The domestic politics of peace gets complicated
How we did our research
We fielded a survey experiment in April-May 2017 on a sample of 1,200 U.S. adults via YouGov, using propensity score matching to produce a sample representative of the U.S. population with respect to gender, age, race and education. Subjects read about a hypothetical president in the year 2027, and the narrative randomly described him as either a hawk or as a dove (and, independently, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican).
We told half of the respondents that the president announced a conciliatory policy toward China, removing U.S. troops and canceling Arctic military exercises. The other half read that he was sticking to the status quo.
Next, we asked subjects whether they approve of how the president is doing his job, plus questions to measure why they felt that way. Finally, we described the result of the president’s gesture — China either reacted with friendship, or by taking advantage of the United States — and measured approval one more time.
Peace is domestically risky, but less so for hawks
Overall, our experiment showed that participants disapproved of leaders who pursued reconciliation over the status quo.
But we also found that pursuing reconciliation resulted in much larger penalties for doves than for hawks, all else equal. Withdrawing troops led to a 35.4 percent surge in disapproval for a dove — but increased disapproval by only 12 percent for a hawk. The hawk’s advantage is thus more than 23 percentage points; that is how much less public disapproval hawks suffer for trying to make peace, compared to doves.
This hawk’s advantage persisted even when we told subjects how China responded. Predictably, subjects punished both hawks and doves when China took advantage of the United States — but doves much more so. When China cooperated, the dove was still penalized, but the hawk was rewarded — the only time we saw the president get an approval bump.
In November 2019, we fielded a follow-up study on a sample of 1,455 U.S.-based respondents recruited via quota sampling using the company Lucid, to see whether Americans cared whether the foreign leader was a hawk or a dove. We found that our subjects were generally more disapproving of reconciliation when the foreign leader was a hawk, because they did not trust that the foreign country would stick to its side of the bargain.
Will Trump’s hawkishness help at home?
What can our findings say about domestic reactions to Trump’s Taliban dealings? Perhaps surprisingly, to the extent that Americans see Trump as a hawk, he may be in a better domestic political position to withdraw from Afghanistan than a leader who might be more of a foreign policy dove (such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders).
Even if the Taliban deal disintegrates, Trump would likely face less domestic blowback than a President Warren or Sanders would. If the Taliban sticks to its promises, Trump may actually see an approval bump, although this might not happen, given high levels of polarization. Our research suggests that this is because voters are more confident in the wisdom of withdrawals when hawks propose them, and because they might approve of Trump revealing himself as a moderate rather than a warmonger.
At the same time, the Taliban leadership’s violent — and hawkish — reputation raises the risk of domestic disapproval. Our follow-up research suggests that Americans are wary of peace agreements with foreign hawks, because they suspect their promises to be insincere.
One possibility is that Trump will end up asking the Taliban for deeper concessions to reassure voters. But the big question is whether Trump’s hawkish reputation is enough to offset public skepticism about a peace deal with the Taliban.
Jessica L.P. Weeks is associate professor of political science and Trice faculty scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Michaela Mattes is associate professor of international relations at the University of California at Berkeley.