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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 95 > Article

The Politics of Opinion
by David Hart

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides described what drove Athens to conquer much of the Greek world. He boiled down the city-state's motivations to fear, honor and profit.

A couple of millenia later, most political scientists ascribe foreign policy opinions to two motivating factors very similar to those of Thucydides: security and prosperity.

To those, Bill Chittick would add a third dimension.

"I have spent 10 years trying to get the literature to accept a third dimension: identity," said Chittick, a UGA associate professor of political science. The new dimension asks to what degree people identify with the wider global community or more narrowly with their country. "You have to be able to answer this identity question before it's possible to determine whose security or prosperity is at stake."

Chittick has reanalyzed past surveys of foreign policy opinions from both the public and the foreign policy elite. The responses were best explained by three motivations, each of which describes a spectrum of opinions about how foreign policy decisions should be handled:

  • "Security," ranging from militarism to nonmilitarism, describes how readily a country should use military force to solve problems;
  • "Prosperity," ranging from isolationism to internationalism, relates to how strongly decisions ought to emphasize either domestic opportunities, such as jobs, or foreign interests; and
  • "Identity," ranging from unilateralism to multilateralism, measures the degree to which the country should solve its problems alone or as part of the global community.

Chittick's dimension of identity expands a model of foreign policy, based on the security and prosperity dimensions, that has stood since the Vietnam War. In fact, after World War II, a one-dimensional model of foreign policy was the norm; under that model, everything could be explained by the dimension of prosperity alone. Chittick also wants to test the model in other countries to see if the dimensions are universal.

"I think the dimensions have always been there," Chittick said. "It's a matter of their being perceived clearly."

The new model proposed by Chittick, along with colleagues Keith Billingsley, a UGA associate professor of political science, and Rick Travis of Mississippi State University, will be published in the Fall 1995 issue of International Studies Quarterly.

The model helps explain a number of stubborn questions about public opinion and foreign policy, in addition to suggesting changes in the way public opinion polls are conducted. For example, the new dimension best defines the foreign policy differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.

"Across the board, most Republican leaders are unilateralists, and most Democrats are multilateralists," Chittick said. "That's a key difference."

Chittick's model also has major implications for research into the attitudes that underlie foreign policy. For example, it may help political, governmentand media pollsters, who conduct frequent attitudinal surveys during major events like the Gulf War, provide more accurate and meaningful results. Generally, these polls ask only a few key questions, tracking how the numbers go up and down over time, and account for differences based on demographics such as age, sex or region of the country. They usually don't dig deeply into how feelings about identity, security and prosperity affect those numbers.

"They're not asking enough basic foreign policy questions to really give us any feel for why these changes are occurring," Chittick said. Individual questions don't reveal, for example, whether public opinion has shifted along one or several dimensions -- whether basic beliefs are changing.

Such explanations matter, since evidence now suggests that "if more than 60 percent of the public favors an action, it's almost mandatory," Chittick said. Knowing the underlying reasons for changes would help foreign policy decision-makers not only predict how the public would respond to various actions, but also make better decisions.

"We have a lot of trouble trying to measure this change," he said. "People are still trying to use the same old yardstick."

Maybe Thucydides would say the yardstick just isn't old enough.

-For more information please go to http://www.uga.edu/spia/people/chittick.htm or e-mail chittick@uga.edu

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