Faces of Internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

Faces of Internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

by Eugene R. Wittkopf

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In Faces of Internationalism, Eugene R. Wittkopf examines the changing nature of public attitudes toward American foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era and the role that public opinion plays in the American foreign policymaking process. Drawing on new data—four mass and four elite opinion surveys undertaken by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations from 1974 to 1986—combined with sophisticated analysis techniques, Wittkopf offers a pathbreaking study that addresses the central question of the relationship of a democracy to its foreign policy.
The breakdown of the “consensus” approach to American foreign policy after the Cold War years has become the subject of much analysis. This study contributes to revisionist scholarship by describing the beliefs and preferences that have emerged in the wake of this breakdown. Wittkopf counters traditional views by demonstrating the persistence of U.S. public opinion defined by two dominant and distinct attitudes in the post-Vietnam war years—cooperative and militant internationalism.
The author explores the nature of these two “faces” of internationalism, focusing on the extent to which elites and masses share similar opinions and the political and sociodemographic correlates of belief systems. Wittkopf also offers an original examination of the relationship between beliefs and preferences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378587
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 414
File size: 3 MB

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Faces of Internationalism

Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy

By Eugene R. Wittkopf

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7858-7


The Foreign Policy Beliefs and Preferences of the American People: A Thematic Overview

A number of developments during the 1970s contributed to the breakdown of what is widely presumed to have been the foreign policy consensus of the Cold War years. The Vietnam trauma, the onset of détente with the Soviet Union, and the Watergate episode were key elements in the challenge to the assumptions on which the consensus had been built. The wrenching Vietnam experience shook to its very foundation the assumption that American military power by itself could achieve the objectives of American foreign policy. The policy and process of détente called into question the wisdom and assumptions underlying the containment strategy that had served as the cornerstone of American foreign policy for more than two decades. And Watergate challenged the belief that American political institutions were uniquely virtuous and that a presidency preeminent in foreign policy continued to be a necessity in the post-Cold War era. The Cold War foreign policy consensus thus dissipated as the American people became divided not only over the question of whether the United States should be involved in world affairs—which traditionally had divided them along internationalist-isolationist lines—but also how it ought to be involved: which now raised questions about the means of American foreign policy as well as its ends. As differences about ends and means emerged, support for internationalism, which for two decades had sustained an active U.S. role in world affairs, began to manifest different faces.

By the end of the 1970s a number of developments at home and abroad seemed to point to the conclusion that the 1970s may have been little more than an interlude in the nation's historic oscillation between introversion and extroversion (Klingberg, 1952, 1979) that did little to challenge the orthodox postwar world view based on the premises of globalism, anticommunism, containment, military might, and interven-tionism (Kegley and Wittkopf, 1987). Events in Iran and Afghanistan were widely reputed to have contributed to a shedding of the Vietnam legacy and to have rekindled Americans' willingness to be actively and assertively involved in world affairs (see, e.g., Nelson and Conover, 1981; and Yankelovich and Kaagan, 1981). Public support for increased defense spending rose dramatically from the trough of the early 1970s, and the Carter administration laid aside its earlier "global issues" orientation as it girded for renewed battle with the Soviet menace not only in Afghanistan but also in Africa and elsewhere. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, given Reagan's long-standing ideological opposition to communism and the Soviet threat, seemed to confirm how profoundly the domestic context of American foreign policy had shifted toward support of a more assertive America in the course of less than a decade. And the widespread public approval the Reagan administration received for its invasion of Grenada in 1983 and for its air attack on Libya three years later seemed to prove that the ghost of Vietnam had finally been exorcised.

Questions about the nature and purpose of American foreign and national security policy during the remainder of this century and into the next, nonetheless, have been the subject of a continuing and often vigorous debate. A common thread among the various positions that have been advanced is that the foundations on which the role of the United States in world affairs since 1945 was built no longer provide a coherent basis for American policy and no longer enjoy widespread bipartisan support among the American people. Illustrative are the comments of Richard J. Barnet (1987: 76), who argues that "ever since the crisis in the nineteen-sixties over the war in Vietnam the foreign-policy consensus has been under attack, and in recent years [the four pillars that have undergirded postwar U.S. foreign policy] have been wobbling." Barnet describes the "four pillars" as:

(1) A war-prevention system known as deterrence....

(2) A global coalition whose purpose is to contain Soviet power and Communist ideology, and which is maintained by a network of political and military alliances.

(3) A commitment to intervene—by military means, if necessary—in internal wars and insurgencies, mostly in the Third World, in order to prevent revolutionary political change and "Marxist-Leninist" models of economic development.

(4) A liberal international economic order ... that reflects a strong preference for free trade, freely convertible currencies, and fixed exchange rates. (1987: 76)

Against this backdrop he suggests that "The current discussion about national security—the issues are not distinct enough and the choices are too unclear to call it a debate—is about how to shore up deterrence, how to remove the strains in the alliance, how to undertake military interventions in ways that the American public will accept, and how to dilute the commitment to free trade enough to quiet the public anger about foreign goods while holding fast to the principle."

At the same time that these questions were being pondered, other analysts began to worry about the economic burdens of America's global involvement. Concerned with its precarious financial condition in the face of persistent trade and mounting federal government budget deficits, the prescribed policy was a turn from superpower confrontation toward economic reconstruction and revitalization. Paul Kennedy (1987) drew on the historical record spanning five centuries to warn of the adverse economic (and ultimately political) consequences of "imperial overstretch" in his best-selling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Variants on the theme included David P. Calleo's (1987) Beyond American Hegemony and James Chace's (1988) essay in Foreign Policy, in which he proposed "A New Grand Strategy." Drawing on Walter Lippmann's (1943: 9) observation that "foreign policy consists in bringing into balance ... the nation's commitments and the nation's power," Chace argued that the United States "is becoming more ordinary, more like the others, and increasingly subject to unaccustomed constraints." Like Lippmann, Chace urged "solvency" as "the fundamental principle of a wise foreign policy." Solvency, he argued, "means recognizing not only U.S. limitations but also the opportunities that lie ahead for international cooperation and institution- building as America prepares to negotiate the end of the cold war with the Soviet Union" (Chace, 1988: 3-4).

Among others, Zbigniew Brzezinski (1988: 680) responded to the proponents of the solvency school by observing that "the rumors of America's imminent imperial decline," while "quite fashionable," are "premature." He conceded, nonetheless, that "on the strategic, geopolitical and global levels the need exists for significant adjustments in the way the United States participates in the global political process and promotes its fundamental national interests" (1988: 682). The theme was echoed by two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance (1988: 920), who urged in Foreign Affairs "a more restrictive approach to the defense of American objectives than that in the immediate postwar period." Importantly, Kissinger and Vance prefaced their prescription with the observation that "[it is] our deep belief that the security of free peoples and the growth of freedom both demand a restoration of bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy.... [W]e are convinced that the American national purpose must at some point be fixed. If it is redefined—or even subject to redefinition—with every change of administration in Washington, the United States risks becoming a factor of inconstancy in the world.... Other nations—friends or adversaries— unable to gear their policies to American steadiness will go their own way, dooming the United States to growing irrelevance" (1988: 899). The implication is that the former secretaries of state believed these processes were already in motion.

Consensus and Its Breakdown

The foreign policy consensus presumed to have held sway in the United States prior to Vietnam years captured elements of both conflict and cooperation. The United States was willing to cooperate with other nations to solve global as well as national problems, but if need be it would also intervene in the affairs of others, using force if necessary to protect its self-defined national interests. It was an approach toward active global involvement that seemingly enjoyed strong domestic support.

Dissenting voices were heard, to be sure, but support for active involvement in world affairs was widespread. Ole R. Holsti (1979: 341-42), for example, has argued that in the decades following World War II "leadership opinion in the United States ... tended to converge around a series of propositions defining the essential character of the global system and of America's proper role within it.... The result was a politically centrist coalition that supported the main contours of a globalist foreign policy." Similarly, Ralph B. Levering (1978) has argued that the Cold War consensus embraced by foreign policy activists placed them near the middle of a unilateralist-multilateralist continuum, the extremes of which reflected the views of conservative, nationalist critics of American foreign policy and liberal, internationalist critics. Thus, Levering (1978: 105) argues, foreign policy activists "supported forming alliances, working through the United Nations, and giving foreign aid—but only if these multilateralist policies clearly were promoting the national interest." Gabriel A. Almond (1960: 158) also observed in his classic study, The American People and Foreign Policy, first published in 1950, that "a general ideological consensus" exists in the United States. "At the level of general opinion on public policy, one may speak of a consensus of mood, of shared emotional states in response to changes in the domestic and foreign arenas. At the level of articulate elite policy formulation there is a broad consensus ... to be understood as an adherence to a broad compromise on political procedures and policies."

Anticommunism provided much of the glue of the foreign policy consensus. As I. M. Destler, Leslie Gelb, and Anthony Lake (1984: 19) put it, "The anti-Communist-policy consensus was at the heart of centrism and majorityship and gave [American foreign policy] steadiness and direction." Similarly, James Chace (1978: 3), a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, observed how "selling programs to Congress and the American people ... was always made easier if they could be clothed in one garment," namely, anticommunism.

Presidential dominance in foreign affairs and bipartisanship in congressional-executive relations were important elements of the way the consensus operated in practice. Destler (1985: 14) has pointed out that there was a constant foreign policy debate on matters involving Congress and the president, and on some issues, such as foreign aid appropriations, "presidents did not always win on Capitol Hill," but on security issues the president did reign supreme. The best evidence is found in the overwhelming congressional support for the "area resolutions" granting the president broad authority to cope with external conflict situations in the Middle East, Berlin, Cuba, the China straits, and Vietnam.

By the mid-1970s, however, this picture had been fundamentally altered. As challenges were mounted at home and abroad to the position the United States had occupied in world affairs since World War II, the consensual beliefs seemingly so self-evident in the 1950s and 1960s became the object of often bitter partisan and ideological disputes. In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski:

[O]ur foreign policy became increasingly the object of contestation, of sharp cleavage, and even of some reversal of traditional political commitments. The Democratic Party, the party of internationalism, became increasingly prone to the appeal of neo-isolationism. And the Republican Party, the party of isolationism, became increasingly prone to the appeal of militant interventionism. And both parties increasingly found their center of gravity shifting to the extreme, thereby further polarizing our public opinion. (1984: 15-16)

Further evidence of the breakdown of the Cold War foreign policy consensus can be found in the vigorous introspection about the nation's appropriate posture in the world that found its way into various journals during the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly Foreign Policy. At issue were a number of questions central to the premises of the Cold War consensus: the nature of the Soviet threat, the wisdom of containment, the role that force should play in American foreign policy, and whether American interests and values were best protected by pursuing an active world role or by concentrating attention on problems at home. It was as though a "new" foreign policy establishment was vying with the "old"—which had based its power and position on the premises of the Cold War consensus—for the right to control the making and execution of American foreign policy for the duration of the millennium (Gershman, 1980).

In short, the bipartisan consensus of the Cold War years regarding the ends and means of American foreign policy was shattered. And in the view of many, it was unlikely to be rebuilt. "The kind of broad consensus that obtained during the postwar era and which became a shibboleth of American foreign policy may no longer be possible to resurrect short of war," wrote Chace (1978: 15). "American interests are too diverse and American power much less predominant." As the bipartisan consensus was shattered, so too was the belief that "politics stops at the water's edge." Always more myth than reality, perhaps, the perception was nonetheless a key element of a domestic political environment that had permitted presidents from Truman to Johnson to count on broad-based domestic support for their foreign policy initiatives. Their successors would not enjoy that luxury.

The Nature of Americans' Internationalist Attitudes

The view that the United States ought to take an active role in world affairs has enjoyed persistent public support throughout the post-World War II era. Beginning in the 1940s, several different surveys and polling organizations have asked the following question: "Do you think it would be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?" The response has been remarkably consistent. Roughly two-thirds of the American people supported an active world role at about the time President Truman enunciated his famous doctrine, and the proportion stayed at this level or higher throughout the 1950s. During the 1960s the question was asked only once, in 1965, but it received a nearly 80 percent margin of support. Support for the proposition declined somewhat during the 1970s, but it averaged 63 percent during the decade and remained at that level during the 1980s. Thus the view that a consensus in favor of internationalism has characterized public attitudes throughout the post-World War II era receives strong and consistent support.

But even while the American people have continually supported an active role for the United States in world affairs, the nature of their internationalist attitudes has changed. William Watts and Lloyd A. Free (Watts and Free, 1978; Watts, 1985) illustrate these changes with responses to several questions in public opinion surveys they conducted between 1964 and 1985, which they used to place respondents on an internationalism-isolationism continuum. The results are depicted graphically in figure 1.1. The picture suggests a gradual erosion of internationalist attitudes between 1964 and 1972, followed by a sharp decline in the immediate post-Vietnam years of 1974–76, with less than a majority of respondents falling into the internationalist category during that time. Inspection of the items used to construct the internationalism index indicates that declining support for the United Nations and a drop in the number of Americans willing to defend Europe and Japan militarily in the event of a Soviet or Chinese attack account for these developments. The findings have a parallel in attitudes toward military spending during this period, which show a remarkable decline in support for increased defense spending between 1965 and 1975 and an even more dramatic increase in the number of Americans who believed that too much was being spent on defense (Kriesberg and Klein, 1980; and Russett and DeLuca, 1981). The trends in both series are consistent with the proposition that the Vietnam experience and related developments during the 1970s profoundly affected the attitudes of Americans toward the role of the United States in world affairs.


Excerpted from Faces of Internationalism by Eugene R. Wittkopf. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Foreign Policy Beliefs and Preferences of the American People: A Thematic Overview,
2. The Structure of Mass Foreign Policy Beliefs and Their Political and Sociodemographic Correlates,
3. Correlates of Mass Foreign Policy Beliefs: Policy Preferences and Performance Evaluations,
4. The Structure of Leaders' Foreign Policy Beliefs and Their Correlates,
5. A Comparison of the Foreign Policy Beliefs and Preferences of Leaders and the Mass Public,
6. Was There Ever a Foreign Policy Consensus in American Popular Opinion?,
7. Bipartisanship in Congressional-Executive Relations: Myth or Reality?,
8. Faces of Internationalism: Retrospect and Prospect,
9. Epilogue: Americans Talk Security, 1987–88,
Appendix 1 Questionnaire Items Used to Construct the Foreign Policy Attitude Scales, Mass Samples, 1974–86,
Appendix 2 Logistic Regression Analyses of the Relationship Between Foreign Policy Beliefs and Policy Preferences, Mass Samples, 1974–86,
Appendix 3 Questionnaire Items Used to Construct the Foreign Policy Attitude Scales, Leader Samples, 1974–86,
Appendix 4 Logistic Regression Analyses of the Relationship Between Foreign Policy Beliefs and Policy Preferences, Pooled Samples, 1974–86,
Appendix 5 Historical Data on Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy, 1947–86,
Appendix 6 Indexes of Congressional Foreign Policy Voting, 1947–86,
The Author,

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