Daniel W. Drezner

When do foreign policy elites matter?

My post earlier this week on the role of public opinion in the Big Policy Decisions of the past decade has triggered some interesting responses from the international political economy wing of the blogosphere.  See, in order, Kindred Winecoff,  Henry Farrell, Dan Nexon, Winecoff again, and then Phil Arena.  Farrell’s post in particular connects this ...

My post earlier this week on the role of public opinion in the Big Policy Decisions of the past decade has triggered some interesting responses from the international political economy wing of the blogosphere.  See, in order, Kindred Winecoff,  Henry Farrell, Dan Nexon, Winecoff again, and then Phil Arena

Farrell’s post in particular connects this contretemps with larger scholarly questions in global political economy and foreign policy decisionmaking:

International political economy scholarship tends to have an extremely stripped down, and bluntly unrealistic account of how policy is made. Typically, modelers in this field either assume that the “median voter” plays an important role in determining national preferences, or that various stylized economic interests (which they try to capture using Stolper-Samuelson, Ricardo-Viner and other approaches borrowed from economic theory) determine policy, perhaps as filtered through a very simple representation of legislative-executive relations.

However, actual work on how policy gets made suggests that this doesn’t work. On many important policy issues, the public has no preferences whatsoever. On others, it has preferences that largely maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests, and that reflect claims made by political elites (e.g. global warming). On others yet, the public has a set of contradictory preferences that politicians can pick and choose from. In some broad sense, public opinion does provide a brake on elite policy making – but the boundaries are both relatively loose and weakly defined. Policy elites can get away with a hell of a lot if they want to.

The result is that the relevant literature on policy making (located largely within comparative political economy and a growing debate within American politics) argues that elites play a very strong role in creating policies.

These are fair points — indeed, Benjamin Page wrote a whole book about the ways in which foreign policy elites in the United States have pursued policies at vatiance with American public opinion. 

So, yes, policy elites matter.  However, I would issue a few qualifiers and questions to Farrell’s points. 

1)  Who are we talking about when we talk about "elites"?  The word "elites" can cover an awful lot of individuals.  Many conservatives, for example, snorted at the notion of Krugman scolding elites, since there’s no way one can define Krugman as anything but a member of the policy elite.  So… who is part of the elite?  Does it include powerful interest group lobbies, or only policy mandarins? 

In his blog post Farrell seems to imply the latter, which does makes the term more precise.  That said, interest groups are a pretty powerful animal, and they will not get confused by elite policy rhetoric.  Farrell lumps interest group and public opinion stories together in his blog post, and I’m not sure that’s right.  When are policy elites simply doing the work of interest groups, and when are they pushing back?  I’ve seen examples of both, but I haven’t seen a generalizable theory explaining when one dynamic trumps the other. 

2)  When does issue salience matter?  Part of the reason I pushed back against Krugman was that two of the three policy choices he stressed (tax cuts, Iraq) were very high-profile, publicly debated issues.  One would assume that public opinion would form a more powerful brake on high-profile issues than low-profile ones.  This is why I didn’t push back against Krugman’s financial deregulation story. 

Now, Farrell might argue that elites can still manipulate a heck of a lot even on high-profile policies.  This is probably true on some issues, but on others the public can act as an ex ante or ex post brake on policies.  TARP was a bipartisan vote, for example, and a successful policy to boot — and yet the public backlash against it clearly constrained the Obama administration’s policy options in 2009.  Despite Obama’s election mandate and majorities in both houses of Congress, the administration scaled back its fiscal policy stimulus below the $1 trillion mark, partly because of fears of how the public would respond. 

3)  When will policy elites split?   The word "elite" tends to assume an undifferentiated group of privileged policymakers, and anyone who has spent time inside the Beltway knows that partisanship matters a wee bit.  When will the foreign policy community (or economic policy community) reach consensus, and when will there be significant opposition? 

Consider Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example.  A commonly-made argument (at least in blog comments) is that the public went along with the war because the Bush administration cranked up its PR machine and shaped mass public attitudes.  OK, but one of the things us political scientists know is that had the Democrats vociferously opposed the invasion of Iraq, public support for it might have dropped.  OK, but now we get to the key questuion — why didn’t Democrats oppose the war with greater vigor?  Part of it might be that a lot of Democratic liberal internationalists agreed with Republican neoconservatives taking out Saddam Hussein.  Part of it, however, is that Democrats feared looking soft on security during the 2002 midterm elections.  Because of that fear, Democratic policymaking elites were not unified — thereby bolstering public support for the war. 

Now, in this narrative, is public opinion a cause or an effect of the debate that played out among policy elites?  A little of both, I suspect.  I raise this, however, because one of the difficulties with talking about the role of public opinion as a policy constraint (or a policy enabler) is that its role is sometimes buried beneath the more proximate causes.

This is a good blog conversation to have, because it highlights how difficult it is to develop clear and generalizable models of national policy preferences, and the ways in which the fields of international political economy and foreign policy analysis struggle to cope with this complexity. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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