good and decent -- not perfect in some utopian way, but still good despite an inevitable assortment of human shortcomings. On the other hand, Americans are not reluctant to label governments as bad or even monstrous. This fact may seem trivial at first but it is significant. It means, for example, that Americans can be sincerely concerned about the fate of the Palestinian people and at the same time hostile toward the PLO.

Even after World War II, most Americans favored generous treatment of the citizens of Germany and Japan. This benevolent attitude was possible because of the distinction between peoples and governments, and faith in the usual goodness of most people. With their wartime rulers swept away, the Germans and Japanese could be seen as friends and allies within a short time after the end of a brutal war.

One remarkable Gallup poll in 1947 asked: "At the present time, do you feel friendly or unfriendly toward the people of Germany as a whole," Only 28% of the Americans surveyed answered "unfriendly." By 1953, only 15% felt so.

While other nations may have sustained centuries-old animosities of the Polish-Russian variety, Americans have no experience in constant hostility toward any people. A powerful consequence of this is that Americans are likely to assume that, if it were not for the men in the Kremlin and their government by gulag, there would be friendship not dispute with Soviets.

Hope in communication is an outgrowth of this underlying U.S. optimism toward other peoples. Americans invariably favor communication with other countries, adversaries and allies alike. Believing that other people are basically decent, despite cultural variation, Americans are eager for people-to-people exchanges as well as diplomatic exchanges -- without much regard to the politics of the foreign regimes. Thus, there is an abiding hope that discussions can resolve strife. When Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem and joined in direct talks with Menachem Begin, Americans were ecstatic. Sadat received an outpouring of sympathy and support simply because he showed himself willing to break Arab barriers to talking with Israel. By 1979, in fact, Sadat's popularity ratings were higher than those of President Carter.

Americans believe that a willingness to discuss differences is an essential part of civilized behavior. Leaders, American as well as others, who refuse to talk to their opponents are usually considered intemperate if not extremist. Presumably, anyone genuinely interested in peace is always prepared to talk with the other side.

For these reasons, two of President Nixon's most popular moves, both with the press and with the people, were to travel to Moscow and to Beijing -- the first time an American president had gone to either capital. Even Americans who were most cynical about the motives and trustworthiness of Soviet and Chinese rulers still wanted to see the president make every effort to talk away tensions.

These attitudes do not represent some sort of recent shift. In 1938, for example, when asked if the United States should "refuse to take part in the 1940 Olympic games if they are held in Japan," 61% said that the country ought to participate. Likewise, the immediate reaction of two thirds of the public in 1980 was that, despite the Afghanistan invasion, the United States should still go to the Moscow Olympics.

The American eagerness to try to settle disputes through negotiation is also long-standing. In 1937, 66% favored a "world disarmament conference," and 79% wanted mutual reductions in spending for armaments." The next year 59% favored the Munich agreement and agreed that ''England and France did the best thing in giving in to Germany instead of going to war." In 1939, 69% wanted a "conference of leading nations of the world to try to end the present war and settle Europe's problems."

It is entirely consistent, therefore, that, Americans would sympathize with an international organization that facilitates communication and negotiation. Just after the war, 81% favored the United States' "joining a world organization with police power to maintain world peace." And two years later, 85% said they supported the United Nations. Little has changed. In 1981, despite the fact that 51% thought the United Nations was doing a poor job, 79% still wanted to continue U.S. participation.

Human rights.  Empathy for other peoples and a commitment to freedom produces American concern with human rights violations. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn portrays the incalculable injury inflicted by the heirs of Marx, Americans grieve -- as they do when they hear Jacob Timerman tell of torture in Argentina. Images of good people suffering at the hands of despots are painful.

Washington policymakers may debate whether Soviet-aligned states or certain Western dictatorships ought to be the chief target of U.S. government efforts to promote human rights violations, but Americans will endorse condemnations of any government understood to be abusing its citizens. Attempts to rationalize nasty behavior by allies are doomed to failure, no matter how much worse the potential alternatives might be.

This perspective makes it difficult to generate much enthusiasm for the defense of illiberal allies. Some people claim that if U.S. support is to be confined to the Switzerlands of the world -- that is, to tranquil islands of democracy and plenty -- then much of the world will be future Afghanistans [then recently under Soviet control] and Cambodias [where Pol Pot's brand of communist murdered over a million Cambodians]. Nevertheless, the American revulsion toward all human rights violations undercuts sympathy for autocratic allies.

As much as Americans may sincerely deplore the trampling of freedom abroad, their approved approaches for responding to such problems are severely circumscribed. American concern about human rights is held in check by an even more intense and longstanding American attitude -- fear of foreign combat.

Opposition to foreign combat.  Contrary to the cliché, wars are not "popular" -- at least not in the U.S. The most popular politicians have been those who promised to do everything possible to keep American boys out of war.

One still encounters the view that the Vietnam experience somehow created an antiwar constituency where none had been before. But Americans recognized the horror of war long before the Tet offensive. For as long as national public opinion polling has been conducted, the results have shown widespread opposition to fighting overseas -- as long as the United States is not directly attacked.

Americans overwhelmingly wanted to stay out of World War II. Gallup polls in 1939 showed that 96% opposed "joining the European war" and declaring war on Germany. When asked if they wanted the United States to keep out of the war even if it would mean Germany would conquer England and France, 77% still said "stay out." To help ensure this, 69% favored "stricter neutrality laws" and 73% liked the idea of requiring the government to call a "national referendum" before a war could be declared. In 1940, on the general question of entry into the war, 86% were in opposition. And, as late as July 1941, an overwhelming 79% still opposed American involvement.

Consequences of this antiwar tradition are considerable. It means that Americans resist, under almost all circumstances, the need to send soldiers to fight on distant shores. Students of this tradition are hardly shocked to find that 8 of 10 Americans in the 1980s reject any plan to send U.S. soldiers to fight in El Salvador. Nor is it any wonder Americans never endorsed the military engagement in Lebanon.

What is at first glance surprising is that Americans did indeed support, after the fact, the U.S. intervention in Grenada. Grenada and Lebanon, however, offer ideal examples of the types of military enterprises Americans will approve or reject.

Although few people would have given a pre-invasion endorsement of the move, Americans did support the fait accompli in Grenada [in 1983] because it was successful, quick, rescued Americans, had a limited number of casualties, and had clear and achievable objectives. The antithesis is Lebanon, where the involvement was prolonged [in the early 1980s], American lives were not as clearly on the line, casualties were high, and objectives were unclear and ultimately unattainable. In the public's eye, it held few prospects for success while the Marines became targets for snipers and terrorists.

Such views are not a new wave of post-Vietnam isolationism. They are part of enduring American attitudes that were not moved by storm troopers marching across Europe forty years ago any more than they have been by the adversaries of the 1980s.

Strong defense.  Avoidance of combat converges with another belief. Americans want a strong national defense, largely because it is understood to be protection against actual combat. In 1938, despite their strong resistance to joining in the war in Europe, Americans overwhelming favored President Roosevelt's strengthening of U.S. military forces. When asked if the proposed larger navy would "more likely get us into war or keep us out of war," 73% said such defensive strength would help keep us out.

Americans get upset with leaders who appear either too weak or too belligerent, either quality seeming to invite war for opposite reasons. Teddy Roosevelt's famous phrase has always found favor with the American public. Since the instant it was spoken, "speak softly but carry a big stick" has been a perfect expression of a key American instinct: do not be loud and warlike, but be sufficiently armed to discourage attack. In recent years, many conservatives have gone for the big stick while neglecting to speak softly. Many liberals have mastered whispering but tried to whittle down the size of the stick. Invariably, Americans turn their back on the politicians who come to represent either extreme.

This is not to claim that Americans are incapable of shifts toward more hawkish views. Perceptions of a weak Carter presidency coupled with explosive news from Iran, Afghanistan, Poland, and elsewhere produced 1980's strong surge in support for increased defense spending and for a slightly tougher (though still cautious) posture. To be sure, Americans do not want to be threatened, intimidated, or pushed around on the world scene. Such inclinations are restrained, however, by the public's dread of bloody foreign swamps.

Outrage over an event like the Soviet attack on the Korean jet typically subsides soon as people revert to their wish to minimize tensions. Such inclinations are due neither to the fall of Saigon nor to manipulation by liberal journalists. For the U.S. public, these basic orientations have shown stability for much of the century.

Economic self-interest.  Economic conditions are outstanding predictors of whether incumbent presidents will be reelected, and election analysts have long noted that Americans vote their pocketbook. A neglected but comparable point is that economics forms an important part of the public's view of foreign policy. Americans often see the pursuit of national self-interest in economic terms.

Americans overwhelmingly believe foreign policy has an enormous effect on the U.S. economy. In 1982, 72% said U.S. foreign policy has a "major impact" on "our overall economy at home"; 81% said it has a "major impact" on gasoline prices; and 66% said it has a "major impact" on unemployment. Consequently, the public ranks issues of economic self-interest as goals that ought to be the top priorities of U.S. foreign policy. When presented with a variety of possible international goals, the top three were all economic: "protecting jobs of American workers" was picked as a ''very important goal" by 77%; "keeping up the value of the dollar" was very important to 71%; and "securing adequate supplies of energy" was very important to 70%. In fact, even though big business is never especially popular in polls, 44% said that "protecting interests of American business abroad" ought to be a very important goal of U.S. foreign policy.

Presidential leadership. Historically, Americans support the president in times of international crisis. They are also inclined to support the president even without a crisis. This reaction has not disappeared in recent years, but that public support is not now, nor has it ever been, a carte blanche. But within certain limits -- set largely by the preceding six factors -- the president can draw on a huge reservoir of public support.

This context for presidential support is crucial because, to reiterate the thesis of this essay, conventional American attitudes toward foreign affairs are fundamentally grounded in faith in the basic decency of humanity, fear of foreign combat, faith in communication and compromise, revulsion toward oppressive regimes whether of the left or the right, belief in the shield of a strong military, and concern with economic self-interest. Respect for the leadership of the president is a factor that helps tie the other six together.

Implications for policymakers are clear. Administrations that are perceived to violate these tenets regularly -- by being seen as either too bellicose or too weak -- lose public support. If the general foreign policy reputation of an administration is solidly in this mainstream, on the other hand, it can get away with an occasional transgression. Most people will at least listen to a president's attempt to justify policies that they might initially have rejected. But it is not easy to make a convincing case when it appears to contradict this national ethos.

. . . . .

A 1982 Gallup poll reveals the extent to which Americans share these general orientations. At remarkable levels of between 85 to 94 percent, the public agreed that the following were "important" goals of U.S. foreign policy:

This series of foreign policy goals nicely summarizes the public's desire simultaneously to reduce tensions, maintain a defensive military shield, promote American economic self-interest, and help the hungry and oppressed of the world.  Most Americans do not expect to critique the details and tactics used by the president and foreign policy professionals. Their performance will be judged by the product – by the extent to which they can successfully turn such goals into foreign policy achievements.



William C. Adams is professor of public administration at The George Washington University.  He is the editor/author of two books about media coverage of international affairs as well as numerous studies of public opinion.

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