Internal and external factors vs. political reforms and development

In order to understand the ‘power of public opinion’ we may recall how it interacts with foreign policy making. While the realist school asserts that people’s opinion is constantly changing, elusive, hardly reflect substantial knowledge on foreign policy issues and it is almost impossible to structure the various views (and as such it can be ignored for the higher good of the state), the liberal way of thinking is convinced about its consistency and stability (and as such public opinion is needed for democratic decision-making even in the field of foreign relations). Sometimes, public opinion tends to be tricky, elusive and ‘not so reliable’. To illustrate it, it is worthwhile to take a look at the following two tables containing data from the Arab Barometer (wave II, 2010-2011):

arab barometer wave II, q705.pdf

When asked ‘which is more important in causing the lack of development in the Arab world’ most people in most countries cited either internal factors, or the combination of internal and external factors. Only a minority said that (only) external factors explain the lack of development (Egypt 17,4%; Palestine 21,2%, Saudi-Arabia 7,7%). However, when they were asked about he main obstacles of reform in their countries, most of the respondents were much more critical:

arab barometer wave II, q7113

Vast majority of the respondents agreed with the statement – strongly or some extent – that (q7113) ‘foreign interference is an obstacle to reform in your country’ (Egypt: 83,9%; Jordan: 76,8%; Palestine: 85,1%; Lebanon: 92,4%). Reading the data, the reader may wonder how it is possible that ‘external factors’ play much less significant role in explaining the ‘lack of development’, than ‘foreign interference’ plays in explaining the ‘obstacles to reform’ in a given country. The explanation may be hidden in the ‘context’ of the given question (Q7113). Respondents might have been biased by being asked and answering the following questions at the same time: (q7111) ‘The Arab-Israeli conflict is an obstacle to political reform in your country’ and (q7112) ‘In order to eliminate global terrorism, the Palestine issue must be solved.’

Sources and further reading: Arab Barometer, wave II (2010-2011) and codebook:; [1] R. Holsti (2009) Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Revised Edition. University of Michigan Press



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