Colin Powell Fellowship: When Does the U.S. Public Favor Contributing to Military Coalitions?

With the revolutionary technological advancements of information technology, we now live in a world where we are a few clicks away from gaining access to any information we desire. In such an era, does the general public have collective thoughts on global issues? Would public opinion affect the elites in their policymaking? Older scholarships would suggest otherwise. The original belief was that the general public had limited knowledge of foreign affairs; therefore, it was not crucial to political elites and their decision-making processes. With this starting to change in this day and age, Chu and Recchia make a timely observation and research how public opinion affects policies on foreign affairs. Their research focuses on three essential aspects: whether public opinion plays a factor; if multilateral approval affects public support; and if the stated goal of interventions influences public support.

They first start by talking about the general question of whether public opinion mattered in decision-making. Older scholarships, primarily by Lipman and Almond, would suggest three crucial factors for this thought. First, the broader public cared very little about foreign affairs; second, the mass public’s opinion was very volatile and susceptible to changing easily; third, public opinion was incoherent. This led to the Lipman consensus, which stated that public opinion did not matter. However, with the advances of globalization and increased interactions among nations, this was bound to change. Contrary to these views, Chu and Recchia’s research showed that public policies tend to coincide with the beliefs of the mass public leading to the theory that public opinion can, in fact, influence political elites. Throughout their research, strong scientific arguments supported this theory.

Though public opinion may affect political elites in their decisions, there are factors that shape public opinion. Chu and Recchia point out how the effects of multilateral approvals on public opinion may come as less counterintuitive. There have been many cases in which public support was high even without the endorsement and approval of multilateral organizations. However, these cases may have had other factors at play. The case brought up in the discussion was the Iraq War and its public support. Despite President Bush’s failure to gain the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) approval, public opinion could not have been higher in the U.S., which ultimately lead to the use of military force. Cases such as this could be seen as exceptions as the matters were perceived as national security threats. Other cases may have had regional organizations’ approvals instead of UNSC approvals, which have also shown to raise public support. With this in mind, their research reflected and showed strong evidence supporting their hypothesis of how multilateral approval increases public support.

The final point discussed sought to answer what kinds of stated goals the public supported. Chu and Recchia’s research on this area supports familiar aspects of older scholarship. Their study showed Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations gaining the least support and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the highest. These findings showed similar results as older schools of thought that suggested that “beat the bully” type of interventions would gain the most support.

Chu and Recchia conclude that various factors affect public opinion, which in the end influence political elites’ foreign policymaking. They mention that their research is yet to be conclusive, and the next step for them is to seek why the public may support the use of force for some objectives above others. This is a crucial and timely topic, especially considering the events around the world today.

You can watch the full video here.

This blog post is written by Yuta Beppu ’24. In 2021-2022, he is studying Political Science at SMU as an exchange student from Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU), Japan. At KGU, he is in the School of International Studies, where his areas of interest are Political Science, International Relations, and International Business.