Foreign policy gaps between citizens and leaders

B. I. Page, J. Barabas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Persistent gaps between the policy preferences of leaders and those of citizens are problematic from the point of view of democratic theory. Examination of the foreign policy preferences of samples of citizens and leaders from seven Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) surveys between 1974 and 1998 reveals many differences of 30, 40, and even 50 percentage points. Often a majority of the public has disagreed with a majority of leaders. Some of the same gaps have persisted over the full 24-year period of these surveys. The pattern of gaps is considerably more complicated than a simple difference in degree of commitment to internationalism. Citizens have generally put a higher priority than leaders on expanding domestic programs like Social Security, crime fighting, and health care, and have been more eager to cut foreign economic aid. But there have not been substantial gaps with respect to defense spending or military aid. More members of the public than leaders emphasize foreign policy goals related to protecting Americans' jobs and ensuring Americans' health and physical security (e.g., from terrorism, drugs, and epidemic diseases). Citizens have been more reluctant than leaders to use U.S. troops in most circumstances, but the opposite is true of situations involving Latin America. Citizens have been more willing to bomb than to commit troops, though not indiscriminately so, and many more citizens than leaders oppose selling weapons abroad. Fewer members of the public than leaders have favored most kinds of cooperative relationships with adversary countries. But more members of the public than leaders generally support the United Nations, and more favor multilateralism in general. About the same number of citizens as leaders have supported NATO. Some of these gaps may reflect lower levels of attention to foreign affairs and lower levels of information among the public than among leaders, but many of the gaps may instead reflect different values and interests. In cases where the public is ill-informed, persistent gaps suggest a failure of leaders to educate and persuade. Where public opinion is well-informed and deliberative, democratic theory would seem to call for responsiveness by policymakers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-364
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations

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