Public Opinion and Foreign Aid: A Review Essay

Milner, H.V., Tingley, D. 2013. International Interactions

The study of public opinion and foreign policy has a long history (Almond, 1950; Converse, 1964; Lippmann, 1955). This history includes a long-standing debate over the utility of studying public opinion when considering international affairs (Holsti, 1992; Mueller, 1971; Page and Shapiro, 1983; Page and Shapiro, 1992; Wittkopf, 1986). The dismissal of the importance of public opinion stems from the concern that the mass public knows little about foreign policy. Prominent theories about foreign policy and international relations give no role to publics (Krasner, 1978; Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979). Very few theoretical perspectives in international relations give any weight to public attitudes; neorealism, neoliberalism, and institutionalism provide very little space for the mass public to affect foreign policy. Over time, this view has begun to change slowly. In two areas especially have the attitudes and beliefs of the public become salient to IR theory. First, audience cost arguments about the sources and outcomes of conflict have revitalized interest in public opinion (Fearon, 1994; Reiter and Stam, 2002; Schultz, 2001; Slantchev, 2006; Trager and Vavreck, 2011). The second area where public opinion has become more salient as an explanatory factor in international relations is in studies of cooperation. Increasingly, scholars attribute leaders’ compliance with cooperative agreements and commitments, such as treaties, to domestic publics and their dislike for leaders who violate international agreements (Dai, 2007; Mansfield and Milner, 2012; McGillivray and Smith, 2005; Simmons, 2009; Tomz, 2007). In each case the public exercises an influence through its approval or disapproval of the president and his actions. The theories surrounding these claims assume that the president understands this influence and responds to—or anticipates—it. The literature on foreign aid and public opinion is even thinner than that on public opinion and foreign policy generally or in relations to particular policy areas like trade and immigration. There is very little research on attitudes toward aid in recipient countries and only limited work on public opinion toward aid in donors (Milner, 2006; Milner and Tingley, forthcoming; Paxton and Knack, 2012; Stern, 1998). We explore several key issues in the study of foreign aid and public opinion using mostly our own research on the US. We think attitudes toward aid are more consistent and structured than many scholars do. We show that they appear to be structured by both material and ideological influences. And we suggest ways in which they might affect aid policy and policy makers. We end with a brief discussion of attitudes toward aid in recipient countries. Finally, we mention several areas for future research.