The Public and Foreign Policy: Revisiting Frank Lavin

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In 2000, Frank Lavin discussed the role of public opinion in shaping foreign policy. Lavin offers two contrasting schools of thought on the matter. The consequentialist school holds that “only the practical effects of actions matter in foreign policy. Foreign policy must concentrate on achieving goals not advocating policy.” The alternative approach is the hortatory school of foreign policy which maintains that “the conduct of foreign policy is not as important as the expression of foreign policy.” Practitioners of the hortatory school are more interested in expressing their convictions about foreign policy than in turning ideals into reality. In the context of American foreign policy, Lavin associates the hortatory school with members of Congress and the consequentialist school with the executive branch.

While these two schools can reinforce and support each other, Lavin argues that they usually do not. These conflicting conceptions of the role of popular support, he argues, manifest themselves in executive-legislative conflict. Lavin says that the greatest challenge for an American president is maintaining a consequentialist approach in the face of public opposition. The executive branch alone is able to look at the long-term effects of foreign policy decisions and insulate the decision-making process from the whims of public opinion. Ultimately, Lavin says that the nation’s greatest foreign policy failures have come not from a lack of public support, but from a failure of political leaders to take necessary action in the face of domestic political consequences. When the executive tailors his foreign policy to the whims of lay people and congress, policy is mismanaged.

Lavin’s argument is strong, and there are numerous examples from history of executives faced with congressional and domestic opinion who kept American foreign policy on the proper course. President Roosevelt had to deal with a public and Congress unable to see the long-term threat of Nazi Germany. President Reagan defied voices within his own party and the public and agreed to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both faced congressional and domestic opposition over foreign policy positions that seem to have proven somewhat successful. Despite public objection, President Bush decided to implement the “surge” strategy in Iraq, which proved somewhat successful in reducing violence. President Obama has dealt with opposition to America’s actions in Libya, but the toppling of the Qaddafi regime appears to have vindicated the President’s long-term strategy.

However, leaving foreign policy solely to the executive branch is not the answer. While lay people may not have as good a grasp of foreign policy as professionals, foreign policy professionals also have their own cognitive biases and misperceptions. Throughout the history of the Cold War, the US delegated foreign policy challenges to professionals from the executive branch. These professionals tended to see the world in narrow terms as a struggle between the US and the USSR. The executive branch took numerous actions that would have significant long-term side effects, which they ignored or disregarded. The blowback from operations that overthrew leaders like Salvatore Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, and support for brutal governments in Pakistan, Argentina and elsewhere is still felt; these operations tarnished the image of America throughout the world. While officials in the executive branch believed they were following a consequentialist model, they were often prioritizing short-term interests at the expense of long-term interests. If many of these actions were revealed in frank terms to the American people, support may have wavered. If the executives made greater efforts to inform the public and prioritize the ideals of the American public, many Cold War mistakes might never have occurred.

Lavin’s point that the executive needs to manage the day-to-day and does not have the luxury of listening to public opinion is true in many cases, but it cannot be taken too far. Presidents Bush and Obama have defied the public on occasion, but both have attempted to ground their foreign policies in ideals that they believe are consistent with the values of the American public. Both have emphasized the importance of both words and deeds. President Bush’s foreign policy rhetoric emphasized aligning America with the spread of democracy, and President Obama has emphasized the power of American rhetoric and idealism in his speeches from Cairo to Japan. While the American people may not offer a unified view or specific policy proscriptions, their “passionate expressions of belief” can and should help guide an executive’s decision making.

Gideon Hanft is an online editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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