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The choice for multilateralism: Foreign aid and American foreign policy

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Abstract

Why do governments choose multilateralism? We examine a principal-agent model in which states trade some control over the policy for greater burden sharing. The theory generates observable hypotheses regarding the reasons for and the patterns of support and opposition to multilateralism. To focus our study, we analyze support for bilateral and multilateral foreign aid giving in the US. Using new survey data, we provide evidence about the correlates of public and elite support for multilateral engagement. We find weak support for multilateralism and deep partisan divisions. Reflecting elite discourse, public opinion divides over two competing rationales—burden sharing and control—when faced with the choice between multilateral and bilateral aid channels. As domestic groups’ preferences over aid policy diverge from those of the multilateral institution, maintaining control over aid policy becomes more salient and support for multilateralism falls.

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Notes

  1. The distinction between bilateral and unilateral relations in foreign policy terms is hard to maintain. Most policies are directed at particular countries, and hence even if chosen by the US alone they are part of a bilateral relationship.

  2. Note that some find no difference between multilateral and bilateral aid in their effects (e.g., Rajan and Subramanian (2008)).

  3. A 2004 sample of House and Senate members asked how important public opinion was for the formation of foreign policy. On a 0–10 scale, with 0 not at all influential and 10 extremely influential, average responses were 7 and 7.5 for the House and Senate, respectively (Chicago Council 2005).

  4. Recent economic models also use a principal-agent framework to model the choice for multilateralism, but they assume a unitary donor government (Hagen 2006; Svensson 2000). This assumption clearly differentiates their work from ours.

  5. Aid giving is complex. Some bilateral aid is allocated to a country but given to an NGO for delivery; and some multilateral aid, like debt relief, is not really channeled to the foreign recipient. On average, however, multilateral aid involves at least one extra link in the PA chain of delegation.

  6. Burden sharing within international institutions is a topic of significant interest. Early research pointed out that countries will share burdens differently depending on their size, with the largest countries providing the most (Olson and Zeckhauser 1966).

  7. Nearly 20 years later this theme continued. “The Kasich amendment would cut $56 million, but, in fact, it has the impact, because it is leveraged 118 times, which makes it undoubtedly the most single cost-effective element in our entire foreign aid budget…The capital contribution to the World Bank eliminated by this amendment leverages burden-sharing by other countries at a ratio greater than $4 for every $1 of US contribution” (Congressional Record 1977, pg. 13159–60).

  8. A general finding in the public opinion literature is that attitudes toward multilateralism break down along liberal-conservative lines, but little theoretical reason is given for this opposition to multilateralism per se (Broz 2008; Holsti 2004).

  9. Clist (2011) demonstrates that US bilateral economic aid has been highly influenced by geostrategic concerns.

  10. Please see http://yougov.co.uk/publicopinion/methodology/ for additional information.

  11. Identifying elites is difficult, and scholars do not agree on this. Surveys of elites often identify them by their formal positions; see, for example, Hooghe (2003) and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys of elites.

  12. Alternatively, one might have asked this question by permitting a more continuous tradeoff or even no tradeoff at all between the two options. Asking the public what percent of aid should be multilateral seems to be a very hard question that we doubt many would have stable answers to. Asking just about multilateralism without any tradeoff seems likely to overestimate support for it since it now seems costless. We asked the question the way we did because it is a simple way to understand basic preferences for multilateralism versus bilateralism. Future surveys could ask the question in different ways.

  13. In our Polimetrix Surveys, we specify that we are asking about “economic” aid, and we provide several examples of non-UN international organizations through which some form of multilateral support is provided. These differences might explain the higher levels of support for multilateralism in the PIPA survey. An alternative explanation is that our questions made aid seem strictly as unconditional budgetary support. If citizens simply see multilaterals as adding an additional administrative cost beyond what a bilateral delivery will entail, which may or may not be the case, this will drive support down. The crucial point is that there are substantial divisions on this issue.

  14. We did this for several reasons. First, the political opinion literature is divided on how best to deal with the fact that people might not have clear, salient positions (Mondak 2001). We cover both cases. The results reported below differ relatively little in terms of the influence of important subject-level covariates. Second, in the fall 2008 and 2009 surveys, we asked follow up questions on why the individual preferred one channel of aid versus the other. In order to maximize responses to this question, we did not include a “don’t know” response. The 2010 survey permitted “don’t know” responses but then asked a follow up. While various branching methods might also be used, we feel our approach casts a broad, agnostic survey net.

  15. Similar patterns hold for less educated individuals.

  16. The question read: “Please tell us whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the following statement: The U.S. needs to play an active role in solving conflicts around the world” (Mansfield and Mutz 2009).

  17. We measure preferences towards aid in general with the following question asked prior to questions about multilateralism and separated by a series of non-foreign aid related questions. “The United States gives various types of foreign aid to other countries. Some of this aid is economic aid that is designed to promote economic development and welfare in poor countries. Other aid is military aid such as military hardware and training. Other aid is disaster relief. What should the U.S. do with its foreign economic aid program? Expand a lot, expand a little, keep the same, decrease a little, decrease a lot.”

  18. Available on the journal website.

  19. The effect of international orientation was ambiguous. Those wanting the US to take a more active role in world affairs were not more likely to support multilateralism.

  20. For instance, the development of the idea of a “Western security community” has been associated with the continuity of the norm of multilateralism among Western countries even after the end of the Cold War (Jepperson et al. 1996, pg. 64).

  21. Future work could use only open-ended responses or use deliberative polling procedures, although both have weaknesses. Other theories beyond the self-binding and normative accounts might give other reasons for bilateral aid that we do not list. Below we report the percentage of people choosing the “other” category, which is low. Following a suggestion from David Lake we changed the self-binding prompt for the 2010 survey, which as discussed below increased support for this rationale but not beyond that of burden sharing.

  22. In the 2008 and 2009 surveys the order of the questions was fixed and in 2010 the order was randomized. In 2010 the self-binding rationale also included the phrase “and reassures other countries about the US’ good intentions.”

  23. And in Table 4, as discussed below, we show that this reason was most salient among conservatives as our PA model anticipates.

  24. We think that the idea of widely shared motives among countries gets at a central idea in normative accounts—i.e., the idea of a shared norm of using multilaterals. But the question does not ask directly if the multilateralism is “appropriate” and “motives” may be too close to “interests.” Future work could use different phrasings.

  25. Less educated members of the public also shared these concerns. Education levels did not differentiate the public.

  26. A minority of our respondents gave “other” responses. Some of these reasons are not included in our list, such that multilaterals are more efficient.

  27. This data does not let us identify the direction of causality. Do people like multilateralism because they like the World Bank, or the other way around? Experimental studies might let us answer these questions.

  28. For example, if multilateral institutions limit the ability of a particular partisan orientation to shape foreign policy, then multilateral aid can form a desirable constraining device.

  29. We believe this manipulation holds constant expectations about who would actually win. However, if this manipulation were not perfect then some subjects could have answered the questions conditional on their own expectations of who would win. While this might moderate the effect of our treatment, we did not ask a manipulation check question for our treatment given its rather direct/explicit nature and space considerations.

  30. The specific text of the question was: If [McCain/Obama] wins in November would you like the US to change how it delivers aid by: 1) Increasing the percentage of aid given through international organizations and decrease the amount given by the US directly 2) Increasing the percentage of aid given directly by the US and decrease the amount given through international organizations 3) Keeping the relative amounts of these ways of giving aid the same.

  31. These tests use differences in proportions with survey weights included.

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Correspondence to Helen V. Milner.

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We would like to thank Torben Behmer for research assistance, the TRIPS team for access to their survey, seminar audiences at APSA, IPES, Washington University at St. Louis, reviewers, the editor, and Leo Baccini, Ahmed Faisal, Erin Graham, Robert Keohane, Randy Stone, Sarah Bermeo, Tana Johnson, Shana Marshall, Ken Schultz, David Lake, Stephen Kaplan, and Kevin Young for excellent feedback.

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Milner, H.V., Tingley, D. The choice for multilateralism: Foreign aid and American foreign policy. Rev Int Organ 8, 313–341 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-012-9153-x

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