Researchers to Study Views on Foreign Policy, Effects on Elections
Jan. 22, 2014
Dr. Harold Clarke
Historically, scholars have argued public opinion doesn’t play much of a role in foreign policy. But according to Dr. Harold Clarke, research shows that has changed in the last 10 years.
It started with the question of military involvement in Iraq and continues with the Syrian crisis today.
“There’s no question in my mind that we would have bombed Syria if it hadn’t been for public opinion in Britain and the United States, and France as well,” said Clarke, the Ashbel Smith Professor of Political Science in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.
“Both the Obama administration here and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition in Britain were ready to intervene militarily. The members of Parliament and Congress voiced strong opposition, and in both cases the government backed down because of public opinion,” he said.
University of Essex professors Thomas J. Scotto, who is a former student of Clarke’s, and Paul Whiteley, a longtime colleague, join Clarke on the research team, along with University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler. The four will meet this month in England to organize the first of several rounds of Internet panel surveys.
The U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council funded the project, “Public Opinion and the Syrian Crisis in Three Democracies,” with a $320,000 award, which is being administered at the University of Essex.
“[Public opinion is determined by] basically a combination of what we call prudence and morality, sort of cost and benefits, the likelihood of success and practical things, but on the other hand, morality as well.”
As the Syrian crisis deepened last fall, and the world debated whether to use military force in Syria, the researchers decided to propose a study in three countries: the United States, Great Britain and France. They aim to examine the dynamics of public opinion on foreign policy, security issues and the deepening humanitarian crisis provoked by the ongoing civil war in Syria.
The three-year project follows up on the scholars’ previous research on public opinion and foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
"[Public opinion is determined by] basically a combination of what we call prudence and morality, sort of cost and benefits, the likelihood of success and practical things,” Clarke said, “But on the other hand, morality as well. ‘Is this an ethical thing to do?’”
The researchers will conduct surveys in the three countries through survey company YouGov. They will survey the same people multiple times.
Clarke said that forced migration, cases of starvation and polio outbreaks in Syria affect people’s opinions and foreign aid.
“How much are people willing to spend? Foreign aid is always a contentious issue,” Clarke said.
The researchers also will investigate the effect of foreign policy attitudes on electoral politics in the three countries, including the forthcoming 2014 U.S. congressional elections, the 2015 British general election and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The group will begin conducting surveys in February. They are slated to give a report in March on their preliminary findings at the British House of Commons in London, speaking to representatives from Britain’s Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defense.