The best books about public opinion and foreign policy

Matthew A. Baum Author Of Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age
By Matthew A. Baum

Who am I?

I started my career in Washington D.C., where my first job involved conducting strategy meetings with senior civilian and military policy officials regarding potential military conflicts around the world. At the time I was struck by the extent to which senior policymakers worried about whether they would be able to garner and sustain public support for U.S. overseas military operations. This concern often dominated our meetings. It ultimately set me on my course as a scholar, where much of my work has focused on trying to understand what average people think about the world, why they believe what they do, and whether and how their attitudes affect leaders’ decision-making in crisis situations.


I wrote...

Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

By Matthew A. Baum,

Book cover of Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

What is my book about?

The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television’s presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling “byproduct” theory of information consumption. 

Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. 

The books I picked & why

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War, Presidents, and Public Opinion

By John E. Mueller,

Book cover of War, Presidents, and Public Opinion

Why this book?

Under what conditions will Americans support a president when he sends the nation to war? By looking at how the American public responded to the Korean and Vietnam wars in unprecedented breadth and depth, this is the question Mueller seeks to answer in arguably the most important book of the past half-century (or more) on American public opinion regarding war. This was one of the books that first got me interested in understanding why Americans respond the way they do to military conflicts, how presidential leadership, good and bad, can influence public support when American troops are in harm’s way.


Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

By Ole Rudolf Holsti,

Book cover of Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

Why this book?

This is my go-to reference book about American public opinion on all things foreign policy. Holsti is one of the most important public opinion scholars of the 20th Century and arguably this is his most important book. I assign it in all of my undergraduate classes on the subject. He explains not only what the public believes about foreign policy—through case studies ranging from international trade to all major U.S. military conflicts in the post-World War II era—but also does a brilliant job of synthesizing decades of research on human information processing, learning, and ideological reasoning to explain in straightforward terms why people react to events the way they do. He also explains the (substantial) differences between the foreign policy views of elites and average citizens


Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Robert M. Entman,

Book cover of Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy

Why this book?

The mass media arguably play a critical intervening role between public opinion and foreign policy. Yet I’ve found that it is much harder to explain how the media, or public opinion, exert such influence than it is to determine what the public thinks or why. This book offers one of the most compelling explanations I’ve found for when and how the media can influence foreign policy, by serving as the intermediary between voters and their leaders. Importantly, Entman shows how media framing of events can influence public support for presidential foreign policy initiatives. It offers a comprehensive and persuasive delineation of the interplay between the media, the public, and political leaders, which I teach every year to my students. 


In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

By Adam J. Berinsky,

Book cover of In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

Why this book?

This is one of the most comprehensive books on the question of how Americans think about war. Berinsky reviews public opinion on every major war since World War II. He persuasively refutes most existing explanations for public opinion regarding these conflicts, while showing that Americans’ responses to foreign policy events are not really unique to foreign policy. Rather, Americans mostly respond to wars the way they respond to most other political issues. One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the vast trove of previously unknown public opinion data from World War II that Berinsky uncovers. This is a unique window into one of America’s defining military conflicts. We learn that, contrary to the received wisdom, Americans responded to World War II in much the same way as they did during more recent conflicts.


Faces of Internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

By Eugene R. Wittkopf,

Book cover of Faces of Internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

Why this book?

This book is a classic in the genre. Wittkopf develops a hugely influential, yet surprisingly simple and straightforward, ideological map to explain how Americans view the world. He finds that typical Americans are generally consistent over time in their reactions to American uses of force abroad, depending on their foreign policy ideology. From responses to a series of poll questions, Wittkopf classifies people as internationalists, accommodationists, hard-liners, or isolationists. This is a framework that I regularly teach to my students, as I find it extremely valuable in explaining how Americans have responded to U.S. foreign policy actions, as well as the apparent differences between the attitudes of leaders and different segments of the general public.


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