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III The Future of the Transatlantic Relationship

Conclusions: An Agenda for Future Crises

Growing and changing interest in the role of public opinion

To understand the present state of public opinion in an Atlantic context, it is necessary to take a more long-term historical perspective. The interest in the role of public opinion in foreign policy has grown steadily since the end of World War II. In Chapter 1 we began our analysis by offering an overview of the interaction between the research program on this topic and the political events that prompted this growing interest over the years.

We distinguished at least three different waves of research on this topic. A first wave set in with the beginning of the Cold War and the preoccupation with the possible public support for the increasingly militaristic security policy of the Atlantic Alliance. It was a period of 'benign neglect', and a marked contrast existed between Europe and the United States. In the US, this was the period of an a-ideological, largely centrist, mainstream consensus on foreign policy, characterized by 'harmony' at the elite level and indifference at the mass level. In Western Europe, on the contrary, it was a period in which polarization was high and harmony was low at both the elite and mass level. Foreign policy, albeit to a different extent in different countries (more intensively in Italy, less so in Great Britain), was a source of cleavages between Left and Right. These cleavages notwithstanding, public support for the Atlantic alliance and for the American choice was always a majority in Western Europe, and it became even more distinct once the Cold War controversies of the 1950s slowly faded away, giving way to a new consensus across the Left-Right political spectrum on the merits of detente.

The second wave of interest in public opinion on foreign policy issues was generated by the controversies that rocked the political landscape in both Europe and the US from the end of the 1960s up to the early 1980s. In this period, the consensus in Europe and the US and between them broke down, and foreign and defense policies became increasingly controversial at both the elite and mass level. This was also a period of remarkable mobilization at the mass level against the various governments' foreign policy choices, first against Vietnam and then with protest against the Euromissiles program, which produced the emergence of a continent-wide European peace movement. The long-term consequences of all of this were never appreciated because, with the arrival of Gorbachev and his policy of Perestroika, first the old Cold War was put into question and eventually it evaporated while Soviet communism collapsed.

The end of the Cold War and of the bipolar system produced a third wave of interest in public opinion. It was the Gulf War in 1991, the 'mother of polling' as Mueller (1994) suggested labeling it, which promoted this new interest in public opinion. The 1990s were characterized by a series of military and political crises, in different parts of the world, which created a renewed interest in the extent and conditions of public support for military operations whose relevance for direct national interests was sometimes put in doubt.

With respect to the state of our knowledge on the nature and content of public opinion on international issues, one of the things that was shown in the preceding chapters was that, in general, the results of recent, primarily American, studies of public opinion and the determinants and studies of specific cases of international conflict cannot be generalized to other (specifically European) countries and issues without oversimplification of highly varied and complex relationships. Moreover, these relationships can only be understood in a comparative perspective and by a multivariate and multilevel analysis. This is what we began to do in this book.

 
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