Obama: Listen to Us!

In the past, diplomacy has been the purview of what one former professor of mine used to call the techno-managerial ruling class. The diplomatic corps was drawn from a class of people raised to view the world in particular ways. In the United States, students go to college, learn all about realism and American exceptionalism, bask in the glow of Machiavelli, and oftentimes dismiss outright “softer,” more cooperative approaches to diplomacy. The United Nations is studied, but often disdained as ineffectual, even when it plays a legitimizing role in international law. Those that enter the diplomatic corps with a humanistic approach to politics often get a constant re-education about the “realities” of the world. After all, given the lack of a centralized authority, it is a dog-eat-dog world, and in a world system characterized by self-help, the ability to “get things done” is determined by the maxim “only the strong shall survive.”

President Barack Obama has presumably changed all that. He unapologetically ran on the use of soft power, emphasizing the need to talk to our enemies, cooperate more with our allies, and build a world system that is more peaceful and inclusive. Meanwhile, his campaign reached out to young and disaffected Americans and used innovative means to contact and engage voters. His election was a tacit approval for his approach to soft power and crystallized the need to reach out and engage voters, and his cool, hip persona stamped the administration similarly.

But there’s a big difference between the execution of a good idea and tangible results from such efforts. Though the Obama administration’s efforts to reach out to the public are admirable, it is arguable whether the diplomatic results reflect a “hip” approach. The question is whether or not the Obama administration’s “hip” approach demonstrates the political will to implement diplomatic solutions that suggest they actually listened to the people they reached?

If a hipper diplomacy means reaching out to the public, then arguably public opinion provides the best measure of what the public wants. So what does the public want? The public is clearly interested in government listening to their concerns and modeling their policies consistent with majority opinion. The problem is that the public perceives politicians as ignoring what they really want or prioritizing better-funded special interests. In some cases, politicians pointedly ignore the public, dismissing their views as unsophisticated about the issue or ignorant of its subtle nuances.

An October 2004 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations1 showed that the attitudes of the public were often at odds with the policy decisions of the government. In 2002 and 2004, Americans were asked about several issues in which the United States had chosen a unilateral, “realist” approach to decision-making versus a multilateral, cooperative approach. These issues were related to decision-making in the United Nations, joining the International Criminal Court, signing the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty, the Mine Ban Treaty, and taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In all cases, the American public favored working with other countries in the U.N., joining the I.C.C., approving action to mitigate the problems associated with climate change, approving of the land mine treaty, and not taking sides in the Middle East conflict. At the same time, several pieces of legislation were voted on regarding these issues.

To determine whether the public’s opinion translated into legislative action, the public was divided into two camps: those that were in districts where their representative voted for multilateral approaches, and those that voted against them. In all cases, the majority of the public, including most Republicans (i.e. conservatives), favored cooperative, multilateral approaches to foreign policy. This was true regardless of whether they were in Democratic or Republican districts, or whether their representatives voted for or against these approaches.

This is not the first time polls have been out of synch with public opinion on international issues. Other issues include U.S. policy on torture, the detention of prisoners and the treatment of detainees, proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, and getting the consent of the U.N. to invade Iraq. In all cases, the general message is to be cooperative, talk to your enemies, and engage in multilateral approaches to conflict resolution. The American public has never wanted the U.S. to stand alone or to act as the world’s policeman, and yet time after time the United States has done just the opposite, working cooperatively only when it was convenient.

In these polls, it was evident that most people thought their representative was respecting their wishes, but they are obviously ill-informed about their actual positions. Regardless, the public does have an intuitive belief that the government is not adequately taking public opinion into account as much as it should. In a spring 2009 poll,2 World Public Opinion.org (W.P.O.) found that three-fifths of Americans only trust the government some of the time. The reason why is fairly simple: eighty percent of the American public perceives the country as being “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” rather than “for the benefit of the people” (19%). The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which bailed out banks and financial institutions but excluded individual mortgage holders, merely solidifies that view in the eyes of the American public.

To resolve this lack of trust, the public believes leaders should “pay attention to the views of the people as they make decisions” (94%) and “pay attention to public opinion polls because this will help them get a sense of the public’s views” (81%).

The American public is not alone in this view.  In spring 2008, W.P.O. asked 19 countries how much their government should take into account the views of world public opinion when they are developing their foreign policy. On a scale of 0-10, where zero was not at all and 10 was a great deal, W.P.O. found that the public in every country, gave an average rating of 5.8 or higher; Americans gave a rating of 6.6. Ratings on how much the public perceives leaders actually do take into account world public opinion were much lower across every country. In fact, in all but one country—Thailand—people said the government should take public opinion into account more than it did. In the United States, France and Great Britain, about two-thirds in each country agreed.

As for public perceptions of the United States, polls conducted by W.P.O. during the spring of 2009 indicate world publics have considerable mistrust of the U.S.3 Only Germany, Chile, Kenya and Nigeria believe that the U.S. treats them fairly. Though India was divided, other European, Asian and Muslim countries believe the United States abuses its great power. Furthermore, among all countries polled, only two countries, Kenya and Nigeria, thought the U.S. set a good example in promoting international laws. Instead, large majorities in all other countries felt the United States was hypocritical; that is, promoting international laws it often ignores. Though these polls were conducted relatively early in 2009, world publics appear to be saying that they like what Obama is saying, but are unsure if he will follow through on his promises.

Though polls conducted around the world in 20084 and 20095 show international publics warming to President Obama as compared to dismal views of former President George W. Bush, most world publics are still mistrustful of U.S. motives. A realist perspective would argue this mistrust is well-placed. The United States is a large and powerful country that wields incredible influence in international relations. When it pursues its rational self-interest, those interests will naturally come in conflict with the interests of less powerful allies and enemies, who are expectantly pursuing interests that do not always overlap.

American exceptionalists would argue that those who don’t trust the U.S. are merely jealous of American power and position. They argue that subjecting the U.S. to similar international rules would endanger American civilians, who would be targeted by unethical countries manipulating the rules to “get even” with the U.S. for real or imagined slights. Furthermore, defenders of American exceptionalism believe that the U.S. effectively polices the behavior of its citizens within the bounds of appropriate justice.

As for domestic politics, Charles E. Lindblom adds to the discussion in his seminal publication on Politics and Markets (Basic, 1980). Though Lindblom mainly focuses on the influence of business leaders, he generally argues that elites occupy a privileged position in pluralistic societies like the United States. He contends that government is more responsive to elites who can effectively implement government policies, or relies on experts to recommend appropriate foreign policy positions. Lindblom would argue that the opinions or recommendations derived from public opinion polls, or offered by activists, non-profit organizations and citizens groups, would be ancillary to the process of crafting foreign policy.

An effective example to illustrate this dynamic is the International Criminal Court. It is current American policy not to participate in the I.C.C. At a symposium on international law, W.P.O. presented the above findings regarding both the other countries’ perceptions of the U.S. and data that indicated that Americans endorsed U.S. participation in the I.C.C. In all cases, the experts dismissed public opinion and cited both the realist and exceptionalist arguments to justify the current policy not to participate in the court.

Interestingly, when W.P.O. polled6 the American public on the I.C.C. and other international agreements, Americans were presented with con arguments that captured both realists’ and exceptionalists’ positions mentioned by these same experts. In all cases, the American public found those arguments convincing. At the same time, Americans were offered pro arguments offered by progressive activists, academics and non-profits. The public found these arguments even more convincing. After these arguments were presented, Americans were then asked whether they favored or opposed participating in the I.C.C. A strong majority of Americans favored participation, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.

Typically, the expert response is that the American public just doesn’t understand, or that the public does not have the intelligence to comprehend all of the intricacies of the debate. Most Americans find this view insulting and arguments that dismiss the influence of public opinion as unconvincing. Public opinion data suggests that the majority of Americans do understand the nuances of policy, but believes the United States should act in a cooperative, humanitarian, and just fashion that requires we set aside realists’ and exceptionalists’ concerns in favor of fairness and justice.

The Obama administration’s efforts to reach out to Americans and people around the world demonstrate an important symbol of its desire to act in a more cooperative, diplomatically inclusive way. Obama’s willingness to campaign on this theme indicates his willingness to do so in practice. The polls indicate that world publics are listening to his message and do support its content. Many, however, still want to see concrete action. The U.S. has still not signed the I.C.C. treaty, and it is unlikely the Senate will support it, even if it were signed by Obama.

At the same time, President Obama has directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to officially lodge the United States’ opposition to Israel building settlements in the Palestinian territories. Israel’s policy to build settlements is widely opposed by other countries, with particularly strong opposition among Muslim countries. In an April 2009 poll,7 three-fourths of the American public also expressed increased opposition to the settlements. For this maneuver, the Obama administration has taken heat from conservatives and the Israeli public, so it represents an interesting policy shift. Whether Obama shifted gears on Israel due to expert advice, world opinion, or American public opinion is not clear.

Is the Obama administration changing diplomacy for the better? Ultimately, it depends on whom the president chooses to hear. Past administrations have tended to ignore the public in favor of “expert” opinion. If the Obama administration continues this trend, it will make only superficial changes to foreign policy, and world publics will continue to be wary of U.S. motives.

May 24, 2010

frontispiece and illustration from prwatch.org

1. World Public Opinion.org. "Hall of Mirrors: Perceptions and Misperceptions in the U.S. Congressional Foreign Policy Process," (October 1, 2004): http://tinyurl.com/yj9q9ty.

2. W.P.O. "American Public Says Government Leaders Should Pay Attention to Polls," (March 21, 2008): http://tinyurl.com/ybpegye.

3. W.P.O. "Though Obama Viewed Positively, Still Much Criticism of U.S. Foreign Policy: Global Poll," (July 7, 2009): http://tinyurl.com/y8lglc3.

4. W.P.O. "World Poll Finds Global Leadership Vacuum," (June 16, 2008): http://tinyurl.com/yc5fpj5.

5. W.P.O. "Obama Rockets to Top of Poll of Global Leaders," (June 29, 2009): http://tinyurl.com/y8d5gng.

6. W.P.O. "Americans Say U.S. Should Comply with U.N. Judgment and Change Treatment of Guantanamo Detainees," (May 11, 2006): http://tinyurl.com/ycjjxwv.

7. W.P.O. "Growing Majority of Americans Oppose Israel Building Settlements," (April 29, 2009): http://tinyurl.com/y9ehxav.

Barack Obama, Diplomacy, Public Opinion