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Intervention and Intransitivity: Public Opinion, Social Choice, and the Use of Military Force Abroad

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Kurt Taylor Gaubatz
Stanford University
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This article argues that the problems identified in the literature on public choice should critically affect our research on public opinion and our understanding of the impact of public opinion on foreign policy. While a robust literature has emerged around social choice issues in political science, there has been remarkably little appreciation for these problems in the literature on public opinion in general and on public opinion and foreign policy in particular. The potential importance of social choice problems for understanding the nature and role of public opinion in foreign policy making is demonstrated through an examination of American public attitudes about military intervention abroad. In particular, drawing on several common descriptions of the underlying dimensionality of public attitudes on major foreign policy issues, it is shown that there may be important intransitivities in the ordering of public preferences at the aggregate level on policy choices such as those considered by American decision makers in the period leading up to the Gulf War. Without new approaches to public-opinion polling that take these problems into consideration, it will be difficult to make credible claims about the role of public opinion in theforeignpolicy process.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1995

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1 The 12% figure comes from an ABC News poll on May 6, 1993, when respondents were asked if the U.S. should try to stop the fighting if the Europeans refuse to help. The 94% figure comes from an Americans Talk Issues/W. Alton Jones Foundation poll in the last week of March 1993, when respondents were asked if they find the use of military force to ensure the delivery of food and relief supplies in conflict situations like Bosnia or Somalia a “preferable or somewhat preferable option.” In that same poll, the use of sufficient force to arrest the leaders of the warring parties and bring them to trial before a world court was preferred or somewhat preferred by 83% of the respondents. These and most of the other poll results used in this paper were provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

2 Russett, Bruce, Controlling the Sword: The Democratic Governance of National Security (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 88.

3 For a useful overview of this debate, see Russett (fn. 2). See also Page, Benjamin and Shapiro, Robert, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Aldrich, John, Sullivan, John, and Borgida, Eugene, “Foreign Affairs and Issue Voting: Do Presidential Candidates Waltz before a Blind Audience?” American Political Science Review 83 (March 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shapiro, Robert and Jacobs, Lawrence, “The Relationship between Public Opinion and Public Policy: A Review,” in Long, Samuel, ed., Political BehaviorAnnual, vol. 2 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Shapiro, Robert and Page, Benjamin, “Foreign Policy and the Rational Public,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 32 (June 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohen, Bernard, The Public's Impact on Foreign Policy (Boston: Little Brown, 1973)Google Scholar.

4 See Converse, Philip, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Apter, David, ed., Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press, 1964)Google Scholar; Niemi, Richard and Weisberg, Herbert, eds., Controversies in American Voting Behavior (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Zaller, John, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 A dramatic example of the lack of knowledge in this area is suggested by the fact that in January 1979, only 23% of the population could correctly identify the two nations involved in the SALT negotiations. See Graham, Thomas, “The Pattern and Importance of Public Knowledge in the Nuclear Age,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 32 (June 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 John Brennan, “Why Polls Can Be Poles Apart,” LosAngeles Times, May 20,1993, p. A5.

7 Ibid.

8 Verba, Sidney et al. , “Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” American Political Science Review 61 (June 1967)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See Divine, Robert, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, 1940–1948, vol. 1 (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974)Google Scholar, chap. 1; Leigh, Michael, Mobilizing Consent: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy, 1937–1947 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976), 2951Google Scholar.

10 The foundational text for this perspective is Converse (fn. 4). See also Zaller (fn. 4), esp. chap. 5.

11 Zaller, John, “Elite Leadership of Mass Opinion: New Evidence from the Gulf War,” in Bennett, Lance and Paletz, David, eds., Taken by Storm: The Media, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the GulfWar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 194Google Scholar.

12 Schuman, Howard and Presser, Stanley, Questions and Answers in Attitude Surveys: Experiments on Question Form, Wording, and Context (New York: Academic Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Lockerbie, Brad and Borrelli, Stephen, “Question Wording and Public Support for Contra Aid, 1983–1986,” Public Opinion Quarterly 54 (Summer 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Mueller, John, Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)Google Scholar, chap. 1. For an argument about the effects of these factors on concrete choices, see, for example, Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” in Hogarth, Robin, ed., Question Framing and Response Consistency (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982)Google Scholar.

14 Bradburn, Norman and Sudman, Seymour, Polls and Surveys: Understanding What They Tell Us (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988), 146Google Scholar.

15 Arrow, , Social Choice and Individual Values (1951; reprint, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963)Google Scholar. Arrow presents four criteria for a desirable social choice function and argues that logically there is no function that can satisfy all four criteria at once. Those criteria are:

1. The choice function should be able to deal with every possible ordering of preferences.

2. If everyone in the society prefers option x to option y, then society should prefer x to y.

3. The preference ranking of any two options should be independent of the inclusion or exclusion of any third option.

4. No one should be a dictator; that is, no one individual's preference should become society's preference irrespective of the preferences of everyone else.

16 McLean argues that the basic problem was independently discovered three different times. Two good introductions to social choice theory and voting problems are McLean, Iain, Public Choice: An Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)Google Scholar; and Riker, William, Liberalism against Populism:A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1982)Google Scholar.

17 Riker (fn. 16), 130.

18 Plott, Charles, “A Notion of Equilibrium and Its Possibility under Majority Rule,” American Economic Review 57 (September 1967)Google Scholar; Kramer, Gerald, “On a Class of Equilibrium Conditions for Majority Rule,” Econometrica 41 (March 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 McKelvey, Richard, “Intransitivities in Multidimensional Voting Models and Some Implications for Agenda Control,” Journal of Economic Theory 12 (June 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Ordeshook, Peter and Schwartz, Thomas. “Agendas and the Control of Political Outcomes,” American Political Science Review 81 (March 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Shepsle, Kenneth, “Institutional Arrangements and Equilibrium in Multidimensional Voting Models,” American Journal of Political Science 23 (February 1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Riker, William, “Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions,” American Political Science Review 74 (June 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 See Riker (fn. 16).

23 Eugene Wittkopf has been particularly active in analyzing the underlying dimensions of American foreign policy attitudes. See, for example, Wittkopf, and Kegley, Charles, “Beyond Consensus: The Domestic Context of American Foreign Policy,” International Journal 38 (Winter 19821983), 8692Google Scholar. For another detailed discussion of the dimensionality of foreign policy attitudes, see William Chittick, Keith Billingsley, and Rick Travis, “A Taxonomy of Foreign Policy Beliefs” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 1992).

24 Hinckley, Ronald, “Public Attitudes toward Key Foreign Policy Invents Journal of Conflict Resolution 32 (June 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The advantage of Hinckleys take on the dimensionality issue is that he provides a clear breakdown by percentages, suggests plausible demographic correlates, and makes a case for the stability of these dimensions over the entire postwar era.

25 Ibid., 316.

26 Zaller (fn. 11), 195. For a more extensive survey of public opinion trends during the Persian Gulf War, see Mueller (fn. 13).

27 Mueller, John, “American Public Opinion and the Gulf War: Some Polling Issues,” Public Opinion Quarterly 57 (Spring 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Arrow (fn. 15), 26–28.

29 Hinckley (fn. 24), 303.

30 Secretary of State James Baker argued that the reason for opposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq could be summed up in one word: “jobs.” New York Times, November 14, 1990, p. A8.

31 Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Randolph Siverson, and Gary Woller argue that performance in international conflicts has important effects on domestic political fortunes. Bueno de Mesquita, , Siverson, , and Woller, , “War and the Fate of Regimes: A Comparative Analysis,” American Political Science Review 86 (September 1992)Google Scholar.

32 This might correspond with Walter Lippmann's view of public opinion as the “great veto,” simply saying no to any change of course. Lippmann, , Essays in the Public Philosophy (Boston: Little Brown, 1955)Google Scholar.

33 On December 18,1990,55% could be found supporting war with Iraq. This rose to 63% by January 6,1991, but the weakness of this support can be seen in that in the same poll only 44% were willing to approve of war if it would mean one thousand American casualties (Washington Post polls).

34 Defense Department casualty estimates before the war ran as high as twenty thousand. See David Broder, “U.S. Was Ready for 20,000 Casualties,” Los Angeles Times, June 13,1991, p. Al.

35 Russett (fh. 2), 88. For some examples of prominent pieces in this literature that do not consider these problems, see Bradburn and Sudman (fn. 14); Brace, Paul and Hinckley, Barbara, Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents (New York: Basic Books, 1992)Google Scholar; Hinckley, Ronald, People, Polls, and Policymakers: American Public Opinion and National Security (New York: Lexington, 1992)Google Scholar.

36 Riker (fn. 16), 136.

37 Brody, Richard, Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Brace and Hinckley (fn. 35).

38 Two recent pointers to this large literature are Russett (fn. 2); and Page and Shapiro (fn. 3).

39 Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida (fn. 3); Page and Shapiro (fn. 3).

40 Mueller (fn. 13), xiii.

41 Nincic, Miroslav, Democracy and Foreign Policy: The Fallacy of Political Realism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Russett, Bruce, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Kurt Taylor Gaubatz, “Democratic States and Commitment in International Relations,” International Organization (forthcoming); Page and Shapiro (fn. 3); Russett (fn. 2).

42 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, trans. Leslie Walker and ed. Bernard Crick (1531; Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1970), bk. 1, discourse 58, p. 252.

43 Brace and Hinckley (fn. 35).

4 Rosenau, James and Holsti, Ole, “U.S. Leadership in a Shrinking World: The Breakdown of Consensuses and the Emergence of Conflicting. Belief Systems,” World Politics 35 (April 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Mesquita, Bruce Bueno de, The War Trap (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 1218Google Scholar.

46 One exception to this point is the recent work of Bruce Russett on the dynamics of democracy and security policy. See Russett (fn. 2), 115–18. Page and Shapiro (fn. 3) mention the problem (p. 27, and p. 438 n. 2) but give little consideration to its implications.