Why should anyone care? Foreign policy and public opinion

There are at least six reasons why public opinion on foreign policy should matter more today than it did in the past

Image by Marco Verch

A rising number of foreign policy think-tanks are conducting public opinion polling on foreign policy issues. The European Council on Foreign Relations has been no exception to this. It started more than two years ago, conducting and using polls to gain new insights, sharpen our arguments, attract policymakers’ attention, and boost the public legitimacy of our recommendations.

Others, mindful of its limitations, experiment with different methods (such as analysing online conversations). But, from our perspective, opinion polls – as a study of what people think – make a positive contribution to democracy, even if they should serve as only one source of information among many. 

What is rarely discussed, however, is why public opinion should matter at all to foreign policymaking. This is far from self-evident. Many consider foreign policy too complex to be left to citizens’ whims. Can people be expected to hold informed opinions about foreign policy matters? And even if they do, why should their opinions serve as any meaningful guide to strategic decisions? 

There are at least six reasons why public opinion on foreign policy should matter more today than it did in the past.

Turbulent times

Even before the covid-19 crisis, developments such as robotisation, migration, climate change, economic crises, and the instability of work contributed to people’s feeling of uncertainty, fear, or even anger. The pandemic may have brought this to a completely new level – although, so far, it has not translated into a major rise in support for anti-EU parties. 

When voter sensitivity and political instability are on the rise, they can limit the scope for the European Union’s joint foreign policy action in two ways. They can lead to declining citizen support for specific policy options (such as sharing vaccines with non-EU countries, or pursuing trade liberalisation). And people’s radical voting decisions can strengthen the power held by anti-EU parties nationally or in Brussels. 

Of course, when emotions play such an important role, it may not be the best idea to rely on people’s opinions. But it is still useful to explore how they feel and analyse whether this affects their political preferences in any way. Following this approach, in 2019, ECFR explored the role of emotions in shaping people’s political choices around the European Parliament elections. Since 2020, ECFR has been monitoring how covid-19 affects their support for joint EU action (to our surprise, it was very strong in April 2020; but we will soon learn whether it has evaporated since then). 

The politicisation of foreign policy

In recent years, the toolkit of foreign policy has broadened. Trade, currency, migration, and technology have all become weaponised – and, as a result, foreign policy decisions involve many things that now feature in the domestic political debate. 

This leads policymakers to care more about public opinion and to take it into account when deciding on whether and how to wield various foreign policy tools – from sanctions to export controls, to foreign investment decisions. Heads of state have taken on direct oversight of many of these files.

Foreign no more

At the same time, due to the blurring of borders between the external and the internal, people can be expected to hold stronger views about foreign policy too. 

Climate change, migration, and trade deals are no longer distant issues that would leave most people indifferent. Many can feel their direct impact on their job prospects, the social fabric, and air quality in their neighbourhood. Others at least hear about them in the media. Even human rights violations in Belarus, Turkey, and China are no longer that abstract once people link them with the clothes they wear or refugees who move into their areas.

And then there is the effect of the EU: the organisation is increasingly present in people’s lives, not yet part of their country’s internal policy but no longer all that external either. It is via the EU that foreign policy has the potential to become, in some situations, a salient feature of voter behaviour – as became apparent in last year’s presidential election in Poland, for example

At the very least, one can now expect leaders and supporters of populist parties to hold opinions on foreign policy – as they often do, against the national foreign policy consensus. For example, supporters of some of Europe’s largest parties on the populist right are the only ones to seriously consider Russia or China as the most important partner for their country – and they are usually much less likely than other voters to recognise the importance of cooperating with Germany or France.

The most important partner for your country.

Ensuring citizens’ support 

A stereotype of popular surveys on foreign policy is that they ask for people’s opinion on technocratic things that few of them have ever heard about, and then attribute an excessive value to their responses. 

A need to rely on the citizens is one thing. But there also seems to be a rising expectation among people that governments will take their opinions seriously – including on foreign policy. 

This sometimes happens. But, at their best, public opinion polls try to explore the trade-offs that are palpable to the people. We do not just ask them whether they would support this or that policy, but whether they would be ready to accept its costs and consequences. To address some of the key challenges of today (such as climate change) in a way that fulfils public ambitions, governments require the active participation of citizens. Therefore, we need to explore how to encourage them to act.

Filling in the legitimacy gap

A need to rely on the citizens is one thing. But there also seems to be a rising expectation among people that governments will take their opinions seriously – including on foreign policy. 

This may be because of a more general disenchantment with elites. Many people resent their performance during the eurozone, migration, and covid-19 crises. Trust in governments has declined particularly sharply in the past 12 months. 

But, even on foreign policy, people seem to be more self-confident today. Some may resent the past decisions taken by politicians at home, such as joining the coalition of the willing in Iraq. Others may simply reject the logic of disregarding public opinion on foreign policy matters. As Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev recently observed, “During the cold war, European governments were willing to face down public opposition to align with a US that defended them from the Soviet Union.” This time is now over.

Still, while the public is increasingly willing to speak up, it has not always the capability to do so in a sophisticated way. Therefore, for the public opinion surveys to be of any use, one needs to carefully calibrate their questions. It probably does not make sense to ask people how the EU should respond to the extraterritorial sanctions the US has imposed on companies working on the Nord Stream 2 project. But it is useful to see that many Europeans would want their country to be tougher with the US on economic issues more broadly. 

Info wars

There is one more vital reason why public opinion on foreign policy matter more and more – and it has to do with the battle of narratives.

The internet has made surveys easier and more affordable to conduct. Many people (not all of them well-intentioned) have realised that it is a worthy investment to promote their goals in the public space. As many media outlets realise that it is easier to attract readers’ attention with a pie chart than with another op-ed, they accept such content happily. 

Some sociologists may complain that this leads to a vulgarisation of public opinion research. Ideally, one should use a wide array of tools – including focus groups and content analysis of social media – and not just the surveys (especially not just online ones). But this is hardly an argument against public opinion polls altogether. In a battle of narratives on issues that are important to people – such as climate, trade, migration, and vaccines – we need to know the data to be able to challenge the arguments raised by those who build their legitimacy by claiming to speak for the people. Governments and civil society organisations cannot afford to ignore these trends.

This commentary has been first published in French in Le Grand Continent.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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