Are "Influentials" Less Influential? U.S. Foreign Policy Elites in a Post-Cold War Information Age

By Lagon, Mark P. | World Affairs, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Are "Influentials" Less Influential? U.S. Foreign Policy Elites in a Post-Cold War Information Age


Lagon, Mark P., World Affairs


ELITES AND FOREIGN POLICY IN THE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

Conventional wisdom holds that today elites inside and outside of government will play a much more circumscribed role in shaping U.S. foreign policy than they have in the last half-century. Two contextual changes are cited as reasons for their diminished role. First, the end of the Cold War era has removed the special imperative for a foreign policy establishment to oversee a concerted strategy for competing with a rival superpower. Second, proliferating channels of communication in the so-called information age - informing the public about international issues and transmitting the public will about those issues to leaders - allegedly democratize foreign policy.

Through deductive reasoning and an empirical effort to compare the relative impact of mass and elite attitudes on policy outcomes, this article demonstrates that "influentials" remain as important to shaping foreign policy as they were during the Cold War and are perhaps more so.

Having established some evidence of just how influential the "influentials" still are in foreign policy, it will be useful to identify the ideological groupings among elites after the Cold War that transcend traditional Left-Right, Hawk-Dove dichotomies of the recent past. This taxonomy will account for the migration of American presidential doctrines for statecraft since the Reagan administration and the current trajectory of elite opinion about foreign policy in an era characterized by the ascendant power of the Congress.

Elites: Who and What Are They?

Elites are experts and self-appointed experts inside and outside of government. The governmental and extragovernmental spheres of foreign policy specialists form an interlocking nexus. Periodically, the government absorbs academics, quasiacademics, journalists, and polemicists, and it disgorges political appointees and career bureaucrats - to become academics, quasiacademics, journalists, and polemicists. The circulation of elites ties the spheres inside and outside of government together. The elite media play a particularly crucial role in tying these spheres together by providing a forum for elites to communicate with one another and for agenda-setting (see Brody 1991; Genest 1995). To distinguish elites as a more inclusive array of leaders rather than authoritative decisionmakers, and to highlight their peculiar influence in pluralistic societies, it is helpful to think of elites as opinion leaders (see Weimann 1991).

Elites are the arbiters of the national interest. This is an alternative view of the national interest from that offered by exponents of the realist paradigm of international relations. Instead of seeing the national interest as an objective category driving the behavior of states as actors in the international system, this study assumes that national interest is a subjective category. Foreign policy emerges in the process of elites' defining the national interest in specific terms. I have taken up this subject in a case study of the Reagan years (Lagon 1994b) but do not intend to examine the rich debate between realism and its critics here, given the finite scope of this article.

The relationship between elites and the general public in a democracy's foreign policymaking is one between "mobilizers" and "ratifiers." Elites set out a course for American foreign policy. They seek to mobilize public support for the policies they desire to implement. and hence try to shape opinions of the general public. Alexander George (1980) has called this process "policy legitimation" by leaders.

An analogy can be drawn from management theory. The model of "total quality management" (TQM) is very much in vogue in the business world. A colleague who teaches management suggested that a major tenet of TQM theory can be summarized as, "The customer rules." But the customer needs to know what he or she wants. A product has to be presented to customers first.

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