Influence from Abroad: How Foreign Voices Shape U.S. Public Opinion

by Danny Hayes

As Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi sought to suppress a popular uprising threatening his decades-long hold on power, a March 13, 2011 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll reported that 56% of Americans favored “the U.S. and other countries attempting to establish a no-fly zone” in the North African nation. Just a week later, 70% of Americans supported the action. Why did opinion shift so quickly in favor of intervention?

Numerous possibilities arise, but most analysts would point to the efforts of domestic political elites, such as Barack Obama, who sought to mobilize opinion in support of military engagement. After all, decades of research in political science has shown that public opinion is typically driven by the positions taken by presidents, members of Congress, and other influential elites inside the Beltway. When our political leaders call for action, we line up behind them. But new research by me and Matt Guardino suggests another explanation: the pro-intervention rhetoric emanating from overseas elites, which was widely reported in American media outlets. In contrast to what political scientists have historically believed, the U.S. public sometimes does respond to foreign voices when those voices receive media attention.

In an article recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, Guardino, a postdoctoral fellow at Syracuse University, and I report the results of a study of media coverage and public opinion in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. We found that although American news outlets paid little attention to dissent to the Bush administration’s plan for a pre-emptive strike from domestic sources — liberal Democratic members of Congress and anti-war demonstrators, among others — they devoted significant air time to opposition to the war from abroad.

For instance, in our analysis of every nightly network television news story about Iraq in the eight months before the invasion — 1,434 in all — foreigners constituted one of every three sources that appeared on the air. And these foreign voices — U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, anti-war members of the British parliament, and officials from France, Germany and various European governments — accounted for 65% of all of the anti-war statements that appeared on the news.

The coverage had a substantial effect on public opinion, suppressing support for the Iraq invasion. According to our analysis of survey data, public support was about nine percentage points lower than it would have been without foreign opposition in the news.

Certain people were especially responsive to influence from abroad. College-educated Democrats, for example, were 37 percentage points less likely to support the war because of opposition from overseas. Independents with college degrees were 59 percentage points less likely to advocate invasion than they would have been in the absence of foreign dissent. Had the media ignored foreign consternation over the invasion, President Bush would have taken the country to war with an even larger reservoir of public support to draw on.

The Libyan intervention is, to be sure, not the Iraq War. For one, the United States and its allies were generally united about how to proceed in Libya. But there is no reason to think that the views of France, Italy and the United Nations were irrelevant to Americans as they contemplated yet another conflict in a far-off land. A growing body of research — including the Government Department’s own Terrence Chapman — suggests that the public does care what the inter- national community thinks when the United State contemplates military action. And as people are increasingly exposed to perspectives from international actors — through the internet and other non-traditional media outlets — the potential for the influence of foreign voices on U.S. public opinion will only grow.

Danny Hayes received his M.A. in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2006 (and a journalism degree in 1998). Hayes is an assistant professor at American University. His research focuses on political communication and political behavior in American politics.