Corporatist Foreign Policy and the Disregard for Public Opinion

Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, notes the gap between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy at the National Interest blog:

It’s a bit striking how different public opinion and elite opinion are regarding U.S. foreign policy. One useful juxtaposition I’ve found is using National Journal’s “national security insiders” polls and contrasting them with polls of the public. Two recent examples:

– In a June “insiders” poll, 57 percent of the experts said that President Obama should remove a “modest” number—“5,000 or fewer”—of troops from Afghanistan this summer. A March poll from the Washington Post/ABC News indicated that 73 percent of the public favored “substantial” withdrawals this summer.

– In the new insiders poll, 70 percent of experts favor keeping troops in Iraq beyond the deadline in President Bush’s SOFA agreement with that country. (It’s not clear exactly how they would have us do so, considering Iraqi politics.) Contrast that with a poll from Gallup last August that asked the more leading question whether Washington should “keep its troops in Iraq beyond 2011 if Iraqi security forces are unable to contain insurgent attacks and maintain order in Iraq.” The answer to that question, according to the public, was 53 percent “leave regardless,” 43 percent “stay if Iraqis cannot maintain order.”

When Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton asked members of the Washington foreign-policy elite what the public thought about 11 international political questions, the elites only gave the correct answer on two of the 11 issues.

He’s quite right to point this out. I was reminded of this 2005 study from American Political Science Review (PDF) which assessed multivariate foreign policy preferences and their influence on actual policy, considering business, elite opinion, labor, and the general public. It found that business interests along with elite opinion within the foreign policy establishment basically dictate foreign policy.

The strongest and most consistent results are the coefficients for business, which suggest that internationally oriented business corporations are strongly influential in U.S. foreign policy…Business people (along with experts) are estimated to exert the strongest effects on policy makers overall and, especially, on administration officials…

And as for the public, the researchers favored their models to account for possible miscalculations in their models’ emphasis in popular opinion:

Even with these reduced and refined models, the public does not appear to exert substantial consistent influence on the makers of foreign policy…A more plausible interpretation of these borderline-signifcant coefficients, however, is that the public simply has no effect at all…In short, in spite of generous model specifications, the effect of public opinion on the preferences of foreign policy makers appears to be to be – at best – modest when critical competing variables are controlled for. In general, public opinion takes a back seat to business and experts.

Even accounting for the overwhelming evidence that the public is disregarded when constructing foreign policy in this supposedly democratic state, we should keep in mind the vigorous indoctrination the public goes through as a result of the media, which also primarily reflects business and elite opinion. The public are more dovish, as Logan evidences, but once the general hawkishness of even supposedly left-wing media is accounted for, the public would likely have even more anti-interventionist stances.

Note also Senator Obama’s spirited campaign rhetoric against corporate control over government policy and even President Obama’s railing against the influence of special interests in our democracy, reminding us all along the way that his predecessor’s policies were overly aligned with these business elites. He then gave 80 percent of his top campaign donors senior positions in government and doubled down on all of Bush’s foreign policies (and ramped up a few new ones). Unfortunately, this fooled far too many people, only some of whom now admit their gullible folly.

Addendum: Let it be said that the falling for Obama’s lies is not nearly the most prominent obstruction in the way of changing corporate control over foreign policy or any other policy. The more fundamental “gullible folly” is the constant belief that any particular candidate can change this aspect of our government as opposed to rethinking the government’s relationship with corporations towards one of separation. If we have an antiwar movement that wants less business influence in constructing foreign policy, yet continues to support active integration of the public sector and the private, we have little hope of overcoming this systemic feature of our “democracy.”

  • liveload

    Of course the house just passed the debt ceiling bill that cuts everything except the 800lb gorilla in the room : The War

    …which one, you ask? Pick one. They all suck hind teat.

  • curmudgeonvt

    This "gap" comes as a result of the "training" the American citizens have been subjected to since the beginning of our country. This training teaches us that our government is looking out for our best interests and that it knows what is best for us. It also teaches us to rely on the "experts" rather than think for ourselves. "Go to the beach, or the movies, or sit on the couch and drink your buds and watch "Survivor" or "Dancing with the Stars" but DON'T think – you don't understand what is going on!! Let us explain it to you!!"

    And that's how we got to where we are. And as a result, the "elite" know that the citizens don't understand – which most of them don't – and that the elites (and monied) are free to pursue their own agendas which are more financially based.

    So, why should they listen to us anyway? We don't have the funds needed to buy a Congressman – or a President. We are drones. And most of the citizens of this country are completely satisfied with that. And THAT is the problem.