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

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
Extending the Theory of Public Opinion
in American Foreign Policy: Public Opinion
as Intervention Constraint

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. The study explains the place of opinion in the policy process, particularly decisions about U.S. interventions, both on a theoretical level and from the perspective of actual decision-makers. In pursuing its goals, 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 war in Bosnia. By demonstrating how public opinion affected policy, the cases provide the basis for the building of an overall theory of public opinion in foreign policymaking.

This concluding chapter summarizes and reflects on the insights the book provides into the relationship between public opinion and foreign policymaking. In particular, it draws conclusions from comparisons across the cases about how public opinion actually entered into the foreign policy decision-making process in military interventions. Further, it explores the impact of national public opinion on administration policymakers, and for the Nicaragua case, the influence of national and constituent opinion on congressional decision-makers. In short, it evaluates the actual roles of public opinion in the foreign policy of our democracy.

Through the combination of analytic approaches, the investigation of these four controversies advances the knowledge of and the theories about public opinion in foreign interventions. Reviews of the major empirical theories of the influence of public opinion set the basis for Key's system of dikes theory, which generally holds that public opinion sets limits or constraints on the discretion that policymakers have in choosing from among possible policy options. The decline of public support established, for instance, how long the United States could continue intervention in Vietnam. Protest as a type of public opinion set limits on how extreme, for example, could be the options from which the Johnson and Nixon administration policymakers could choose.

In developing general insights about opinion's impact on foreign policy, the study explores foreign policy attitudes as shaped by the climate of opinion, overall presidential approval, and public preferences for specific policies. The examination of the

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