The Electoral Disconnection in U.S. Foreign Policy

Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 15 Aug 2013

See all articles by Elizabeth N. Saunders

Elizabeth N. Saunders

George Washington University - Department of Political Science

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Date Written: 2012


In the last few decades, a significant body of research in international relations has linked the behavior of democracies in the international arena to electoral mechanisms, notably the prospect that democratic leaders face of being voted out of office. Indeed, in the US context, presidents often worry about public opinion when making foreign policy choices. Scholars of American political behavior have advanced a very different set of arguments, however. They emphasize that voters typically do not know much about foreign policy, and tend to take their cues on foreign policy from elites. When elites are unified, the attentive public tends to support the elite consensus, but when elites are divided, attentive citizens also tend to hold polarized views, taking their cues from the elites they support on partisan grounds. For a large class of foreign policy actions, then, the public is unlikely to hold presidents directly accountable. Yet empirically we observe that presidents often behave as if public opinion about foreign policy matters. To reconcile these perspectives, I argue that we can better understand the nature of democratic foreign policymaking by focusing on elite competition. If presidents are able to earn and retain the support of other important elites — such as Congress, key members of the bureaucracy, and high-ranking members of the military — then public opinion can be effectively managed and presidents can try to inoculate themselves against electoral consequences. Such an argument suggests that mass public opinion will rarely have a direct effect on foreign policy (except under limited conditions). For practical purposes in many cases, then, the relevant domestic audience for foreign policy choices may be other elites, rather than the mass public. Important implications follow for our understanding of the foreign policies of democracies more generally, as well as international relations theories that rely on regime type as a key variable. If leaders in a democratic state frequently worry primarily about the political reactions of other elites or a small “attentive” segment of the public, then in many cases the relevant domestic audience is likely to be far smaller than theories of democratic foreign policymaking typically assume. The paper develops a framework that sees the president as an agenda-setter who manages competition with other foreign policy elites whose dissent could potentially be transmitted through media sources and influence public opinion. It illustrates the logic of the theory with a discussion of how Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon managed the Vietnam War, arguably a difficult case.

Suggested Citation

Saunders, Elizabeth N., The Electoral Disconnection in U.S. Foreign Policy (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth N. Saunders (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Department of Political Science ( email )

2115 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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