Intricately tied to all forms of representative democracy is the belief that the public has a say in policy decisions made by its government. Elected officials represent the voter's opinions and desires and will be held accountable during elections. …
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US Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
While many believe that public opinion can and does matter to policy makers, others contend that public opinion complicates or is of relative importance to policy making.
If the issue is of great importance to the public and there is a common consensus as to how the problem may be resolved between a majority of the public and policy makers, policy makers are likely to be facilitated in their foreign policy aims. The most recent and significant example of this is the US incursion into Iraq in 2003. When an issue is of lesser importance, resulting in a less educated public, the policy making process can be complicated. Needless to say foreign policy making is the most difficult when it concerns issues of great importance and little common consensus.
To ensure political success, presidents and other policy makers must use an understanding of public attitudes to structure their foreign policies for presentation to their constituents. Public opinion is not as malleable as some believe it to be. We only have to point to various examples of American politicians attempting to coerce public opinion on issues that are unpopular with the American public and their lack of success in doing so.
One of the major underpinnings of representative democracy is the belief that government policy, both foreign and domestic, is controlled by public opinion and the power of the vote. Whether or not this is a reality with regards to foreign policy has been a question of debate between various theories of international relations over the course of the twentieth century. While most students of the topic admit that public opinion can have some sort of affect on military, economic and political practices abroad, the extent of this impact is fiercely debated, most notably by the realist and liberal camps.
Realist theory claims that public opinion is unpredictable and ever changing. Because foreign policy often has its affect in places that are so far removed geographically public opinion has an irrational edge to it. Although Realists do admit that public opinion can have a considerable impact on foreign policy making in democracies, it is for this reason that it is most often "erratic and incoherent" and they conclude that "a good foreign policy is incompatible with the democratic process and therefore the decision-making process should be isolated from the vagaries of public opinion." 1 Foreign policy is far too remote and complex in its issues and very often the public is not well informed enough for it to respond rationally.
From the liberal point of view public opinion is seen as a positive element which could bring about a more reasonable and peaceful foreign policy.
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