Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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The realist tradition in American public opinion

Remember my query about journalists' attitudes towards U.S. foreign policy from a few weeks back? It was a very small part of a paper I've written entitled, "The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion", which I'll be presenting at Yale tomorrow. Here's the abstract:

For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their theory is inimical to the American public. For a variety of reasons – national history, American exceptionalism – realists assert that the U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite of public opinion. This paper takes a closer look at the anti-realist assumption by examining survey data and the empirical literature on the mass public’s attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and worldviews, the use of force, and foreign economic policy. The results suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans might be most comfortable with the logic of realpolitik. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact: American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.
One of the many germs from which this paper grew was from this blog post from two years ago.

posted by Dan on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM


Congratulations on finishing the paper.

I would love to know if any other old blog posts have grown into academic works. I am considering blogging myself and would love to know how useful it has been in your “real” work.

posted by: Chris Albon on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

I have not read your paper but...I wonder if what you call "realism" in the public isn't a distorted reflection of what Mead calls "Jacksonianism." The construct validity of "realism" may be pretty low in public opinion terms. My intuition is that lots of hard-assed Americans have a notion of national honor that differs with "liberal internationalism" (mapping pretty closely to Mead's "Wilsonians") but still calls on the US to protect our friends and punish our enemies even when there is no "realistic" payoff.

posted by: steve on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

Interesting paper, Dan. I'm skeptical of the argument (probably because I've spent a lot of time reading Kennan and Morgenthau), but it's interesting nonetheless.

Here's another possible test of the anti-realist assumption: to what extent does American public opinion tend to assess conflicts in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys", with the assumption that the US should support the "good guys"? (In other words, to what extent does American public opinion take a moralistic view of foreign policy?)

I've seen a lot of examples of this in Internet arguments, but I haven't seen any hard data.

posted by: Russil Wvong on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

Heh, good to see myself cited in a paper of Dan's. I guess I owe him a good read.

Very very quick reaction is that it's promising, but be careful of equating "not liberalism" with "pro realism". The two aren't the same.

There are some other predictions of realism that aren't tested, like alliance fluidity: a true realist should be able to dump this year's best friend faster than a spring break hookup if interests change. I don't think public opinion about which are good vs bad countries is nearly as malleable as straight realism would predict.

On the trade questions, I'll grant it looks more like some sort of realism, but I suspect ignorance about gains from trade, or doubt that they'll be distributed fairly domestically are very important too.

Dan has set up an interesting fight vs Steve Kull and others at PIPA, who argue (_Misreading the Public_) that policymakers, Congressional staffers in particular, tend to _under_ estimate the degree to which the public are Wilsonian multilateralists. You're arguing the politicos have it right, and PIPA has it wrong.

I'd prefer to remain anon on the blog but will email some comments to Dan.

posted by: AnIRProf on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

Dan: This looks like an intriguing project. If I have any more thoughts after giving the paper a closer read (and I suspect that I will), I'll pass them on.

And thanks for the cites.

posted by: Paul Brewer on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

More on the tendency of public opinion towards a moralistic view of foreign policy: educational researcher Howard Gardner mentions this in "The Disciplined Mind."

"Most five-year-olds have developed a Star Wars script. Life consists of a struggle between Good and Bad forces, with the Good generally triumphant. Many movies and television programs, and a few events in real life, can adequately be described in terms of such a script. Most historical events or works of literature, however, prove far more complex; to understand the causes of World War I or the U.S. Civil War, or to grasp the thrust of a novel by Hawthorne or Austen, one must weigh and integrate multiple factors and nuances. Students learn in class to give more complex explanations for such historical or literary events. Yet, when they are confronted with new and unfamiliar materials--say, a story from another culture, or a war in an unfamiliar part of the world-- even capable students lapse to an elemental way of thinking. The Star Wars 'good guy-bad guy' script is often invoked in such situations, even when it is manifestly inappropriate."

I don't have the book with me, but I believe Gardner has some hard data on this. There seems to be a natural tendency to interpret conflict as Good vs. Evil.

One way that this would lead to anti-realist policies: resistance to compromise with one's antagonists, based on the belief that it's wrong to compromise with evil, and that the good side will eventually triumph anyway.

Besides moralizing, it seems to me that another anti-realist tendency would be *narcissism* (which would lead to overestimation of US power and legitimacy). I'm not sure how you would test this empirically. Tocqueville discusses the continual flattery of public opinion in "Democracy in America", Book I, Chapter 15:

"I have heard of patriotism in the United States, and I have found true patriotism among the people, but never among the leaders of the people. This may be explained by analogy: despotism debases the oppressed much more than the oppressor: in absolute monarchies the king often has great virtues, but the courtiers are invariably servile. It is true that American courtiers do not say 'Sire,' or 'Your Majesty,' a distinction without a difference. They are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people whom they serve; they do not debate the question which of the virtues of their master is pre-eminently worthy of admiration, for they assure him that he possesses all the virtues without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them; they do not give him their daughters and their wives to be raised at his pleasure to the rank of his concubines; but by sacrificing their opinions they prostitute themselves. Moralists and philosophers in America are not obliged to conceal their opinions under the veil of allegory; but before they venture upon a harsh truth, they say: 'We are aware that the people whom we are addressing are too superior to the weaknesses of human nature to lose the command of their temper for an instant. We should not hold this language if we were not speaking to men whom their virtues and their intelligence render more worthy of freedom than all the rest of the world.' The sycophants of Louis XIV could not flatter more dexterously."

posted by: Russil Wvong on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

how does this fit in to Eugene Wittkopf's findings on how americans seem to be almost evenly divided between isolationists, internationalists, hardliners, and accomodationist?

posted by: jv on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

What you call "realism" looks more like "nationalism," particularly in its American exceptionalist variants.

posted by: Dan Nexon on 04.11.06 at 11:40 PM [permalink]

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