Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs

How Public Opinion Affects Presidential Decision Making

By (author) Thomas Knecht

Hardback - £53.95

Publication date:

22 December 2010

Length of book:

280 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271037530

Do American presidents consider public opinion when making foreign policy decisions? In a democracy, it is generally assumed that citizen preferences inform public policy. For a variety of reasons, however, foreign policy has always posed a difficult challenge for democratic governance. In Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs, Thomas Knecht offers new insights into the relationship between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. He does so by shifting our focus away from the opinions that Americans hold and toward the issues that grab the public’s attention. Policy making under the glare of public scrutiny differs from policy making when no one is looking. As public interest in foreign policy increases, the political stakes also rise. A highly attentive public can then force presidents to choose foreign policies that are less politically risky but usually less effective. By tracking the ebb and flow of public attention to foreign policy, this book offers a method of predicting when presidents are likely to lead, follow, or simply ignore the American public.

“This important study focuses on the most difficult and least studied aspect of public opinion—its impact on American foreign policy. Thomas Knecht develops a model linking types of decisions and the stages of the decision-making process with the likely impact of public opinion. The fine case studies of the Gulf War and the response to the Ethiopian famine draw on both archival research and interviews. This is a major addition to the growing literature on public opinion and foreign policy.”

—Ole R. Holsti, Duke University