Mind the Gap

By Drezner, Daniel W. | The National Interest, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview
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Mind the Gap

Drezner, Daniel W., The National Interest

WHEN IT comes to American foreign policy, U.S. policymakers and citizens from the rest of the world would not be expected to see eye to eye. They do, however, agree on one thing--they both mistrust how ordinary Americans think about international relations. (1)

Elite wariness of American attitudes towards foreign policy has been around since the days of Walter Lippmann. In The Public Philosophy, he warned, "The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials.... Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this country. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death." When American troops were deployed to Somalia, George Kennan lamented in The New York Times that American foreign policy was "controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry."

The rest of the world is equally wary of American public opinion. Resentment of American power has been longstanding, but in this decade it has metastasized into something worse. Foreigners have seen President Bush articulate a doctrine of unilateral, preventive war in the name of democratic regime change, invade Iraq in support of that doctrine and get reelected for his troubles. Since 2002, Pew polls in 16 countries spanning the globe show support for the United States declining in every country except Pakistan, Lebanon and India. To understand the depth of the problem, consider that in 2005 every country in Western Europe had a more favorable opinion of the People's Republic of China than of the United States. This could be written off as hostility to the Bush Administration's foreign policy, except for one problem the same polls also show increased hostility to the American people.

There are two sources of concern about how ordinary Americans think about the world. First, Americans are believed to hold inconstant, inattentive, irrational and ill-considered opinions about how foreign policy should be conducted. Because Americans are so uninformed about foreign affairs, scholars and policymakers have historically argued that the public reacts to current events based on emotion rather than reason. This leads to a public with erratic mood swings about the foreign policy issues of the day. Policymakers in all countries fear the unpredictability of an electorate that can switch from "stay the course" to "cut and run" in response to a compelling news story. Ted Sorensen epitomized this belief when he said in 1963, "Public opinion is often erratic, inconsistent, arbitrary, and unreasonable--with a compulsion to make mistakes." Discussions of the "CNN effect" are merely the most recent manifestation of this concern.

The second--and somewhat contradictory-source of concern is that Americans hold naive and idealistic convictions about how U.S. foreign policy should operate, and that those beliefs make many people uncomfortable. In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau fretted that, "The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil." Because Americans operate on a moralistic system of beliefs, they are judged to be incapable of grasping the concept of a dispassionate, hard-headed national interest.

This moralistic portrait of American beliefs fits with foreign concerns about the rampant religiosity of Americans. To put it bluntly, the growth of evangelical beliefs in America has put the fear of God into non-Americans. Foreigners are concerned that Americans share a proselytizing instinct to spread American values across the globe. George W. Bush's phraseology in his second inaugural address, with its mix of righteous imagery and democratic idealism, epitomizes these fears:

      From the day of our Founding, we have
   proclaimed that every man and woman on
   this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless
   value, because they bear the image of the
   Maker of Heaven and earth. 

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