In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes
  • Public Opinion and the Use of Force
  • Public Opinion and Foreign Economic Policy
  • Sex and Gender in Public Opinion about Foreign Policy
  • Public Opinion and Cue-Taking: Elites, International Organizations, and Peers

International Relations Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Joshua D. Kertzer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0244


How does the public think about foreign affairs, and how do these public preferences shape foreign policymaking? Over the past several decades, scholarship on public opinion and foreign policy has proliferated, partially due to a growing interest in the “first image” and the ways in which individuals matter in international relations, partially due to an experimental revolution that gave political scientists new methods they could use to study public opinion, and partially due to a range of searing debates—on topics ranging from the Iraq War to globalization—whose fault lines political scientists attempted to map. Scholarship in this area is thus so vast that it is impossible to comprehensively capture in an annotated bibliography of this length. Instead, the discussion that follows focuses on a curated sampling of the field, focusing, in particular, on six sets of substantive questions, drawing on a mix of classic and contemporary scholarship. It begins by reviewing what we know about how foreign policy attitudes are structured, before focusing on public opinion about two different areas of foreign policy: the use of force, and foreign economic issues like trade and investment. It then turns to the effects of sex and gender, along with the role of cue givers in shaping foreign policy preferences—whether partisan elites, international organizations, or social peers. It concludes by reviewing the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy, whether in democracies (as in theories of democratic constraint and accountability), transnational public opinion (as in theories of soft power and anti-Americanism), or in nondemocratic regimes, a relatively new area of research.

The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes

While much of the public opinion about foreign policy literature appearing in policy or popular outlets focuses on describing the content of the mass public’s foreign policy preferences (e.g., how supportive are Americans of free trade? What do Canadians think about the war in Afghanistan?), much of the public opinion about foreign policy scholarship in academic outlets focuses instead on analyzing the structure of the mass public’s foreign policy preferences (e.g., what are the chief predictors of Americans’ attitudes toward free trade? How do the attitudes of Canadians toward the war in Afghanistan relate to their attitudes about other types of foreign policy issues?). The key consideration here is that foreign policy attitudes have structure in the first place—more than early skeptics, in works such as Almond 1950, assumed. Work in this tradition tends to focus on one of two types of models: “horizontal” models that use factor analysis to show how foreign policy attitudes tend to cluster along a small number of orientations like militant and cooperative internationalism (though debates remain about the appropriate number of orientations) and “vertical” models that show that these foreign policy orientations predict foreign policy preferences on more specific issues, and are themselves predicted by deeper values or orientations from outside the domain of foreign policy, such as moral or personal value systems.

  • Almond, Gabriel A. The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

    A classic pessimistic assessment of the mass public in foreign policy, an articulation of the Almond-Lippmann consensus that expressed skepticism about whether the mass public was capable of structured and coherent foreign policy attitudes.

  • Bayram, A. Burcu. “What Drives Modern Diogenes? Individual Values and Cosmopolitan Allegiance.” European Journal of International Relations 21.2 (2015): 451–479.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066114541879

    This study applies a vertical model of foreign policy attitudes on World Values Survey data to explore the relationship between personal values and cosmopolitan foreign policy preferences.

  • Gravelle, Timothy B., Jason Reifler, and Thomas J. Scotto. “The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes in Transatlantic Perspective: Comparing the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.” European Journal of Political Research 56.4 (2017): 757–776.

    DOI: 10.1111/1475-6765.12197

    This study explores whether the militant internationalism, cooperative internationalism, and isolationism framework often utilized in horizontal models of public opinion about foreign policy in an American context also holds in other countries. The authors find support for a more complex four-dimensional model in which global justice is a separate dimension.

  • Gries, Peter Hays. The Politics of American Foreign Policy: How Ideology Divides Liberals and Conservatives over Foreign Affairs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

    Against earlier work that saw foreign policy attitudes as unconstrained by ideology, this study shows how political ideology plays an important role in structuring foreign policy preferences.

  • Holsti, Ole R. Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.6750

    An important general review of the public opinion and foreign policy literature, particularly how foreign policy preferences have clustered in meaningful ways from Vietnam onward.

  • Hurwitz, Jon, and Mark Peffley. “How Are Foreign Policy Attitudes Structured?” American Political Science Review 81.4 (1987): 1099–1120.

    DOI: 10.2307/1962580

    An influential early vertical model in which more specific foreign policy preferences are shaped by more general foreign policy orientations, which are shaped by deeper values.

  • Kertzer, Joshua D., Kathleen E. Powers, Brian C. Rathbun, and Ravi Iyer. “Moral Support: How Moral Values Shape Foreign Policy Attitudes.” Journal of Politics 76.3 (2014): 825–840.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381614000073

    This study proposes a vertical model of foreign policy attitudes in which foreign policy orientations and more specific foreign policy preferences are a function of deeper moral values.

  • Murray, Shoon Kathleen. Anchors against Change: American Opinion Leaders’ Beliefs after the Cold War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

    This study explores how elite foreign policy preferences remain strikingly similar both before and after the end of the Cold War, demonstrating the extent to which foreign policy attitudes have relatively stable structures.

  • Rathbun, Brian C., Joshua D. Kertzer, Jason Reifler, Paul Goren, and Thomas J. Scotto. “Taking Foreign Policy Personally: Personal Values and Foreign Policy Attitudes.” International Studies Quarterly 60.1 (2016): 124–137.

    DOI: 10.1093/isq/sqv012

    This study tests a vertical model in which foreign policy attitudes are a function of the same personal values psychologists use to predict individual-level behavior outside of political domains.

  • Wittkopf, Eugene R. Faces of internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

    A classic analysis of the clustering of foreign policy preferences, showing that internationalism has multiple dimensions, challenging the traditional dichotomy between internationalists and isolationists.

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