American Foreign Policy

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Q.1) What role does public opinion play in the making of American foreign policy?

Introduction

            Different schools of thought have arisen concerning the role of public opinion and its influence on the making of foreign policy in America during and after the Cold War. This essay will examine two schools of thought regarding the formulation of public opinion, namely the school of liberalists and the school of realists. The essay also looks at the impacts that public opinion has on the making of foreign policy for a liberal democracy like America both in reality and on paper.

            There is the school of realists who believe that opinion of the public is volatile, non-coherent, and bound to be affected by emotions. According to realists, opinions of the public should not influence the formulation of public policy as they lack a proper structure. The other school of thought is that of liberalists. The liberal school of thought believe that opinion of the public is stable and well-structured and, as such, should influence the process of formulation of foreign policy in America. Basing on these two schools of thought, some leaders have taken into account opinions of the public when formulating policies, while others have chosen to ignore them (Holsti, 1992).

            Democracy in the words of Abraham Lincoln is a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The term ‘liberal democracy’ means a modern form of democracy, and it has been used to describe many western democracies such as that of the United States and the European Union. Foreign policy has to do with a decision taken by a government which, to a large extent, affects its relations with other states or governments. In liberal democracies, foreign policy decisions are made by the people and for the people.

            Jentleson (1992) argues that, unfortunately, for many citizens of America, foreign policy is a concept that is very abstract.  It is a phenomenon to which majority of Americans do not give much thought. They only think of it when the foreign policy threatens to interfere with their fundamental rights of family, education, and work. In theory, the process of foreign policy formulation begins with a clear definition of the public interest. Only policies that clearly protect these interests should be formulated. Besides, all the departments are expected to work together to ensure that the fundamental rights of the American citizens are protected. This has not always been the case. During the Second World War and even during the Cold War, opinion of the public regarding foreign policy was very critical.

            In reality, everything is quite different. No particular system of government is able to formulate a perfect foreign policy that addresses the needs of the entire population. The national interest is a combination of the interests of different groups of people that may not be necessarily satisfied. The people who formulate these policies also have their personal interests that they would like to see addressed. Thus, there is a need for the American citizens to be made aware of the importance of their opinions in the foreign policy formulation process.

            Many analysts insist that the American citizens’ involvement in the formulation is sporadic. It has been noted that citizens are more concerned about military interventions that involve force and are not very bothered by other issues such as hunger interventions or foreign trade. Proper civic education is, therefore, required to sensitize the public about their responsibilities in the formulation of policies. The public should not have to depend on the media for information regarding policies as some of this information may be biased (Bennett, 1996).

            There are, however, disadvantages associated with an increased public knowledge of and involvement in the foreign policy formulation. When the public knows its rights and monitors such policies, it slows down the process as the government finds ways to satisfy all the interest groups. It is the duty of the leaders to engage the public in meaningful debates and dialogue that are aimed at enlightening them and creating awareness about the importance of their participation in foreign policies.

Conclusion

            Foreign policy should not be left in the hands of a few individuals in government. It is important that opinions of the public are taken into account. According to Woodrow Wilson, a human rights activist, public opinion is important in the formulation of foreign policy. Woodrow advises against secret deals by government agencies and stipulates that foreign policies should not be arrived at ‘behind the backs of the people.’ In his view, foreign policies should be formulated with the full participation of the public and their interests must be protected.

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