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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Public Opinion and the Conduct of Foreign Policy

Mark Adomanis finds that Russian public opinion on Syria is opposed to outside intervention, which confirms the argument in Ruslan Pushkov’s new op-ed: In Russia, however, most people really don’t see the need to do anything at all and they certainly don’t think that there ought to be a military campaign a la Libya. While […]

Mark Adomanis finds that Russian public opinion on Syria is opposed to outside intervention, which confirms the argument in Ruslan Pushkov’s new op-ed:

In Russia, however, most people really don’t see the need to do anything at all and they certainly don’t think that there ought to be a military campaign a la Libya. While some of Putin’s policies are genuinely unpopular and could reasonably be expected to change should the Russian government become more democratic, there is no evidence whatsoever that a more “democratic” Russia would be more amenable to Western efforts to overthrow Bashar al Assad. That’s worth remembering the next time that someone says Russia’s current policies towards Syria are purely about Putin need to defend a fellow member of the dictator’s club.

Adomanis doesn’t touch on this in his post, but it’s also true that most people in America don’t believe the U.S. has a responsibility do something in response to conflict in Syria, they don’t want the U.S. to be more involved in Syria’s conflict, and they don’t believe there should be armed intervention. It’s not as if the administration’s position on Syria is defying a broad popular consensus in favor of stronger action. Western governments sometimes wage wars of choice without strong public support, and as we saw last year the executive can get away with waging a war of choice without any authorization from the people’s representatives.

One of the common criticisms of the administration’s position is that it is not becoming more involved in the Syrian conflict because of the upcoming election, which is an admission that deeper involvement in another country’s conflict would be quite unpopular and politically risky. Put another way, hawkish interventionists dislike administration policy on Syria because it is too closely aligned with public opinion. That’s something worth bearing in mind the next time someone berates India and other rising democratic powers for their opposition to outside military intervention in Syria, as if this somehow represented failure on their part.

Something else that’s worth bearing in mind is that regime type doesn’t guarantee a particular kind of foreign policy. If Russia had a genuinely democratic government, it is likely that its Syria policy would be similar to the one it is pursuing now. This is not primarily because Russian public opinion appears to agree with the policy. If Russia had a more democratic government, it is unlikely that the government’s understanding of Russian interests would change significantly. A more democratic Russian government would probably be more suspicious of Western motives in Syria, not less, and it would not be any less protective of perceived Russian interests or Russia’s status as a major power.

It is often the case that a democratic government’s foreign policy will not reflect the wishes of its electorate, because the formulation and conduct of foreign policy remains largely in the hands of the political class and specialists. When a democratic government does follow the wishes of the electorate on a major foreign policy decision, as the German government has done twice in the last decade, other democratic governments and their supporters usually denounce it for its cowardice and lack of “leadership.” When it comes to waging unnecessary wars, elected governments in the West have been expected to ignore what their voters want. Political leaders in the U.S. also face the risk of backlash from members of the political class when they are reluctant to involve the U.S. in a foreign conflict, which is portrayed as “abdicating leadership” rather than governing in the best interests of the country or acting in accordance with what the public wants.

As the examples of India, Germany, and Brazil show, it is not a given that a democratic government will favor specific policies, especially controversial ones involving some form of military intervention. While some Westerners may expect non-Western democratic governments to take the same view of international issues because of “shared values,” this often greatly exaggerates the importance of those “shared values” in the shaping of other states’ policies. Other democratic governments agree in general terms that elected and accountable governments under the rule of law are desirable, but that doesn’t automatically imply anything about how they think states should conduct relations with other states or how they should respond to another state’s internal conflicts.

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