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The matter of public opinion including its influence on policy making has been debated by different scholars throughout the world. There are differences in the way realists including liberals view public opinion. For realists public opinion is unstable, lack consistency also that it does not influence foreign policy making, in contrast realists view public opinion as stable, consistent thus it influences foreign affairs including policy making. Therefore the government or policy makers can take into account the opinions of the public or ignore it when making important decisions. This essay will examine with reasons why agree with liberals perspective on the role of the media and public opinion in foreign policy by focusing on the case of the Vietnam War.
2. Defining key concepts
Foreign policy can be defined as “state’s international goals and its strategies to achieve those goals” Sparknotes editors (2014: Internet). Foreign policy refers to a planned course of action followed by an actor or decision maker on international level or to interact with other states to achieve certain objectives including goals. According to Sarmah “public opinion refers to the opinions of people in general” (2004:113). This definition suggests that public opinion is opinions of people in general based on certain issues. Thus in politics public opinion would mean the collective opinions of citizens about certain government’s policy or actions
3. Dominant models in foreign policy analysis
Throughout the 20th century two perspective or models conquered academic debates namely the pluralist including the elite models. The pluralists’ model assume that power is isolated throughout the society so that no interests prevail. The public including the media can raise their opinions also debate certain issues without any favour. The government cannot silence the media or the public thus the opinions of these two bodies are sometimes taken into account when the government makes crucial decisions or takes action about certain policies or events. Thus the media including the public are independent from any political influence hence they can exert pressure on government. As stated by Robinson “mainstream media are sufficiently independent from political power to allow them to present a diverse range of political perspectives” cited by Cox and Stokes (2012:162).
The second model is the elite model which is in contradiction with the pluralist model in a sense that they view power as concentrated only in the hands of the few powerful individuals in society, moreover that those groups with power include political officials including think tanks thus those who are not included abide by the rules set out by the elites.
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If the state is capitalist or democratic then often the pluralist method is used as power is dispersed throughout the society, thus the media including the public have freedom to debate certain issues. But in communist states the elite model would be followed in a sense that the media including the public are controlled by those in power, therefore only the elites have power.
Public Opinion, Democracy and Foreign Policy
Often in democratic countries the government responds to public including media pressure based on certain action or policies. Thus it can be stated that the pluralist model is dominant in democratic states. But some academics criticises the model by stating that most of the public were misinformed to hold incoherent, effective views on foreign affairs. As Robinson (2012:170) supports the claim that “most of the public were too ill-informed to hold coherent, therefore influential views on foreign affairs” cited by Smith et al. but it does not matter if the public is ill-informed, the fact is that the public can exert some pressure on the government concerned.
Hans Morgenthau once argued that the government is the front-runner of public opinion not its slave. According to Morgenthau (1999:4) “the rational requirements of good foreign policy cannot from the outset count upon the support of a public opinion whose preferences are emotional rather than rational”. The theorist states that to produce a good foreign policy the government should not take the opinions of the public into account as these opinions are often emotional but not rational.
During the Vietnam War much was written about the two models to a point where international perspectives that was shared between academics including policy makers was shaped in favour of the elite model. According to Smith et al. Robinson states that (2012:170) “the Vietnam War provided a new context by which to view the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy” cited by Smith et al.
The Vietnam War provided a new way to view the relationship between public opinion including foreign policy also to question the elite model as it was the dominant model held by most academics including scholars. According to Robinson (2012:170) “Many researchers argue that public opinion was more stable, rational, than previously suggested” as cited by Smith et al. it was clear that protests against the war highlighted the significance of public opinion. Not only protests, the public especially the citizens of the USA did not support the war in Vietnam as most innocent people lost their lives, furthermore support for the presidents of that time namely Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson declined. The media played an important role in informing the public about the war in Vietnam thus the public become more informed thus responded in as informed, stable manner towards the war. There seems to be no consensus amongst academics despite exhaustive research being done between the two models in contradiction namely pluralist including elite model.
4. Vietnam War and the CNN effect
During the 1968 Tet Offensive, wide spread fight occurred in South Vietnam main cities in the presence of the US journalists, this war which the USA government claimed prior to the incident that it was winning was now out of control. The journalists had an opportunity publish the brutal killings occurred or experienced by innocent citizens of Vietnam. The media immediately aroused the anti-war movements amongst the public. “The perception was created that the media had acted as a powerful constrain effectively limiting the use of the US military power” Robinson (2012:165).
Since the war many studies have been done to report on such events. The Cable News Network (CNN) was established and promised to cover news from around the world using advanced technology to provide real time news anywhere in the world. Thus “the collapse of communism, symbolised by the fall of Berlin wall, and the 1991 Gulf war were experienced in real time due to CNN” Robinson (2012:164). The CNN reported on major issues in history also it can be said that the citizens of USA had the privilege of witnessing historical events. Thus due to this some viewed foreign policy as driven by the CNN hence called the “CNN effect”. Regardless of intensive research being done there is little academic consensus with regards to the two models namely the pluralist including elite models. Thus for those who argue for the elite model, public opinion remains effective in influencing particular policies or actions of governments concerned. Furthermore for those in favour of the pluralist model, in some state the government still controls the media despite being a democratic states, for example in South Africa the government wants to introduce the secrecy bill into law despite being a democratic country where freedom of expression including access to information is vital.
5. The Media and foreign policy
As stated above the media in democratic states plays a significant role, thus are supposed to bring certain important issues to public scrutiny, this role is referred to as the public sphere. According to Smith et al. Robinson states that (2012:172) “within this sphere, news media, including television news, newspapers, and other news formats…should help to educate, inform, and facilitate debate”. The media within this sphere must educate also inform the public so that important issues should be debated accordingly, thus this will create consensus amongst the public about certain important issue debated which will then be used to influence the policy of the government. The news media represents the opinions of the public by commenting also publishing certain issues that are not known by the public. The media should be neutral when publishing or commenting on certain issues, furthermore free from political influence.
There are two types of media which are very influencing or effective in informing the public namely television including print media. The television media, for example the CNN reports on daily neutral events also political issues around the world. While print practice opinionated journalism providing dissimilar political agendas including standpoints, such as Mail & Guardian. The media in democratic countries follow the pluralist model in a sense that most have freedom of expression including rights to report on certain governmental policies or actions. Furthermore power is isolated throughout society thus the media is independent from the government’s influence.
Bennett argues that the journalists in the USA follows the foreign policy elites, in terms of news publishing including surrounding foreign affairs rather than being independent. As Smith et al. states that Robinson supports the claim that “US journalist follow foreign policy elites in terms of both the news agenda and the framing of foreign affairs, rather than striking out independently” (2012:175). It is clear that some journalists in the USA tend to shield certain important issues about the government especially in Washington. Those in favour of the elite model argue that as a result of the elite model pursued by the journalists in the USA the public is given limited information thus they cannot form their own opinions compared to the state using the pluralist model. Therefore three issues become eminent namely agenda setting, framing also priming. The first one agenda setting refers to the media’s capability to ignore certain issues and focusing on others to try to make the public to reflect on the issues they want. As Smith et al. cites from Robinson to support the claim “agenda setting refers to the media’s ability, by focusing on some issues rather than others, to direct people to think about those issues” (2012:176). The second issue is that of priming refers to the media’s capability to make the public to think also judge their government in a certain way by preparing also directing certain issues. Framing on the other hand refers to how the actual representation of the news influences hoe the public notice specific issues. It is important to highlight this issues as the influence how the media tends to adopt certain strategies when informing the public especially in democratic states.
Lippmann argued that “slow public reaction to events and the lack of information causes the foreign policy decision-maker to respond too late” (1955:21). Quick public reaction to actions including access to information plays a significant role to help decision makers to make informed decisions earlier.
6. How do leaders in Liberal Democratic States make Foreign Policy
In liberal democratic states foreign strategies are expected to be made by the people, for the people. Immanuel Kant thus once argued that “government are responsible to the people, and the public would not go into war, since it is they the public who ultimately pay the price and suffer most” Kant (2007).
The theory of Liberal area of peace ties with the foreign policy of democratic states in a sense that, the theory stipulates that democratic states would never fight with each other thus harmony is created between liberal also democratic states. This argument was supported by Bill Clinton in 1994 when the president stated that “‘democracies don’t attack each other”. The quote support the evidence that democratic states have never waged into war with each other during the past two centuries. So it can be stated that since democratic states have established their own region which consists of harmony, the foreign policy of this states will benefit each states within this zone, for example if one democratic states is attacked by a socialist state then other democratic states will mostly support or help a democratic state.
7. Empirical Evidence and Public Opinion
Debated have been conducted over the past based on the elite including pluralist models with liberals challenging realist about their perspectives that the public is not interested also ill-informed about foreign policy. However the evidence according to Guraziu (2008:8) suggest that “in 1995 one third of the public knew about the United States supporting South Vietnam during the Vietnam War where 58 000 Americans lost their lives”. The public are well informed through the media thus they can make stable judgements based on the information given or published, thus this contradicts the realists perspective about the role of the media including the elite model. With the advances of technology, today the public is well informed as a result can make well informed also stable decisions than in the past both domestically also internationally.
Public opinion can be rejected or ignored by the decision maker or government in making foreign policy here are just few examples cited of states leaders ignoring public opinions. The first one is Ronald Reagan who ignored public opinion when it come to the withdrawal of the marines from Lebanon despite polling data being available during the time of Beirut bombing. After this passing (The New York Times, 7/06/04) newspaper wrote “Mr Reagan’s decision to send marines to Lebanon was disastrous, and his invasion of Grenada pure melodrama”. Mr Reagan failed to take polling data into account before making a decision, thus as a result the decision taken by the president was a debacle. It might have happened that if Mr Reagan took the polling data before making a decision the debacle could have been avoided.
A last example of policy decision makers ignoring public opinion was when the European Union (EU) decision makers ignored the opinion polls suggesting that Turkey should not join the EU by accepting the Turkey’s agreement into the EU. According to Guraziu (2008:12), “the vast majority of the EU population opposed Turkey’s accession into the EU, with opinion polls running as high as 80 percent the EU foreign policymakers signed the accession talks”
In summary Liberal’s perspective on the role of the media and public opinion is justified in a sense that in most democratic states the media informs the public about the actions including policies of the government so that these issues can be debated by the public so that the public can judge the government in a neutral manner unless the issue is very crucial and the public would be affected by that issue then harsh comments would be made. If the media would follow the elite model, for example the South Africans would have not known about the president’s upgrades in Nkandla but due to media’s role now the public knows about the issue moreover the issue is debated by different analysts including scholars, without the media the public would have been in the dark about the matter.
To conclude, this essay has focused on why liberal’s perspective on the role of the media including public opinion is acceptable by focusing on the Vietnam War also the US media influence on the opinions of the public with regards to the war. Furthermore the CNN effect, then lastly evidence and public opinion with regards to the topic were cited. It can be said that most states follow the liberal’s perspective as the media can influence foreign policies of certain states but it is clear that often the opinions of the public were not considered in decision making by some presidents or heads of states. Thus it is clear that the issue of foreign policy and public opinion is a very interesting subject.
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