The Realist Tradition in American
Daniel W. Drezner
For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their world view is inimical to the
American public. For a variety of reasons—inchoate attitudes, national history, American exceptionalism—realists assert that the
U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite and not because of public opinion. Indeed, most IR scholars share this “anti-realist
assumption.” To determine the empirical validity of the anti-realist assumption, this paper re-examines survey and experimental
data on the mass public’s attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and world views, the use of force, and foreign economic policy
over the past three decades. The results suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans are at least as comfortable with the logic
of realpolitik as they are with liberal internationalism. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact:
American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.
Realists believe that they are an endangered species in
the United States. Despite its long-standing status
as the dominant paradigm in international rela-
tions, realist scholars and policymakers assert that Amer-
icans do not like their theory at all. In The Tragedy of Great
Power Politics, John Mearsheimer concludes that, “Amer-
ican political culture is deeply liberal and correspondingly
hostile to realist ideas.”
Other realists have echoed this
sentiment for the past sixty years. According to these schol-
ars, realism is pessimistic about both the nature of man
and the effect that anarchy exerts on world politics. In a
realist world, states will compete for power regardless of
their regime type, and neither international institutions
nor global norms will ameliorate this drive for power.
such a Hobbesian world, realists recommend that the
United States ruthlessly focus on its national interests while
abstaining from moral or ideological crusades designed to
make the world more like America. This is fundamentally
at odds with the more optimistic tropes inherent in liberal
internationalism. Liberals would argue that multilateral
regimes, democratic institutions, and economic interdepen-
dence can ameliorate the effects of anarchy. In such a
Lockean world, the export of American values and norms
advances American interests by getting others to want what
Realists and non-realists alike accept Louis Hartz’s sup-
position that the Lockean worldview has an ideological
chokehold over the American body politic.
What I label
the anti-realist assumption serves many useful purposes for
the realist paradigm. If the American public dislikes real-
ism, then U.S. foreign policy outputs represent a tough
test of the theory. Any government in a liberal democracy
wants to stay in ofﬁce, so it should be reluctant to pursue
a foreign policy at odds with the broad mass of its country’s
population. If successive U.S. governments pursued real-
ist policies despite a hostile public, it would be robust
evidence that the anarchic world system imposes a pow-
erful structural constraint upon the foreign policies of states.
The assumption also helps realists explain away move-
ments in American foreign policy—such as Wilsonianism
and neoconservativism—that appear to contradict the real-
ist paradigm. They are explained as moments when
America’s creedal passions overwhelmed the principles of
Despite the prevalence of the anti-realist assumption
within international relations theory, there has been no sys-
tematic attempt to ascertain whether it is true. In part, this
is because IR theorists and public opinion analysts often
talk past each other. For decades, international relations
Daniel W. Drezner is Associate Professor of International
Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts
University (email@example.com). Previous versions
of this paper were presented at the 2007 International Stud-
ies Association meeting in Chicago, IL, and at Yale
University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He is
grateful to Bethany Albertson, John Brehm, Joshua
Busby, Jon Caverley, Richard Eichenberg, Benjamin Fordham,
Nikolas Gvosdev, Don Green, Jacob Hacker, Lawrence
Kaplan, Andrew Moravcsik, John Mearsheimer, Gideon
Rose, Bruce Russett, Gregory Sanders, Stephen Teles, and
John Schuessler for their comments and suggestions. Luisa
Melo performed valuable research assistance, and the Ger-
man Marshall Fund of the United States provided gener-
ous support during the drafting of this paper.
DOI: 10.1017/S1537592708080067 March 2008
Vol. 6/No. 1 51
theorists have focused on systemic-level explanations, mar-
ginalizing analysis of public opinion. At the same time,
public opinion researchers, when they talk about Ameri-
can foreign policy, do not test whether the mass public
adheres to foreign policy views consistent with one theo-
retical paradigm or another. Instead, they decompose the
mass public into identiﬁable subgroups, in order to isolate
individual-level determinants of foreign policy attitudes.
This article takes a critical look at the anti-realist assump-
tion. I do so by reviewing the existing survey data and
empirical literature on American public opinion towards
foreign policy priorities and worldviews, military state-
craft, and foreign economic policy for the past three
decades. The results suggest that Americans are far more
receptive to realpolitik than is commonly assumed. For
the key components of U.S. foreign policy—war, trade,
and grand strategy—realist tenets resonate just as strongly
with Americans as liberal internationalism. When asked
to weigh the costs and beneﬁts of different foreign policy
approaches, realism scores much better among the broad
mass of Americans than realists tend to believe. At a min-
imum, the claim that Americans hold attitudes antitheti-
cal to realism is wrong. This might be because American
indifference and rational ignorance of foreign policy prob-
lems creates a kind of “folk realist” attitude to coping with
the rest of the world. Intriguingly, it is possible that real-
ism resonates better with the mass public than it does
with the elite public.
If the preliminary ﬁndings of this article hold up, there
are important implications for both international rela-
tions theory and foreign policy analysis. At a minimum,
the ﬁnding vitiates the premise that American foreign pol-
icy represents a “tough test” for realist theory. The under-
lying cause of American realist actions could emanate from
domestic attitudes rather than the structure of the inter-
national system. For foreign policy analysis, the implica-
tions are equally fascinating. Since the heyday of George
Kennan, the standard mantra about American foreign pol-
icy has been that a coterie of sober statesmen must man-
age international relations while holding back the primal
impulses of an American public imbued with the “legalistic-
moralistic” spirit. It could very well be that the situation is
reversed—elite public opinion embraces the liberal inter-
nationalist ethos more readily than the broad mass of
The rest of this article is divided into eight sections.
The next section demonstrates the breadth and depth of
the anti-realist assumption in scholarly and public dis-
course. The third section parses out how this assumption
could be falsiﬁed. The fourth section reviews the survey
and experimental data and on American foreign policy
worldviews and priorities. This review demonstrates mass
support for the core tenets of realist thought. The ﬁfth
and sixth sections look at American attitudes towards the
use of force and foreign economic policy, respectively. It
ﬁnds that Americans are comfortable with realist uses of
force and a relative gains approach to the global economy.
The seventh section considers methodological counterar-
guments that could undercut the argument presented here.
The ﬁnal section speculates on the sources for the realist
fallacy. One possibility is that realists are not reacting to
the hostility of most Americans to realism, but to the
hostility of American elites.
The Anti-Realist Assumption
Realism has a long and distinguished intellectual lineage,
which is another way of saying that there are many vari-
eties of realisms: classical realism, neoclassical realism, post-
classical realism, offensive realism, defensive realism,
structural neorealism, etc.
Realists share at least one com-
mon belief, however—Americans do not like their policy
wares. Sixty years ago, classical realists grounded this
assumption on two arguments. The ﬁrst concern, which
stretches back to Thucydides, was that democracies had a
disadvantage in crafting foreign policy vis-à-vis authori-
tarian governments because of the need to appease a mass
public that holds inchoate views about international rela-
While this concern applies to all democratic pub-
lics, the United States has been considered an exemplar of
this problem. Indeed, elite wariness of mass American atti-
tudes towards foreign policy has been around since the
days of Walter Lippmann. In The Public Philosophy he
warned, “The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public
opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junc-
tures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judg-
ments of informed and responsible ofﬁcials.”
The ﬁrst wave of American public opinion research led
to the Almond-Lippmann consensus, which suggested that
mass attitudes towards foreign policy were inconstant,
irrational, and ill-considered.
Because the mass public
was so uninformed about foreign affairs, scholars argued
that their reaction to current events would be based on
emotion rather than reason. This leads to a public with
erratic mood swings about foreign policy issues of the day.
A recent variation of this concern can be seen in debates
about the “CNN effect.”
In 1993, George Kennan
described this effect as the tendency for American foreign
policy to be, “controlled by popular emotional impulses,
and particularly ones provoked by the commercial televi-
The second concern was that Americans ﬁlter foreign
policy decisions through a moralistic system of beliefs.
This renders the mass public unable to digest the realist
logic of a dispassionate, hard-headed national interest.
Hans Morgenthau wrote that “the statesman must think
in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among
other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the ﬁne dis-
tinctions of the statesman’s thinking, reasons more often
than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
52 Perspectives on Politics
absolute good and absolute evil.”
George Kennan warned
that the “legalistic-moralistic approach to international
problems” would resonate among the mass public.
Kissinger concludes, with more than a tinge of regret, that
“it is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that
American foreign policy has marched since his watershed
presidency, and continues to march to this day. . ..Wil-
son’s historic achievement lies in his recognition that Amer-
icans cannot sustain major international obligations that
are not justiﬁed by their moral faith.”
These concerns have not abated as realist thought has
adopted a more scientiﬁc cast.
If anything, the reverse
has been true—realists now assert that American political
development has made the country and its citizens uniquely
unable to accept the tenets of realism.
Stephen D. Kras-
ner concluded that “U.S. policy after the Second World
War must be understood in terms of ideology: leaders
were driven by a vision of what the global order should be
like....Thevision itself was a manifestation of American
John Mearsheimer is even more outspoken
about the incompatibility between realist theory and Amer-
ican public opinion. Although Mearsheimer argues that
offensive realism can explain U.S. foreign policy outputs,
the theory cuts against American beliefs:
Realism is a hard sell. Americans appear to have an especially
intense antipathy towards balance-of-power thinking. . . .
Americans tend to be hostile to realism because it clashes with
their basic values. Realism stands opposed to Americans’ views
of both themselves and the wider world. In particular, realism is
at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism
that pervades much of American society. Liberalism, on the other
hand, ﬁts neatly with those values.
Scholars argue that the exceptionalist history of the United
States allowed a liberal worldview of international relations
to develop unfettered by realpolitik concerns. Separated from
Europe, the United States emerged as a great power rela-
tively unscathed by foreign invasion, military occupation,
or economic deprivation. There was no need for realism
when no great power could overcome the stopping power
A liberal approach to foreign affairs was most
symbiotic with the liberal tradition in domestic politics.
Liberal internationalism is more ideationally consistent
within America’s self-image as “a shining city on a hill.”
Democracy promotion in particular is rooted in America’s
national identity and national security strategy.
W. Bush phrased it in his second inaugural address:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every
man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and match-
less value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven
and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imper-
ative of self-government, because no one is ﬁt to be a master, and
no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission
that created our Nation.
Bush’s rhetoric underscores the fact that realists are not
the only analysts who make this assumption. Michael Lind
argues the ideas of realpolitik fundamentally conﬂict with
the “American School” of foreign policy.
Mead argues that “continental realism” is ill-suited to the
Within the academy, liberal institutional-
ists, constructivists, and public opinion analysts have ech-
oed this line of argument as well.
Michael Doyle asserts
that, “in the United States, and in other liberal states to a
lesser degree, public policy derives its legitimacy from its
concordance with liberal principles. Policies not rooted in
liberal principles generally fail to sustain long term public
Indeed, the norms variant of the democratic
peace hypothesis is predicated on the idea that democratic
publics hold different sets of values on foreign policy issues
than realpolitik statesmen. More recently, neoconserva-
tives have insisted that realism is antithetical to American
values. Robert Kagan and William Kristol have argued,
for example, that precisely because Americans do not think
like power-maximizing realists, other states would not bal-
ance against the U.S.
It should also be noted that the anti-realist assumption
is not limited to the United States. Ironically, America’s
most recent foreign adversaries have also made this assump-
tion. In the past decade alone, Slobodan Milosevic, Sad-
dam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden all assumed that the
American public was reluctant to apply force in a ruthless,
realpolitik manner. They all assumed that the mass public
was inordinately sensitive to casualties, and that this sen-
sitivity would constrain American leaders. The anti-realist
assumption led each of them to underestimate the likeli-
hood of American military action.
To be sure, this logic behind the anti-realist assumption
is not universally accepted as a given. Numerous historians
of American foreign policy have argued that multiple tra-
ditions have competed for dominance within American for-
eign policy, some of which are perfectly compatible with
It should also be noted that the anti-realist assump-
tion does not mean that realists believe their model cannot
explain U.S. foreign policy.
Mearsheimer, for example,
asserts that “we act according to the dictates of realpolitik,
but we justify our policies in terms of liberal ideologies. So
what is going on here is that in many cases, elites speak one
language [in public], and act according to a different logic
and speak a different language behind closed doors.”
minimum, however, there is a strong consensus across a
broad spectrum of international relations theorists and pub-
lic commentators: powerful ideological currents within
American political development cause generations of
Americans to repeatedly reject the logic of realpolitik.
Testing the Assumption
Realists share a consensus about how the structure of
the international system works, but that consensus partially
breaks down at the level of foreign policy recom-
Realists debate amongst themselves the
Vol. 6/No. 1 53
importance of balancing, the importance of maximizing
power or security, and the optimal grand strategy for Amer-
ican foreign policy.
Despite these conceptual disagree-
ments, realists do share a core of policy recommendations
that distinguishes them from other foreign policy para-
digms. Realists stress that the anarchic world structure
makes it impossible for governments to fully trust each
other, forcing all states to be guided solely by national
interest. Because all states can only count on their own
resources and capabilities, realists are skeptical of the util-
ity of international institutions to regulate world politics.
Realists advise paying attention to relative gains when con-
sidering cooperation. The question, for realists, is not “will
both of us gain?” but “who will gain more?”
government should also be prepared to balance against
rising great powers, before they amass sufﬁcient power to
become a peer competitor.
This paradigm also has a
large number of negative policy prescriptions. Realism is
uninterested in the domestic politics of other countries,
and recommends against interventions to promote democ-
racy or human rights. Realists are wary that this kind of
policy activism could drain scarce resources or trigger the
They also caution against excessive
economic interdependence, both because of relative gains
concerns and fears of asymmetric vulnerability.
Table 1 lists the set of testable predictions that ﬂow
from the anti-realist assumption across three areas. The
category of foreign policy priorities and worldviews consid-
ers how Americans views international politics, and how
they would rank order particular objectives for the Amer-
ican government to achieve. To realists, the international
system is a Hobbesian one, in which anarchy makes it
impossible to fully trust other countries. The United States’
top priority should therefore be the defense of American
borders and territorial integrity. Alliances should be based
on geopolitics and not regime type. The U.S. government
should also be prepared to balance against rising great
powers, before they amass sufﬁcient power to become a
peer competitor—again, regardless of regime type. Beyond
those obligations, however, realists would not support other
“internationalist” policy priorities—the protection of
human rights, democracy promotion, or the strengthen-
ing of multilateral institutions.
The anti-realist assumption predicts that the Ameri-
can mass public should be more likely to trust other
countries and prefer cooperation over self-help. They are
therefore expected to place a greater reliance on inter-
national law and multilateral institutions to regulate world
conﬂict. In terms of substantive preferences, Americans
are predicted to advocate for the spread of liberal norms
to other countries. The active promotion of democracy,
human rights, and economic development to other coun-
tries cannot be deﬁned as realist.
Policies that contra-
vene liberal values—alliances with unsavory regimes, or
Testable predictions about American preferences
Issue area Realist policy preferences
Foreign policy priorities
and world views
• Pessimistic or Hobbesian
appraisal of international
• Pursuit of national interest
• Homeland security and territorial
integrity come first
• Balance against rising powers
• Cautiously optimistic or Lockean
appraisal of international
• Pursuit of interest through
• Promotion of democracy, human
• Reliance on multilateral institutions
to regulate conflict and power in
Justiﬁcation and support
for the use of force
• Violation of state sovereignty
• Containment of a rising power
• Tolerance of costs if the opponent
• Humanitarian intervention
• Promotion of self-determination/
democratic regime change
• Extreme sensitivity to costs of war
Foreign economic policy • Emphasis on relative gains
• Suspicion of economic
interdependence leading to
• Hostility to foreign ownership of
• Emphasis on absolute gains
• Support for economic
• Acceptance of foreign ownership
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
54 Perspectives on Politics
tolerance of human rights abuses to advance the national
interest—should register signiﬁcant opposition. Strong
American support for liberal objectives would substanti-
ate the anti-realist assumption.
Realists would also be expected to differ with the mass
American public on the justiﬁcation and use of force. For
realists, again, the top priority would be preserving the
territorial integrity, homeland security and regional hege-
mony of the United States. Because realists place great
value on state sovereignty, they would be expected to sup-
port the use of force to deter or repel a violation of that
sovereignty. Similarly, realists would support military mea-
sures to contain rising powers. When war breaks out, real-
ists can tolerate a heavy loss of men and material—
provided the opponent suffers even greater costs.
The anti-realist assumption predicts that Americans
would support the use of force for a much wider set of
policy objectives, but not at a sustainable level. To ensure
the spread of liberal norms in world politics Americans
would be expected to support other types of military mis-
sions, such as humanitarian interventions, multilateral
peacekeeping, and intervention in civil conﬂicts. It is safe
to say that realists would disapprove of all of these activi-
Despite the support for a broader category of mil-
itary actions, however, Americans are also simultaneously
hypothesized to be squeamish about the costs of pro-
longed military commitments.
As Peter Feaver and Chris-
topher Gelpi observe, “There is an implicit comparison
between a naïve public and a ‘hard-nosed’ view of what it
takes to be a great power (or the only superpower).”
Americans are expected to sour quickly on uses of force
that entail signiﬁcant costs in the form of mounting
casualties—regardless of the outcome on the battleﬁeld.
Consistent with the Almond-Lippmann consensus, real-
ists believe that Americans will prefer cutting and running
if the use of force fails to achieve victory within a short
Foreign economic policy is the ﬁnal signiﬁcant policy arena
where realists and the mass public are expected to diverge.
Realists should be warier of trade liberalization and eco-
nomic interdependence than most Americans. In an anar-
chic world system, realists argue that states must be
concerned about the distribution of gains that come from
Even if economic integration leads
to a balanced distribution of gains, realists are wary of the
interdependence that can emerge from a liberal economic
order. For realists, “interdependence” is simply another
word for “vulnerability,” and implies a loss of economic
autonomy and heightened interstate frictions.
Because the United States is such a large economic power,
the realist concern about interdependence should be rela-
tively muted when thinking about trade with smaller coun-
tries. Relative gains concerns should be present, however,
when thinking about economic exchange with other can-
didate great powers, such as China, Japan, and the Euro-
pean Union. The fear of rising economic powers should
be present regardless of regime type.
The American public is predicted to be more comfort-
able with an open economic order. Mainstream econo-
mists argue that free trade is a win-win proposition,
beneﬁting all countries that participate. Because Ameri-
cans are predicted to care more about absolute gains than
relative gains, there should be majority support for any
liberalizing measures, given that the economic beneﬁts
outweigh the costs. In a similar vein, the broad mass of
Americans are expected to be more comfortable with
enhanced levels of economic interdependence than
realists—in part because of the longstanding liberal argu-
ment that interdependence is a force for peace.
Two sources of polling data will be used to test the
robustness of the anti-realist assumption. Extensive sur-
veys have been conducted to test American attitudes
towards the use of force, the expansion of trade, and the
proper orientation of American foreign policy. The most
prominent of these polls is the quadrennial Chicago Coun-
cil on Global Affairs (CCGA) survey of public attitudes
about American foreign policy.
If the anti-realist assump-
tion is correct, then one should see low levels of support
for realist policies and greater levels of support for liberal
policies in these surveys.
It should be stressed that these data are far from perfect.
The most obvious problem is that most survey questions
are not tailored to isolate whether Americans are receptive
to any particular paradigm of international relations theory.
Many of the survey questions that have been consistently
asked do not directly address realist doctrine. Further-
more, on some foreign policy questions there is extreme
sensitivity to the framing of the questions. Nevertheless,
public responses to real-world policy problems can serve
as useful proxies for general attitudes towards foreign pol-
The second set of data consists of experimental surveys
designed to ascertain how Americans think about foreign
policy in the abstract. The advantage of these experiments
is that they allow the researcher to vary the scenario param-
eters, determining how sensitive public opinion is to
changes in external circumstances. The disadvantage to
this survey methodology is that, because these scenarios
are hypothetical in nature, there is reason to question
whether the respondents have fully thought out their
answers. It is possible that respondents who are willing to
support a policy in the abstract could change their minds
when confronted with a real-world variant of the scenario.
One ﬁnal observation: it is logical to expect that the
easiest test for the anti-realist assumption should come
from polling data taken during the interregnum between
the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks.
During the Cold War and the post-9/11 periods, the United
States faced a clear, paramount, external threat. One would
expect Americans to be more comfortable with realpolitik
Vol. 6/No. 1 55
when the threat environment is high. During the nineties,
American power was unrivaled and the threat environ-
ment was low. Polling data strongly suggests that Ameri-
cans knew this fact.
If individuals rank foreign policy
priorities like a Maslovian “hierarchy of needs,” one would
expect Americans to be more enthusiastic about liberal
principles during the nineties—once realist concerns were
American Public Opinion on Foreign
Policy Worldviews and Priorities
To determine the sources of American attitudes towards
foreign policy attitudes in a post-9/11 world, Paul Brewer
led a series of panel studies to determine how much Amer-
icans trusted other countries.
What they found was that
Americans were cynical about the outside world. Over 70
percent of respondents agreed that “the U.S. can’t be too
careful” in dealing with other countries. And 65 percent
of Americans rejected the idea that other countries try to
help the U.S.; instead, they said that other countries were
“just looking out for themselves.” Brewer et al. concluded
that “most Americans see the realm of international rela-
tions as resembling the ‘state of nature’ described by
Hobbes. Put more simply, they see it as a ‘dog-eat-dog’
One could argue that such a Hobbesian outlook was
simply a post-9/11 anomaly. However, survey evidence
shows that American attitudes about the international sys-
tem were not all that different during the nineties. The
Pew Research Center conducted surveys in 1994 and 1999
that asked Americans about trusting other countries. In
both surveys, more than 70 percent of respondents believed
that other countries took unfair advantage of the United
States. The numbers were not signiﬁcantly different
between the two surveys. Brewer concludes that “trust
appears to be the exception, rather than the rule,” during
both the pre and post-9/11 worlds.
Public Agenda’s for-
eign policy polling—conducted in summer 2005 and win-
ter 2006—conﬁrms the self-interested nature of the
In both surveys, more than 60 percent
of respondents agreed that the United States was “already
doing more than our share to help out less fortunate coun-
Like realists, an overwhelming majority of Amer-
icans view the world through a Hobbesian prism.
There is also evidence that Americans do not subscribe
to key components of the liberal world view. When asked
whether it was right, wrong but sometimes necessary, or
always wrong for the U.S. to cooperate with “harsh, undem-
ocratic governments” in order to ﬁght terrorism, less than
15 percent said it would always be wrong; 64 percent said
it was wrong but sometimes necessary. While a slim major-
ity agreed with the contention that more democracies
reduce global conﬂict and violence, a slim majority dis-
agreed with the contention that less poverty in the world
does the same.
Given bipartisan support among elites
for both of these contentions in recent years, the weak
level of mass public support is surprising. Contrary to an
absolute gains perspective, Benjamin Page and Marshall
Bouton ﬁnd a majority of Americans oppose the idea of
the European Union acquiring superpower status. They
conclude that “just as ‘realist’ international relations theo-
rists might hope (but not expect), most Americans are
comfortable with the idea of the United States as the world’s
sole military superpower.”
What about foreign policy priorities? In the summer of
2004, the Council on Foreign Relations and Pew Research
Center released a poll on American foreign policy atti-
tudes that appeared to conﬁrm the anti-realist assump-
tion. Analyzing the data, Lee Feinstein, James Lindsay,
and Max Boot concluded that “Realpolitik does not play
well with the American public....Americans overwhelm-
ingly believe that morality should inﬂuence foreign policy
Indeed, when asked what values should guide
American foreign policy, 72 percent of respondents agreed
that “moral principles” should be the guiding light in U.S.
However, when Americans were asked which issues
should be thought of as “top priorities,” the responses
suggest a public that is much more comfortable with real-
ism than previously thought. Table 2 reveals that policy
priorities conventionally categorized in the “legal-moral”
tradition—promoting democracy, advocating for human
rights, and strengthening the United Nations—are con-
sidered low-priority options. The only clearly liberal issue
that earned more than 70 percent support was the preven-
tion of AIDS and other epidemics.
In contrast, realist
priorities—protecting against terrorist attacks, protecting
American jobs, insuring adequate energy supplies—all
scored better than 70 percent support. As table 2 shows,
this preference ordering remains consistent, even when
looking at polls taken prior to the September 11 terrorist
These two results hint at a pattern of American atti-
tudes towards foreign policy priorities. Americans possess
aspirations for liberal internationalism, but when asked to
rank order priorities, realist principles come to the fore.
Table 3 looks at the CCGA data on top foreign policy
priorities over the past 30 years, and ﬁnds a similar result
to the Pew/CFR surveys. Over the past few cycles, realist
policy priorities, emphasizing security and autonomy, con-
sistently earn more than 60 percent support from the mass
public. Liberal policy priorities, emphasizing multilateral-
ism, democracy and human rights, consistently earn less
than 50 percent support. As ﬁgure 1 demonstrates, the
top-ranking policy priorities for the past three decades—
protecting American jobs, securing energy supplies—have
a realist cast to them. In contrast, Americans have consis-
tently placed less importance on liberal internationalist
policy priorities—democracy promotion, human rights,
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
56 Perspectives on Politics
and strengthening the United Nations. These results are
stable across the three different time periods, despite vari-
ation in the level of international threat.
are also consistent across survey instruments.
ingly, support for liberal policy priorities fell during the
nineties—at exactly the point when the anti-realist assump-
tion would have presumed the opposite to the true.
Sam McFarland and Melissa Matthews come to a sim-
ilar conclusion about American attitudes towards human
rights promotion. They ﬁnd that Americans give strong
support for abstract human rights principles—but when
asked to rank order policy priorities, human rights came
in 12th out of 15 possibilities. They conclude that,
“although most Americans express agreement with the ide-
als of human rights, a willingness to commit American
resources to promote and defend human rights is much
In other words, while Americans aspire for lib-
eral policy ends, realist considerations of national interest
trump those aspirations.
The CCGA surveys do reveal one trend that would, at
ﬁrst glance, support the anti-realist assumption. Most
Americans strongly support multilateral institutions like
the United Nations and NATO. More than 70 percent of
Americans supported American participation in the Inter-
national Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol to pro-
tect global warming.
Healthy majorities of Americans—
including conservatives and Republicans—support giving
up America’s veto in the UN Security Council if it meant
a more effective global body. Similar majorities endorse
giving the UN limited powers of taxation to raise a stand-
ing multilateral force. In questions about going to war or
deploying American forces as peacekeepers, public sup-
port is highly contingent on whether there is multilateral
A second cut at the data, however, suggests a realist
motivation behind the support for multilateral institu-
tions. The major reason Americans support international
organizations is because they can facilitate burden-
sharing. In the 2002 CCGA survey, for example, by 71
percent to 17 percent, Americans preferred the U.S. to
“do its share to solve international problems together with
other countries” over “be[ing] the preeminent world leader
to solve international problems.”
That survey also
showed that, in the Middle East, over 80 percent sup-
port “the European Union [to] be more involved in the
negotiations while also bearing more of the political and
Americans view multilateralism both
a means of enhancing global governance and as a means
of redistributing costs from the United States to other
A closer examination of public attitudes towards the
ICC and the Kyoto Protocol also shows that support for
multilateralism in principle is soft. Although a majority of
Americans endorse the ICC in the abstract, for example,
they also oppose allowing U.S. soldiers to be tried in The
Hague. This is in sharp contrast to France, Germany, and
the U.K, where majorities supported having their soldiers
tried by the ICC. Similarly, on global warming, a strong
majority of Americans want poorer countries to bear as
much of the burden in dealing with global warming as
Sifting through the Pew data, Andrew
Kohut and Bruce Stokes conclude that, “If asked to choose,
Americans prefer proactive, assertive unilateral action to
multilateral efforts beset by delay and compromise.”
A 2006 Bertlesmann Foundation poll crystallizes how
Americans think about international cooperation.
asked to choose between the best framework for ensuring
peace and security, the populations of most major powers
prefer “a system led by the United Nations” over either a
balance of regional powers or a unipolar world.The United
States was the only country in the survey where a majority
supported the balance of regional powers over the UN.
Whereas other countries value multilateralism as an intrin-
sic good, Americans view it instrumentally—as a means
to advance American interests while reducing enforce-
Foreign policy priorities, 2001–2004
Percentage of Americans
considering issue a
Protect against terrorist attacks 80 93 88
Protect jobs of American
77 74 84
Reduce spread of AIDS &
73 59 72
Stop spread of weapons of
78 81 71
Insure adequate energy
74 69 70
Reduce dependence on
Combat international drug
64 55 63
Distribute costs of maintaining
56 54 58
Improve relationships with
Deal with problem of world
47 34 50
Strengthen the United Nations 42 46 48
Protect groups threatened with
49 48 47
Deal with global warming 44 31 36
Reduce U.S. military
26 — 35
Promote U.S. business
37 30 35
Promote human rights abroad 29 27 33
Solve Israeli/Palestinian conflict — — 28
Promote democracy abroad 29 24 24
Improve living standards in
25 20 23
Source: Pew/CFR survey, “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven
by 9/11 and Iraq,” http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?
PageID=865, August 2004.
Vol. 6/No. 1 57
American Public Opinion on the Use
The debate about mass public attitudes towards the use of
force revolves around two kinds of survey questions. The
ﬁrst set asks Americans whether they would support a
future use of force. These questions vary with the pro-
scribed mission and the anticipated adversary. The second
set of questions polls Americans on their support of immi-
nent or ongoing military interventions—either wars or
other kinds of troop deployments, such as peacekeeping
missions. If the anti-realist assumption holds, we should
expect to see public enthusiasm for military interventions
into genocides, civil wars, and humanitarian relief opera-
tions. Support for these activities is expected to decline,
however, as casualties begin to mount.
The responses to hypothetical scenarios strongly refute
the anti-realist assumption. Richard Herrmann, PhilipTet-
lock, and Penny Visser found in their surveys a strong
predisposition towards balancing behavior among the mass
Rather than be deterred by the potential costs of confronting a
strong opponent, participants were more willing to intervene
against a powerful aggressor than a weak aggressor. . . despite the
reminder that such an endeavor would require a major military
effort. Evidently, they paid more attention to the long-range
threat posed by a powerful enemy if not checked than to the
immediate costs of ﬁghting.
Herrmann et al. achieved similar results when questions
regarding nuclear proliferation and the prior behavior of
possible adversaries were posed. Americans were more likely
to prefer tougher responses to states that had acquired
nuclear weapons and states with “revisionist motives” in
the international system.
These responses are fully con-
sistent with the balance-of-power logic stressed by realists.
Other experiments have yielded similar results. Peter
Feaver and Christopher Gelpi asked military elites, civilian
elites, and mass publics about their attitudes towards the
use of force. They found that across the board, respondents
ranked the realist goals as more important than the inter-
ventionist or humanitarian goals.
The mass public was
also just as supportive of realpolitik missions—and just as
tolerant of civilian casualties—as civilian elites.
surveys found Americans thinking about the use of force in
the same way as offshore balancers.The mass public’s stron-
gest support for the use of force came in missions close to
home—interdicting illicit drugs, combating terrorism, and
armed interventions in Latin America.
Analyses of polling during real world applications of
force also contradict the anti-realist assumption. The ﬁrst,
overriding metric that Americans use to gauge their sup-
port for war is whether the operation appears to be suc-
cessful. Most scholars have found a “halo effect” that
comes from successful uses of force.
As Richard Eichen-
berg summarizes this work, “quite simply, successful mil-
itary operations enjoy high support, even when the
objective is unpopular and casualties are suffered.”
rationalist result is consistent with several foreign policy
paradigms, including realism. The ﬁnding does undercut
the Almond-Lippmann consensus, however—and the anti-
realist assumption rests partly on that consensus.
Beyond the importance of perceived success, Ameri-
cans appear to have realist instincts in placing a value of
the uses of force. Table 4 demonstrates the mean level of
support for American uses of force between 1981 and
Foreign policy priorities, 1991–2006
Policy Goal 2006 2004 2002 1998 1994 1990
Protect against terrorist attacks 72 71 91 79 — —
Protect jobs of American workers 76 78 85 80 83 65
Stop spread of weapons of mass destruction 74 73 90 82 82 59
Controlling and reducing illegal immigration 58 59 70 55 72 —
Insure adequate energy supplies 72 69 75 64 62 61
Stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. — 63 81 81 85 —
Reducing our trade deficit with foreign countries — — 51 50 59 56
Maintaining superior military power worldwide 55 50 68 59 50 —
Deal with problem of world hunger 48 43 61 62 56 —
Strengthen the United Nations 40 38 57 45 51 44
Improving the global environment 54 47 66 53 58 58
Promote U.S. business interests abroad — 32 49 — — 63
Promote human rights abroad 28 — 47 39 34 58
Promote democracy abroad 17 14 34 29 25 28
Improve living standards in poor nations 22 18 30 29 22 41
Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “Public Opinion & Foreign Policy,” available at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/past_pos.php.
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
58 Perspectives on Politics
1995, as collected by Richard Eichenberg.
stand out immediately. First, the only examples of mili-
tary statecraft that garnered more than 60 percent support
from the American people were realpolitik missions: retaliat-
ing against al Qaeda attacks, compelling Saddam Hussein
to withdraw from Kuwait, and preventing Hussein from
acquiring weapons of mass destruction (further discussion
of the second Gulf War follows). Second, the only mis-
sions that garnered less than 50 percent support can be
categorized as humanitarian or peacekeeping interven-
tions: the uses of force in Liberia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Leba-
non, and Haiti. This is fully consistent with David
Burbach’s conclusion that “the public is quite negative
towards restoring order in countries where American lives
are not at stake.”
The empirical literature on public responses to war and
other uses of force also undercut the anti-realist assump-
tion. Testing public reaction to thirty-eight uses of force
during the Cold War era, John Oneal, Brad Lian, and
James Joyner found that Americans were more likely to
support the use of force to repel armed aggression than to
intervene in civil conﬂicts. They concluded that “the pub-
lic evaluates the use of force pragmatically and in a way
consistent with fundamental international principles
regarding sovereignty and self-determination.”
berg found similar results: Americans provided signiﬁ-
cantly more support for uses of force that involved
restraining foreign aggressors than other kinds of military
One possible counterexample to these ﬁndings is the
apparent contrast between public and realist attitudes about
the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Most realists opposed the
invasion of Iraq, while by March 2003 the American pub-
lic largely supported the invasion—ostensibly in reaction
to the Bush administration’s public relations campaign.
This could be viewed as support for the anti-realist assump-
tion. However, this case is at best ambiguous. First, public
support for the war was highly contingent on the survey
question. Philip Everts and Pierangelo Isernia point out
that “when different alternatives to deal with Saddam’s
regime were offered, a plurality if not a majority of the
American public would opt for the softer ones.”
ond, the Bush administration used realist rhetoric to make
the case for invading Iraq. Mearsheimer characterized the
Bush administration’s case for eliminating Saddam Hus-
sein’s weapons of mass destruction program as a “hard-
nosed realist argument.” Other security scholars concur,
labeling the ofﬁcial rhetoric as, “a Realist logic focused on
Foreign policy priorities, 1974–2004
Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “Public Opinion & Foreign Policy,” available at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/
Vol. 6/No. 1 59
response to threat.”
High-ranking ofﬁcials might have
had non-realist motivations for going to war, but they
were also conscious that these motivations did not reso-
nate with the mass public.
If the administration used
realist rhetoric and shied away from non-realist rhetoric to
make its case for war, then Operation Iraqi Freedom pro-
vides no support for the anti-realist assumption.
Another prediction that ﬂows from the anti-realist
assumption is that Americans should not be able to stom-
ach casualties during combat. However, multiple reviews
of casualty data with public support for military deploy-
ments contradict this expectation. Eric Larson concludes
that the public’s aversion to losses of U.S. life in military
interventions has less to do with intolerance for casualties
than with the debatable merits of the operations them-
selves. Multivariate analyses shows that casualties in and
of themselves do not cause an erosion of public support;
Americans compare these costs to the possible beneﬁts
Furthermore, process tracing of high-
proﬁle military reversals suggest that such events trigger
rally-round-the-ﬂag effects. For example, after the Octo-
ber 1993 “Black Hawk down” incident in Mogadishu,
public support for the Somalia mission to temporarily
Nevertheless, the sensitivity of democratic pub-
lics to casualties remains an open debate.
With regard to public opinion polling on different types
of armed interventions, the results again support a realpoli-
tik mass public. McFarland and Matthews found consis-
tent results when polling Americans about the use of force
to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing. Seven years after
the Rwandan genocide, they found only 26 percent of
respondents supporting the use of U.S. troops to halt the
genocide, while 41 percent preferred to “not become
involved.” When asked whether the U.S. military should
be used more or less often to stop either mass killings or
ethnic cleansing, there was plurality support (38 percent to
15 percent) for curtailing activity. In June 1999, support
for sending U.S. ground troops into Kosovo as part of a
NATO operation to serve in a combat situation registered
only 40 percent support.
McFarland and Matthews con-
clude, “Although most Americans applaud human rights
principles, the American public en masse does not appear
to care enough about human rights to invest signiﬁcant
American resources and troops to defending them, even in
grave situations of genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
Turning back to the question of multilateralism, surveys
conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United
States, the Program on InternationalPolicy Attitudes (PIPA),
and CCGA show that multilateral backing also has a dra-
matic effect on American support for activities like armed
For example, the 2002 CCGA survey shows
that American support for defending South Korea against
an invasion from North Korea increases from 36 percent to
57 percent if the effort is UN sponsored. This would seem
to be consistent with a liberal worldview.
Further examination, however, suggests a realist logic is
at work. The increases in public support for defending
vital allies came when the question speciﬁcally said that
the United States would be “contributing forces together
with other countries.”
Ceteris paribus, even academic
realists evinced strong support for the use of force when
such action receives multilateral backing.
The question is whether the mass public desires multi-
lateral outcomes if all else is not equal. Compared to other
countries, Americans still favor reserving the right to use
preemptive military force to a much greater extent than Euro-
peans. Kohut and Stokes conclude that “the American pub-
lic looks primarily to its own military for its self-defense.”
Bruce Jentleson and Rebecca Britton found that between
1992 and 1998, Americans preferred unilateral over multi-
lateral operations when the mission was one of foreign pol-
icy restraint. At the same time, when the mission was
perceived to be humanitarian in nature, there was a strong
preference for multilateral participation.
This result sug-
gests that collectively, Americans have an intuition about
applying realist principles to realist situations and liberal
principles to liberal situations. When large-scale war is
expected, Americans believe in self-help; when the mission
is more consistent with liberal internationalism, however,
Americans prefer using multilateralism as a way to redis-
American Public Opinion on Foreign
Since the beginning of modern polling, there has been pub-
lic suspicion about the merits of free trade. This suspicion
Support for American uses of force,
Mission Year(s) % in favor
War against terror 2001–2003 79 75
1998 73 5
Second Gulf War, major
2003 72 38
First Gulf War 1990–1991 64 63
Conflicts with Iraq 1992–2003 62 244
Grenada 1983 59 8
Libyan air strikes 1981–1988 59 10
Kuaiti tanker re-flagging 1987–1988 58 18
Somalia 1992–1993 56 41
Panama 1988–1989 52 18
Second Gulf War,
2003–2005 50 84
Liberia 2003 50 7
Kosovo 1998–2001 49 99
Bosnia 1992–2002 46 141
Lebanon 1982–1984 40 26
Haiti 1992–1995 37 50
Source: Eichenberg 2005, Table 2.
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
60 Perspectives on Politics
remains even during boom times. In 1953—a time when
the U.S. was running a massive trade surplus—a plurality
of Americans supported greater import restrictions over
greater import expansion.
During the sixties, mass survey
research revealed a strong protectionist bent among Amer-
In 1998—when the late-nineties boom was well
under way—a majority of respondents agreed that, “for-
eign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy.”
Scheve and Matthew Slaughter have catalogued a persis-
tent fact throughout the late nineties; majorities of Amer-
icans repeatedly afﬁrmed that a) the costs from more imports
always outweighed the beneﬁts of more imports; and b) the
costs from more imports exceeded the beneﬁts from more
Polls conducted by the Chicago Council on For-
eign Relations, the German Marshall Fund, and the For-
eign Policy Association in the past decade all conﬁrm that a
strong majority of the American public is suspicious about
One PIPA assessment observes that
“questions that do not emphasize trade in principle, but
rather how it has been practiced, ﬁnd quite modest levels of
The debates over offshore outsourcing offer an even
more pungent example of a mercantilist public at work.
Beginning in 2004, there was a marked increase in media
coverage about this newer form of economic interdepen-
dence. Consistent with overall views about the costs and
beneﬁts of international trade, a majority of Americans
stated that offshoring is a serious economic problem. An
Associated Press poll in May 2004 found that 69 percent
of Americans believe outsourcing hurts the U.S. economy.
A Marlin Company poll found that 53 percent of Amer-
icans believed that it was unpatriotic for American ﬁrms
to send jobs overseas.
An Employment Law Alliance
poll taken the same month found that 58 percent of Amer-
ican workers believed the federal government should penal-
ize companies that send work offshore. A Watson Wyatt
survey a few months later found 85 percent of American
workers believing that the practice has a negative effect on
the U.S. economy.
These attitudes have persisted. A
March 2006 Pew Research poll found 71 percent of Amer-
icans believed that outsourcing was bad for the U.S. econ-
In the wake of the 2006 midterms, pollsters argued
that voters speciﬁcally rewarded politicians who espoused
What is the source of the mass hostility to trade expan-
sion? A non-realist explanation is that people are respond-
ing out of self-interest rather than the national interest.
Scheve and Slaughter argue that respondents with lower
education and income status are more likely to project
mercantilist opinions about trade.
However, this is only
a partial explanation. For example, neither class nor edu-
cational status can explain why, between 1999 and 2004,
public support for free trade declined across the board.
Similarly, this does not explain the intense opposition to
offshore outsourcing.The WatsonWyatt survey, for exam-
ple, found that while American workers were very con-
cerned about its impact on the economy as a whole, they
evinced little concern about how it affects their personal
While individual economic factors undoubtedly play a
role in determining opinions about trade, there is strong
evidence that realpolitik considerations of national inter-
est also play an important role. Ronald Inglehart, Neil
Nevitte, and Miguel Basanez conclude that “free trade
galvanizes concern for a much wider set of issues, such as
cultural integrity and national identity.”
arly studies have found a similar correlation between sup-
port for mercantilism and national pride or concerns about
As previously noted, the protec-
tion of American jobs has consistently ranked among the
most important of foreign policy priorities.
A recent example of realism driving American policy
attitudes towards foreign economic policy comes in the
wake of the March 2006 Dubai Ports World controversy.
A Pew survey found that 58 percent of Americans sup-
ported Congress acting to block Dubai Ports World from
operating port terminals in six American cities. The fram-
ing of questions surrounding foreign direct investment
revealed a key driver of mass public opposition on this
issue is a loss of economic autonomy. On the one hand
Americans approved of “companies in other countries
investing in the U.S.” by 53 percent to 36 percent. On the
other hand, Americans disapproved of “investors from other
countries owning companies in the U.S.” by 53 percetn to
The difference between investment and con-
trol relates to questions about national sovereignty—a real-
Experimental survey results conﬁrm the strong bias in
favor of relative gains concern among the mass public of
Americans. Informal surveys by Robert Reich found a high
degree of relative gains concern vis-à-vis Japan in 1990—
the peak of Japan’s perceived threat to U.S. economic hege-
Richard Herrmann, PhilipTetlock, and Matthew
Diascro asked whether respondents would support a for-
eign economic policy that beneﬁted the United States more
than its trading partner, beneﬁted both countries equally,
or beneﬁted the trading partner more (in all cases, both
countries received positive beneﬁts). Among the mass
sample, the distribution of gains signiﬁcantly affected
responses—64 percent of Americans supported a policy
that beneﬁted the United States more; when the partner
beneﬁted more, support fell to 38 percent.
responses were also more protectionist when the trading
partner was described as either wealthy or strong. Using
real world countries, respondents were more likely to
favor restricting trade against Japan than either England
or India. Herrmann, Tetlock, and Diascro conclude that
“a larger percentage of the general public than of the elite
think about trade as if they were intuitive neorealists....
And more of them are sensitive to the factors neorealists
Vol. 6/No. 1 61
say should affect policy calculations.”
conducted a similar survey, and found majorities oppos-
ing trade agreements that resulted in small economic gains
for the United States but signiﬁcant economic gains by
other major powers. Consistent with realism, opposition
increased when the proposed trade partner was a country
viewed as an economic challenger, such as China or
How Robust Are These Results?
The experimental and survey data suggests that Ameri-
cans do not reject realist principles in their thinking about
foreign policy. Indeed, Americans share a lot of intuitions
with realists. That said, there may still be methodological
reasons to argue that the anti-realist assumption should
still be privileged. Different components of the mass pub-
lic can hold different images of foreign affairs. This paper
has treated the mass public as an undifferentiated whole,
but most public opinion research ﬁnds that factors such as
education, income status, political ideology, party afﬁlia-
tion, and prior military service affect individual attitudes
towards foreign policy.
There is likely to be a slice of
the American public that is hostile to realpolitik, just as
there is a slice that is hostile to liberal internationalism.
Feaver and Gelpi, for example, ﬁnd that 20 percent of
Americans are casualty-phobic—but there exist an equal
or greater number of defeat-phobic Americans.
different components of the mass American public hold
transitive preferences over foreign affairs, it could lead to
the type of cycling and instability consistent with the
Another issue is the sensitivity of survey responses to
For example, questions about trade lib-
eralization register majority support if costs are not men-
tioned. Michael Hiscox argues that the framing effects of
trade questions are particularly powerful: respondent sup-
port for trade dropped 19 percent on average when cost
factors were included in the question. Hiscox concludes
that research relying upon existing surveys to gauge atti-
tudes towards trade and globalization rest on an “unstable
A related problem is that the mass public
is so uninformed about foreign affairs that just a small
dollop of information has the potential to change prefer-
ence orderings. Steven Kull and I.M. Destler found that
public hostility to foreign aid ﬂows was based in part on a
lack of information about the actual size of U.S. develop-
ment assistance. Once informed of the true facts, public
support for boosting foreign aid shoots up dramatically.
While these methodological problems should be kept
in mind, none of them pose serious challenges to the argu-
ments presented here. The existence of different compo-
nents of the American public fails to undercut the evidence
presented here. What is striking about the aggregate data
is that American foreign policy attitudes have been con-
sistent over a long period of time, despite the end of the
Cold War and the September 11 terrorist attacks. This is
consistent with arguments made within the literature that
mass public opinion is more structured and stable than
Almond or Lippmann posited a half-century ago.
stability of opinion polling on the salient foreign policy
questions over the past decades suggests that preference
transitivity is not a problem. Furthermore, the swing in
support for certain policy questions suggests that realists
occupy the middle ground in the public spectrum between
isolationists and liberal internationalists. Median voter argu-
ments suggest that this makes the opinions of realist-
minded Americans more salient, not less.
As for framing effects, it is undeniable that public opin-
ion responses vary considerably in response to how ques-
tions are framed. Recall, however, that the anti-realist
assumption implies that realists cannot hawk their policy
wares to American because they are ideationally hard-
wired to dislike realpolitik. The fact that questions can be
framed in a way that elicits a realist response directly refutes
this claim. It is perfectly possible to articulate a set of
foreign policy principles in a realist frame and have them
accepted by the American people.
Indeed, when bal-
anced against the bulk of the survey evidence, the worst
conclusion one could draw from these caveats is that Amer-
icans are just as comfortable with realism as they are with
any other paradigm of international relations. In the court
of American public opinion, realists are not handicapped
in any way whatsoever.
One possible explanation for the mass public’s recep-
tivity to realism is that their rational ignorance of world
politics engenders a kind of “folk realism.”
ﬁnding in survey research is that the American public is
largely uninformed and uninterested in world politics. This
lack of information—and the uncertainty created by
it—can impose a structure on attitudes towards the rest of
the world that is sympathetic to realism. Realists assert
that uncertainty about other countries’ intentions forces
states to act in ways that bolster their security. Perhaps
Americans, when asked about foreign affairs, react in a
similar manner—focusing on prudence and self-defense
as risk-averse responses to an environment that they ﬁnd
complex and opaque.
The one criticism that is difﬁcult to contest is the dearth
of survey questions and results that directly address whether
Americans think like realists or liberal internationalists. Most
of the longstanding questions in the CCGA, Pew, and other
surveys are designed to examine whether Americans are
isolationists or internationalists. Herrmann and Tetlock’s
experimental surveys are more explicitly designed to test
the anti-realist assumption—but it is not the primary focus
of their research. Clearly, further survey and experimental
work is needed to conclusively determine whether the
mass American public holds intuitions that resonate strongly
with a particular international relations paradigm.
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
62 Perspectives on Politics
Why Does the Anti-Realist
This paper concludes that the anti-realist assumption is not
empirically valid. Americans do hold some liberal aspira-
tions for their conduct across the globe, and believe that
morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract.
However, surveys about foreign policy world views and pri-
orities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies all
reveal a strong realist bent among the mass American pub-
lic. The overwhelming majority of Americans possess a
Hobbesian world view of international relations. Ameri-
cans consistently place realist foreign policy objectives—
the securing of energy supplies, homeland security—as top
foreign policy priorities. Objectives associated with liberal
internationalism—strengthening the United Nations, pro-
moting democracy and human rights—rank near the bot-
tom of the list. On the uses of force, experimental surveys
reveal that Americans think like intuitive neorealists; they
prefer balancing against aggressive and rising powers while
remaining leery about liberal-style interventions. On for-
eign economic policy, Americans think of trade through a
relative gains prism, particularly if the trading partner is
viewed as a rising economic power. Surveys and polling do
suggest that Americans like multilateral institutions, but they
appear to like them for realist reasons—they are viewed as
mechanisms for burden-sharing. Liberal internationalist atti-
tudes did not resonate more during the nineties, the period
when the anti-realist assumption should have had the great-
est support. If anything, during that decade Americans
appeared to adopt attitudes consistent with offshore
The implications of these results for the analysis of Amer-
ican foreign policy are signiﬁcant. Realists have repeatedly
asserted that U.S. foreign policy leaders act in a realist
manner but disguise these actions through liberal rheto-
ric. The anti-realist assumption allows these scholars to
assert that the only source of realpolitik behavior comes
from the systemic level. If the American public holds real-
ist views on certain foreign policy dimensions, then a unit-
level causal mechanism exists that would also explain these
These ﬁndings also lead to an important question. If
American attitudes towards foreign policy have been con-
sistent for decades, and those attitudes are receptive to a
realist world view, then why does the anti-realist assump-
tion persist within the academy and the policymaking
worlds? One possible explanation is that, even at the elite
level, misperceptions about public opinion are remark-
ably difﬁcult to change. Public opinion scholars refer to
this phenomenon as “pluralistic ignorance”—shared but
incorrect beliefs about what other people think. Ameri-
cans believe that a majority hold views similar to the actual
outputs of U.S. foreign policy.
It is possible, then, that
realists commit a double error in their analysis of Ameri-
can foreign policy. They assert that Americans take realist
actions against the desires of a liberal public. The reverse
might be true—because the United States pursues a lib-
eral foreign policy, Americans assume that the majority
supports these policies even if that is not actually the case.
Another possible explanation is that realist scholars
believe the anti-realist assumption because they encoun-
ter hostility to realism on a daily basis. Hostility to real-
ism resides in the elite public more than the mass public.
Most survey research in foreign policy—including the
Foreign Policy Leadership Project—separate out elite opin-
ions from the mass public. The elite public is usually
deﬁned as people who are both knowledgeable about
foreign affairs and have some access to foreign policy
decision-makers. This includes high-ranking members of
the executive branch, members of Congress and their
staffs, lobbyists and interest group representatives, jour-
nalists, academics, and leaders of labor, business, and
Researchers have identiﬁed persistent gaps in
attitudes between the mass public than the elite public
on a series of foreign policy issues.
Realists would pre-
dict this gap to exist; they assume that the mass public is
hostile to hard-headed calculations, requiring the elite
public to think in a realpolitik fashion behind closed
However, many of the studies cited here also ﬁnd that
across a broad array of questions, the elite public is more
liberal internationalist than the mass public.
the mid-nineties, the mass public was signiﬁcantly more
pessimistic about world affairs than policymakers.
adopted more positive attitudes towards multilateral-
Elites prefer spending larger amounts of foreign
aid than the mass public. Military elites are more casualty-
phobic than the civilian mass public.
After the end of
the Cold War, the elite public was far more concerned
about Russia’s transition to democracy than the American
public; the mass public was more concerned about Japan’s
economic ascent and the threat of international terrorism.
On the use of force, the mass public was more willing to
use military statecraft to intervene in the Western hemi-
sphere, combat illegal drugs, and prevent terrorism than
the elite public. In the months after the September 11
terrorist attacks, the elite public evinced a more cosmo-
politan policy response than the mass public.
Foreign economic policy is where the most prominent
gap between elite and mass public opinion exists. In their
experimental surveys, Herrmann, Tetlock, and Diascro
found that elite participants were far less sensitive to rela-
tive gains than most Americans: “even in the condition of
a ten-to-one relative loss, more than two-thirds of elite
Americans still pursue absolute gains and choose free
The CCGA surveys reveal a similar gap between
the elite and mass publics on questions of trade, invest-
ment and immigration. Over the course of the eight sur-
veys, the elite public has consistently favored freer trade,
been less exercised about the trade deﬁcit, and preferred
Vol. 6/No. 1 63
higher levels of legal immigration. Other public opinion
researchers have detected similar gaps between the elite
and mass publics.
The gap between elites and the rest of America on trade
policies have ramiﬁcations beyond foreign economic pol-
icy. Some commentators have hypothesized that in the
current era of economic globalization, elite members of
the American public would adopt a more cosmopolitan
view of world politics, consistent with liberal internation-
Samuel Huntington derisively dubbed this the
“Davos culture” hypothesis, but the notion has attracted
serious scholarly interest.
Certainly a cosmopolitan elite
would be less likely to embrace a “folk realism” borne out
of inattention to world politics. Richard Herrmann and
Jonathan Keller have found that among the American pol-
icy elite, a free trade orientation was strongly and posi-
tively correlated with supporting policies of engagement
and a reluctance to use force. Not surprisingly, Herrmann
and Keller found more than 60 percent support among
policy elites for engaging both China and Iran. They fur-
ther found that policy elites embraced the democratic peace
The relatively liberal attitude of American elites comes
into particular focus when one considers precisely which
elites strongly inﬂuence American foreign policy. Law-
rence Jacobs and Benjamin Page conclude that the prefer-
ences of four elite groups had the strongest effect on the
attitudes of policymakers: media, business, think tanks
and other foreign policy organizations, and educators.
With the partial exception of think tanks, surveys of all of
these different subgroups indicate a strong predilection
towards cosmopolitanism or liberal internationalism.
The correlation of preferences between these groups is so
strong that Jacobs and Page conclude that a “foreign pol-
icy establishment” still exists in the United States.
The existence of a liberal internationalist foreign policy
establishment would help to explain an enduring puzzle
in this area of research—why elites continually believe
that the public is more isolationist than it actually is.
is entirely possible that either the elites or the polling
questions are confusing wariness about American isola-
tionism with liberal concerns about a realist mass public.
Ironically, the fear that gripped Kennan and Morgenthau
in the early ﬁfties may be completely at odds with present-
day reality: America now has a realist mass public gov-
erned by a liberal internationalist elite.
This leads to a ﬁnal speculative hypothesis. The liberal
internationalist trend is strong among the elites that real-
ist scholars interact with the most—other international
Survey research and analyses of jour-
nal articles reveal that most IR scholars believe realism to
be on the wane as a tool for explaining international rela-
tions in terms of scholarship, teaching, and real-world
It is possible that realists believe that most
Americans do not like realism because the Americans they
interact with the most—their professional colleagues—
are hostile to the paradigm.
1 Mearsheimer 2001, 402; see also Gilpin 1996.
2 Ibid. See also Morgenthau and Thompson 1985.
3 For recent examples, see Ikenberry and Slaughter
2006 and Daalder and Lindsey 2007.
4 Hartz 1955; Krasner 1978, 335–339.
5 Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, promote
the anti-realist assumption to argue that their for-
eign policy preferences are more in tune with the
American populace. See, for example, Kull and
6 For classical realism, see Morgenthau and Thomp-
son 1985. For neoclassical realism, see Rose 1998
and Zakaria 1998. On post-classical realism, see
Brooks 1997. Mearsheimer 2001 provides the exem-
plar of offensive realism. For a good example of
defensive realism, see Snyder 1991. For a critique,
see Legro and Moravcsik 1999.
7 See, speciﬁcally, Kennan 1984; Bailey 1948; Kiss-
inger 1960, 67–77.
8 Lippmann 1955, 20; quoted in Waltz 1967, 267.
9 Lippmann 1955; Almond 1950, 1956; Key 1961;
Rosenau 1961; Converse 1964.
10 Robinson 1999; Gilboa 2005. For a critique, see
11 Quoted in Mermin 1997, 385.
12 Huntington 1957, ch. 6.
13 Morgenthau and Thompson 1985, 165.
14 Kennan 1984, 93–95; see also Carr 1964, 51.
15 Kissinger 1994, 30 and 50.
16 An important exception is Waltz 1967, ch. 4 and
10. He argued that democratic publics were per-
fectly capable of accepting realist principles.
17 Another, lesser strand of realist criticism—which will
not be discussed here—argues that the power of
particularistic interest groups distorts how the pubic
thinks about foreign policy. For a recent example,
see Mearsheimer and Walt 2006, 2007.
18 Krasner 1978, 335; see also Friedberg 2000.
19 Mearsheimer 2001, 23.
20 Mearsheimer 2001.
21 Hartz 1955; Kagan 2006.
22 On national identity, see Huntington 1957, 150;
Monten 2005; Kagan 2006. The ﬁrst sentence of
the March 2006 National Security Strategy reads: “It
is the policy of the United States to seek and sup-
port democratic movements and institutions in
every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of
ending tyranny in our world.” Accessed at http://
July 2, 2007.
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
64 Perspectives on Politics
23 George W. Bush, second inaugural address, January
20, 2005, emphasis added. Accessed at http://
20050120-1.html, March 2006.
24 Lind 2006. See also Lind, “Immigrant Intellectuals
and American Grand Strategy,” The Globalist, April
4, 2003, 1.
25 Mead 2002, 35–55.
26 Nau 2002; Ruggie 1997; Nincic 1994.
27 Doyle 1983, 343.
28 Kagan and Kristol 2000, 22; see also Fukuyama
29 Reiter and Stam 2002, 21–22; Feaver and Gelpi
2004, 4–5; Woods, Lacey, and Murray 2006.
30 McDougall 1997; Nau 2002; Mead 2002.
31 On the post-2003 renaissance of realists in the
American foreign policy establishment, see Law-
rence Kaplan, “Springtime for Realism,” The New
Republic, June 21, 2004.
32 Quote from Harry Kreisler, “Conversations with
John Mearsheimer,” 8 April 2002. Accessed at http://
mearsheimer-con4.html, March 2006.
33 Schweller 2004, 162.
34 On balancing behavior, see Waltz 1979, ch. 6,
Christensen and Snyder 1990, and Schweller
2004. On power vs. security maximization, com-
pare Waltz 1979 with Mearsheimer 2001. On grand
strategy, compare Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky 1997,
Layne 1997, and Layne 2006 with Art 1998/
35 Waltz 1979, 105.
36 For our purposes, the distribution of power during
the period under study renders the buck-passing/
balancing debate moot. Proponents of buck-passing
would agree that as a great power in a unipolar or
bipolar world, the United States cannot pass the
buck to any other country.
37 Walt 2005.
38 Some realists would fall under the “exemplarist”
approach of promoting liberal ideas abroad by per-
fecting them at home. For more on exemplarism, see
Monten 2005, Lieven and Hulsman 2006.
39 Mandelbaum 1996; Bacevich 2005.
40 Huntington 1957, ch. 6; Mueller 1973, 2005; Lep-
gold and McKeown 1995, 369–373.
41 Feaver and Gelpi 2004, 104.
42 Waltz 1979, ch. 7; Buzan 1984; Grieco 1990; Kras-
43 Gowa 1986.
44 Hirschman 1977.
45 All of the reports can be accessed online at http://
2006 the CCGA was known as the Chicago Council
on Foreign Relations.
46 Klarevas 2002, 424. For example, a majority of
Americans claim in surveys that they would be
willing to pay more for goods made according to
strict labor and environmental standards. Both
purchasing patterns and experimental evidence
contradict this ﬁnding. See Elliott and Freeman
47 In 1986, 26 percent of Americans cited international
issues as a problem for the United States; by 1998,
only 7 percent made the same assertion. Rielly
48 Brewer et al. 2004; Brewer 2004; Brewer, Aday, and
49 Brewer et al. 2004, 105.
50 Brewer 2004, 327.
51 Ana Maria Arumi and Scott Brittle, “Public Agenda
Conﬁdence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index,” Volume
2, Winter 2006. Downloaded from http://www.
publicagenda.org, 15 April 2006.
52 Ibid., 20.
54 Page and Bouton 2006, 100.
55 Lee Feinstein, James M. Lindsay, and Max Boot,
“On Foreign Policy, Red and Blue Voters Are
Worlds Apart,” Council on Foreign Relations, Au-
gust 2004, 39. The Pew survey (“Foreign Policy
Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq”) is avail-
able at http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/222.pdf
(accessed May 1, 2006)
56 Even this response does not necessarily reﬂect a
liberal worldview. Given American hostility to in-
ward ﬂows of drugs and migration, and given the
2001 anthrax scare, the concern about epidemics
could be related to concerns about personal security
rather than altruism. On this point, see Drezner
57 Page and Bouton 2006, 38–43.
58 Holsti 2004, 95.
59 McFarland and Matthews 2005a, 2005b; Holsti
60 Kull and Destler 1999, ch. 3 and 4; Page and Bou-
ton 2006, ch. 5.
61 Bouton 2002, 26, emphasis added. The other nine
percent of respondents preferred the isolationist
62 Page and Bouton 2006, 150–1.
63 Krasner 1991.
64 Kohut and Stokes 2006, 179–180.
65 Ibid., 79.
66 “Poll of 9 Major Nations Finds All, including U.S.,
Reject World System Dominated by Single Power in
Favor of Multipolarity,” accessed at http://www.
208&lb⫽btvoc (November 2006).
Vol. 6/No. 1 65
67 For more on this, see Drezner 2007b.
68 Herrmann, Tetlock, and Visser 1999, 558.
69 Ibid., 558–561.
70 Feaver and Gelpi 2004, 62. It should be noted that
consistent with the liberal internationalist argument,
Feaver and Gelpi also found that both mass and elite
civilians were more supportive of humanitarian
interventions than their military counterparts.
71 Ibid., ch. 4.
72 Page and Barabas 2000, 355–356; Page and Bouton
2006, ch. 4; Holsti 2004, 118–19.
73 Jentleson 1992; Brody 1994; Larson 1996; Jentleson
and Britton 1998; Feaver and Gelpi 2005/06.
74 Eichenberg 2005, 147.
75 Eichenberg 2005.
76 Burbach 1994, 44.
77 Oneal, Lian, and Joyner 1996. See also Jentleson
78 Eichenberg 2005.
79 On realist opposition, see Mearsheimer and Walt
2003; on the malleability of the public, see Kauf-
mann 2004 and Western 2005.
80 Everts and Isernia 2005, 274–5.
81 For Mearsheimer’s quote, see “America Amnesia
interview with John Mearsheimer,” http://int.
usamnesia.com/Mearsheimer-2.htm. Jackson and
Kaufman 2007, 98.
82 See the transcript of Sam Tannenhaus’s May 2003
interview with then Deputy Secretary of Defense
Paul Wolfowitz. Accessed at http://www.defenselink.
July 2, 2007.
83 Larson 1996; Eichenberg 2005; Feaver and Gelpi
84 Kull and Destler 1999, 106–108.
85 For a counterargument, see Reiter and Stam 2002,
86 McFarland and Matthews 2005b, 308.
87 Ibid., 310.
88 Bouton 2002, 28; German Marshall Fund of the
United States, Transatlantic Trend series, 2003–2004;
Kull and Destler 1999.
89 Bouton 2002, 28; see also Kull and Destler 1999,
55 and 111.
90 Maliniak et al. 2005.
91 Kohut and Stokes 2006, 201.
92 Jentleson and Britton 1998.
93 Eichenberg 2005.
94 The precise ﬁgure was 37 percent to 24 percent.
Cited in Destler 1986, 5.
95 Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1963.
96 Scheve and Slaughter 2001, 21.
97 Ibid., ch. 2.
98 Audley and Anker 2004, 2005; Bouton 2002; Pew/
CFR, “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by
9/11 and Iraq,”; Foreign Policy Association, “Amer-
icas and the World Around Them: A Nationwide
Poll,” September 2004.
99 “On Balance, Feelings about Trade Lukewarm,”
accessed at http://americans-world.org/digest/
100 Drezner 2005.
outsourcing.htm, accessed August 10, 2004.
102 Employment Law Alliance, “Offshoring: Made in
the U.S.A.,” June 7, 2004. Accessed at http://
August 6, 2004; the Associated Press poll can be
accessed at http://www.ipsos-na.com/news/pdf/
media/mr040607-1tbzzz.pdf. Watson Wyatt, “Off-
shoring Labor,” August 5, 2004. Accessed at http://
August 10, 2004.
103 Pew Research Center, “Bush Approval Falls to
33%, Congress Earns Rare Praise,” March 15,
2006. Accessed at http://people-press.org/reports/
display.php3?ReportID⫽271, March 2006.
104 Tucker 2006.
105 Scheve and Slaughter 2001, 2004.
106 Kull 2004.
107 Watson Wyatt, “Offshoring Labor,” August 5,
108 Inglehart, Nevitte, and Basanez 1996, 166.
109 Citrin et al. 1994; Rankin, 2001; O’Rourke and
110 Pew Research Center, “Bush Approval Falls to
33%,” emphasis added.
111 Robert Reich, “Do we want the U.S. to be Rich or
Japan Poor?” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1990.
112 Herrmann, Tetlock, and Diascro 2001, 202.
113 Ibid., emphasis added.
114 Rousseau 2002, 411.
115 Holsti 2004; Wittkopf 1990; Feaver and Gelpi
116 Feaver and Gelpi 2004; see also Gelpi and Mueller
117 Druckman 2001.
118 Hiscox 2006.
119 Kull and Destler 1999, ch. 5. The robustness of
this ﬁnding is open to question, however. See
Kohut and Stokes 2006, 188–9.
120 Hurwitz and Pefﬂey 1987; Page and Shapiro 1992;
Nincic 1992; Holsti 1992; Jenkins-Smith and
121 Chittick, Billingsley, and Travis 1995.
122 Boettcher and Cobb 2006; Brewer 2006.
123 I am grateful to Benjamin Fordham and Jonathan
Caverley for their suggestions on this point.
The Realist Idea in American Public Opinion
66 Perspectives on Politics
124 Todorov and Mandisodza 2004.
125 Powlick and Katz 1998, 34.
126 Page and Barabas 2000; Page and Bouton 2006.
127 Kennan 1984.
128 Unless otherwise noted, data in this paragraph
comes from Bouton 2002 and Page and Barabas
129 Pew Research Center, “America’s Place in the World
II,” October 1997. Accessed at http://people-press.org/
reports/pdf/102.pdf, April 2006.
130 Holsti 2004, 259.
131 Alvarez and Brehm 2002, ch. 9.
132 Schildkraut 2002.
133 Herrmann, Tetlock, and Diascro 2001, 200.
134 Rankin 2001, 362; Scheve and Slaughter 2001;
Page and Bouton 2006.
135 Friedman 1999.
136 Huntington 1996, 57–58; Solingen 1998; Rosenau
et al. 2005.
137 Herrmann and Keller 2004.
138 Jacobs and Page 2005, 113.
139 On journalists, see Tai and Chanfe 2002. On aca-
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men, see PriceWaterhouseCoopers, “9th Annual
Global CEO Survey,” January 2006.
140 Jacobs and Page 2004.
141 Kull and Destler 1999; Bouton 2004, ch. 5.
142 Peterson, Tierney, and Maliniak 2005; Maliniak
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