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. 
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of War, Presidents, and Public Opinion

Why did I love 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.

By John E. Mueller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War, Presidents, and Public Opinion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected in 1995 as one of the "Fifty Books That Significantly Shaped Public Opinion Research, 1946-1995" by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Recipient in 2007 of the first Warren J. Mitofsky Award for Excellence in Public Opinion Research, presented by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research In War, Presidents and Public Opinion, some of the most deeply-held assumptions about what the American people think of their involvement in the Vietnamese war turn out to be unsupportable. For example, it is possible that the anti-war protest during Vietnam increased the popularity of the war (chapter 6), and the…

Book cover of Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

Why did I love 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

By Ole Rudolf Holsti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the central issues in democratic theory is the proper role of public opinion in the conduct of international affairs. The capacity of the public to make informed judgments about these complex issues which are often far removed from their experience has been questioned. In addition, the impact of public opinion on foreign policy-making has been debated. In Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy Ole Holsti addresses these crucial issues using extensive data on public attitudes and preferences on international affairs. Holsti concludes that although the American public is not well informed about many aspects of foreign affairs, its…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Robert M. Entman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Projections of Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To succeed in foreign policy, U.S. presidents have to sell their versions or framings of political events to the news media and to the public. But since the end of the Cold War, journalists have increasingly resisted presidential views, even offering their own spin on events. What, then, determines whether the media will accept or reject the White House perspective? And what consequences does this new media environment have for policymaking and public opinion?

To answer these questions, Robert M. Entman develops a powerful new model of how media framing works-a model that allows him to explain why the media…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Adam J. Berinsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Time of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From World War II to the war in Iraq, periods of international conflict seem like unique moments in U.S. political history - but when it comes to public opinion, they are not. To make this ground breaking revelation, In "Time of War" explodes conventional wisdom about American reactions to World War II, as well as the more recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Adam J. Berinsky argues that public response to these crises has been shaped less by their defining characteristics - such as what they cost in lives and resources - than by the…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Eugene R. Wittkopf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Faces of Internationalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Faces of Internationalism, Eugene R. Wittkopf examines the changing nature of public attitudes toward American foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era and the role that public opinion plays in the American foreign policymaking process. Drawing on new data-four mass and four elite opinion surveys undertaken by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations from 1974 to 1986-combined with sophisticated analysis techniques, Wittkopf offers a pathbreaking study that addresses the central question of the relationship of a democracy to its foreign policy.
The breakdown of the "consensus" approach to American foreign policy after the Cold War years has become the subject…

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