Can a Single Visit from a Foreign Leader Sway Domestic Public Opinion?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Nicole Wells, covers the new article by Benjamin E. Goldsmith, Yusaku Horiuchi, and Kelly Matush, Does Public Diplomacy Sway Foreign Public Opinion? Identifying the Effect of High-Level Visits

Can a Single Visit from a Foreign Leader Sway Domestic Public Opinion?

The global pandemic has had far reaching consequences for politics. One such consequence has been the pause of in-person visits from international leaders. COVID-19 has forced world leaders onto Zoom calls instead of meeting face-to-face. As vaccine availability ramps up, international leaders are starting to resume diplomatic meetings. So far, President Biden has had in-person visits with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and will have his first overseas trip in June. International visits are important because leaders use public diplomacy to shape global affairs, improve the perceptions of their countries and increase support for specific policies. Can visits from heads of state and heads of government actually increase public approval among foreign citizens? Benjamin Goldsmith, Yusaku Horiuchi, and Kelly Matush found in their recent study that high-level diplomatic visits increased public approval of the visiting leader and that approval persisted for weeks. Their research has important implications that explain how diplomatic visits help governments increase their soft-power capabilities to achieve policy goals.

Benjamin Goldsmith, Yusaku Horiuchi, and Kelly Matush found in their recent study that high-level diplomatic visits increased public approval of the visiting leader and that approval persisted for weeks.

Soft-power is a state’s ability to affect international relations through attraction instead of through coercion or “carrots and sticks” approaches. Public diplomacy is one such tool that leaders will use to create soft-power resources. High-level visits are likely to generate significant media attention and have become a major component of a state’s foreign policy. States mobilize their resources to exercise soft-power for support of foreign policy goals. The authors argue that visiting leaders can try to influence foreign public opinion in two ways. First, they create awareness of themselves and their country among citizens in the host country. Second, they convey positive messages and images focused on the relationship between the two countries in the hope that the host citizens will view the country more favorably.

Goldsmith, Horiuchi, and Matush hypothesize that high level visits increase favorable perceptions of the visiting leader by the host country. To test this hypothesis, the authors collected data on the state visits of Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, UK and U.S. over eleven years and the approval ratings from survey respondents interviewed just before or after these visits. They found a 2.3% increase in approval, on average, across all visits in their data. Additionally, indifferent responses and disapproval of visiting leaders saw a reduction of 1.4 percentage points. The authors’ results show that visits by international leaders do sway public opinion of foreign citizens. Moreover, the increased approval of visiting leaders lasts for an extended period of time. Their study found that increased approval can last up to 20 days after the visit. Overall, the effects of public diplomacy visits are significant in influencing foreign public opinion.

This research has important implications for international relations and soft-power capabilities. It appears that visits from international leaders are a valuable tool for governments pursuing foreign policy goals and developing interstates relationships. The research suggests that the investments made in world leaders’ public diplomacy campaigns do pay off. After a fifteen month pause on in-person public diplomacy, we may find that visits between state leaders and specifically in-person meetings play an even more crucial role than originally thought.


  • Nicole Wells is a PhD student at George Mason University. Her research focuses on democratization, democratic erosion and authoritarianism in Europe and Eurasia. Prior to becoming a PhD student, Nicole was a Fulbright Scholar where she taught Visual Culture, American Rhetoric, and American National Identity at Transylvania University in Brașov, Romania. When she is not studying, Nicole volunteers as a museum guide with the National Women’s Party and educates the public on the NWP’s role in winning women’s right to vote. She resides in Washington, DC where she is known in her neighborhood as the crazy cat lady that walks her cat on a leash.
  • Article details: GOLDSMITH, B., HORIUCHI, Y., & MATUSH, K. (2021). Does Public Diplomacy Sway Foreign Public Opinion? Identifying the Effect of High-Level Visits. American Political Science Review, 1-16. doi:10.1017/S0003055421000393
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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