The question of the proper relationship between domestic sentiment and foreign policy is a vexed one. Historically, statesmen and strategists have tended to distrust or disparage the role of the demos in the elite enterprise of foreign affairs. In the immortal words of the then vice president Richard Nixon: “If we indulge in the kind of thinking which assumes that foreign policy decisions should be made on the basis of public opinion polls we might as well decide now to surrender our position of world leadership to the communists.” Yet from even the most condescending foreign policy establishment perch, it is hard to dispute the significance of securing public support for key foreign policy moves. Nixon as president was fully aware of this, carefully stage-managing his most dramatic maneuver, the visit to China in February 1972, in a way that would maximize support back home. And of course, Nixon’s loss of public trust over the Watergate scandal brought about the abrupt end of his influence on everything, including foreign affairs. Nixon’s impeachment, after years of public opposition to the war in Vietnam, strengthened the view in the United States that unsupervised elites were in fact the worst possible stewards of the instruments of national power, and that popular, democratic checks were critical ingredients in wise and prudent foreign policy.
Once the public is accorded a decisive role in foreign affairs deliberation, we have to grapple with the problem of determining what “the public” thinks in the first place. Who represents “the public”? How can we assert “it” thinks one way or another? What do we mean by expressions such as “the public seems to have changed its mind”? French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, for example, challenged the validity of statistical representations of “public opinion” based on polling data. Bourdieu argues that public opinion so constructed is an “artefact” of the pollsters, rather than a reflection of an actual thing in the world. Polling data creates a false sense of certainty about public preferences—the illusion of a static and knowable thing, “the public,” where one does not exist.
Despite the epistemological limitations and political biases embedded in the art of polling, public sentiment must be brought into the equation of foreign policy analysis. Particularly in a South Korean context, given the highly participatory nature of political culture, it would be foolish to adopt an elitist premise that the public factor can be ignored. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, for one, emphasizes the critical importance of democratic legitimacy and public input in all aspects of governance, including foreign policy.