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

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 2
The Theory of Public Opinion
and Foreign Policy

INTRODUCTION

As a foundation for advancing the understanding of how public opinion influences foreign policy, this chapter summarizes current knowledge about that complex relationship between public attitudes and government action (Davis and Kline, 1988; Kegley and Wittkopf, 1991; Holsti, 1992, 1996; Sobel, 1993). By synthesizing existing insights and “pre-theory” (Key, 1961; Rosenau, 1961) as a basis for extending the knowledge, the chapter also pushes ahead the understanding and theory of opinion and policymaking. The normative prescription that public opinion should play a role in the foreign policy process sets the context for exploring its actual role.

More than a quarter century ago, James Rosenau's pioneering study reported that “we have little reliable knowledge about the role of public opinion in shaping foreign policy” (1961, p. 4). Despite progress since then in understanding the dimensions of attitudes on foreign policy (Chittick and Billingsly, 1989; Hinckley, 1992; Wittkopf, 1990), still today “research in this area remains underdeveloped and ambiguous” (1961, p. 5). In Rosenau's terms, the research is not much beyond the “pretheoretical” developments in the understanding of the flow of public opinion into foreign policymaking.

In short, there has been little progress either in developing the theory of the opinion-foreign policy connection or in explaining the dynamics of the actual impact of public opinion on policy. Theory building is based on the assessment of and advancement beyond the strengths, weaknesses, and interconnections of existing and ongoing literature. By building upon existing insights into how public sentiments set policy limits, this book moves beyond the pretheoretical stage of understanding the “flow of opinion” in foreign policymaking to developing a fuller model of the paths and linkages of actual influence.

Though Rosenau was one of the first scholars to focus on these issues (Rosenau, 1961), “his elaborate taxonomy of 'linkage politics' generated little cumulative research, except for work correlating domestic and international 'conflict behavior'” (Putnam, 1988, p. 430). “Domestic politics and international relations are often somehow entangled,” as Putnam notes in a different context, “but our theories have

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