This chapter focuses particularly on public opinion, which is a societal factor that serves as both a powerful ingredient and a constraint in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Historically, Americans were considered uninformed about the particulars of international affairs and foreign policy, although they form opinions readily regarding global situations when presented with the bare facts. Much of a policy maker’s time is spent manipulating and actively gauging public opinion.
Exploring public opinion regarding U.S. foreign policy is challenging because it varies depending on issue, time period, and the type of person voicing the opinion. The public can be divided into three main groups based on its attention to and impact on foreign policy: the mass public, attentive public, and foreign policy elite. The imbalance of the groups’ levels of influence and involvement is at the heart of the paradox of the inverse relationship between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. Further compounding this paradox is the continuous debate over whether government officials should represent the foreign policy wishes of the public or use their experience and expertise to make foreign policy decisions. This chapter also investigates the deeper held values and beliefs, as opposed to factual knowledge, that make up public opinion regarding foreign policy and international politics. This chapter then moves from theoretic to practical implications of public opinion. Included are discussions of a rally effect on presidential approval following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Obama administrations effort to restore the countries tarnished international credibility. Overall, this chapter reveals that public opinion is a potent force in U.S. foreign policy decision-making.