Opinion polls and the State Department

Does the State Department care about opinion polls when shaping foreign policy? If yes, any books talking about how opinion polls impact the State Department’s shaping of foreign policy? Also, does considering the opinion polls belong to part of the State Department’s routines or SOPs in terms of the organizational behavior model (one of Allison’s three models explaining US foreign policy-making)?

Opinion polls in the U.S., or in the countries involved in the foreign policy being shaped?

I would say both. I read the memorandum from Historical Documents - Office of the Historian
and i wonder if the State Department adopted the opinion poll made by Harris Poll as a routine to shape foreign policy.

The State Department mostly functions in the real world. As with any other governmental body, that real world includes public opinion. A modern example is the way that Israel was first being unconditionally supported after the Hamas attack, but got distanced more and more for their actions in destroying Gaza when the public turned against them.

It would be totally wrong, however, to therefore assume that public opinion drives foreign policy. Most policy is long term in nature; temporary swings in popular opinion would not change that even if the public was generally aware and cared about the issue. Only a few issues fall into that category. Use of the military is one. China got knocked for the spread of Covid. Trade treaties sometimes rise to public awareness. The hundreds, or thousands, of routine communications of the State Department with the 200 or so nations in the world are under the radar.

Allison’s three models are explicated here

Model 1. The state acts as a unitary rational actor to make “decisions.”

Model 2. The sub-units of the state act according to pre-determined procedures to produce an “output.” The state is still essentially a unitary actor, but the analogy is now a quarterback, not a chess player. Just as a quarterback calls certain (pre-planned) plays, the government can only dictate policy options that are already in the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Model 3. In this model, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Those in charge of various state responsibilities (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.) make predictable arguments based on their present position. Policy “outcomes” are the result of negotiations among these leaders. This model dispenses fully with the “unitary” government idea. “The decisions and actions of governments are essentially intra-national political outcomes: outcomes in the sense that what happens is not chosen as a solution to a problem but rather results from compromise, coalition, competition, and confusion among government officials who see different faces of an issue; political in the sense that the activity from which the outcomes emerge is best characterized as bargaining.”.

Model 1 is clearly not a possibility with something as sprawling as foreign policy. 2 and 3 are not separate; they can function together with 2 in some spots and 3 in others, or even overlap. But 3 comes closest to the messy world of reality. Nowhere in these descriptions is any mention of public opinion. Allison wrote after the Cuban Missile Crisis, where public opinion was ignored and the President made the decisions. Twenty-five years earlier, however, the President was frantically helpless because the public and the State Department were overwhelmingly isolationist. All models of foreign policy have to allow for very large exceptions on very critical issues.

Thank you for your informative reply. If the State Department routinely ignores polls, then Congress, an organization that responds to polls, should make up for that oversight and create an environment for foreign policymaking. Am I understanding this correctly?

Nothing in the Constitution would lead one to assume that Congress was intended to have a major role in determining foreign policy. The Senate does get to ratify treaties, but only after the State Dept. and the President decided what the American position was.

Over time, Congress grew antsy over its inferior role and started using its budgetary powers to encourage or limit the Executive Branch toward desired outcomes. However, Congress has a minority of members who take foreign policy seriously and a large majority who pay it no mind whatsoever.

Most of the time - today is not a normal time - the experts in Congress work with the experts in the Executive branch. They use their seniority and powers of suasion to herd the narrow-minded into getting foreign aid bills passed. And the other bills that go past our borders, like trade agreements and immigration. Only a fraction of bills ever reach the point of public awareness, let alone pressure to push policy in a certain direction. In short, public opinion polls are mostly meaningless most of the time. Congress should not and will not pay much attention to them.

These, as I said above, are not normal times. Actions on foreign policymaking are now inevitably tied to domestic politics. A few blithering idiots with no concept whatsoever of meaningful policies can shout at a public whose knowledge is equally dim and goad them into hatred of anybody approaching delicate situations with common sense and without brandishing large sticks.

Let’s hope that Congress continues to consider polling with as much regard as they do Punxsutawney Phil. Foreign policy is yet another area in which experts are as important as they are for pandemics.

Your reply makes me realize how insignificant opinion polls are in the American decision-making process, and maybe that’s the reality…Thank you for your time and effort.

There was a recent article, came through my feed and I don’t remember the author-but it sounded reasonable, about the state department’s INR (their intelligence service ). I remember that the article commented that among other unique functions the INR was the only intellligence service that conducted public opinion polls in foreign countries. So there is some polling done.

Fun factoid-the INR challenge coin given to employees to did something especially noteworthy-like being correct- has a small raised 1 as part of its design. A footnote symbol. It is an in-group joke. The INR is known in the intelligence community as a footnote organization. That is a compliment that they are very proud of. It means that they have a contray assessment from the group think of the other authors of the report and their opinion is relegated to a footnote. Savvy readers are known to always check these footnotes looking for INR opinions as they are more likely to be correct than the big guys in intelligence. Examples range from INR assessing that Vietnam was unwinable in 1963 to Iraq didn’t have a nuclear weapons program to Ukraine would stop the Russians early in the invasion and push them out of west Ukraine. These contrary opinions were all relegated to footnotes in the intelligence assessments of the time. Of course we don’t know about all the footnotes that turned out to be wrong, but that is the nature of classified reports. there is little to no way to know what the track record is.