12 February 2020

Joshua Busby, Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center, co-wrote a working paper on “Elite Misperceptions and the Domestic Politics of Conflict.” In his essay, he argues that for public opinion to shape foreign policy, the public must be aware of foreign policy, and policymakers must be aware of public opinion. Democratic states conduct themselves fundamentally differently in both conflict and cooperation precisely because their leaders can be held accountable by the public at large, with incentives for representing the public will ranging from the direct effect of the ballot box, to indirect effects channeled through legislators and the media. However, little scholarship has been devoted to whether leaders correctly perceive public preferences.

Busby and co-authors claim that misperceptions can occur in the domestic side of foreign policy-making. They test their theory in the context of the domestic politics of international institutions, fielding a paired experiment on a nationally representative sample of American adults and an elite sample of American foreign policy opinion leaders, showing that endorsements endorsement by an international organization (IO) exerts powerful effects on both elite and mass opinion in the United States alike.

Their findings show that a NATO endorsement significantly bolsters support for the use of force and that there is a striking degree of consensus about NATO among respondents despite differences in test groups, political ideology, and support for NATO involvement. Additionally, leaders' stereotypes about the public mean they systematically underestimate the extent to which Americans are swayed by IO cues (estimating only one-fifth of its actual size). These results have important implications for the study of multilateralism, public opinion about foreign policy, and for validating theoretical models of domestic politics.