The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Public Opinion in American Foreign Policy

A fundamental premise in our democracy is that government policy reflects the will of the people. In an ideal sense, what the government does should derive from citizen opinion. In actuality, what the government does derives only imperfectly from citizen preferences. Yet the public's beliefs and attitudes do guide and constrain public policy, in foreign as well as domestic affairs.

The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam examines the role that public attitudes have played over the last generation in the making of U.S. foreign policy, particularly decisions about interventions. The study seeks to explain that role in the policy process both on a theoretical level drawn from central cases and from the perspective of actual decision-making. In pursuing this goal, the book focuses on four of the most prominent foreign interventions of the last generation: the Vietnam War, the Nicaraguan contra funding controversy, the Gulf War, and the Bosnia crisis. These cases demonstrate how public opinion affected policy and thereby provide the basis for building an overall theory of public opinion and foreign policymaking.

This book also explores for our democracy the actual role of public opinion in foreign intervention policy. The normative is implicitly part of the empirical analysis of the relationship between public opinion and foreign affairs, because policymakers may represent trustees more than delegates in decision-making in foreign affairs. In this context, by suggesting that public opinion constrains policy, the major empirical theories regarding the influence of public opinion on policy (e.g., Almond, 1950; Cohen, 1973; Key, 1961; Page and Shapiro, 1992; Rosenau, 1961) inherently contain a normative element. In particular, V. O. Key's “system of dikes” theory, that public opinion sets limits on policymakers' discretion, illuminates the democratic process of the citizens directing their leaders.

In developing general insights about the impact of opinion on foreign policy, the study discusses intervention as a particularly significant and forceful type of foreign policy activity. It explores the impact of national public opinion on administration policymakers, and where appropriate, the influence of national and constituent opinion on congressional decision-makers. To set a larger historical context for the particular cases, the book also analyzes how current public opinion interacts with longer term trends or cycles in interventionist or isolationist sentiments (Foster, 1983; Klingberg, 1983; Stimson, 1991). Besides having unique meanings, particular levels

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