Why Public Opinion Matters in the Making of Foreign Policy

Mr. Morgenthau was a founder of the school known as "political realism." For many years he taught international relations at the University of Chicago. In the mid-1960s he became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War. He died in 1980.

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Following is an excerpt from Mr. Morgenthau's classic, Politics Among Nations.

The kind of thinking required for the successful conduct of foreign policy must at times be diametrically opposed to the kind of considerations by which the masses and their representatives are likely to be moved. The peculiar qualities of the statesman's mind are not always likely to find a favorable response in the popular mind. The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil. The statesman must take the long view, proceeding slowly and by detours, paying with small losses for great advantage; he must be able to temporize, to compromise, to bide his time. The popular mind wants quick results; it will sacrifice tomorrow's real benefit for today's apparent advantage.

Confronted with this dilemma between a good foreign policy and a bad one that public opinion demands, a government must avoid two pitfalls. It must resist the temptation to sacrifice what it considers good policy upon the altar of public opinion, abdicating leadership and exchanging short-lived political advantage for the permanent interests of the country. It must also avoid widening the unavoidable gap between the requirements of good foreign policy and the preferences of public opinion. It widens that gap if, shunning tolerable compromise with the preferences of public opinion, it sticks in every detail to a foreign policy it considers to be right, and sacrifices public support to the stubborn pursuit of that policy.

Instead, the government, to be successful in its foreign and domestic policies alike, must comply with three basic requirements. It must recognize that the conflict between the requirements of good foreign policy and the preferences of public opinion is in the nature of things and hence, unavoidable, and that it can perhaps be narrowed, but it can never be bridged, by concessions to the domestic opposition. Second, the government must realize that it is the leader and not the slave of public opinion; that public opinion is not a static thing to be discovered and classified by public-opinion polls as plants are by botanists, but that it is a dynamic, ever changing entity to be continuously created and recreated by informed and responsible leadership; that it is the historic mission of the government to assert that leadership lest it be the demagogue who asserts it. Third, it must distinguish between what is desirable in its foreign policy and what is essential, and while it may be willing to compromise with public opinion on nonessentials, it must fight, even at the risk of its own fortunes, for what it regards to be the irreducible minimum of good foreign policy.

A government may have a correct understanding of the requirements of foreign policy and of the domestic politics to support them, but if it fails in marshaling public opinion behind these policies, its labors will be in vain, and all the other assets of national power of which the nation can boast will not be used to best advantage. Of this truth the policies of contemporary democratic governments, including those of the United States, offer abundant proof.

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