The Watergate hotel and condominium complex, June 17, 2002.
Hyungwon Kang / Reuters

For many years, public attitudes toward foreign policy leadership in the United States could be summed up as "President knows best." Virtually throughout the Vietnam War, up to its very end, the public gave the President - whether Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon - the benefit of the doubt. A President, any President, was presumed to possess vital information unavailable to others, and therefore to be in the best position to judge what actions were in the nation's interest. Several years ago I calculated a pre-Watergate, 50 percent "automatic support" factor for presidential decisions in foreign policy. Analyzing a number of public opinion polls taken before and after presidential decisions in foreign policy, I calculated that the President could count on adding up to 50 percent of the electorate to his support column once he had made a decision, almost regardless of the policy initiative in question. So untroubled was public confidence in executive legitimacy in foreign affairs that people simply assumed the President must have access to knowledge and wisdom denied to ordinary citizens.

In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, these "old rules" of presidential latitude largely collapsed, victims of abuses under the so-called imperial presidency. Although it is difficult to calculate the precise shrinkage of automatic public support since the end of the Vietnam War, my impression is that it has dwindled to less than half its previous 50 percent margin, and in some instances may have disappeared altogether. Increasingly, the President may find himself having to justify his initiatives to a critical, reluctant public, with few citizens going along just because the President is presumed to know best. Under the conditions that now prevail, not only has automatic support for presidential policymaking dwindled, but public opinion data have indicated that the American people are eager to have more say - both directly and through their surrogates in Congress - in the formation of foreign policy.

Vietnam and Watergate were pivotal events in spurring the American public to withdraw automatic support for presidential initiatives. But the continuing mood of skepticism and lack of confidence in the presidency can no longer be blamed on these fast-receding historical episodes. Today, public mistrust of presidential leadership in foreign affairs is an almost accidental by-product of a larger decline of confidence in government that has been gathering force for 20 years. Except for Vietnam, the decline is almost unrelated to foreign affairs, having to do mainly with the enlarged role of government in the daily lives of people. We are witnessing an accelerating breakdown of the consensus, formed in the early 1930s, that government has to play a key role in correcting the defects of the private sector. The growth of doubts about how well government is carrying out this larger role begins to show up in University of Michigan surveys in the early 1960s. The doubts pick up momentum in the late 1960s and continue to grow throughout the 1970s.

The statistical record of this growth of mistrust is simple, stark and dramatic: in 1964, seven out of ten Americans believed in the competence of government officials. ("They know what they are doing most of the time.") By 1976, the number of Americans continuing to have this confidence had shrunk to 44 percent. By 1978, it had further declined to 30 percent.

In the early 1960s, a 42 percent minority feared that the federal government was growing too powerful for the good of the country. By the late 1970s, this fear had swelled to a 68 percent majority.

In the early 1960s, by more than a two-to-one margin (64 percent to 28 percent), people believed that the government was "run for all of the people rather than for the benefit of a few big interests." By the late 1970s, the pendulum had swung the other way, and the ratios had reversed themselves. Now, by more than two to one (66 percent to 24 percent), people believe that the government is run primarily for a few big interests.

In the early 1960s, a majority trusted the good faith of the government; now the majority assumes bad faith.

In 1960, most Americans (71 percent) firmly rejected the idea that "public officials don't care much what people like me think." Now a majority agrees with this view.

The indictment is an imposing one: lack of competence, bad faith, indifference, unresponsiveness, captive of special interests. So sweeping is it that we risk losing perspective. Taken by themselves these data suggest a crisis of legitimacy. But no such crisis exists, or is likely under prevailing circumstances because of the deep and abiding faith more than 90 percent of Americans have in our democratic form of government and in the private enterprise form of economy (as subject to regulation). We are plunged into the midst of a family quarrel. The quarrel is intense, but the family is in no danger of breaking up. Its leaders are suspected of having feet of clay and of being less concerned with the welfare of the family as a whole than the other members had originally assumed. This suspicion has led to doubts about the distribution of power. Convinced that the power it has delegated to its leaders has been abused, the members of the family, feeling helpless to affect their own destiny, seek a redress in the balance of power.

The decisions that leaders must make in the field of foreign policy are so fateful for our future survival and well-being - matters of war and peace, friend and foe, international trade, security, standing in the world - that it is unreasonable to expect a public struggling to regain some say over the decisions that affect their lives to revert to blind faith in presidential leadership in foreign affairs. In all likelihood, we will never again revert to quite the status quo ante innocence of "President knows best." We will surely not revert to it as long as the family quarrel over power and the role of government continues. In short, we had better start learning how to live with the new rules for at least the rest of this century, for the quarrel of the American people over the role and power of its government has just begun.


Some observers express trepidation at an enlarged public role in the complexities of foreign affairs. The most concerned critics fear that in the conduct of its foreign affairs, the United States may be moving from the abuses of an imperial presidency to the even more dangerous abuses of an "imperial public."

For example, Theodore Sorensen effectively expressed this view in a recent talk.1 Acknowledging that the abuses of the imperial presidency were both real and intolerable, he said he feared that the cure may now be worse than the disease. He pointed out that the public is often ill-informed and mercurial in its attention to foreign affairs, and that as foreign policy-making comes to resemble the more traditionally opinion-sensitive field of domestic legislation, the nation hovers precariously on the brink of degenerating into a "messenger boy" presidency. Americans, having cast out the excesses of presidential power, now face the even more fearful alternative of a President who makes foreign policy according to the dictates of public opinion polls.

How valid are these fears? Are the extremes the only possible alternatives? Are they even the likely alternatives? How accurate is this description of the new role played by public opinion in the arena of foreign policy?

The concern voiced by Sorensen is shared by many in the foreign policy community. As someone engaged in public opinion research, I have never escaped from a discussion of the role of the public and public opinion polls in foreign policy without encountering fears that a less-than-well-informed public, particularly an uninterested one, will play havoc with our foreign policy; and almost inevitably this expression of concern is accompanied by an even deeper fear that public opinion polls will replace leadership prerogatives.

These are important concerns and deserve careful attention and analysis. They raise urgent questions about the public role in shaping the foreign policy of a democratic superpower, about domestic dangers inherent in the ambiguities of international affairs, and about the role public opinion polls can and do play. Fortunately, 1978 presents us with an opportunity to examine foreign policy-making under the new, post-Vietnam set of rules, and permits us to draw several inferences from the new encounter between public opinion and foreign policy.

From an analysis of public attitudes in four foreign policy arenas in 1978 - the Panama Canal treaty debate, the vicissitudes of détente and SALT, Mideast initiatives, and the struggle to shape a South Africa policy - I have drawn the following inferences:

1. On considering the public's role in all four foreign policy arenas in 1978, few of Sorensen's fears are borne out, and his alternatives appear unnecessarily harsh. An imperial public as the alternative to an imperial presidency sets up a false dichotomy as regards the new public involvement in foreign policy matters. Actually, there appear to be benefits as well as constraints derived from wider public participation in foreign affairs. The new involvement of the public in foreign affairs does, however, place a heavier burden on the measurement and analysis of public opinion, and it appears clear that public opinion survey techniques need some improvements to be equal to the task.

2. It is possible that our foreign policy leadership has in the past underestimated, and continues to underestimate, both the intelligence and the ability of the American public to live with the ambiguities posed by a climate of détente. There is an evident willingness to accept antagonism-with-cooperation as a way of life. The public does not have to believe that the Soviet Union is either a devil or our principal partner in achieving a structure of peace in the world in order to support a policy where we oppose and cooperate with the Soviet Union as circumstances dictate. In the past, Presidents have felt that they had either to oversell the menace of the communist powers to awaken a complacent public, or, conversely, to exaggerate the need to be cooperative in order to generate public support for less hostile or defensive initiatives. Analysis of public response suggests that these efforts to turn the public on and off like a faucet are destructive - and unnecessary. Either extreme - overselling cold war fears or masking the existence of U.S.-Soviet disagreement - confuses our allies, the Soviets and, most important of all, the process of building orderly, consistent public support for our foreign policy here at home. If we are to construct a rational, stable public perception of the international scene, we need a leadership that refrains from overselling either the blessings of détente or the deviltry of the Soviets.

3. The Vietnam trauma, which produced unequivocal "hands off" public reactions to such developments as the 1975 civil war in Angola, has abated. Although public concern about getting too involved in the affairs of other nations remains an active force, there is a revived interest in asserting valid U.S. interests in the international arena.

4. Public attitudes convey a clear and genuine mandate for a moral component to American foreign policy. The idea that our international positions should be dominated solely by the strategic dictates of Realpolitik is anathema to the American public. Moral considerations play a role in every case I explore below, and in almost every foreign policy issue that comes to the attention of the public. This concern, however, is not an absolute dictum: whether in its grudging approval of the Panama Canal treaties, in its condemnation of Soviet human rights violations or in its attitudes toward South Africa and the Mideast, the public has indicated that it is constantly calibrating what the right balance should be between morality and pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy.

Let us look at a few pivotal events on the American foreign policy calendar in the past year. I believe they will show us that public opinion is far from being an albatross around the neck of the foreign policy leadership or that the alternative to an imperial presidency is a servile presidency. Following a review of some relevant public opinion data, we can then address the implications of some of the perplexing changes taking place under the "new rules" of public involvement in foreign policy formation.


Panama Canal Treaties

From the time President Carter signed the Panama Canal treaties in September 1977, referring them to the Senate for ratification, up to the present moment, at least a plurality of Americans opposed and continue to oppose the treaties. Nearly a year after a heated senatorial debate, a tireless Administration campaign to generate public support, and eventual ratification, the American people remain profoundly ambivalent about relinquishing control of the Canal to the Panamanians. What lessons can the Panama Canal debate teach us about the new relationship of public opinion to foreign policy?

First of all, as the debate over ratification progressed, and more people became aware of the issues, some of the initial public opposition to the treaties began to relax. The better informed Americans became about the treaties, the more likely they were to support them. However, from the outset, intensity of conviction belonged almost exclusively to those who opposed the pacts. Fervent emotional nationalism - during the debate some called it jingoism - remains a potent political factor not to be lightly dismissed in assessing public reaction to foreign policy initiatives.

In the early stages of the debate, public opinion on the treaties seemed unequivocal. Toward the end of 1977, when a cross section of Americans who were not familiar with the treaties were given a brief description of its terms and asked their positions, nearly a two-to-one margin (39 percent to 23 percent) disapproved, with 38 percent expressing no opinion.2 But when the questioning was narrowed to only those people who had previously heard or read about the treaty debate, the margin of disapproval shrank (40 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed). Among those who could correctly answer three specific questions about the terms of the treaties and the current usefulness of the Canal, the balance shifted to 51 percent favoring the treaties, 48 percent opposed. In short, the more knowledgeable people were, the more likely they were to favor the treaty.

As the Senate debate progressed, the Carter Administration, aware of public ambivalence, lack of knowledge, and intense opposition, increased its efforts to inform the American people about the treaties. Assuming, correctly as it turned out, that more public awareness would generate more public support, Carter persuaded Sol Linowitz to spearhead a vigorous campaign to correct public misconceptions about what the United States was "giving up" in the Canal treaties. The campaign succeeded in reducing the lopsided two-to-one public opposition to the treaties to something like a standoff - enough public support to sustain the Senate approval. But even after the treaties were ratified, actual support for the pacts has remained lukewarm. Why?

Amendments to the second treaty, which gave the United States military prerogatives and preferred use of the Canal in times of emergency, mollified some of the public apprehensions about turning the Canal over to the Panamanians. Louis Harris reported that, in April 1978, Americans aware of the amendments favored the treaty by a slim margin of 44 percent to 39 percent. Those who continued to oppose the treaties, however, cited arguments that the amendments did not address. Advocates of the treaty made regular reference to the fact that for the largest U.S. warships and tankers, the Panama Canal was already obsolete: the ships were too big to use the Canal. This argument of practicality, however, was not potent in reducing opposition to the treaties. When asked in October 1977 whether it wasn't a mistake to make "such a fight" over continued American control of the Canal since it is "not as important as it was," respondents rejected this argument by a two-to-one majority (53-26).3 Another argument, that a changing era of U.S.-Latin American relations made continued U.S. control of the Canal unfair, was also rejected by a two-to-one majority (53 percent to 24 percent). Asked whether it was "wrong for the United States to own the Canal, which goes right through another independent country," respondents rejected this proposition 61 percent to 24 percent.

Among respondents who had read or heard about the treaty debate in October 1977, the "best" argument in favor of the treaties was that the Canal Zone belonged to Panama. Yet, even this argument received only 13 percent support, compared to the 38 percent of informed respondents who said that there were no good arguments in favor of the treaties. Nor did the notion that the United States should not be involved in the Canal Zone, a position taken by some as one of the "lessons of Vietnam," persuade the American public in the case of the Panama Canal treaties.

Even as their absolute numbers appeared to shrink, those who opposed the Canal treaties grew more confident in their convictions. When informed respondents were asked in late 1977 what the "best arguments" against the treaties were, 25 percent said that the United States had built and paid for the Canal, and 10 percent cited its military and national security value.4 When the question was worded more strongly, the response was even more adamant.5 Presented with the assertion that the United States was given ownership of the Canal in return for having built it, making it "perfectly proper" to maintain ownership, a three-to-one majority (65 percent to 22 percent) agreed. By an even wider majority (67 percent to 17 percent), respondents also agreed that it "adds insult to injury" for the United States to pay Panama $50 million a year until the end of the century in addition to giving up control of the Canal. Large segments of the public felt, and feel, that issues of national pride are at stake in the Canal treaty debate. Even with treaty amendments that guarantee the U.S. rights to military defense of the Canal in the event of a third-nation attack, the United States appears to many citizens to be "giving away" something that rightfully belongs to this country.

Through an intensive program of public education, the Carter Administration was able to dampen some of the initial public opposition to the Canal treaties. Yet, even when Americans became convinced that the United States was not signing away any substantial strategic access to the Canal, they still gave only grudging, lukewarm support to the accords. In November 1977 and again in May 1978, Yankelovich, Skelly and White found for Time magazine that even with the assurance that the United States maintained its right to defend the Canal, support for the treaties did not rise above 33 percent, while opposition hovered near the 50 percent level.

Actual public support for the Canal treaties has yet to develop. An NBC/Associated Press survey taken in October 1978, months after the treaties were ratified, found 45 percent of the public in favor, with 47 percent still opposed. Clearly, the case of the Panama Canal treaties illustrates neither presidential enslavement to public opinion nor an imperial disregard for it. A positive role for leadership emerges from the furor over the treaties. Early in the debate, President Carter described the domestic response to the treaties as a political "no win" situation. Even though public antipathy toward the treaties remains, a new U.S. posture in hemispheric relations has been crafted - emphatically not at the behest of public opinion, but not in defiance of it either.

It came about through a combination of three elements: a vigorous effort to correct misunderstandings about the treaties, once public opinion polls had shown that some of the opposition was due to lack of knowledge;' a willingness on the President's part to pursue a politically unpopular initiative that he and his Republican predecessors agreed was in our national interest; and an independent Senate making its own judgments - taking into account both presidential desires and public opinion without being enslaved by either. In this instance, each of the major players acted their roles properly and constructively. The policy process was enhanced, not diminished, by public involvement.

U.S.-Soviet Relations

In the area of U.S.-Soviet relations, as with the Panama Canal treaties, a careful look at public opinion data reveals the presence of ambivalence, ambiguity and conflict. However, the public is closer to consensus here than on Panama. While there remains strong public support for agreements between the two superpowers on strategic arms limitations, weapons testing and trade, one also finds a rising concern for stricter reciprocity on any new accords. Although widespread support exists for the principle of détente, the public sees the Soviets as having been the principal beneficiary of détente thus far: 46 percent believe the Russians have benefited most from the policy of détente; only 5 percent of the public believes that the United States has been the chief beneficiary. A corresponding 47 percent plurality feels that the Carter Administration's dealings with the Soviet Union have been "too soft."6

In the spring of 1978, Harris found a 71 percent to 15 percent majority in favor of the concept of détente - that is, of the United States and the U.S.S.R. seeking out areas of agreement.7 This level of support varied only slightly from the 75 percent and 73 percent majorities, measured in 1977 and 1976 respectively. Support for specific proposals, such as increased trade between the two countries, received a 70-80 percent level of support. The desirability of a new SALT agreement was endorsed by a 75 percent majority. But alongside this support, a profound ambivalence and skepticism also exist concerning agreements reached with the Soviets. At the same time that the public registered overwhelming support for a SALT agreement, a majority of Americans feared that the Soviet Union might not live up to its part of a nuclear arms limitation agreement. The Time/Yankelovich survey reported a 56 percent majority fearing that signing an arms agreement with the Soviets would be "too risky." An Associated Press/NBC survey found only 24 percent support for the belief that the Soviets "can be trusted." And yet despite this questioning of Soviet trustworthiness, Americans by a two-to-one plurality have said they would support more strongly a congressional candidate who favored signing an arms limitation agreement than one who opposed it.

Crucial to understanding public responses to our initiatives toward the Soviet Union are the public's perceptions about the relative strengths and defense postures of the two nations. Although a 34 percent plurality held that the United States was the most powerful nation in the world at the end of 1977,8 by the end of 1978 only 18 percent felt that the defense system of the United States was stronger than that of the Soviet Union.9 To some extent, the goal of achieving military superiority over the U.S.S.R. has become less of an issue than in the past, replaced instead by a concern that we maintain at least equivalent strength. Informed elites, and to a lesser extent the general public, see equal military strength rather than superiority as the desired goal for U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. In a 1977 survey of an informed foreign policy audience, the Foreign Policy Association found an overwhelming 68 to 6 percent majority opposed to the proposal that the United States pursue an all-out goal of military competition and superiority over the U.S.S.R. In the summer of 1978, a New York Times/CBS survey found 46 percent of Americans saying that the United States should seek superiority over the Soviet Union in military strength; but 47 percent said the two nations should be equal.10 The public may be more divided than leadership groups but is moving in the same direction.

While there is a growing willingness to see military parity replace the quest for superiority over the Russians, the public is deeply concerned lest the United States "let its guard down." Suspicion of Soviet opportunism in a climate of détente has also generated renewed support for higher levels of American military and civilian preparedness. In the last few years we have found a growing public willingness to increase defense spending. Despite the fact that six out of ten Americans are convinced that there is "a lot of waste" in U.S. defense spending, an overwhelming seven out of ten support maintaining or increasing the level of our defense expenditures.11

On the question of U.S. policy toward Soviet treatment of dissidents, public opinion presents a typical pattern of concern for moral issues balanced by an equal concern that these not be pursued as absolutes but as factors to be weighed against strategic interests. While more than two-thirds of the Americans questioned in a summer 1978 survey voiced approval of President Carter's outspoken condemnations of the way Russian dissidents have been treated, 62 percent felt that a continuing emphasis on Soviet violations of human rights might make it more difficult to reach agreements on strategic arms limitation and other important issues.12 A slim majority supported the cancellation of computer sales to the Soviets in protest against the convictions of dissidents Shcharansky and Ginzburg, and a plurality endorsed an exchange of Russian spies for imprisoned dissidents. But proposals to halt possible wheat sales or SALT negotiations as the "price" for continued human rights violations did not earn public support.

Despite a clear public concern that the United States pursue a "moral" course in its foreign policy, there is little support for a sacrifice of vital American interests in defense of human rights. When asked "if U.S. efforts to influence Soviet policy regarding human rights threatened a nuclear weapons agreement. . . which would you feel would be more important?", 61 percent said a weapons agreement, compared to 25 percent who identified the human rights of Soviet citizens.

A cautious idealism can be said to govern American public attitudes toward the Soviet Union and toward U.S. foreign policy regarding military and trade agreements pending between the two nations. There is so much eagerness to lessen tensions that despite a profound skepticism about our ability to benefit as much from détente as the Soviet Union, the public overwhelmingly supports the search for cooperation. At the same time, Americans feel that our government has been "too soft" in its dealings with the Russians, demanding too little and yielding too much. These feelings have spurred a renewed and growing concern about our national safety, and a new willingness to support defense spending and a "harder line" in future negotiations, within the framework of détente.

Middle East

Tension in the Middle East is a relatively familiar issue that has been with us for many years. Public opinion developments in 1978 reflect not only continuity with past attitudes, but also some dramatic shifts in reaction to the peace negotiations. In the past year, the hopes of the American people for peace in the Middle East have risen and fallen with the vicissitudes of the negotiations. A year ago, after President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, a small majority (51 percent) felt chances for a total peace settlement were "excellent" or "pretty good"13 - up from only 34 percent in March 1977 who believed that a lasting peace would ever come to the area. But then in January 1978, as the peace talks stalled, public optimism faded. After many bleak months of deadlocked negotiations, the Camp David summit again raised hopes for a settlement: 55 percent of the public felt that the summit improved chances for peace.14 An even larger majority (67 percent) were convinced that Egypt and Israel would sign a separate peace treaty and 53 percent felt that Jordan would then be obliged to follow Egypt's lead. Smaller pluralities believed Lebanon and Syria (43 percent and 38 percent respectively) would then follow suit.15

Beneath these ups and downs in Americans' expectations of a Middle East peace, several constants can be discerned. First, Americans continue to side with Israel in the conflict. Since early 1977, between four and five out of every ten Americans have supported Israel - as opposed to approximately one in ten who support the Arabs, even after President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem.16 Fully one-third of the public remains uncommitted to either side.

Americans support Israel predominantly for moral reasons, principally because it "has the right to exist" (75 percent), because the Israelis "have stood up for what they believe in despite overwhelming odds" (62 percent), and because "the Jews have a right to a homeland after their suffering in World War II" (52 percent).17 It is worthwhile noting that in October 1978, when asked their opinion of the various provisions in the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt, Americans most strongly approved (by 84 percent to 6 percent) the provision that "Israel will be recognized as having the right to exist with guaranteed and secure borders."18

Yet despite the fact that Americans continue to favor Israel in the Middle East conflict, Israel's hard core of dedicated supporters is not large. One growing component of Israel's support among the public is qualified and hesitant. Perhaps the most important public reservation is the belief that Israel is not doing everything it can to bring about peace. In March 1977, only half (49 percent) of the public considered Israel a "peace-loving" country, and only four in ten (39 percent) felt that Israel was "doing everything for peace" - a number which remained constant in November, after President Sadat's trip. In January 1978, only one in four informed Americans (25 percent) felt that Israel was doing all it should be to bring about peace in the Middle East - compared to a slightly larger number (32 percent) who felt that way about Egypt.19 Later in the year, a majority feared that Israel was not doing enough for peace.20

Qualifying the support for Israel is the now widespread belief that Egypt's President Sadat has been at least as forthcoming and conciliatory - if not more so - than Israel's Prime Minister Begin. In November 1977, two-thirds of the public (64 percent) felt that both men were equally interested in peace, but one out of four (24 percent) felt that Sadat was more interested - as against only 7 percent for Begin.21 Positive perceptions of Sadat were largely responsible for the fact that 40 percent of the Americans surveyed in November 1977 said that their impressions of Egypt had grown more favorable over the preceding few months.22 In January 1978, when the public was asked which leader they trusted more, each man drew equal support (32 percent)23 - a pattern which has continued throughout the year. But while three in ten Americans felt that President Sadat was doing an "excellent" job in the peace negotiations, only 16 percent felt that way about Prime Minister Begin.24

In 1978, for the first time, a significant core of supporters for an Arab position seems to have developed. In a recent article, Seymour Martin Lipset noted the emergence of a strongly pro-Egyptian group among better informed, better educated Americans - a group that has traditionally been strongly pro-Israeli.25 In April 1978, this group was more convinced of the good intentions of Sadat and Egypt than of Begin and Israel.26 In the past, the dichotomy in the public's mind has always been either to be pro-Israeli or to be undecided. Now, for the first time, to be pro-Egyptian has become a real alternative for many Americans.

This pro-Egyptian feeling is a new - and critical - factor in public attitudes toward the Mideast, but it has some significant antecedents. Sadat had a strong base of potential American goodwill toward him on which to build. In March of 1977, we found that the public considered Egypt to be almost as moderate as Israel (57 percent - Egypt; 62 percent - Israel) and felt that of all the Arab states, Egypt was the most ready to make peace with Israel. Moreover, almost three out of four Americans (73 percent) felt that Egypt was a country we could get along with - which compared favorably to the 88 percent who felt that way about Israel.

In addition, the same moral principles that underlie public support for Israel also cause a plurality of Americans to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause - another factor which qualifies pro-Israel support.

It should be pointed out, however, that informed Americans who are sympathetic to the Palestinian desire for a homeland are not supportive of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In March 1977, 66 percent of those familiar with the PLO felt that the United States should not consider it the legitimate spokesman for the Palestinians - and in 1978 an almost equal number (63 percent) felt that the PLO does not represent the point of view of most Palestinians.27

Its sympathy notwithstanding, when it comes to specific solutions to the Palestinian problem, the public is confused and hesitant about supporting an independent Palestinian state. In November 1977, more than four out of ten Americans (42 percent) felt that Israeli fears of such a state were justified.28 In January 1978, only one-fifth to one-quarter of the public favored an independent Palestinian state - with most undecided.29 Gallup data for January through April does, however, indicate some increase in public support for an independent Palestinian state - from 24 percent to 32 percent. But it is important to note that almost equal numbers - 24 percent in January and 29 percent in late April - had no idea what should be done.

In their support for Israel - as in virtually all other foreign policy issues - Americans are guided by a "prudent idealism": they are willing to support moral stands within practical limits. The public is far more interested in seeing peace brought to the Mideast than in playing favorites. In March 1977, when given a list of possible U.S. policies in the Middle East, Americans preferred "helping to bring peace to the Middle East" (51 percent) over either "improving our relations with the Arab countries" (36 percent) or "helping to defend Israel against her enemies" (28 percent). The public sees peace encouraged through an impartial approach, and the desire for a balanced U.S. policy has, if anything, grown since that time.

In our pursuit of peace, Americans are deeply concerned that we avoid military involvement. The public supports present levels of military aid to Israel, but is quite nervous about it. The public's wariness is attested to by their opposition to President Carter's "package" plane sale to the Middle East: by a two-to-one margin (49 percent to 26 percent) they felt that such a plan would hurt the chances for a negotiated peace in the Middle East, and, of those who felt this way, 72 percent believed that such a deal would cause both sides to take a harder line.30 The public even opposed our selling planes to the individual countries: by 64 percent to 28 percent in the case of Israel, and 71 percent to 20 percent in that of Egypt.31

In the case of the Middle East, then, several fundamental feelings come together - and conflict. Americans feel a moral obligation to support Israel. They also feel that the Palestinians, if not the PLO, have a legitimate moral claim. And increasingly, they are convinced that Egypt's desire for peace is genuine - and therefore morally compelling. Cold war strategic thinking no longer plays as important a part in the public's thinking about the Mideast as in previous decades. Nor is the threat of a renewed Arab oil embargo, should peace falter, in the forefront of the public mind. But the "lessons of Vietnam" are still alive, and the public fears any direct - or even indirect - military involvement. Just about the only result that would satisfy all American yearnings and calm all American fears would be real peace in the Mideast - especially a peace an American President helped to create.

South Africa

One of the most complex foreign policy issues to emerge in 1978 was the situation in South Africa. A number of factors indicate that it will become more important in the future. The Carter Administration's concern for human rights, events in neighboring Rhodesia and Namibia, Soviet and Cuban activity in Africa, and American economic interests all point to a growing U.S. interest in the area. Public opinion on this issue is sometimes vague and often seems contradictory, due chiefly to the fact that most Americans have not given a great deal of thought to South Africa. However, several themes emerging in other policy areas can also be found affecting attitudes toward South Africa.

As with the Middle East, Americans are also motivated by a "prudent idealism" in their attitudes toward South Africa. We see manifested the desire of the public for the United States to "stand for something" in its foreign policy other than the protection of narrow economic and military interests. In the case of South Africa, human rights is the particular principle that concerns the public. By almost a four-to-one margin (57 percent to 15 percent) Americans feel that South Africa's policy of "keeping the blacks down" cannot be justified.32 An even larger majority (63 percent to 12 percent) rejects specific repressive acts - such as closing down black newspapers and putting moderate black leaders in jail.33 The general principle of blacks ruling black countries draws definite support from Americans - 46 percent pro; 25 percent con.34 Even less than in the case of Israel, however, is the American public willing to put sharp teeth into its moralistic stand. Several factors temper public idealism on this issue.

First, the public is unwilling to see us pay a high economic price for our human rights policy. Specifically, by 47 percent to 37 percent Americans are opposed to pushing harder for black rule in South Africa if that policy means a reduction in the supply of vital minerals to the United States. And by more than a two-to-one margin (51 percent to 21 percent) the public opposes forcing American businesses to close down their operations in South Africa.35

A second, and deeply rooted concern, is the public's reluctance to see us get involved in any situation reminiscent of Vietnam. There is hesitancy to see American interference in the internal affairs of another country, especially a country not considered vital to our national interests. Getting into any kind of involvement that could "suck us in" further raises the specter of Indochina. Developments in Africa have awakened the public's Vietnam fears: in early 1976, for example, Americans opposed by a three-to-one margin (59 percent to 21 percent) the proposal to send military supplies to the pro-Western forces in Angola because they perceived the Angolan situation as fitting the Vietnam model too closely.36 With regard to South Africa, by eleven to one (76 percent to 7 percent), Americans agree that "the United States does not have the right to tell South Africa how it should run its country any more than South Africans have a right to tell us how to run our country." Even black Americans supported this position by 59 percent to 9 percent.37 Consequently, Americans oppose any military action against the white regime in South Africa by a huge 73 percent to 7 percent margin, and equally oppose encouraging blacks inside that country to engage in guerrilla warfare against the white government.38

What the public is willing to see the United States do is to bring moderate pressure on the South African government - pressure that will not cost us much, either in dollars or involvement. Specifically, they are willing to see the United States cut off arms sales to South Africa (by 51 percent to 24 percent), get companies in South Africa to put pressure on the South African government (46 percent to 28 percent), and restrain new business investment in South Africa (42 percent to 33 percent).

With one important exception, the American public does not seem willing to see the United States go further in its involvement in South Africa. As mentioned above in the discussion of U.S.-Soviet relations, public suspicion and apprehension about the Soviet Union has been on the rise. The public is particularly worried about Soviet/Cuban incursions into Africa, and those feeling that the communists present a "very serious threat" in Africa have increased over the past year from 44 percent to 53 percent. Five out of ten Americans (51 percent) now feel that it would be a "very serious loss" to the United States if more African countries went communist - compared to 41 percent who felt that way in 1977.39 Consequently, in June 1978, while the public rejected by 67 percent to 24 percent the idea of sending American troops to African countries threatened by communists, a plurality (48 percent to 33 percent) were willing to break off arms control talks until the Soviets withdrew, and a majority (56 percent to 34 percent) were willing to see the United States send increased military equipment - but not troops - to threatened countries.40 One can suppose that, if South Africa were threatened by a Soviet or Cuban invasion, the American public might be willing to abandon its "hands-off" attitude.


What can be concluded from the events of 1978 seen from the perspective of the public's new role in foreign policy?

Let us take a brief backward glance at recent history. In presenting the Truman Doctrine to the Congress and the American people in 1947, President Truman went several steps beyond detailing a strategic containment of Soviet expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean. Larger than a regional policy objective, military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey was urged on the public not merely to stem the tide of communist guerrilla forces, but also to make clear a U.S. involvement in an international choice "between alternative ways of life." A crusade was at hand and the Saracens were Soviet. Americans were warned not to "falter in our leadership," lest we "endanger the peace of the world. . . and the welfare of this nation." The moral clarity of the appeal was compelling and, in fact, generated the consensus Truman sought.

In 1972, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon began to prepare the American people for détente, a promised reduction in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. This process, too, needed to be "sold," and in many ways the selling took the form of minimizing the areas of conflict between the two nations. From an image of the U.S.S.R. as a systemic horror, the public was asked to accept the "other superpower" as our principal partner in maintaining world order. In the Carter Administration's foreign policy statements, on the other hand, we find denunciations of Soviet expansionism in Africa and violation of human rights alternating with "soft" statements on the need for cooperation.

This brief review reveals the pattern that has often characterized our relations with the Soviets. In its statements to the American public, the U.S. leadership blows hot and cold. The tone is rarely balanced, ambiguities are played down, subtlety is sacrificed to overstatement. Some (perhaps all) of these government statements harbor the assumption that the public is simpleminded, capable of holding only one extreme alternative in mind at a time - black or white, for or against, friend or foe. As policy needs dictate, the appropriate switch is thrown in an attempt to elicit the appropriate single-dimensioned response. If this conception of the public mind were valid, then all of Sorensen's fears about greater public involvement in foreign policy would be justified. The analyses of public opinion on major issues of 1978 considered above strongly suggest, however, that this assumption is false - and self-defeating.

One of the key implications I would draw from the events of 1978 is not that the public mind is one-dimensional, but that to the extent foreign policy leaders act on this assumption, they risk creating the ogre they fear: a public intolerant of ambiguities in a world filled with ambiguity. If the foreign policy community had a better feel for public opinion, its members would not fear the public as an intolerable burden on an otherwise enlightened leadership.

In over a quarter-century of consulting leaders in business, government, education, communications, and other fields, I have consistently found that our foreign policy leaders are the most remote and theoretical in their perspective on "the public." Their portrait of the American public is even more limited and incomplete than the public's image of them as an aloof elite.

It may be true that only a small fraction of the public is ever fully informed or even fully attentive to foreign policy matters. But this should not be interpreted as meaning that the public has no rational means of arriving at judgments on pressing issues in the foreign policy field. There is a definite "public mind" at work - a special way in which the American people view the role of the United States in foreign affairs. In the year just past, we can isolate three primary ingredients that have governed public attitudes toward foreign affairs.

First, in all of the policy issues analyzed above, there emerges evidence of a constant public weighing of practicality and moral concern. Especially in the wake of Vietnam, an agonizing public "calibration" of moral principles and practical interests operates as a filter through which American foreign policy options are viewed.

Second, we have seen in the past year a renewal of public interest in an active role for the United States in world affairs. This attitude is not the same as in the interventionist period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The public is more than mildly reluctant to dispatch American troops around the globe. But Americans are slowly freeing themselves from the paralysis of the immediate post-Vietnam period during which the country took a semi-isolationist turn. Americans are renewing their conviction that the United States has a positive responsibility in world affairs.

A third component of the prevailing public mood grows out of the second. Any pendular swing returning the American people to an internationalist stance is qualified and tempered by what we may still call "the lessons of Vietnam." The American public perceived the Vietnam trap as having these five characteristics: (1) the United States involved itself needlessly in the internal affairs of another country; (2) the United States supported the weaker side while communist forces supported the stronger side; (3) the United States was directly involved while the Soviet Union was able to participate through surrogate forces; (4) U.S. involvement took place in a country not considered vital to American national interests; and (5) the United States got progressively more involved in its commitment, with little hope of extricating itself. Vietnam has taught the American people to examine as never before the degree of involvement implied by foreign policy decisions. The abhorrence of "more Vietnams" lingers on.

It will be noted that these attitudes - balancing the moral and the practical, calibrating the appropriate degree of involvement, applying the lessons of Vietnam - are extremely general. They offer great latitude of application. At any one time the public holds in mind just such a limited set of principles. They are rarely made explicit. And they are applied in an ad hoc fashion to such specific situations as may arise. For example, in the case of American public attitudes toward South Africa, we find that the public is not well informed about intricate political and economic details, yet there is evidence of firmly held opinions. General principles of humane egalitarianism, national self-interest and reluctance to get too involved all govern public opinion on South Africa.

Because they are ad hoc, judgments on foreign policy issues may be inconsistent and unstable, particularly on issues that the public has not completely thought through. Competing principles jostle and contend with each other, forming attitudes that may be receptive to more than one specific policy approach. The analysis of American public opinion on the Middle East illustrates the possibility of contending principles being held simultaneously: a strong sympathy with and moral endorsement of Israel's right to exist is held simultaneously with a concern for the plight of Palestinians, a conviction that Egypt is sincere in its commitment to peace, and an interest in retaining a secure supply of oil from the Saudis.

There is an important lesson in this picture of the public mind for policymakers. Public opinion polls showing seemingly firm opinions on foreign policy issues should not be taken literally as the final word on public attitudes if the issue has not received thorough public debate. People's views prior to thinking through how they feel about an issue may bear little resemblance to their views once they have been obliged to face up to competing principles and forced to decide which one is more important to them. Since few foreign policy issues are ever debated and discussed thoroughly with the public, it follows that what the public opinion polls measure is usually what the public believes prior to having considered a foreign policy issue in depth. Such a situation is made to order for leaders who are gifted in their ability to communicate with the public. They realize that they have great latitude for leadership in applying a principle that the public supports to a specific situation. Conversely, this feature of the public mind must endlessly baffle and confuse those leaders who are uncomfortable with any public involvement in foreign affairs.


Having earlier taken issue with Theodore Sorensen, let me acknowledge that I share his concern about the use that is made of public opinion polls as they now exist. Single-question approaches, such as those used in most pre-election surveys, simply cannot be expected to accurately measure public attitudes on contending principles of morality, strategic utility and national priority. The average survey provides an attitudinal "snapshot" of the public. But is the captured image one of a public at the start of a process of thinking things through or at the end of the process? We need to know when a figure citing "60 percent approval" means that 60 percent of the public has truly "decided" in favor of a particular alternative, or when "60 percent approval" means mere lip service. In this latter kind of public "approval," a starting 60 percent might erode, after public debate, to a 15 percent level of support; of course, the reverse is also possible. When public opinion did not matter so much, we could tolerate this kind of enigma. No one took the public opinion polls seriously anyway. But now that public opinion counts so much we surely need to know when a 60 percent approval means what it says - and when it means something else.

In the next several years, we need to incorporate into public opinion research in the field of foreign policy several improvements that are now standard procedure in sophisticated social and marketing research. We must be able to study patterns rather than responses to single-question, atomistic measurements. We must understand under what circumstances people can be expected to give honest, thought-through responses to complex and crucial questions. I would start with a simple practical innovation, which, if added to surveys of foreign policy attitudes, will at least reduce the misleading implications of similar numbers having totally opposed meanings, or different numbers sharing the same meaning.

We should, I propose, add to every foreign policy attitude survey an "intensity measure" to gauge the extent to which each respondent has thought through his own feelings and convictions. It would reflect the respondent's own assessment of the degree to which the issue affects him personally, the strength of conviction with which he holds the attitude, and the extent to which he feels knowledgeable about it, having explored and thought it through from every angle. Such a measure would be only a minor step forward but it could be a useful one for the policymaker: namely, it can inform him whether the support level for a proposed policy reflects genuine public opinion in the sense of a stable and deeply held conviction, or whether it represents an off-the-cuff opinion that could easily swing one way or the other, subject to the vicissitudes of the daily news.


In all I have said above, I do not wish to minimize the difficulties of greater public and congressional participation in foreign affairs. At the very least, these new factors produce a "drag effect" on the speed with which the foreign policy process is conducted. There may also be a tendency to blur the hard-edged clarity of policies formulated by a single person. Under some circumstances, this most sensitive field can be made vulnerable to forms of narrow self-interest that pervade domestic politics. And the rise of single-issue interest groups as a feature of both national and local electoral politics as well as lobbying campaigns also casts a shadow over policies that must clearly be made in the national interest.

Notwithstanding these hazards, I believe the arguments favoring greater public involvement in foreign affairs far outweigh the inconveniences and the dangers. First, underlying the "crisis of confidence" that has beset the institutions of government, one finds a deeply felt sense of powerlessness and disengagement among the American people. On crucial foreign policy matters this public noninvolvement, within a context of apprehension and mistrust, could threaten our national survival. On issues such as national security, nuclear proliferation, SALT, and other policies designed to limit the possibility of nuclear confrontation, public indifference and congressional exclusion create a climate in which special interest groups can overwhelm the interest of the nation. When people feel that "this has nothing to do with me," and retreat into an inattentive privatism, their ignorance renders them inaccessible to informed, responsible debate, or worse, leaves them vulnerable to panic and hysteria in the event of a "crisis" for which they were not prepared.

In a democracy armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, public noninvolvement is a terrifying danger and not a desirable goal. An "irresponsible public" is one that is kept in the dark most of the time, leaving it to the "experts" to run the show. Such a public is manipulable, apathetic and panic-prone, in sharp contrast to an informed public that feels it must share responsibility for its own future with its leaders.

An equally potent argument for public involvement in foreign policy-making is, at first glance, somewhat abstract. As Hannah Arendt has observed, political truths are different from technical truths, and in a democracy can only be arrived at through the ego-bruising process of public debate. The ego that must be bruised is often the leader's - the President's - for only when he is made to see positions other than his own, or those of his close advisers, is he able to take into account the complexities of both technical issues and ongoing calibrations of morality and interest.

In an era in which governments regard the statements of leaders as the positions of the countries they represent, the damage done to American prestige and credibility by vacillation, inconsistency and contradiction must be considerable. The tendency of the Carter Administration to "change its mind" in public on a number of vital issues argues persuasively for public debate before national commitments are made. Consider the many modifications the Administration has had to make in its human rights policy, its efforts to limit arms sales, the arms embargo on Turkey, open diplomacy, the priority deserved by North/South relations, the viability of a "Palestinian entity," an overall versus a step-by-step solution in the Middle East, cutting defense spending, etc.

If we are to be credible and responsible we must also be reasonably consistent and think through our policies before they are enunciated rather than afterwards. In today's complex world, the President must take into account more than his own judgment and the advice of a few chosen advisers. The presidency remains a royal court, with all the small corruptions attendant thereto. If the President fails to gain the benefits of the ego-bruising debate he needs within the White House, he is well advised to have it from without rather than not have it at all. Under our system, public involvement is the only real alternative to an imperial presidency.


1 "The Impact of Public Opinion on Foreign Policy," a National Public Radio Options program, January 31, 1978.

2 American Institute of Public Opinion (Gallup), October 1977.

3 Louis Harris and Associates, October 1977.

4 Gallup, October 1977.

5 Harris, October 20, 1977.

6 Time/Yankelovich, May 1978.

7 Harris, May 22, 1978.

8 Gallup, November 1977.

9 Harris, September 7, 1978.

10 Public Opinion, July/August 1978.

11 Harris, September 9, 1978 and Associated Press/NBC poll, October 1978.

12 Harris, August 17, 1978.

13 Harris, January 23, 1978.

14 AP/NBC poll, October 1978.

15 Harris, October 26, 1978.

16 Yankelovich, Skelly and White (hereinafter YS&W), Israel Study, March 1977.

17 YS&W, Israel Study, March 1977.

18 Harris, October 26, 1978.

19 Gallup, January 1978.

20 YS&W, 1978.

21 Time/Yankelovich, November 1977.

22 Time/Yankelovich, November 1977.

23 Harris, January 26, 1978.

24 Public Opinion, March/April 1978.

25 "The Polls on the Middle East," Middle East Review, Fall 1978.

26 CBS/New York Times, April 1978.

27 Gallup, January 1978.

28 Time/Yankelovich, November 1977.

29 Gallup, Harris, January 1978.

30 Time/Yankelovich, May 1978.

31 Harris, May 1, 1978.

32 Harris, June 30, 1977.

33 Harris, December 15, 1977.

34 Harris, June 30, 1977.

35 YS&W, 1978.

36 Time/Yankelovich, January 1976.

37 Harris, June 30, 1977.

38 Harris, December 15, 1977.

39 Harris, July 31, 1978.

40 CBS/New York Times, June 1978.

  • Daniel Yankelovich is President of Yankelovich, Skelly and White, a public attitude research firm in New York, and of the Public Agenda Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded to encourage public involvement in national policy issues. The author wishes to acknowledge the significant contribution to this article made by his research associates, Larry Kaagan and Deborah Durfee Barron. Larry Kaagan in particular was indispensable in both data analysis and drafting of the article.
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