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Going Public Abroad: When and why leaders address foreign publics


In 1939, as the UK was barreling towards war with Germany, the King and Queen of England visited the United States and toured five states with President Roosevelt. On March 13, 2015-- two weeks before a closely contested election in Israel-- Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled to the United States to address Congress. Why spend such significant time and resources on these trips? While many dismiss this public diplomacy as strategically insignificant, I argue that leaders can use these seemingly low-cost appeals appeals to foreign audiences to indirectly influence either the government of the foreign country or their own domestic audience.

Because most citizens form their policy opinions based on elite cues, low-cost statements from leaders can sometimes shape the conversation surrounding a policy issue in another country. By influencing the political discourse and public opinion in a foreign country, leaders can place strategic political constraints on the leaders of those countries. First, I collect data on international trips made by 11 G20 leaders along with daily internet searches to test when foreign leaders can garner attention abroad. Next I use detailed case studies and public opinion data to examine when leaders can persuade a foreign audience or use a foreign backlash to build domestic support. I match micro-level trade exposure data with survey data from the UK to demonstrate that Obama had a significant influence on the Brexit debate during his 2016 visit. Additionally, I combine the geographic route of the British royal couple in 1939 with survey data to show that they had a measurable effect on American public opinion on intervention into WWII.

Furthermore, political leaders often require both domestic support and cooperation from other countries in order to achieve foreign policy goals. Rather than merely limiting a leader's policy options, I argue that this tension can be exploited by a leader to help him communicate credibly to his domestic audience. Leaders can leverage an international backlash to signal alignment with their domestic audience and increase their domestic support. I develop a formal model to identify the conditions under which a leader can benefit from this counter-intuitive strategy.

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