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World: Analysis From Washington--Beltways And Ring Roads

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Media coverage in Washington and Moscow highlights a phenomenon increasingly common around the world: the growing disconnect between the concerns of national elites and those of ordinary citizens.

In Washington, various elite groups -- journalistic and political -- focused on President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address last Tuesday night and on the president's plans for the next four years.

But polling data gathered on that very night showed that most Americans outside the nation's capital were far more interested in the outcome of the celebrated O.J. Simpson wrongful death case in California.

And curiously, precisely because the results of that case were to be announced at the same time as Clinton's speech, far more Americans may have turned on their television sets to listen to the president than would otherwise have been the case.

Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian government stepped up its campaign against the expansion of NATO. Russian leaders spoke out against it, and various journalists and analysts filled the airwaves and newspaper columns with arguments on this point.

But again, polling data gathered last week suggest that few Russians care as much about that issue as does Moscow. Instead, they suggest, the Russian people are far more interested in receiving their paychecks on time than in stopping NATO.

At one level, of course, this lack of correspondence between the attitudes of the elite and the concerns of the population is nothing new. Indeed, for most of human history, elites have acted and the populations have gone along -- or in some cases, not.

Nor is this pattern now confined to the United States and Russia. The Washington beltway and the Moscow ring road have become symbols of a wall between national capitals and the populations, but other countries -- even the smallest -- suffer from the same syndrome.

But at another level, this disconnect between elite and mass opinion reflects the consequences of both the end of the Cold War conflict and the transformation of the media environment in which both national elites and national populations must operate now.

During the Cold War, elites and masses were generally united by a single, easily understood image of the enemy. With the end of that conflict, elites continue to have foreign policy concerns, but populations are far more concerned about their daily lives.

That change helps to explain why President Clinton justified his foreign policy agenda in terms of the benefits it will bring to the American people.

And it also explains why Madeleine Albright made her first trip as secretary of state last week to the American state of Texas.

Such a turn inward, of course, is typical of all post-conflict periods in virtually all countries, but it has been compounded this time by changes in the media environment.

The rise of CNN and international news coverage means that the public often knows nearly as much about events abroad as do the traditional foreign policy elites.

That in turn means that the public, often overwhelmed with information, tunes much of it out but is also unwilling to defer to traditional foreign policy elites or to support such elites when they call for specific policies.

Together, these changes are likely to have profound consequences for the way in which foreign policy elites will have to do business in the future.

First, it means that each country will find it more difficult to articulate a foreign policy strategy that will have enough domestic support to be prosecuted consistently for any period of time.

Second, it means that foreign policy elites will have to spend more time speaking to domestic audiences than ever in the past, both to justify their own positions and to raise support for national action.

And third, it means that foreign policy elites will find their options increasingly limited until some change takes place abroad that creates the unity between elite and mass opinion.

Taken together, these three changes mean that foreign policy elites may find themselves tuned out by their populations unless they can articulate foreign policy in a way that the populations will support.

And that could lead to a more minimalist foreign policy by some countries and a more assertive one by others.