1. Which of the means of exercising the public voice discussed in this chapter (public opinion, elections, lobbying, and political protest) is most effective, and why?



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Dateline: NSA Electronic Surveillance

Observers are divided over the role that the public should play in making foreign policy. James Bollington argues for an active and involved public: “International affairs cannot be a spectator sport. . . . Many must be involved; many more persuaded.”1 Walter Lippmann presents the opposite position: “The people have imposed a veto upon the judgment of the informed and responsible officials. . . . They have compelled the governments . . . to be too late with too little, or too long with too much.”2 This disagreement is very much in evidence in the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden’s June 2013 leak of documents reporting the existence of a secret National Security Agency (NSA) domestic surveillance 104program. Should the public be viewed as an independent check on government, making private communications off limits to secret government intelligence gathering programs, or are private communications fair game for monitoring, just like communications abroad?

Snowden was an NSA contractor. The documents he leaked revealed that the NSA had obtained a ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) directing Verizon Business Network Services to provide it “on a daily basis” with all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The directive did not include the content of the communications but only metadata: the beginning and end points of a communication and its length.

The Obama administration initially declined comment but confirmed this directive the following day. Subsequent leaks revealed that the NSA had also been secretly monitoring the communications of key U.S. allies. Supporters of these programs quickly moved to defend them. President Obama proclaimed that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” NSA officials asserted that it might “incidentally acquire” information about Americans and foreign residents, but it could not intentionally target any U.S. citizen. The program was defended as legitimate because it was authorized by law and known to Congress, and reportedly had helped thwart dozens of potential attacks. NSA defenders also attacked Snowden. Speaker of the House John Boehner called him a “traitor.”

Critics challenged all of these assertions. They claimed that no evidence of the NSA programs’ role in stopping terrorism had been produced. They noted that the FISC had approved 33,942 of 33,949 electronic warrant requests between 1979 and 2012, and that Congress had been lax in carrying out its oversight responsibilities. Most importantly, they argued that the NSA program was in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

Supporters did not waver, but Obama felt compelled to act as revelations continued to mount, and in January 2014 he announced modifications in the program. After failing to pass reform legislation in 2014, in September 2015 Congress passed the USA Freedom Act. This compromise bill required the government to obtain targeted warrants to collect phone metadata from telecommunications companies.

In March 2019, it was revealed that, during Trump’s first year in office, the NSA collected more than 500 million call records linked to forty targets (individuals, groups, or foreign powers). This number was more than triple the number of call records from 2016: 151 million calls and forty-two targets. In response, thirty-nine civil liberties groups lobbied the House Judiciary Committee to hold a new set of hearings on the domestic surveillance program. Later in March, a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican House members introduced legislation to terminate the surveillance program. One of those, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), argued that the 105program “was born in secrecy, defended with lies and never stopped a single terrorist attack.” Its fate is still uncertain although in August 2019 Trump requested that Congress reauthorize it. Reportedly, the NSA had halted the program in 2018 because of technicalities that resulted in unauthorized data collection and limited value in addressing the terrorist threat. In one instance, “over collection” led the NSA to purge millions of phone records.

Looked at over time, government-citizen relations are marked not only by questions of spying but also of withholding key pieces of information from the public One of the most important cases of this type is the Pentagon Papers (see the Historical Lesson).

Historical Lesson

The Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers was a forty-seven-volume history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from World War II through 1967. Officially known as United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, it was secretly commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in June 1967 and completed in 1969 just prior to Richard Nixon’s inauguration. The Pentagon Papers contained three thousand pages of commentary and analysis and four thousand pages of documents, which included highly classified reports, memos, cables, and analyses. Only fifteen copies were printed.

The first installment of the “Pentagon Papers” appeared on the front page of the New York Times on June 13, 1971. Three days later, the Nixon administration obtained a federal court injunction to stop further installments from appearing. This did not bring an end to the Pentagon Papers, as the Washington Post and fifteen other papers began printing it. On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 against the Nixon administration, paving the way for newspapers to print the Pentagon Papers in its entirety. The day before the ruling, Senator Mike Gravel (D-Ala.) had entered over four thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers into the official record of the Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds to ensure that they would be made public. In making its ruling, the Supreme Court found that the Nixon administration had not made a case for prior restraint of free speech. The nine justices of the Supreme Court wrote nine different opinions in reaching this overall conclusion.

The Pentagon Papers created an immediate sensation. It revealed information that had not been covered in the press, such as U.S. bombings of Cambodia and Laos as well as military raids into North Vietnam designed to provoke a North Vietnamese response. Some argued that it represented a dangerous breach of national security, while others considered it a historical document that might cause embarrassment but was not a security threat. What was indisputable was that the information about military actions in Vietnam differed dramatically from that depicted in government policy statements. Most pointedly, it showed that two presidents had lied, one about not fighting a wider war (Johnson) and the other about already having done so (Nixon).

The source of the leaked Pentagon Papers was Daniel Ellsberg. A RAND think tank military analyst during the Vietnam War. Because he had worked on the report for several months, he was able to obtain a copy and photocopy it. After failing to interest Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger or Senators George McGovern and William Fulbright in the report, Ellsberg approached the New York Times in February 1971, giving them forty-three volumes. He held back the four remaining volumes contained what he felt was particularly sensitive information.

Ellsberg went into hiding after the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, but surrendered to police two days before the Supreme Court decision. He went on trial in 1973 for violating the 1917 Espionage Act and other statutes. The case was dismissed after it became known to the court that Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office had been targeted as part of the Watergate break-ins.

Applying the Lesson

1. Where is the dividing line between the public’s right to know and the need for secrecy?

2. What motivations might McNamara have had in ordering the Vietnam study?

3. To what extent are the Pentagon Papers and the National Security Agency leaks similar? How do they differ?


This chapter examines the major avenues available to the public in exercising its voice on foreign policy matters: elections, public opinion, interest group activity, and political movements. It also takes a look at the role of the media in formulating public perceptions, the increasing involvement of states in foreign policy, and how policy makers view the public voice in making foreign policy. The chapter begins by evaluating awareness of the public on matters related to American foreign policy.

Public Awareness of Foreign Policy Issues

Not everyone is equally interested in or aware of foreign policy issues. A commonly used framework divides the American public into four groups, based on level of awareness and action. First, one large group is unaware of all but the most significant international events, and have, at best, vague and weak opinions. Second, another large group is aware of many major international events but is not deeply informed about them. The remainder of the American public, comprising about 25 percent, are generally knowledgeable about foreign policy issues and hold relatively firm convictions. Within this group, referred to as opinion holders, a smaller set of activists (1–2 percent) serve as opinion mobilizers for the other segments of the public.


It matters where the public gets its information. Opinion polling in the months following the invasion of Iraq found that many Americans were wrong about key facts, such as the existence of evidence linking Iraq and al-Qaeda (45–52 percent of Americans said it existed) and the discovery of weapons of mass destruction (about 25 percent believed this finding). Fox was the news source of choice for those with the most misperceptions, while NPR listeners held the fewest. Another study found that those who are not very attentive to foreign affairs tended to hold isolationist attitudes and got most of their news about international events from talk shows that emphasized soft news stories.3

Still, even though the public may not know the facts about a foreign policy issue, it tends to feel confident about what ought to be done. This holds true for both the substance and making of policy. A classic example with regard to the substance of American foreign policy comes from a 1988 poll, in which less than 50 percent of Americans could locate South Africa on a map. Nonetheless, 87 percent disapproved of its policy of apartheid.

Public Opinion

Public opinion provides a first avenue for the public to express its views on foreign policy. Every president since Richard Nixon has employed pollsters to learn just that.4 Yet the public is not convinced that anyone is listening. A 2014 poll found that, from the American public’s point of view, the gap between the views of the American public and the decisions taken by policy makers was considerable: 42 percent said it was very large and 45 percent said it was somewhat large. 5

Interpreting public opinion polls is not always easy. The public’s response can easily be swayed by the wording of a question. For example, before the Persian Gulf War, when asked if the United States should take all action necessary—including military force—to make sure Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, 65 percent said yes. However, only 28 percent said yes when asked if the U.S. should initiate a war to force Iraq out of Kuwait. Questions on trade policy show a similar sensitivity to wording; responses vary depending on whether the question is about exports or imports or about its impact on wages or economic growth.6


Trends and Content

Because of this sensitivity to wording, analyzing the responses to questions over time is better than looking at one-time polls as a way of uncovering what Americans think about foreign policy issues. Such analysis has captured several turning points in American public opinion about foreign affairs issues.

The pivotal event for the first shift was World War II. Public opinion polls before World War II suggested a strongly isolationist outlook. In 1081939, 70 percent of opinion holders said that American entry into World War I was a mistake, and 94 percent felt that the United States should “do everything possible to stay out of foreign wars” rather than try to prevent one. The outbreak of fighting in Europe had little impact on U.S. attitudes.7 This changed dramatically following the attack on Pearl Harbor. when internationalist sentiment came to dominate public perceptions about the proper U.S. role in the world. Between 1949 and 1969, 60–80 percent of the American public consistently favored active U.S. participation in world affairs.8

Before the Vietnam War, virtually all internationalists were in fundamental agreement on several key points: The United States had both the responsibility and the capability to create a just and stable world order, peace and security are indivisible, the Soviet Union was the primary threat to world order, and containment was the most effective way of meeting the Soviet challenge.9 Foreign policy based on these beliefs could expect to receive the support of the American people. When disagreements arose, they tended to be about the process of making foreign policy rather than its substance.

Vietnam changed public attitudes.10 It produced a steady and steep erosion of internationalist sentiment. In 1964, 65 percent of the public was defined as internationalist. This fell to 41 percent in 1974. That year also saw a dramatic increase in the number of isolationist responses, from 9 percent in 1972 to 21 percent.

Internationalism only reemerged as the majority perspective in 1980. No single pivotal event is associated with its rebirth. Instead, the American public gradually came to see the international system as threatening and out of control and developed a renewed willingness to use U.S. power and influence to protect national interests. Among the events that contributed to this shift were the 1979 Iranian coup, and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The renewed embrace of internationalism was short-lived. The Pew Research Center characterized the public mood in the months preceding the 2016 election as one of isolationism with a very, very big stick.11 Polls then showed that a majority of the American public (57 percent) favored letting other countries deal with their own problems and concentrating on problems in the United States; only 46 percent had held this view in 2010. In 2016, only 17 percent of Americans felt the next president should concentrate on foreign policy over domestic policy, in contrast to 60 percent in 2008. Yet 55 percent of the American public still favored policies that would allow the United States to maintain its status as the only world superpower. Only about one-third saw it acceptable for another country to rival the United States as a superpower. This outlook was reflected in a 12-point increase in the number of Americans favoring increased defense spending between 2013 and 2016. A significant factor feeding this change in outlook was a loss in confidence in America’s world involvement. Almost 109one-half polled in 2016 felt that the United States was less powerful than it was a decade ago.

The public’s view on foreign policy appears to be shifting again toward internationalism, although polls differ on the depth of this attachment. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center Poll, 64 percent of Americans feel that global problems would be worse without U.S. involvement, a seven percent increase from 2016. A majority of Americans (54 percent) also favor taking into account the interests of its allies even if that requires making compromises with them.12 A 2018 Chicago Council of Global Affairs survey found that 70 percent of Americans favored taking an active role in world affairs, up 7 percent from its 2017 results; except for the 2002 poll following the 9/11 attacks, this is the highest level since 1974. Ninety-one percent of respondents said it was more effective for the United States to work with other countries than act alone in achieving its foreign policy goals. Nearly three times as many Americans think it is more important for the United States to be admired than feared in order to achieve its foreign policy goals (73 percent versus 26 percent).13

It also appears that significant divisions exist. In the 2019 Pew poll, 49 percent of white Americans said it was important for the United States to be active in world affairs, compared to 39 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of blacks. In contrast to only 29 percent of Republicans, a solid majority of Democrats (69 percent) said it was important to compromise with allies. Age also matters. In 2018, a Pew poll found that only 29 percent of younger Americans felt that limiting Russian power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority, compared to 54 percent of those aged 65 and older.14

Public Opinion and the Use of Force

A particularly important question for policy makers is the willingness of the public to support the use of military force. Here too, attention must be paid to wording and context. A 2012 poll regarding U.S. policy toward Syria showed that almost 75 percent of Americans opposed military action, but 62 percent supported the creation of no-fly zones.15

The conventional wisdom inherited from the Vietnam War era (see chapter 4) is that the public is unwilling to support the use of force if it results in casualties. Known as the Vietnam syndrome, the policy implication of this reading of the public led policy makers to either avoid the use of force altogether or use it only quickly and in an overwhelming fashion in highly controlled settings to ensure a short conflict with few American casualties.

The accumulated evidence on the use of force from the 1960s through the 1990s now points in a different direction, raising questions about the policy implications of the Vietnam syndrome. The public is not totally gun-shy. It will support the use of military force even when casualties occur, 110depending on (1) the policy purpose behind its use, (2) the success or failure of the undertaking, and (3) the degree of leadership consensus.

Of particular interest to policy purpose is a study undertaken by Bruce Jentleson,16 who found that the American public is most likely to approve military force when its purpose is to restrain the foreign policy actions of a hostile state; it is least likely to do so when the purpose is to bring about internal political change. A 2019 Chicago Council poll provides support for this view. When asked if the United States should use troops to overthrow a dictator, only 35 percent said yes, compared to 70 percent that supported their use to stop another country from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Public support for U.S. military involvement in the Middle East fits this pattern. During the Persian Gulf War, support was highest for Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, which were designed primarily to curb Iraqi foreign policy adventurism by defending Saudi Arabia and liberating Kuwait. Public support dropped sharply when the question posed was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Similarly, when asked about the Libyan military operation, 65 percent said they supported military action to protect civilians from Gaddafi, but only 48 percent supported the use of military force to remove him from power. Polling on Syria also supports this argument.17 An online poll running from December 2015 to April 2016 showed that only 35 percent of Americans favored removing Assad from power. In contrast, as many as 66 percent favored using force against Assad if he had been found to use chemical weapons against Syrian opponents.18

Studies also suggest that the public is sensitive to the domestic costs of foreign policy activism. The more serious the domestic problems relative to the external challenge, the more powerful will be the public’s isolationist impulse. So the weaker the economy, the less support a president is likely to find for an activist foreign policy. This logic helps explain support for the Iraq War, which was fought without a tax hike and cost less than 1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). In comparison, the Vietnam War cost 9 percent of the GDP, and, at one point, the Korean War cost 14 percent of the GDP.19

A number of other factors also influence public opinion on the use of force. Foremost among them are race, gender, and party identification. When the Iraq War started, only 29 percent of blacks supported it. Hispanics were also far less likely than whites to support it; over 60 percent of all Hispanics disapproved of the Iraq War.20 A similar pattern held in 2014, when a poll questioned Americans on their support for air strikes against Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Fifty-eight percent of whites voiced their support for air strikes, while only 50 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Hispanics did so.21

Gender differences were also evident (see table 5.1).22 The 2014 poll cited earlier showed that 64 percent of men but only 44 percent of women supported air strikes against the Sunni insurgents. On average, regardless 111of the purpose, women are less supportive of the use of military force. They are also more sensitive to humanitarian concerns and the loss of life. Having said this, women by and large are not pacifists. The differences between men and women on the use of force tend to occur at the margins and are a response to specific circumstances.

TABLE 5.1 Gender-Based Differences on Use of Military Force
Policy Issues Female (% in favor) Male (% in favor)
War against Terror 70.5 80.0
Persian Gulf War 49.8 66.8
Somalia 52.6 61.4
Kosovo/Serbia 47.0 54.4
Type of Military Action
Air/missile strikes/bombing 54.1 66.6
Send troops abroad 48.1 60.0
Policy Objectives
Foreign policy restraint 54.9 68.1
Humanitarian intervention 63.4 68.1
Internal political change 43.8 53.2
Peacekeeping 43.4 49.6
Mention of Casualties
War on Terror/no casualties mentioned 73.8 82.4
War on Terror/casualties mentioned 58.0 71.5
Haiti/no casualties mentioned 31.3 42.5
Haiti/casualties mentioned 26.0 37.7
Source: Adapted from Richard Eichenberg, “Gender Differences in Public Attitudes toward the Use of Force by the United States, 1990–2003,” International Security 28 (2003), 110–41, tables 2–5.

The use of force in Afghanistan and Syria highlights divisions along party lines. In 2013, 67 percent of Democrats believed that the war was not worth fighting, while only 54 percent of Republicans took this position. Only three years earlier, when Bush was president, a mere 27 percent of Republicans thought that the Afghan War was not worthwhile. On 112Syria, 80 percent of Democrats supported Obama’s decision to delay air strikes against Syria, while only 56 percent of Republicans did.

Impact of Public Opinion

How much influence does public opinion have on American foreign policy? This question can be answered in two ways: (1) the type of impact and (2) the conditions necessary for it to exert an influence. Public opinion can have three types of impact on American foreign policy. It can serve as a constraint on innovation, a source of innovation, and a resource to be drawn on by policy makers in implementing policy. To the extent that the public is subject to unstable moods about foreign policy issues—as was frequently believed in the early Cold War period and by some today in the war against terrorism—public opinion may act as a powerful constraint on U.S. foreign policy by defining the limits of what is politically feasible.

A case can also be made that the existence of too firm an outlook or too rigid a division of opinion is just as much a constraint. The deeply entrenched isolationist outlook of the American public during the 1930s made it extremely difficult for President Franklin Roosevelt to prepare the United States for World War II. A firm but divided opinion is cited by one major study as being responsible for the prolonged U.S. presence in Vietnam.23 Faced by a “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” dilemma, successive administrations are seen as having followed a strategy of perseverance until a public consensus developed for a strategy of either victory or withdrawal.24

Observers generally agree that public opinion rarely serves as a stimulus to policy innovation. One commentator argues that “no major foreign policy decision in the United States has been made in response to a spontaneous public demand.”25 However, public opinion today does appear to be capable of placing new items on the political agenda. What it tends to lack is the ability to overcome forces that push policy makers in the opposite direction. Such appears to be the case with regard to humanitarian interventions. In examining U.S. humanitarian interventions into Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo, one study found that public support did increase congressional support, but political partisanship and ideology were strong enough to block congressional action.26

With regard to the conditions necessary for public opinion to exert an influence, work by public opinion pollsters suggests that it might be helpful to think about this influence in terms of tipping points.27 Policies that have reached the tipping point share three characteristics: (1) a majority of the public is in support of or opposed to a particular policy, (2) they feel intensely about it, and (3) they believe that the government is responsible for addressing the problem. Public opinion on most foreign policy issues does not meet these requirements. Recent current issues that are at the tipping point or have crossed it are the Iraq War, ISIS terrorism, illegal immigration, and outsourcing jobs.



Almost invariably, the winning candidate in an election cites the results as a mandate for their policy program. Do elections really serve as a mechanism for translating the public voice into policy? The evidence suggests that claims of popular mandates are often overstated and based on a flawed reading of election returns.

A look back at the Lyndon Johnson–Barry Goldwater election of 1964 shows just how deceptive electoral outcomes can be. In 1964, Johnson won a landslide victory over Goldwater, who had campaigned on a platform of winning the war against communism in Vietnam “by any means necessary.” The results were commonly interpreted as a mandate for continued restraint in the war effort. However, national surveys revealed that 63 percent of those who favored withdrawal and 52 percent of those who favored a stronger stand, such as invading North Vietnam, supported Johnson.28

Voting and Foreign Policy

For elections to confer a mandate on the winner, three demands are made of the voters: (1) they must be knowledgeable, (2) they must cast their ballots on the basis of issue preferences, and (3) they must be able to distinguish between parties and candidates. Evidence on the first point is not encouraging. The lack of widespread public understanding about foreign affairs issues never ceases to amaze commentators. Consider the following:

1964: Only 38 percent knew that Russia was not a member of NATO.

1966: Over 80 percent failed to properly identify the Vietcong.

1979: Only 23 percent knew which countries were involved in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

1993: 43 percent could not identify the continent on which Somalia was located.

2003: 68 percent believed that Iraq played an important role in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.29

Do candidates win because of, or in spite of, their policy preferences? Historically, foreign policy has not been a good issue on which to conduct a campaign.30 Party identification, candidate image, incumbency, or some other nonissue factors generally play important roles in deciding how the public votes. The “bump” a president gets from a foreign policy success may also be short-lived and is not easily transferred to other issues on the agenda. After Saddam Hussein was captured, George W. Bush’s approval rating went up eight points. Three months later that bump was gone. Obama’s rating immediately jumped nine points after Osama bin Laden was killed. It also soon returned to its prior level, and the jump had virtually no impact on his low approval rating on economic issues. The increased 114polarization of American society may make obtaining lasting bumps ever more difficult. When asked about Trump’s meeting with North Korean lead Jong Kim Un across the DMZ, 42 percent said it was a step toward peace, and 50 percent said it was a political act.

Charles Whalen, a former six-term congressman, sees the sporadic interest and low information level of constituents regarding foreign policy matters as a point of vulnerability for incumbents.31 Challengers attempt to create policy differences with the incumbent and to cast the incumbent in a negative light. They find a powerful weapon in foreign affairs voting records. This dynamic also holds true at the presidential level, where foreign policy setbacks provide a strategic opening for the opposition party to put the president on the political defensive. Over the course of more than a century, the party out of power has sought to exploit setbacks in U.S.–China relations as evidence of incompetent or weak presidential leadership.32 In the 1870s, Democrats called for a policy of curbing Chinese immigration into the United States; in the 1950s, Republicans blamed Truman for losing China; and in the 1990s, Democrats attacked George H. W. Bush for his response to China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square protests.

The third prerequisite for elections to serve as a mandate is that voters must be able to distinguish between party and candidate positions. In U.S. elections this is rarely the case. When choice is present in a presidential campaign, it generally takes place in primaries, where candidates seek to separate themselves from their competitors by advancing boldly stated positional issues that lack detail but carve out valuable political turf.33 During the general election, presidential candidates of both parties tend to stress valence issues, which find most people on the same side because of the need to form and hold together broad electoral coalitions.

In line with this reasoning, early in the 2015–2016 primary season Donald Trump called for building a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border and making Mexico pay for it and advocating torture as a weapon to defeat terrorists; he also called upon South Korean and Japan to develop nuclear capabilities. As the Republican convention neared and his nomination appeared certain, Trump’s tone changed. He now promised that “America is going to be strong again; America is going to be great again; it’s going to be a friend again . . . we are going to finally have a coherent foreign policy, based on American interests and the shared interest of our allies . . .. we want to bring peace to the world.”

Impact of Elections

What then is the impact of elections on U.S. foreign policy? For many observers, the greatest foreign policy impact of elections is not found in a single election but in the cycle of elections that defines a president’s term in office.34 The first year in office is generally characterized by policy 115experimentation, false starts, and overly zealous goals, due to inexperience and the continued influence of overly simplistic foreign policy campaign rhetoric. During the second year, pragmatism becomes more evident because of the increased knowledge and skill of the administration and the realization that a foreign policy mishap may lead to the loss of House and Senate seats in the midterm elections. In the third year, foreign policy issues are evaluated largely in terms of their potential impact on the presidential reelection campaign. Potential successes are pursued vigorously, even if the price tag is high, while the administration tries to disengage from potential losses. The final year brings stalemate to the foreign policy process. “Foreign governments have long understood the difficulty of doing business with the U.S. in election years.”35

The most propitious time for foreign policy undertakings is held to be the first year and a half of a second term. Here, there is an experienced president who has a foreign policy agenda and is operating under the halo effect of a reelection victory. By late in the second year of a president’s second term, electoral considerations begin to overwhelm foreign policy again, as jockeying begins in both parties for their respective presidential nominations. At some point, the president comes to be regarded, both at home and abroad, as a “lame duck,” limiting the ability to conduct foreign policy.

The influence of the election cycle competes with other factors, so its fit with any particular presidency is likely to be imperfect. However, indications of its presence may be seen many times. Take Obama’s presidency. His first year in office was marked by frequent calls for resetting American foreign policy. His second year saw him adopt a pragmatic surge in troops to Afghanistan. Following the midterm elections, he moved to clear his foreign policy agenda by gaining high-stakes victories on the New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) Treaty and ending the ban on gays in the military. In his third year, Obama announced the beginning of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and moved on getting much-delayed trade legislation through Congress. In March 2012, Obama confided in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that no agreement could come before the presidential election, indicating that after the election he would have “space.”

Obama’s second term did not fully follow the script outlined by the election cycle argument, however; partisan divisions between Republicans and Democrats and divisions within the Republican Party stalled efforts to pass immigration reform legislation.

Evidence for the election cycle argument can also be found in Trump’s presidency. He started off intent on dismantling existing polices. In his second year, with a change in key advisors, his foreign policy became more pragmatic. In his third year, with another change in advisors, he sought to get contentious foreign policy issues off the electoral agenda by completing 116multiple trade agreements, a nuclear agreement with North Korea, and by backing away from a conflict with Iran.

Interest Groups

The third avenue open to the public for expressing its outlook on foreign policy issues is interest group activity. A wide variety of groups actively try to influence U.S. foreign policy. Consider U.S. policy toward China.36 A representative list of interest groups active in this policy area includes such diverse groups as the AFL-CIO, Amnesty International, the Christian Coalition of America, the Committee of 100 for Tibet, and the U.S.–China Business Council.

Groups wishing to influence U.S. foreign policy make their views known to them either directly or through interest brokers (lobbyists). Not surprisingly, former policy makers are among the most prominent interest brokers because of their access to policy makers and policy-making institutions. Among key recent White House foreign policy officials who established lobbying or strategic consulting firms after leaving office are former George W. Bush staff members Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State and National Security Advisor), Stephen Hadley (onetime National Security Advisor), and Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense). Together they formed RiceHadleyGates LLC. Recent congressional leaders who entered the consulting field include former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and former House majority leader Richard Gephardt.

Types of Interest Groups

The most active foreign policy interest groups can be divided into four broad categories: business groups, ethnic groups, foreign lobbyists, and ideological public interest groups.

Business Groups The long-standing cliché at the heart of business lobbying is “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States.” This view is endorsed both by those who feel threatened by foreign competition and seek protection (such as the auto, steel, and textile industries and farmers), and by those who depend on open access to foreign markets or natural resources. An example of the latter is lobbying during Obama’s presidency by Exxon (then headed by Trump’s first secretary of state Rex Tillerson) to obtain a Treasury Department waiver to sanctions that would prohibit Exxon from partnering with Russia on oil drilling projects in the Black Sea. Earlier it had received a waiver to search for oil in the Arctic; under that plan, Exxon and the Russian firm agreed to invest $3.2 billion.

The extent to which U.S. businesses depend on foreign trade and access to markets is captured in table 5.2, which lists the top ten states in terms of international trade as a share of their gross domestic product (GDP) 117in 2017. The auto industry is most responsible for Michigan’s high ranking; its top import partner is Mexico, and its top export partner is Canada. For Louisiana, crude oil is the most important foreign trade industry; its major partners are Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq. Washington has a highly globalized economy due to its aerospace industries.



TABLE 5.2 International Trade as a Share of GDP: Top 10 (2017)
State GDP (billions) Exports + Imports (billions) Trade Share of GDP
Michigan $514.5 $200.1 38.9%
Louisiana $243.3 $94.1 38.7%
Kentucky $204.4 $78.0 38.1%
Tennessee $344.7 $112.2 32.6%
South Carolina $218.9 $69.7 31.9%
Texas $1,692.0 $527.4 31.2%
Indiana $359.5 $92.4 25.7%
Washington $503.1 $127.0 25.3%
New Jersey $589.3 $124.2 25.0%
Illinois $818.2 $200.9 24.6%
Source: Mark Perry, How Important is International Trade to Each U.S. State’s Economy? May 11, 2018. https://seekingalpha.com/article/4155383-important-international-trade. Data is from U.S. Census and Bureau of Economic Analysis



Nowhere is business foreign policy lobbying more controversial than when it is carried out by defense industries. Their activities bring forth images of what President Dwight Eisenhower referred to in his farewell address as the military-industrial complex.37 At the core of this negative image is the assertion that a dominating political force consisting of professional soldiers, industrialists, and government officials exists within U.S. policy-making circles which acts in unison to determine policy on defense-related matters.38 The resulting policies are based on an ideology of international conflict that requires high levels of military spending, a large defense establishment, and a belligerent, interventionist foreign policy. In the 1960s, the concept of a military-industrial complex became a major theme in the writings of those who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Central to the effectiveness of the military-industrial complex are the linkages between its various elements. A 2012 study found that 70 percent of the retired three- and four-star generals took jobs with defense contractors or served as consultants to them. Perhaps the most important dimension of its operation is the extensive lobbying efforts of defense contractors directed at Congress and the White House. Collectively, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon spent more than $50 million 118on lobbying in 2017. In 2019, Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon reached agreement on a $34 billion deal for F-35 fighters, the largest contract ever signed. Especially important to these firms are their sales to Saudi Arabia, which came under attack in Congress following the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and the uncovering of links to the Saudi government. Raytheon’s chief executive announced the firm’s continuing support for Saudi Arabia, stating that, “we have supported the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in securing defense for more than 50 years . . . we are lock step behind them.” The Aerospace Industries Association echoed Trump’s call for standing with the Saudi government, asserting that it would continue “to support U.S. national security and foreign policy goals.”


Ethnic Groups The most successful ethnic lobbies have relied on three ingredients to give them political clout: (1) the threat of switching allegiances at election time, either from one party to another or from one candidate to another in the same party; (2) a strong and effective lobbying apparatus; and (3) the ability to build a case around traditional American symbols and ideals.39

The Jewish American lobby possesses the most formidable combination of these elements. The centerpiece of the Jewish lobbying effort for Israel is the highly organized, efficient, and well-financed American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which serves as an umbrella organization for pro-Israeli groups. It “promptly and unfailingly provides all members [of Congress] with data and documentation, supplemented, as circumstances dictate, with telephone calls and personal visits on those issues touching upon Israeli national interests.”40

High levels of funding for pro-Israeli candidates are a key component of the lobbying strategy, as are pro-Israeli political action committees (PACs). A study by the Federal Election Commission found that, from 1998 to 2006, Jewish PACs made over $13 million in contributions to congressional candidates. The next highest level of contributions was by a Cuban American PAC ($1 million). Money alone does not explain the strength of Jewish American lobbying efforts. They have also been successful because their message resonates well with Americans: a country founded by settlers who were displaced from their homelands with a common sense of destiny and mission as a chosen people who are threatened by enemies.41

One of the challenges AIPAC faces is that the demographics of its support base are changing. Its primary supporters were once liberal Democrats; now they are conservative Republicans and, especially, evangelical Christians. African Americans were once staunch supporters of Israel but now increasingly align with Palestinian causes. AIPAC’s core base has also aged. A 2008 poll showed that, while more than one-half of Jewish Americans older than age 65 felt that the Israel-Palestine relations were a major issue in the U.S. election, more than 66 percent of young non-Orthodox Jewish students did not feel this way. This change in support 119base has contributed to the emergence of competing groups.42 The most significant of these is J Street; formed in 2008, it defines itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” and advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It lobbied against AIPAC’s position on such issues as Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and imposition of economic sanctions on Iran, and disagreed with Trump’s decision to recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital outside of formal peace negotiations.

AIPAC’s many sources of strength do not guarantee success. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an AIPAC affiliate, worked with a $20 million advertising budget to stop Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and ran ads in forty states. It was unable to mobilize sufficient votes in Congress to block the agreement. Decades earlier, in 1981, over AIPAC’s objections Ronald Reagan had agreed to sell AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft) to Saudi Arabia in what was then the largest arms sale in U.S. history.43

No Arab American lobbying force equal to AIPAC has yet emerged.44 In 1972 a central organization called the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) was founded, and in the mid-1980s it had field coordinators in every congressional district and a membership of some one hundred thousand Arab American families. Also active in encouraging the participation of Arab Americans in the political process is the Arab American Institute, which was founded in 1985. From 1998 to 2006 Arab American PACs spent some $500,000 on congressional campaigns.

A major obstacle to creating an effective Arab American lobbying force is their ethnic diversity. Until 1948, most Arabs coming to the United States were Christians from Syria and Lebanon. Since 1978, most have been Muslims. As a result, no single political agenda exists for Arab Americans. Consensus exists only on the broad issues of pursuing a comprehensive peace plan in the Middle East and establishing better U.S. relations with the Arab world.

By the mid-1980s, African Americans had made great strides toward meeting two of the three prerequisites listed at the beginning of this section. First, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1984 bid for the presidency made clear, blacks make up an important constituency within the Democratic Party, strengthening the threat of switching allegiances. Second, an organizational base, Trans Africa, now exists. The major focus of black lobbying in the mid-1980s was reorienting U.S. policy toward South Africa. Following the successful resolution of this issue, African Americans have had a more difficult time mobilizing on foreign policy issues.45 Major areas of interest today include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, South Africa, and Uganda.

Ethnic diversity is also a problem for Hispanic American lobbying on foreign policy.46 Mexican immigration, which has been motivated largely by economic considerations, is concentrated in the Southwest and is largely Democratic. In 1980, Jimmy Carter got 72 percent of this vote. Cuban immigration is concentrated on the East Coast; it has been motivated 120 largely by foreign policy concerns and is politically conservative and Republican. Ronald Reagan received 59 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote.

Two additional fissures within the Hispanic community make the establishment of an effective lobbying force difficult. One pits American-born Hispanics against immigrants.47 The only real area of overlapping concern is immigration policy. American-born Hispanics give greatest weight to domestic issues such as education, crime, economic growth, and the environment. The second fissure is generational. This came through clearly in the differing reactions to President Obama’s announcement that the United States and Cuba would move toward establishing normal diplomatic relations. By and large, longtime Cuban exiles in Florida denounced Obama as a traitor and liar, while younger Cuban Americans expressed the view that the time was right for a change in U.S.–Cuba relations. In reversing Obama’s opening to Cuba, Trump was seen as appealing to this older generation of Cuban-American voters for electoral support. Some also argued this was a key element in his support for removing Socialist Nicolas Maduro from power in Venezuela; Trump had shown little interest in Venezuela, but was strongly pushed by Florida’s Republican Senator Mark Rubio.

The most famous Hispanic lobby is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).48 Established in 1981, CANF was vehemently opposed to Fidel Castro, intent on ending communist rule in Cuba, and had a long history of opposition to any change in American policy toward Cuba. Among the major legislation that it supported was the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act. Passed by Congress in an election year and endorsed by both presidential candidates in an effort to gain the support of the Cuban American community, the Act prohibited foreign affiliates of U.S. firms from doing business in Cuba.

CANF did a dramatic about-face in April 2009. Just days before President Obama announced that he was lifting long-standing restrictions on family and remittances to Cuba, CANF issued a white paper calling for a new direction in U.S.–Cuba relations based on people-to-people exchanges and promotion of Cuban civil society and targeting bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

Foreign Lobbyists Both foreign governments and groups within their societies engage in lobbying. While their most common concerns are foreign aid legislation and arms sales, foreign governments pursue a wide range of interests.49 A point of controversy behind their lobbying efforts is the legal requirement that advocates of foreign organizations register as lobbyists and provide details of their fees and activities. Often, individuals recruited by foreign organizations argue that they are not lobbyists but are legitimately acting as individuals to promote good foreign policy decisions. This was the position taken by Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City major and personal attorney to Donald Trump, who has not registered as a foreign agent even though Brazil, Colombia, and an Iranian dissident group, Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) are among his clients.


One of the most active foreign lobbyists is Saudi Arabia. In 2017, it had twenty-eight lobbying contracts. Only Japan had more, with forty-seven. In 2015, Saudi Arabia spent $7.7 billion on lobbying and consulting activities in the United States. This amount jumped to $27.6 billion in 2016, primarily because of a resolution in Congress to end U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen (a topic taken up in the Dateline section at the beginning of chapter 6). In the weeks leading up to a vote on this resolution, Saudi Arabian lobbyists had 759 contacts with members of Congress, staffers, academics, and reporters to make their case. Another reason was the election of Donald Trump, who had attacked Saudi Arabia during the campaign. Shortly after his election, Saudi Arabia hired six additional lobbying firms. The day after Trump announced that he would visit, Saudi Arabia hired the Sonoran Policy Group as a “government affairs and commercial sector adviser” for $5.4 million. A few months later, Sonoran hired Stuart Jolly, the political director of a pro-Trump political-action committee, to be its president. Before Trump’s trip, another consulting firm sent pro-Saudi material to hundreds of members of Congress. Still another firm distributed a sixty-page report justifying the Yemen bombing campaign. Three days after Khashoggi’s death and rising demands in Congress for action against the country, Saudi Arabia again invested in lobbying firms, adding the McKeon Group founded by former Republican Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Robert McKeon for $450,000 with a $50,000 per month retainer. While in the House, McKeon received over $700,000 in campaign contributions from defense contractors such as Lockheed that sell aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

MEK provides an ongoing example of nonstate foreign lobbying. Founded by Iranian students who embraced Marxism, overthrow of the Shah, and establishment of an Islamic state, it was identified by the State Department as a terrorist organization. A series of MEK attacks in the early 1970s resulted in the deaths of several U.S. soldiers. The organization formally renounced terrorism in 2001. Among those speaking out on its behalf were former CIA directors Porter Goss and James Woolsey, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed MEK from the terrorist list in 2012, but it continues to be at the center of controversy for its lobbying efforts. Shortly after she was confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao acknowledged receiving $50,000 from MEK for a five-minute speech.

Another non-state foreign lobby are the Kurds, an ethic group found along the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia, which hopes to create its own state out of this territory. The United States has relied on the Kurds heavily to promote its interests in the Middle East. The Kurds have targeted many of their efforts toward bureaucracy. One of their goals has been to obtain $18.4 billion from U.S. construction funds dedicated to the Kurdish region of Iraq. When the State Department opposed their efforts the 122Kurdish lobbying effort switched its focus to the Commerce Department, which identified this region as the “gateway” for U.S. firms going to Iraq.

Ideological Public Interest Groups This category includes a wide variety of groups. At one extreme are highly institutionalized and well-funded organizations that are not normally thought of as interest groups. Part of the mission of these think tanks is the propagation and advancement of ideas about how to address public policy problems. The Brookings Institution is one of the most prominent foreign policy think tanks. It long advanced a liberal-democratic foreign policy agenda but has become more moderate and centrist in orientation. Two of the most visible think tanks now occupy positions at the conservative end of the political spectrum: the Cato Institute, a libertarian organization that has advanced a restrictive—if not isolationist—foreign policy agenda; and the Heritage Foundation. In the view of many of its past supporters, the Heritage Foundation has moved away from its traditional orientation—as a source of conservative ideas about a foreign policy based on a strong military defense, limited involvement in humanitarian undertakings, and free market principles in international trade—to a more activist and combative orientation. Also playing prominent roles as producers of ideas are the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), New America, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Think tanks make their mark on Washington in many ways. Their members serve as a source of expertise,as either outside experts or employees, on which administrations and congressional committees can draw. Perhaps most significantly, they serve as a focal point for bringing together like-minded individuals to address common concerns. For example, think tanks were prominent members of the “blue team,” a loose alliance of members of Congress, staffers, conservative journalists, and lobbyists for Taiwan who worked to present China as a threat to the United States. More recently, the Heritage Foundation, AEI, and the Foreign Policy Institute joined forces in a “defend defense” initiative to protect the Pentagon’s budget from major cutbacks.

Recently, think tanks have come under close scrutiny for receiving large sums of money from foreign governments without acknowledgment.50 Since 2011, at least sixty-four foreign governments and their officials have contributed money to twenty-eight major U.S. research organizations. CSIS has disclosed a list of thirteen foreign government donors, including Germany and China. The Atlantic Council has acknowledged accepting funds from twenty-five countries since 2008.

Also included in this category are more traditional societal groups, the most prominent of which today may be the “religious right.”51 Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network gave $3–$7 billion to U.S.-backed anti-communist forces in Central America. In 2003, Robertson defended Liberian leader Charles Taylor against charges that he was a war criminal. Robertson later called for the assassination of Venezuelan 123president Hugo Chavez. Evangelical groups also have become active in shaping U.S. foreign policy in Africa; U.S. policy on AIDS was heavily influenced by the beliefs of and lobbying by Focus on the Family.52 As with other groups active in influencing foreign policy, divisions exist among evangelicals. For example, a 2017 poll showed that 76 percent of evangelicals aged 65 or above had a favorable view of Israel, compared to 58 percent in the 18–34 age group. Some 30 percent of those in this latter group were unsure, about twice as many as in the older age group.53 The religious right does not hold a monopoly on interest group activity by religious organizations. During the prelude to the Iraq War, groups were active on both sides. Fundamentalist groups tended to support the war, but the Catholic Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the World Council of Churches, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, and the Shalom Center all spoke out against it.

Impact of Interest Groups

Establishing an interest group’s influence on a specific policy is difficult. More is required than just revealing the presence of group activity. A concrete link must be established between the group’s actions and the actions taken by those who were influenced. Efforts to establish the validity of assertions about the influence of the military-industrial complex on U.S. foreign policy have produced mixed results. The influence of the military-industrial complex is greatest in the industrial arena and far less in the military one, where it faces strong competition from ideological, economic, and other nonmilitary influences.

Two additional factors must be considered in assessing the influence of interest group lobbying. First, to a considerable degree, success or failure may be due to factors beyond the control of interest groups, such as the existence of an economic problem or a change in the political climate. For example, a surge in populism within the United States fueled the election of Donald Trump, whose America First campaign promised to protect American businesses from unfair foreign competition. Second, interest group successes may have negative political side effects. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum were designed to protect those industries but are likely to harm the auto industry and result in higher prices unless exceptions are granted, which would undermine the benefits of the tariffs. Moreover, China has retaliated by placing tariffs on soybeans and other products produced in the United States, hurting the U.S. farmers that were one of Trump’s strongest support groups.

Political Protest

The public voice on foreign policy matters is not just expressed through officially sanctioned avenues. It can also be heard in a variety of forms that challenge policy makers to take notice of positions often at odds with 124official policies. Protests range from the acts of single individuals, such as Cindy Sheehan challenging President George W. Bush’s position on the Iraq War by camping outside his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to antiwar marches involving thousands, such as the one that occurred in Washington, DC, in 2010 on the seventh anniversary of the Iraq War.

Modern technology has added a new dimension to protest movements, the virtual protest march. In October 2003, when tens of thousands of protesters marched in Washington calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq, other protesters flooded congressional offices with e-mails stating their opposition to the war. A similar tactic was used to pressure Congress into investigating prewar intelligence claims made by the George W. Bush administration; more than four hundred thousand people from every state contacted members of Congress.

Political protests are valued for their ability to alter the political landscape by bypassing existing power centers and introducing new or marginalized voices into the political debate. The anti-globalization protests that began in Seattle in 1999 ensured that environmental, labor, and democracy issues could not be totally ignored. Pro-immigration protests have brought many Hispanics into the political process for the very first time.

The ability of political protests to have this impact may be especially important today. In large part this is because an apathetic internationalism is reshaping American politics, encouraging policy makers to ignore foreign policy problems and empowering squeaky wheels, those who make the loudest noise about foreign policy problems. More often than not, this condition favors those organized interests that can mobilize their supporters most effectively to pressure policy makers. However, when thousands of protesters repeatedly take to the streets, a new element is added to the equation.54

There is nothing automatic about the success of protest movements. Major foreign policies are not easily reversed, and it is often difficult to sustain the political momentum needed to change policies. Such was the situation facing the anti-globalization protestors at a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, and climate change protestors who marched in New York City in 2014. Protest movements can also give birth to counterprotests, which can be cited by policy makers as justification of their policies. Such was the case in September 2005, when Iraq War supporters marched in Washington, DC.

The Media and American Foreign Policy

To this point, the chapter has looked at how the public conveys its views to policy makers, but has not yet examined how the public obtains information about the world. In analyzing this issue, the sources of information on which the public relies are presented first, followed by an examination of how those sources can shape their thinking. Chapter 7 examines how presidents interact with the media to advance their agendas.


Newspapers and Television

For generations of Americans, newspapers were the primary—if not the only—means of keeping up with news. One of the early, most often cited examples of the influence of the media on U.S. foreign policy is the Spanish-American War. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hearst and Pulitzer newspaper chains engaged in sensationalistic yellow journalism to increase circulation. Their coverage of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor is routinely cited as contributing to the onset of the war by stirring up American public opinion. More recent scholarship cites the greater importance of more fundamental foreign policy issues dividing the United States and Spain, but the imagery of the press being able to lead the United States to war remains strong.

Over time, television also transformed the coverage of foreign policy issues. Network evening news broadcasts were only fifteen minutes long in 1962 and relied heavily on video of international events that were at least a day old. About the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s secretary of defense, observed, “I don’t think that I turned on a television set during the whole two weeks of that crisis.”55 During the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy administration knew about the missiles in Cuba six days before the information was broadcast to the American people. Consider how differently the crisis might have played out had it occurred in the 1990s,56 following transformation of television coverage of foreign policy issues by the arrival of CNN’s 24–7 news coverage in 1980. CNN dramatically changed the political time clock for presidents to inform the public about their responses to events. Today, the bottom line is that presidents must develop a television policy to accompany their foreign policy. They have not always succeeded. During the Persian Gulf War, the George H. W. Bush administration was able to frame the policy issue on its own terms and to control media coverage.57 Uncertain about how to proceed in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia, his administration and that of Bill Clinton were unable to present a coherent story with which the media could frame its pictures.58

The ability of the press to shape public opinion declined with the arrival of competing news sources and increased costs. By 1993, slightly more Americans reported watching network news regularly than reading the newspaper (60 percent versus 58 percent). By 2008, more people were going online three or more times per week (37 percent) then listening to radio news (34 percent) or reading the newspaper (34 percent). 59 The percentage of front-page foreign news stories in U.S. newspapers has also declined steadily. In 2007 it was at 14 percent, down from 27 percent in 1987 and 1977.

The New Media and American Foreign Policy

Today the Internet and the sharing of information, ideas, personal messages, videos, and other content via social media have become a major if 126not the dominant source of foreign policy news and information. By 2003, 77 percent of Americans who used the Internet did so to get or share information on the Iraq War. One in five Internet users stated that it helped shape their thinking about the war.60

The new media helps shape public views on foreign policy in two ways. First, it serves as a source of raw information and images. One way it does this is through leaking secret documents. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in July 2010 when WikiLeaks released over ninety-one thousand secret documents about Afghanistan and other foreign policy matters on its website. Another way is reliance of traditional media outlets on the information it supplies. For example, the Syrian civil war is described as the most socially mediated conflict in history. Social media images were carefully managed by “gatekeepers.” Violent images were designed to delegitimize the Assad regime to the outside world, encourage further extremism and polarization in the conflict, and demobilize others from intervening militarily for fear of becoming the next victims.61

Second, the Internet allows individuals to connect in a personal and direct manner with U.S. foreign policy. Foreign policy blogs abound. The White House arranged for President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo to be sent out in text-message format in four languages, translated into thirteen languages, and broadcast on Facebook. President Trump uses Tweets rather than news conferences or press briefings as the primary way to present his views to the public and connect with his political base.

Shaping the Public’s View

It has become commonplace to speak of the media as driving foreign policy decisions through the CNN effect, the ability to place “breaking” news stories before the public all day, every day. Evidence suggests that a more complex relationship between the media and policy makers drives coverage of foreign events. The media does not so much discover foreign policy problems as it takes cues about what to report from the political debate in Washington. This practice is referred to as indexing. If there is no debate in Washington, then there is no debate in the media, and coverage of a topic may all but disappear. Journalists look first to the White House for cues on how to define a problem, creating what one White House official characterized as an echo chamber. “All of these newspapers used to have foreign correspondents. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. . . . They literally know nothing.”62

This is why Trump’s Tweets are so important. First impressions are often difficult to challenge. With this frame of reference established, journalists then go to other lesser news sources—such as members of Congress, ex-government officials, and outside experts—for commentary and input. According to some, including former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, 127this process, referred to as the opinion cascade, made the media a “complicit enabler” of the Bush administration’s case for going to war with Iraq.

Two very different consequences of the manner in which the traditional media frames its foreign policy stories have been identified. The first is the rally-around-the-flag effect, in which the public moves to support the president in times of conflict and crisis. Initially, the American public was sharply divided on using military force against Iraq in 1991. Support for war hovered around the 50 percent mark until President George H. W. Bush’s January 16, 1991, speech announcing the beginning of the bombing campaign. Support then shot up to 72 percent.

There is nothing in presidential speeches that automatically produces a significant boost in support for the administration’s foreign policy. With the growth in numbers of cable outlets, the changing face of the American media makes it increasingly difficult for presidents to move large segments of the public to support their policies; with the growth of options, viewers in search of news increasingly go to those channels with views that they support. For example, in 2016 Fox News was the main source of campaign news for 40 percent of Trump supporters. The main source of news for 18 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters was CNN.

The second consequence of media framing of foreign policy stories is a spiral of silence. When individuals hold opinions that they do not hear reaffirmed in the voices of others, they exercise self-censorship as a way of protecting themselves from criticism. The opposite reaction takes place among those who receive positive reinforcement for their views; they become even more vocal and confident in their beliefs, leading the dissenters to exercise even more self-censorship. Many saw this spiral at work in public opinion on the Persian Gulf War. Networks all but ignored antiwar stories in the lead-up to the war. Of 2,855 minutes of network news coverage of the war during this period, only 29 minutes showed popular opposition to the ongoing American military buildup.

As evidence of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election reveals, the new media can also serve as a powerful tool to manipulate information covertly for political purposes.63 Russian operators published more than 131 messages on Twitter, uploaded more than a thousand videos to YouTube, and reached 126 million users on Facebook. Russian efforts to influence public attitudes in the United States predates the 2016 election. One of its most important propaganda instruments was the state-backed news channel RT (Russia Today), which the U.S. intelligence community defined as Russia’s “principal international propaganda outlet.”

The Russian influence campaign was based on producing misinformation and sheltered social media sites of its own making as well as promoting misinformation from existing platforms run by Americans. In spreading its messages, Russian operatives relied on standard Facebook technologies that allowed them to send specific news stories, messages, and ads tailored to people who had unknowingly just visited a Russian site.

States and Cities: The New Foreign Policy Battleground

Because the foreign policy agenda has increasingly become one in which both domestic and foreign policy concerns are present simultaneously (intermestic; see chapter 2) the public voice on foreign policy is being directed away from a singular focus on Washington to include state capitals and major cities. The attention of many allies has also been directed away from Washington in what some diplomats refer to as the donut strategy: when you have a problem in the middle you work around the edges to build networks and encircle it. States and cities have responded by increasing their profiles abroad.64 For example, Los Angeles now has a deputy mayor for international affairs.

One foreign policy area in which states and cities have become increasingly active is immigration policy. This predates the sanctuary city movement which now dominates the headlines. In the 1980s they reacted negatively to attempts by the Reagan administration to control immigration. In 1996 New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sued the government over a federal law that limited local protections for undocumented immigrants. Angered by ongoing border violence and reacting to citizen demands that illegal immigration be curbed, in 2010 Arizona passed a state law that allowed police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant. The sanctuary city movement began in response to Trump’s promise to carry through on his campaign promise to deport illegal immigrants. Mayors across the U.S. asserted they would not cooperate with such a program with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel declaring that it will always be a sanctuary city. In March, 2019 eight states including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois, had declared themselves to be sanctuary states. 178 cities and counties in twenty-seven states had also declared themselves to be sanctuaries. Included among them were Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. In response to the sanctuary city movement the Trump administration threatened to revoke or withhold federal law enforcement funding from these jurisdictions. There followed a series of law suits as the Trump administration and sanctuary cities each tried to block action by the other. In 2019 Trump raised the possibility of transporting immigrants detained at the border to sanctuary cities. The administration officials termed the policy proposal a viable option to deal with overcrowding at the border. Comments made by others, including Trump, suggested that the policy was retaliation against these cities which largely vote Democratic.

Policy Makers’ Responses

The prevailing view among policy makers holds that foreign policy is too important to be rooted in public perceptions of world affairs. Public attitudes should be formed and shaped rather than followed. Consider 129comments made by two past Secretaries of Defense. At a press conference, Leon Panetta (under Obama) stated, “We cannot fight wars by polls.” Dick Cheney (under George H. W. Bush) said, “I do not look upon the press as an asset. Frankly, I look on it as a problem to be managed.”65

The tendency of policy makers to discount the positive contribution of the public voice to foreign policy making shows up when they look to uncover that voice. A State Department official observed, “If a given viewpoint different from our own does not have congressional expression, forget it.”66 A congressional staffer could not remember the last time he was asked to do a foreign policy poll. The inevitable result of this perspective is to greatly narrow the range of public attitudes that are considered in making policy. Additionally, policy makers often appear not to understand how the public thinks about foreign policy issues. In a 2004 poll, 76 percent of the public said that the United States should participate in the International Criminal Court. When asked about the issue before poll results were released, only 32 percent of government officials and 15 percent of congressional staffers anticipated that a majority of the public would hold this view.67

Policy makers may not be totally off base in their lack of attention to public opinion. One study suggests that, depending on the type of foreign policy problem, presidents can safely ignore what the public thinks. For a noncrisis issue, what matters to the public is that the president takes action; judgments of success and failure do not enter into public thinking because of the long time needed for such issues to be resolved. In a crisis, what matters is not the decision of whether to use force or intervene, but whether the effort failed or succeeded.68

Kori Schake challenges thoughts of dismissing the public’s input into foreign policy as self-destructive hubris.69 She argues that, instead, the foreign policy elite must become more responsive to the public by working with civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations to gain the sustained public support necessary for foreign policy to succeed.

Over the Horizon: An Intelligence-Industrial Complex?

Earlier it was noted that, in his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned about the need to guard against the influence of the military-industrial complex. The revelations by Snowden regarding the existence of a secret NSA domestic electronic data gathering program have many warning against a new threat to the public’s ability to effectively express its voice on foreign policy matters: an intelligence-industrial complex. As with the military-industrial complex, critics see the intelligence-industrial complex as a potentially unaccountable political force rooted in the perception of significant national security threats to the United States. In contrast to the military-industrial complex, which gains influence through the production of 130military power, the intelligence-industrial complex gains influence through the collection and production of information. As former NSA director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander put it, the challenge is that “you need a haystack to find a needle.” For the NSA and other intelligence agencies, building a haystack required the cooperation of commercial communication firms.70 In the early postwar era of the twentieth century, Western Union and others provided government access to telegraph communications. Later the government turned to AT&T for help in tapping into underwater fiber cables. Then Microsoft provided the NSA with the capability to circumvent its own encryption program.

The foundations of the intelligence-industrial complex were laid through a combination of jawboning (arm twisting), stealth, legal protections, and monetary rewards. Legal protection came in the form of granting telecommunications firms immunity from prosecution for turning information over to the government. Jawboning took many forms, including appeals to patriotism and, when they failed, indirect pressure. As one Verizon executive noted, “At the end of the day, if the Justice Department shows up at your door, you have to comply.” Monetary rewards are easy to find. An estimated 70 percent of the intelligence budget goes to private contractors. A computer systems contract awarded to Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) by the Department of Homeland Security for $2 million was escalated to $124 million. Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was a BAH executive. Mike McConnell, who served as President Bill Clinton’s NSA director, left the government to work for BAH, returned to government service as George W. Bush’s DNI, and has since returned to BAH.

Unlike imagery of a unified military-industrial complex, evidence exists that the intelligence-industrial complex may not be monolithic. Several former heads of the NSA, CIA, and Homeland Security supported Apple in its rejection of the FBI’s request to unlock the mobile phone used by the attacker in the 2015 San Bernardino shootings. Many employed in these firms also voiced concern over their relationship with the intelligence community. To improve relations, in 2018 a task force consisting of the Center for a New American Century, former government employees, academics, and representatives from private industries was created to explore how the government can better make use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and interact with high technology firms.

The issue of whether or not the intelligence-industrial complex represents a threat to civil liberties finds Americans and Congress divided. A March 2016 CBS poll found that 50 percent supported the FBI’s insistence that Apple unlock the mobile phone linked to the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, and 43 percent supported Apple’s refusal to comply. In 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers petitioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to formulate a strategy to ensure that surveillance tools are not exported to foreign countries with records of human rights abuses, which might use them against political dissidents, the press, and U.S. citizens.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. Which of the means of exercising the public voice discussed in this chapter (public opinion, elections, lobbying, and political protest) is most effective, and why?

2. Is the media best seen as a threat to the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy or an important tool? Explain your answer.

3. Should policy makers listen to the public or use their professional judgment in making foreign policy decisions? Explain your answer.

Key Terms

· CNN effect, 126

· military-industrial complex, 117

· positional issues, 114

· rally-around-the-flag effect, 127

· spiral of silence, 127

· think tanks, 122

· tipping point, 112

· valence issues, 114

· Vietnam syndrome, 109

· yellow journalism, 125








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