Why meeting with Putin may just give Trump a popularity boost

Protesters rally outside the White House in Washington, US, after President Donald Trump's return from Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. /REUTERS
Protesters rally outside the White House in Washington, US, after President Donald Trump's return from Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. /REUTERS

By setting , President Donald Trump is hoping to smooth over bad relations between the United States and Russia. He may also be thinking about benefiting in the polls and at the ballot box.

As a scholar who looks at how , I started to wonder if peace also paid a dividend for presidents – maybe even a bigger one than waging war or talking tough.

Peace is at hand – elections, too
Kissinger tells a White House news conference ‘peace is at hand’ on Oct. 26, 1972 – a statement that came to be known as the ‘October surprise.’

These words – spoken at a Washington, D.C. press conference on Oct. 26, 1972, by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger about the status of the Paris Peace Conference negotiations with North Vietnam – are said to have sealed the re-election bid of Richard Nixon.

Two weeks later, .

And yet, it is the diversionary theory of war that is well-established in the field of international relations. Based on theories of conflict by and , scholars contend that when a leader is facing internal trouble, fighting an external foe can provide from a burst of patriotism that accompanies war. Sometimes it’s even possible to make a foreign rival the scapegoat for a mess at home.

The theory crossed over from professors to pundits in 1998 when in retaliation for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Clinton was plagued by the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the time and reporters linked the bombings to the 1997 film “Wag the Dog” about a president who wages .

While the media began to apply the theory to nearly every use of force, many scholars tried and failed to find that leaders started conflicts as a diversion. Some found more evidence that conflicts short of war, like , were used as diversions in U.S. foreign policy.

Other scholars looked abroad and were able and limited displays of force with leaders facing domestic troubles, .

Distracting the public with peace

So while picking fights overseas as a way of drawing a nation together may not be as common as we think, could peace be a better political strategy?

Scholars analyzing argue that when given the chance, people vote for peace. Authoritarian regimes are the ones who drag the public into bloody conflicts. But . Political scientist Barbara Yoxon notes that there has been a recent rise in the number of that combine elements of democracy and autocracy, hosting elections that are often unfair, and fail to deliver basic freedoms to the people. But true democracies rarely go to war because the government is responsive to the people, who want peace.

Democratic President Bill Clinton achieved a bump in only one of his – a five-point boost when targeting Saddam Hussein’s facilities in Iraq that were . Bombing Bosnia netted a one-point increase on average while Clinton’s approval ratings fell by more than three points after a Kosovo bombing and two points after targeting al-Qaida.

Sure enough, peace paid off better for Clinton in the polls. As he brought , Clinton’s approval rating jumped up 10 points in one poll, with an average approval rating increase of more than seven points. The generated a 4.5 percentage point jump. The deal that ended the Kosovo conflict, the led to a slight increase. The exception was a slight dip in polling following the which the U.S. helped negotiate. All of the Clinton polling averages were taken from .

North Korea and Russia

Shortly before President Trump launched his peace initiative in North Korea, he was sitting at a 40.25 percent average in the polls. That climbed to 44 percent . The effect only lasted a few days, but those polls crept up as the Singapore summit approached, culminating in an average of nearly 45 percent of Trump’s approval ratings. Some surveys indicated support at 49 percent before the furor over the detention of immigrant children .

Contrast this with results from Trump’s threats against Kim Jong Un. After on Aug. 8, 2017, Trump dropped from an average approval rating of 37.7 percent to 36.7 percent. It was a similar story on Jan. 2, 2018, when Then, he slid from a pre-poll average of 41.3 percent to 39.9 percent.

Both uses of force against Syria over chemical weapons met with a tepid response at best. Before and after , Trump’s average fell from 40.7 percent to 40 percent. Nearly a year later, in Syria changed nothing about Trump’s standing in America, stuck at 40 percent. Gallup polling showed the same results.

Is peace a sleight of hand?

So should we expected that meeting with Putin will make Trump more popular?

That may depend on whether the public believes the diplomacy was designed for a true reconciliation of hostilities – or merely a ploy to win re-election, help his party in the midterms, or cement his legacy in the history books.

After all, peace wasn’t really at hand before the 1972 election, , a conflict to be decided at a later date, when polls didn’t matter as much.


, Professor of Political Science,

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