To what extent does public opinion impact upon the making and development of US foreign policy?

Essay, 2011

9 Seiten

Anonym (Autor)


To what extent does public opinion impact upon

the making and development of US foreign policy?

As the United States of America is a democratic nation,liberals argue that the elected government should act according to public opinion when it comes to foreign policy. Realists, on the other hand, think that only experts respectively politicians are capable of decision-making and therefore public opinion neednot beconsidered. Either way, aninteresting question is,if public opinion is or is not significant when it comes to foreign policy. Therefore this essay will have a look at two stages, namely as U.S.foreign policy is made, and how it might change policies once they have been introduced.

It seems reasonable to assume that public opinion reflects a broad mix of different influences. In general, for example, financial or national security issues might influence public opinion.Not immediately, but most probably after some time (which itself depends on the severance and magnitude of these events). However, it should be noted that public opinion is hard to measure accurately and is therefore in literature usually reflected through surveys or the participation figures of and the behaviour at demonstrations.

Because there shouldnot be a topic in foreign policy that is more important to public opinion than warfare and, connected to it, the national security, the Vietnam and the Iraq War will help to illustrate a possible influence of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy. The analysis of two wars will minimize the risk to rely on findings of just one example and it will also help findingsimilarities and disparities between those wars. The elite and pluralist models provide theoretical background which will be applied on both case studies. To find out in which ways and with what effects public opinion influenced the policy makers, this essay will first look at the time of the beginning of each war and then, in a second step, at developments throughout the wars.

In conclusion, this essay will show that public opinion can be significant and contribute to the policy-making process. At the beginning of a war national security threats do largely overweigh the risks of the war itself, why public support can be interpreted as giving the government a mandate to go to war. However, this does not seem to be an active behaviour but more a reaction to what was sold to them beforehand. If after some time the national security threat slowly disappears in the face of increasing death tolls and costs, and, if decreasing public support is expressed in, for example, large and perennial demonstrations, political leaders could be willing to make concessions to the public in order to regain support, for example, forupcoming elections. It seems as there is no influence, however, if demonstrations are (very) weak and die away when other major issues, like an economy crisisnot caused by the war, arise.

However, before turning to the influence of U.S.public on foreign policy, it is necessary to have a look at specific theories to see how public opinion is shaped through media and government. We will see that the elite model offers explanations for the beginning of a war while the pluralist modelseems to be more reliable as war continues.[1] The latter argues that ‘power is sufficiently dispersed throughout society … [and] the outcome [is] a range of competing positions negotiated through an open political system, a free media and … by a public that … develop[s] an independent opinion.’[2] On the other hand the elite model assumes that ‘relatively small groups within the US wield power’[3] and therefore the political process is the outcome of elite interests which dominate media and public debate.[4]

We now turn to the Vietnam War, where a decade before the beginning of the war France ended its colonial rule over Vietnam in 1954 which left the country partitioned. Whereas the North was run by a communist government, the United States sought the creation of a counterrevolutionary government in the South soon after France left. However, ‘it proved unstable and—in the late 1950s and early 1960s—a revolutionary movement … emerged’[5] to fight this new government. In the wake of these events the United States increased its military involvement which led, in connection with (supposedly) attacks on U.S. ships by North Vietnam, to a direct U.S. involvement in 1964.[6]

This rather long history could imply American public was getting used to a U.S.involvement for a decade. But also politicians were able to use this conflict and show their people that communism is a national security threat one has to be afraid of. The domino theory pushed this fear by saying that after once a country was taken over by communism other countries around it would follow like dominos.[7] Other events around the globe, like the building of the Inner German border, the Cuba Crisis, or the Sputnik Shock, showed the strength and dedication of communist-led countries.

To ‘convince the American public of the need to take on a military burden’[8] in Vietnam, it required ‘an “unprovoked” act of aggression on the USA or its forces.’[9] The supposedly attacking of U.S. ships by North Vietnamese forces, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident,[10] provided a perfect sales argument by demonizing the enemy eventually. Thereafter the support did not just skyrocketamong the public from 42 to 72 per cent, but also the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president broad war powers, was passed unanimously in the House[11] and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate.[12]

Public support for the war, one could argue, might have influenced politicians prior to their vote for the resolution and, in this way, allowed to go to war. However, more likely is that high public support in the mid-60s seemed to be more of a reaction on a ‘strong pro-intervention message … among both government and the news media.’[13] As suggested by the elite model, ‘journalists relied upon … Washington-based news sources’[14] and, one could argue, publicised the views of the elite.

The Iraq War comes to very similar findings at the beginning of the war. Twelve years prior to it, U.S. public saw an involvement of their government when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. A United Nations mandate in the wake of the first Gulf War demanded from Iraq to destroy ‘all long-range missile programs, as well chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.’[15] Because the Iraqi government resisted to those demands,[16] the Bush administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan.[17]

Again, a lot of time passed between the first involvement and the actual Iraq War which allowed the government to sell the new war easier. The constant threat of a dictator with weapons of mass destruction, coupled with a fear of terrorist attacks,[18] led after 9/11 to an extraordinarily high public support for the Afghanistan war between 80 and 90 per cent.[19] One could assume that this high support caused ‘several administration officials [to] insinuate … that Saddam Hussein had pursued collaborations with al Qaeda,’[20] because this accusation served in many ways. First, like in Vietnam, it accused the other side of having them attacked first. Second, it offered a link between Iraq and terrorism and therefore an important national security threat. Third, it was announced just in the weeks leading up to the congressional vote and therefore it ‘pushed Congress to authorise the use of military forces[.] … In the light of this push … both the House and Senate passed resolutions by wide margins.’[21]

A broad public supported the war[22] as well as media when, for example, Times author David Brooks ‘argued that “Bush has such an incredibly strong case to go in there.”’[23] Again, public support seems to be the result of these efforts rather than the factor which influenced the government.

However, we will see that public opinion can influence U.S. foreign policy as we take a closer look at the wars after they started. As early as 1966 opposition against the Vietnam War emerged within the Democratic Party and rose thereafter. Subsequently taken up by the media it then reflected a dissent in the coverage of the war for the first time[24] (which now fits rather the pluralist model of a free media), and led to a rising opposition while the support for the war declined.

By 1967 U.S. troops surged to a total of 500,000[25] while ‘more than 13,000 Americans had died.’[26] Moreover, ‘the President recommended a 10 percent surtax to cover the … increasing costs’[27] which all in all pushed earlier concerns about communism aside and led to a plummeting approval of Johnson’s handling of 28 per cent.[28]

Later this year Richard Nixon promised in his presidential campaign to end the war but he did not as he became President.[29] Though it is the most important instrument in democracies, the vote itself did not influence the policy. Moreover, in order to neutralise the effects of on-going demonstrations, which lately attracted millions of sober, middle-class citizens, Nixon started to talk about a ‘silent majority’[30] which helped him mobilizing ‘a bloc of support where none had existed.’[31]

However, ‘the protests and demonstrations continued’[32] and the ‘silent majority speech had quited away the opposition [only] temporarily.’[33] So Nixon announced the withdrawal of troops ‘in order to “drop a bombshell on the gathering spring storm of anti-war protests.”’[34] Here, public opinion finally influenced U.S.foreign policy in terms of withdrawing troops and, linked to this, reducing the American involvement. Eventually, only 75,000 combat forces had been left in Vietnam in 1971 and one year later, at the beginning of the presidential campaign at home, the forces decreased to a mere number of 6,000.[35]

In the meantime, demonstrations continued because of increasing death tolls, ‘71 percent agree[d] … that the United States had made a mistake’[36] and journalists “labeled the United States ‘the sick man of the western hemisphere.”’[37] In 1973, the commitment of American troops came to an end as peace was settled. Public helped with its strong and perennial demonstrations to end the war, which means they had a significant influence on the foreign policy then.

At the Iraq War, like after some years at the Vietnam War, earlier concerns about the national security vanished over the years. First, Saddam Hussein was captured and then ‘the top U.S. weapons inspector announced there was no evidence Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.’[38] However, this gave space to take a rational look at the consequences of the war: till September 2004 one thousand military deaths have been recorded[39] and at home the U.S. debts rose to finance the war.[40]


[1] For assumptions and further criticisms of these models see Cox/Stokes 2008, pp. 166-178.

[2] Cox, M./Stokes, D., US Foreign Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 167.

[3] Cox, M./Stokes, D., p. 172

[4] Ibid.

[5] Berinsky, A.J., In Time of War. Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Herring, G.C., America’s Longest War. The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Third Edition (London: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1996), p. 17.

[8] Cox, M./Stokes, D., p. 81

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Herring, p. 137

[12] Berinsky, p. 18

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cox, M./Stokes, D., p. 175

[15] Berinsky, p. 27, 29

[16] Berinsky, p. 30

[17] Berinsky, p. 27

[18] Berinsky, p. 194

[19] Berinsky, p. 27

[20] Berinsky, p. 29

[21] Ibid.

[22] Berinsky, p. 31-32

[23] Ricks, T.E., Fiasco—The American Military Adventure in Iraq (London: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 380.

[24] Berinsky, p. 19

[25] Berinsky, p. 18

[26] Herring, America’s Longest War. The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Third Edition, pp. 190-191

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Berinsky, pp. 20-21

[30] Herring, p. 252

[31] Ibid.

[32] Herring, p. 266

[33] Herring, p. 257

[34] Herring, pp. 257, 265

[35] Herring, p. 265, 271

[36] Herring, p. 267

[37] Ibid.

[38] Herbert, T.W., Faith-Based War—From 9/11 to Catastrophic Success in Iraq (London: Unit 6, 2009), p. 7.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Faler, B., Bush Breaks 150-Year History of Higher U.S. Taxes in Wartime, Bloomberg, January 12th 2007;

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To what extent does public opinion impact upon the making and development of US foreign policy?
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Anonym (Autor), 2011, To what extent does public opinion impact upon the making and development of US foreign policy?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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