views updated May 17 2018


Alan K. Henrikson

A theory of wide-ranging importance in historical and political thought, elitism as applied to foreign policy seeks to explain how that policy is madeby whom, in whose interest, in what manner, for what purpose, and with what results, including possible benefits for the policymakers themselves. A causal relationship generally is posited, or at least implied, between the composition of the policymaking group and the content and consequences of the policy it makes. Typically, the explanation of policy is to be found in the machinations of persons belonging to or admitted to a small coterie representing a wider privileged class, at the very top levels of societyan elite. A recurrent issue in elite analysis is that of whether the elite consists principally of the decision makers themselves or whether the elite is instead mainly the socially superior part of a community from which decision makers are drawn. The former view, which tends to be that of diplomatic historians and other scholars who focus on particular events, emphasizes the actors who are involved. The latter view, which tends to be that of sociologists and political scientists who compare overall patterns and may be interested in predicting, as well as explaining, public policy, emphasizes the structures that produce policy decisions. Common to most elite analyses is an assumption that there is some connection between actors, or power holders, and the structures, or social and governmental frameworks.

The English word "elite," adapted from the French élite, derives from the Latin eligere, a verb meaning to pick out, choose, or select. There is thus a meritocratic element in the concept. The exclusiveness of an elite group, especially in a nominally "classless" country such as the United States, with a republican form of government and democratic social institutions, is not based merely on birth or on wealth. It is, in principle, based as well on individual merit and on achievementthe person's intelligence and skill, courage and energy, and, of particular relevance in foreign policymaking, expertise and experience. Like wine, diplomats and other statesmen are often thought to get better as they grow older, achieving the status of "wise men." The role of women in the foreign policy elite, as it is sometimes called, has not been equal, though there is a trend toward greater representation of women in international service.

The broad sensibility needed for foreign policymaking in the United States and elsewhere was usually thought to owe something to an individual's family background. In the late nineteenth century a wealthy family could embark on a grand tour of Europe, and even around the world, that would expand a young person's horizons and permanently inform his or her outlook. Before (and even after) passage of the 1924 Rogers Actwhich combined the U.S. diplomatic service and the less elitist consular service and established a merit-based classification system for officersthe American foreign service was, as the historian Martin Weil entitled his 1978 book, "A Pretty Good Club." This almost familial milieu was well described in many diplomatic memoirs and biographies, for example that of Ambassador Joseph Clark Grew by Waldo H. Heinrichs, Jr. (1966). Increasingly, however, the knowledge and skills needed for the practice of diplomacy and for international policymaking generally include a firm grasp of economics and an acquaintance with science as well as working proficiency in languages besides English and French. This may entail specialized study and preparation at postgraduate schools of international relations or equivalent professional training.

In the United States, international service was further democratized by the Foreign Service Act of 1946, as well as the reforms proposed by the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government (Hoover Commission) in 1949 and by a committee formed under President Henry M. Wriston of Brown University in 1954. These reforms were aimed partly at familiarizing the domestically based civil service with the world and partly at preventing the foreign service from losing contact with American life. "Wristonization," as the effort was informally called, resulted in some integration of qualified members of the domestic civil service into the foreign service, though not at the expense of the latter's sense of itself as a select profession.


Although the idea probably always has been present in some form, elitism emerged as a recognizable and clearly defined part of Western political thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leading contributors to the theory were Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. These writers attacked classical democratic thought and also Aristotle and Karl Marx. Majority rule, they insisted, is impossible. Every society is divided into those who rule and those who are ruled; and the rulers constitute only a small minority of any society. Aristotle's classification, which divided political systems into three types (rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by the many), does not fit reality either, for no man is capable of ruling by himself, and the many, too, lack the ability to govern. It is the few, under any political system, who exercise effective control. And Marx, with his emphasis on a class struggle that in the end (following the victory of the working class) leads to social harmony in a classless society, was also wrong. History features a continuing struggle among elites. That struggle will never end, and a classless society cannot be created. Moreover, to the pioneers in the development of elitist theory, Marx placed too much emphasis on economics and not enough on politics, which could be autonomous.

Classical elitist theory did not maintain merely that the active, socially recognizable people in a country made its important decisionswhether from within offices of government, from somewhere behind the scenes, or from completely outside the state apparatus. It emphatically asserted that the common man, however numerous within a society in absolute or relative terms, did not. Analysts of elites, who generally focus on the distribution of power rather than on the allocation of values, or on property and other wealth forms, differ somewhat over the degree of participation in government or, more generally, the political process that is necessary for a member of the elite accurately to be judged a member of what Mosca characterizes as "the ruling class." A society's elite is usually thought to be a stable entity, self-sustaining and constant over time. Yet the actual group that is in office can change markedly and very quickly. The concept of an elite therefore may need to be understood as encompassing all those who might govern as well as those who in fact do govern.

However "elite" is precisely understood, elitist theory is clear in the basic point that a minority, rather than the masses, controls things. The general population of a countrythe common manis ineffective. Even in societies with elections and other democratic mechanisms, it is posited, the ruling elite functions in a way that is largely independent of control by a popular majority. However, it made need a justifying doctrine. That the elite ordinarily functions according to a "political formula," in Mosca's term, is what makes its rule effective and acceptable to the masses. Thus, in theory, there can be a democratic elitism, however paradoxical that may seem.

A "new elite paradigm," building on the work of Mosca and other classical theorists, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s among comparative political sociologists. It drew attention to the occurrence, and the important effects, of divisions that may arise within the elite of a society. Its central proposition, as stated by John Higley and Michael Burton (1989), is as follows: "A disunified national elite, which is the most common type, produces a series of unstable regimes that tend to oscillate between authoritarian and democratic forms over varying intervals. A consensually unified national elite, which is historically much rarer, produces a stable regime that may evolve into a modern democracy, as in Sweden, or Britain, or the United States, if economic and other facilitative conditions permit."

In the United States, normally, internal and external conditions have favored consensual unity within the nation's elite. Of course, the American Revolution and, later, the Civil War, are the major exceptions to this generalization. During those periods, divisions ran so deep as to produce counter-elites. As the political sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr., and the political historian C. Vann Woodward have shown, the reconciliation between North and South that occurred following postCivil War Reconstruction was in significant part a result of a complex bargain between the elites in formerly opposed geographical sections. After the late nineteenth century, issues of foreign policy have on occasion divided the American elite as well. A by-product of this has been a widening of participation in the national debate over foreign policy. That this amounts to a "democratization" of American foreign policymaking, however, is highly disputable.


American thinking about the relationship of elites to foreign policy began to develop around the year 1900 during the debate over imperialism. Most elite theorists, or commentators applying elite theory, have viewed policy from the Left, although not all have done so. There is also a conservative, or Rightist, elitism, sometimes politically ideological but more often having a traditional religious or cultural perspective on matters of public life. Such conservative elitists have been somewhat less inclined to address issues of foreign policy.

Most American critics having a view of society as headed, if not actually led, by elites have stressed the influence of business groups. These were seen to have had a role in causing the U.S. war with Spain and the subsequent effort to dominate the Philippines. A few denunciators of such overseas ventures, including socialists such as Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs and populist reformers like William Jennings Bryan, openly blamed imperial expansion on the greed of the commercial and moneymaking classes and on trusts and syndicates looking for new fields to exploit. Most opponents of imperialism at the time did not fully develop such a radical view, but an English writer, John A. Hobson, supplied a theoretically coherent version of it in Imperialism (1902). He interpreted the imperialist dynamic as being the result of a capitalist drive for greater profits than were available at home and also for security for investments made in overseas territories. In studying the American reaction to not only U.S. but also British imperial engagements such as that against the Boers in southern Africa, the historian Ernest R. May, in American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay (1991), surmises that Americans, "already disillusioned by the Philippine war and concerned about the growing power of trusts, probably found Hobson's arguments especially attractive."

Putting the whole subject in a broad comparative frame from a transnational perspective, the Norwegian political sociologist Johan Galtung, in the essay "A Structural Theory of Imperialism" (1971), interprets imperialism not so much as the result of the drives or motives behind it as the product of a structured, collaborative relationship between elites. He abstractly outlines one elite "center" inside the imperial power and another, smaller center inside the colonial country. He then theorizes that imperialism succeeds when the relationship between the two elites is "harmonious," or smoothly functioning and mutually profitable, but that it is bound to fail if it is not. Galtung's theory helps to account for the breakdown of British control over southern Africa. It also helps to explain the failure of the United States to achieve "harmony" with the Philippines, whose native leadership in large part refused to collaborate with American authorities and henceforth were subdued by military force. What is pertinent here is that a significant part of the American "center" also refused to enter into such a collaborative relationship, one of imperialism.

It has been shown that in the United States those who most prominently opposed U.S. territorial expansion in Asia following the Spanish-American War were themselves in many cases members of the American elite, if not mainly from the ruling political class or dominant economic group. Many were of an older type, for whom the early American Republic rather than the current and purportedly liberal British Empire was an appropriate model for the country. In Twelve Against Empire (1968), Robert L. Beisner observes that the leading anti-imperialist figures he studied generally "all shared the same biases and for the most part cherished the same conservative vision of an ideal American society." They were "elitists," he emphasized, and as such "they were not so much interested in conserving a system of economic privilege for themselves as in defending a style of life and a social tone against the leveling influences of arriviste businessmen and the democratic masses." Most of these, being themselves white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (later to be called the WASP type), had long been concerned that increased immigration, from sources other than certain countries in western Europe, might alter the racial and religious character of American society. Taking over the Catholic Philippines wold only add to this perceived risk.

Previously, Ernest May notes, the American elite as a whole had been "overwhelmingly anticolonialist." In the late 1890s, however, the nation's ruling classes began to divide, with some, mostly of a younger generation, identifying with England's liberal imperialists and becoming enthusiasts for a similar high-minded American imperial expansion. The split between imperialists and anti-imperialists cost the American elite some of its influence and also its control over public opinion. May writes: "In 18981899, this not only made for an intra-elite debate about whether the United States should or should not acquire colonies; it legitimated a much wider public debate. Less educated and less cosmopolitan Americans could speak with greater freedom because they could take sides with one set of opinion leaders against another." Arguably the elite division had a permissive effect, allowing persons who previously had been merely "talkers" to become, if not real authorities, then frequently quoted "advisers."

In that era there were few American scholars who systematically employed elitist theory, or at least an awareness of the role of leadership groups, in attempting to comprehend the structure of American society. One who did was the pioneering sociologist Edward A. Ross. "Every editor, politician, banker, capitalist, railroad president, employer, clergyman, or judge has a following with whom his opinion has weight. He, in turn, is likely to have his authorities," Ross observed in Social Psychology (1908). "The anatomy of collective opinion shows it to be organized from centers and subcenters, forming a kind of intellectual feudal system."

Much more broadly, a Progressive outlook, shared by Charles A. Beard and other historians as well as by leftist and reform-minded politicians, disposed Americans to detect "hidden" influences responsible for the country's social direction and political decisionsfor example, in permitting monopolies to operate. With the beginning of World War I in July 1914, explicit arguments about the class or group domination of American public life gained greater prominence. When the war started, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to be "impartial in thought as well as in action." Congress's declaration of war in April 1917at the president's own request and following repeated protestations of U.S. neutralitywas something that required an explanation.

Critics on the Left, many of them strongly opposed to the war decision on grounds that it was inimical to the interests of the workingman or out of an ideological pacifism, supplied an explanation that stressed the malign influence of an economic elite. The centers of it were seen to be located on the East Coast, in the financial and industrial elites of New York and other Europeoriented cities. Particular individuals such as J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers, and the Du Ponts were named. Somewhat more generically defined groups, notably international bankers and the munitions makersor, simply, "Wall Street" and war-profiteering "merchants of death"were identified as being responsible for causing the country to join in the European carnage. They were thought to favor the overly ambitious peacemaking efforts led by President Wilson and his friend Colonel Edward M. House, along with his group of experts called the Inquiry, that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations Covenant, which many feared would be an "entangling alliance."

This interpretation of history, with its emphasis on economic factors, resembled Marx more than Mosca, Pareto, or Michels. Also unlike those European theorists who accepted the idea of a permanent ruling class, the American accusers of the "interests" did not regard elite domination of society and determination of national policy as inevitable. The "people"who, in the view of critics, had been, or at least should have been, opposed to intervention in the war because it meant suffering and loss rather than profit for themcould and should be put in control.

A number of writers during the 1920s were participants in a "revisionist" historiography that challenged official explanations of the war and the claim that U.S. intervention was caused by Germany's assault on America's maritime rights. Further, these writers augmented what was essentially an economic conspiracy theory by finding other, noneconomic forces at work: British propaganda, pro-British official bias, and Wilsonian idealism. Harry Elmer Barnes, C. Hartley Grattan, and others whose work is assessed by Warren I. Cohen in The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I (1967) accorded considerable weight to the activities of political leaders, above all President Wilson himself and even certain diplomats, such as his ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Walter Hines Page, who was known for his Anglophile tendencies.

World War I revisionism became politically relevant during the 1930s as many Americans grew alarmed about the fateful course that American foreign policy might take. The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression reinforced doubts about America's private economic leadership. Barnes, Grattan, and Beard, who turned his attention from domestic history to current foreign policy, stressed the inability of banking and commercial elites to redefine the American "national interest" to suit themselves and their international connections. A Senate investigating committee, headed by North Dakota Republican Gerald P. Nye and consisting mainly of isolationists, publicized this general historical interpretationthe "devil theory" of war, as Manfred Jonas called it in Isolationism in America, 19351941 (1966). The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937, the major policy expressions of the isolationism of the time, were designed to keep the United States out of future wars by placing restrictions on three dangerous parts of the American elite that had gotten the country into the last war: international bankers, armaments manufacturers, and presidents of the nation.

The other side of anti-elitism is populism, a belief not just in the political rightness of majority rule but also in the people's inherent goodness and wisdom. In 1937, Representative Louis Ludlow, Democrat of Indiana, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require a popular referendum before Congress could declare war. The premise of Ludlow's scheme, one of many of the same type made during the interwar period, was that only small groups would seek American intervention in foreign wars. The people, if asked to decide, would guard against this. The Ludlow amendment gained considerable support, which increased after an American gun-boat, the USS Panay, was sunk by Japanese bombers on the Yangtze River in December 1937. But it never came to a final vote in the House of Representatives.

As elitist theories began almost to make policy, two revisionists grew unhappy with them. Walter Millis argued that the American people, rather than their leaders, had made war possible in 19171918. Charles Beard recognized that the people as a whole had become dependent on wartime purchases by the Allied powers. He continued to fear the influence of bankers and politicians, but he also feared that of farmers and other large groups having a stake in foreign trade. Logically but unrealistically, Beard called for a sharp reduction in U.S. dependence on such trade and for a more concentrated economic development of America, a doctrine called "continentalism." He imagined that this could be done through a more equitable division of wealth and thus a more widely exercised purchasing power. Determined to stay out of war, he would, if necessary, use state power to scrap the capitalist system.

This emphasis on the people, and their economic needs, became background discussion as the events leading to U.S. involvement in war commanded immediate attention. As Nazi Germany overran France and as the United Kingdom and the United States began to coordinate their naval operations, Beard, for one, became convinced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was masterfully engineering the entry of the United States into another world war by dramatizing incidents in the Atlantic. In Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 19331941 (1952) another revisionist, Charles Callan Tansill, saw the biggest "incident" of all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, as the culmination of Roosevelt's strategy. In Tansill's view, the president provoked a war in the Pacific that he could not obtain in the Atlantic in order to cloak his domestic political failures and come to the aid of the British Empire.

During the period of America's involvement in World War II, the influence of economic interpretations of U.S. government policy and action fell off considerably, as military imperatives dominated official thinking and conduct. To be sure, there were those who suspected the motives, short-term and especially long-term, of the corporate "dollar a year" men who went to Washington to manage war production. The accomplishments of American industry during the war, under relatively little state supervision, did restore much of the reputation that American business had lost. Major decisions, however, were made by the president and his closest advisers, notably the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and the senior military leadership, including General George C. Marshall. New government entities such as the Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by Dr. Vannevar Bush of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, significantly contributed to the war effort by managing the contracts for the secret production of new weapons including the atomic bomb. Diplomacy during the war was conducted mostly by President Roosevelt himself at leaders' conferences with his British and Soviet counterparts, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. The State Department under Cordell Hull was somewhat eclipsed, though it did concentrate on postwar planning.


In order to shape a better world order, what could be considered a series of elite groups assisted the Department of State in its planning process. The most central of these, the Inquiry-like War and Peace Studies project of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which received support from the Rockefeller Foundation, became part of a civilian advisory committee that reported directly to Assistant Secretary of State Leo Pasvolsky in Washington, D.C. Among the subjects addressed by the various study groups under the aegis of the Council on Foreign Relations was the structure for a new international organization to replace the League of Nations, which was generally thought to have failed. This blueprinting effort contributed to what eventually became the Charter of the United Nations.

The influence of the council's War and Peace Studies project should not be exaggerated. By 1944 the memoranda of the project, which previously had been circulated confidentially to the State Department, were made available to the general membership of the council for private reading. "Such indications that the ideas produced by the studies staff did not need to be kept secret," comments Robert D. Schulzinger in an irreverent but informed assessment, The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs: The History of the Council of Foreign Relations (1984), "demonstrated both the Council's success in raising issues of international cooperation and collective security and the drab conventionality of its approach."

In Washington, what has been called a revolution in foreign policythe Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and North Atlantic Treaty Organizationtook place, with a fair measure of bipartisan congressional support for the Democratic administration under Harry S. Truman. The quick succession of World War II by the Cold War did not permit relaxation. Many wartime military chiefs entered the national leadership structure, including George C. Marshall, who served President Truman as his personal representative to China and subsequently became secretary of state and then secretary of defense. Marshall was emblematic of the new place of the "warlords," in the lexicon of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite, 1956), who argued that the military had moved alongside the big corporations and the machinery of the state itself in America's "higher circles." General Marshall did indeed wield enormous organized power in what some scholars, including the historians Daniel Yergin and Melvyn Leffler, have characterized as the American "national security state."

Perhaps most exemplary of the elite type, as some perceived it, was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whose aristocratic manner represented "the British accent" in American diplomacy, as the historian John T. McNay suggests in Acheson and Empire (2001). An Episcopal bishop's son from Connecticut who became a Washington lawyer, Acheson wrestled with "a conflict that would be evident throughout his life: an intellectual attachment to democratic values pitted against a personal elitism that caused him to view with condescension 'the vulgar mass of humanity,'" as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas put it in The Wise Men (1986), describing Acheson and a circle of friends who epitomize the style and outlook that dominated American foreign policy after the war. Sartorially elegant, meticulously mustached, and verbally fastidious, Acheson would later title his memoir Present at the Creation (1969), compounding the impression he perhaps inescapably gave of arrogance. He was elitism's very embodimentGroton, Yale, Scroll and Key, Harvard Law School, Covington & Burling, and then the cabinet, to which, however, he did not seem particularly to aspire but, rather, only to deserve.

In part because of his manner, Acheson was a red flag to some politicians, notoriously Joseph R. McCarthy, the junior Republican senator from Wisconsin, who accused Acheson of "coddling" communists in the State Department. McCarthy was among the conservatives who believed that the setbacks the United States experienced internationally in the early years of the Cold Warthe "loss of China" to communism in 1949 and the near collapse of South Korea when invaded by North Korea in 1950were the result of high-level policy mistakes. Imagining "a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man," the senator found the answer in "the traitorous actions by those who have been treated so well by this nation."

With his accusing finger pointed at Acheson and even the respected General Marshall, as well as more vulnerable officials, McCarthy carried out an anticommunist campaign that was, in its socialpsychological basis as well as in its rhetorical method, anti-elitist. To the extent that it was grounded, it was based on populism, a conviction that "the people," the majority of the U.S. population that lived outside centers of sophistication, properly should rule but were losing their ability to do so. McCarthyism reflected what the historian Richard Hofstadter has termed "the paranoid style" in American politics. To be sure, McCarthy's credibility was in question. To accuse the highest authorities in the land of treason, as he did, required a temerity that could only be justified by the actual truth of the charges. McCarthy's ultimate inability to produce significant proof finally undermined his crusade, but not before it had cost some of the expert "China hands" in the State Department their jobs and, moreover, cautioned many other members of the educated upper class to think twice about entering government service or any other form of public life. It was more comfortable, and safer, for those who were securely employed to remain in good positions in industry, finance, and academethe institutional niches of the "silent" generation.

McCarthyism failed partly because it did not offer a substitute elite. It merely threatened the existing one, which, entrenched in institutions, survived. The administration of John F. Kennedy brought into government a younger generation that had come of political age during World War II but had not been responsible for political decisions during the conflict. Kennedy nonetheless drew heavily on older leaders of what was called by the journalist Richard A. Rovere the "American Establishment," seeking counsel and reassurance during events such as the perilous 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As Leonard Silk and Mark Silk authoritatively recount in The American Establishment (1980), this notion of an Establishmentthe word derives historically from the establishment of a state church, the Church of Englandhad been popularized in Britain in the 1950s by the historian A. J. P. Taylor and the journalist Henry Fairlie. The "heart" of the American Establishment was the New York financial and legal community, in the view of the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who served as a special assistant in the Kennedy White House. The Establishment's "front organizations" were the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations along with the Council on Foreign Relations, as he noted in his memoir A Thousand Days. Its "organs" were the New York Times and the journal Foreign Affairs.

Curiously, President Kennedy, though himself unmistakably a member of the American upper class (Boston branch, Irish Catholic), did not personally know many bankers, industrialists, leaders of the bar, university presidents and deans, foundation officials, generals, and others who constituted America's nonpolitical, institutional leadership. Nor was he very familiar with the New York financial and legal community, at the Establishment's center. It thus was a measure of that elite's power that a significant number of Establishmentarians entered his cabinet. He filled the position of secretary of state, for example, with Dean Rusk, a former senior State Department official who had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, on whose board were a number of older Establishment figures including Robert A. Lovett and John J. McCloy, both of whom were assistant secretaries of war during the Roosevelt administration. Perhaps the best example of an Establishment man who entered the new administration was Douglas Dillon, who became secretary of the Treasury. Dillon, son of Clarence Dillon of the New York banking house of Dillon, Read and Company, had served as undersecretary of state in the outgoing Eisenhower administration. An internationalist more than a partisan, he easily made the transition from a Republican to a mainly Democratic cabinet.

The American Establishment, though "predominantly Republican," acknowledged Schlesinger, "possessed what its admirers saw as a commitment to public service and its critics as an appetite for power which impelled its members to serve Presidents of whatever political faith." Presidents Roosevelt and Truman both "had drawn freely upon them," as Schlesinger shrewdly explained, "partly to avail themselves of Establishment competence, partly to win protective coloration for policies which, with liberals in front, would have provoked conservative opposition. It was never clear who was using whom; but, since it was never clear, each side continued to find advantages in the arrangement."

President Kennedy, as the journalist David Halberstam observed in a similarly knowing but more critical account, The Best and the Brightest (1972), "believed in the Establishment mystique." At the beginning of the 1960s, there was little criticism from outside the Establishment or dissension within it either. "Rarely had there been such a political consensus on foreign affairs," Halberstam commented. Containment was good, communism was dangerous, and foreign aid bills, required to keep the Third World from going communist, could be politically debated in Congress. "Besides," Halberstam noted of Kennedy, "he was young, and since his victory over Nixon was slimmer than he had expected, he needed the backing of this club, the elitists of the national security people. And he felt at ease with them," more so than he did with liberal "Democratic eggheads" with causes to push.

The American foreign policy consensus fractured when the Vietnam War began, as did the Establishment, although the cause-and-effect relationship is uncertain. Never a perfectly solid or solitary monolith, the Establishment began to fall apart, its cracks widening to open spaces for other, new participants to enter. Teaching then at Harvard University, the historian Ernest May remembers, "I thought I saw in progress in the mid-1960s something similar to what had taken place in the late 1890s," when the American elite had split over imperialism and the Philippine conflict. At the start of the Kennedy administration there had been a near consensus about the need, in the words of Kennedy's inaugural address, to "pay any price, bear any burden support any friend, oppose any foe." But the televised hearings conducted by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator J. William Fulbright and teach-ins at Harvard and many other universities throughout the country were evidence of serious division within the American foreign policy elite. However, that this dissension in elite circles was, as May suggests, responsible for "bringing in its train a great expansion of the public prepared to argue opinions" is not a total explanation. An alternative view would assign more autonomy to the American public itself, enabled by television and other media to be more attentive, while coming to doubt the justice and wisdom of the war being conducted in their name. The massive public reaction to the apparently successful North Vietnamese Tet offensive in January 1968, which caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to decide against running for another term and to opt for a partial bombing halt and peace talks, would tend to support this view.

Coinciding with, and to a considerable degree a part of, these events was the emergence of a political New Left and a corresponding revisionist historiography, which challenged the very premises of American foreign policy, then and earlier. Locating the causes of the Cold War and the later Vietnam struggle less in external threats to the United States than in factors within it, including the influence of powerful elites, the new revisionists dominated academic discussion for a time and also shaped the public debate. The seminal work was William Appleman Williams's The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972), an idiosyncratically radical critique of U.S. foreign policy and its leadership as being inherently expansionist, using the "open door" principle both as an ideological motivation and as a diplomatic instrumentin the manner of Mosca's "political formula"in carrying out American imperialism. Other writers, including those in the Williams-influenced "Wisconsin school," did monographic work on particular periods. The Vietnam War itself was subjected to detailed New Left analysis, with researchers finding precise evidence of American corporate and other elite manipulation of U.S. policy, implicating, for example, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and the Roman Catholic Church. While sometimes lacking historical perspective and interpretive balance, these studies had a powerful effect in discrediting the foreign policy of the United States and also those, members of various elites, involved in making it.


The ambivalence regarding Vietnam of many in the American Establishment itself as well as in the American electorate was evident in the election in November 1968 of Richard M. Nixon, a Californian Republican semi-outsider and former hard-line cold warrior, to the presidency. Declaring the purpose of "peace with honor," President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a celebrated professor of government at Harvard, carried out a strategy of gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces ("Vietnamization") while using air strikes to demonstrate America's will, even while engaged in peace talks with representatives of Hanoi in Paris. The effort was institutionally and politically very complex, requiring emotional balance as well as brain power.

In order to help hold the government and country together, and possibly also to gain personal reassurance as well as policy confirmation, Kissinger in particular cultivated the elite, among whom, however, he carefully picked and chose. "On a personal level I can never forget the gracefulI might almost say gentleway in which Dean Acheson welcomed me to Washington when I arrived as national security adviser, and the wisdom and patience with which he sought thereafter to bridge the gap between the perceptions of a Harvard professor and the minimum requirements of reality," as Kissinger recalled in White House Years (1979). He was particularly gratified when Ambassador David K. E. Bruce, scion of an old Maryland family who had served as U.S. representative in London, Paris, and Bonn, agreed, at the age of seventy-two, to represent the Nixon administration in the difficult peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in France. "We were on a long road, certain to be painful," Kissinger wrote. "But with David Bruce as a companion its burdens would be more bearable. And any effort to which he was willing to commit himself had a strong presumption of being in the national interest." The importance of the sustainment that Kissinger, an immigrant to America, received from his association with Establishment figures like the aristocratic Bruce, who seemed to represent as well as recognize the U.S. national interest, was surely profound, if difficult to estimate precisely.

With the very different administration of Jimmy Carter, an almost complete outsider from Plains, Georgia, who had been a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy and a procivil rights governor of his home state, the Establishment seemed to have lost out. This would be a mistaken impression. In an attempt to formulate a completely new, post-Vietnam foreign policy consensus for the country on a different basis from the essentially power-oriented, "geopolitical" focus of the Nixon and subsequent Gerald Ford presidencies, President Carter emphasized human rights, nuclear disarmament, and "interdependence."

This last was a concept associated with the Trilateral Commission, a nongovernmental group of North American, European, and Japanese leaders who were focusing not on East-West competition but on North-South cooperation. Intellectually, its approach appealed to Carter. The initiative (and the resources) for the formation of this elite group came from David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations, following his return from a Bilderberg Conference in Holland early in 1972. With Zbigniew Brzezinski of Columbia University as executive secretary, the Trilateral Commission enlisted some 145 "commissioners"bankers, industrialists, labor leaders, lawyers, politicians, academicsfrom the three Trilateral regions. Among the politician members invited (co-opted, a skeptic might say) to join the U.S. group was James E. Carter, Jr., as his name then was listed. Carter was grateful for the chance. As he wrote in his campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best? (1976), "Membership on this commission has provided me with a splendid learning opportunity, and many of the other members have helped me in my study of foreign affairs." As Leonard and Mark Silk reported, when Carter became president, some 40 percent of the U.S. members of the Trilateral Commission became members of his administration (the cooptation was mutual).

One of these was the New York corporate lawyer and former high-ranking Defense Department official Cyrus R. Vance. "If, after the inauguration," President Carter's closest aide from Georgia, Hamilton Jordan, had injudiciously said in a widely quoted statement, "you find Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed." Indeed, it did seem as if the Carter people had been forced to give in. "There can be no doubt today," commented Robert A. Manning in the nonestablishment journal Penthouse, "that David Rockefeller and his Trilateral Commission have succeeded in seizing control of America's foreign policy." Such fears should have been partially laid to rest, commented the Silks, when National Security Affairs Adviser Brzezinski and Secretary of State Vance started feuding over arms control and other issues.

These internal differences within the Carter administration notwithstanding, the Trilateral concept, and the international associations that came with it, broadened the purview of American foreign policy, making it more truly global. In place of the shifting "triangular" diplomacy handled, sometimes arbitrarily, by Nixon and Kissinger alone in a way that seemed to place America's relations with Moscow and Beijing on the same, or even higher, plane than its established relations with London, Paris, Bonn, Rome, Ottawa, and Tokyo, there would now be a new emphasis on working with neighboring Canada, the western European powers, and Japan in a more structured and reliable trilateral formation. The policy aim was to coordinate the decisions of the so-called industrial democracies so as not only to stabilize their own economies but also to enable them to grow consistently in order to absorb more of the primary and other products of developing countries. Newer issues such as protection of the global environment and the universal promotion of human rights also were placed on the agenda. That radical critics of Trilateralism, such as Holly Sklar and others (1980), saw it as "elite planning for world management" bothered but did not deter David Rockefeller and his fellow commissioners, outside government or in.


The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and particularly the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of that year brought the U.S. government suddenly back to geostrategic thinking and produced a shift in elites. The holding of U.S. embassy personnel as hostages by young Islamic militants in Tehran seemed to immobilize the Carter administration. Carter's defeat in the election of 1980 by the conservative former Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, replaced talk of "interdependence" with assertions of "strength," a readiness to defend U.S. interests around the worldunilaterally, if necessary. The relevant elites for Reagan were not international bankers in New York, Frankfurt, or Tokyo but the very rich businessmen in California who, remaining behind the scenes (as his "kitchen cabinet"), had long financed and in other ways facilitated the actor-politician's career. This West Coast elite expected, and got, a resolute defense of the Free World against Soviet-supported insurgencies and a worrisome Soviet arms buildup. In the important field of economic policy, the ideology of the "magic of the marketplace" replaced technocratic discussion of international "policy coordination."

Within the broader American Establishment, there was considerable repositioning, not just between coasts. Long-established organizations of business leaders like the Conference Board and the Business Roundtable gained in influence. Among the policy-oriented research institutes, those like Brookings, being moderately liberal, were overshadowed somewhat by the newer and highly energized conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. The Hoover Institution, situated on the campus of Stanford University, also gained in status and influence. While not dominant in the actual policymaking process, within government itself, these conservative think tanks assisted the Reagan administration by providing informed, articulate commentary useful in the national debate over foreign policy, defense strategy, and economic philosophy. President Reagan, the "great communicator," was able through his skillful use of the media to express much of his message to the American public directly. It was simplified but well crafted for mass effect.

The "CNN factor"twenty-four-hour-a-day worldwide cable TVemerged as an actual historical force during the subsequent presidency of George H. W. Bush. When the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, when anarchy broke out in Somalia, and when internecine violence began in Yugoslavia, CNN was there, and its reports commanded American and worldwide attention. There was speculation, exaggerated but perhaps having an element of truth, that media moguls such as CNN's owner, Ted Turner, were capable of setting the agenda of American foreign policy, presumably to improve their outlets' ratings and increase their profits. Although assimilable to the general idea of corporate capitalism, the notion of a distinct "media elite" emerged to compete with old theories about the influence of traditional establishments in America.

The rise in importance of the mediaparticularly "new news" sources including talk radio, cable TV, and the fledgling Internetdid create a new competitiveness among would-be opinion leaders within the government or outside it. Even the dignified Council on Foreign Relations was prompted to engage in public "outreach," in the form of traveling panels and radio programs. It also gave its journal, Foreign Affairs, a more polished look. The council had been startled when, as he began his run for the presidency, George Bush resigned his council membership. He also ceased participating in the Trilateral Commission. Having formerly been U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office (ambassador) in Beijing, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, these were natural affiliations for him to have. But it was no longer clear that such connections were needed by political aspirants, or even advantageous for them.

The emergence of Bill Clinton, from Hope, Arkansas, was further evidence of uncertainty and flux among American elites. He himself was a mixture of backgrounds and influences. A man of modest beginnings but prodigious energy and ability, he graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, interned there in the office of Senator William Fulbright, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and completed his education at Yale Law School. He then returned to Arkansas and rose smoothly to its governorship. Except for longtime "Friends of Bill" (many of them fellow lawyers by training), new acquaintances made in Hollywood and in salons in Georgetown, and comradely relations with his fellow governors, he was relatively independent of powerful interest groups and even the national Democratic Party.

His administration, in its composition, was intended to "look like America" and, owing to the large number in it of women, African-Americans, and Hispanics, it did somewhat. The impression it gave of diversity was reduced, however, by the reality that many of its inner figures had received their educations at the same few institutions, principally Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Like President Clinton himself, nearly all were government-focused. As Thomas R. Dye observed in Who's Running America? The Clinton Years (1995), "Almost all top Clinton officials are lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats; very few have any background in business, banking, the media, or the military."

The Clinton administration at the outset emphasized the essential connectednessthe "inextricable intertwining," in a phrase used by Secretary of State Warren Christopherof foreign affairs and domestic affairs. The main practical effect of this doctrine, which seemed to reject the idea that foreign policy required specialized geopolitical understanding, was aggressive trade promotion. This effort was led by Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who went abroad with retinues of American business leaders, and by President Clinton himself, who pressed for the negotiation of multilateral trade accords including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) arrangement, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and, prospectively, a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The increasing stake of the United States in large overseas markets and investment outlets powerfully conditioned the Clinton administration's policy. In dealing with the People's Republic of China, for instance, President Clinton ultimately "de-linked" the issue of human rights and that of the extension of most-favored-nation trading rights, which were made permanent. This surely reflected the ever-enlarging American economic interest specifically in China but, more generally, a globalizing world economy. Many elite interests were subsumed in this Open Doorlike expansionism.

The administration of Texas governor George W. Bush, the first son of a former president to become president himself since John Quincy Adams followed John Adams and a reminder of the curious "dynastic" factor in America's open and democratic politics, was even more conspicuously committed to the defense of America's business interests. A businessman himself, President Bush had only limited personal experience in foreign affairs except with bordering Mexico. In Texas it was said that his worldview was formed by the Midland Petroleum Club, though the example of his father's rich international involvement must have somewhat informed it too. A kind of political throwback, he surrounded himself with (or was surrounded by) many of his father's former advisers. The person he selected as vice president, Richard Cheney, formerly a White House chief of staff and also secretary of defense, was chairman of the Halliburton Corporation, a Houston-based oil-equipment firm. Cheney was a proponent of an energy policy that emphasized increasing supply rather than energy conservation or environmental protection, and no doubt influenced the president's quickly made decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. President Bush's remark, "We will not do anything that harms our economy because first things first are the people in America," somewhat masked his solicitude for corporate interests. So, too, did his blunt denunciation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, though negotiated by a Republican administration, as "a relic of the past." He surely was reinforced in his suspicion of the restrictive ABM Treaty by the man he appointed as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, another corporate CEO who had been White House chief of staff and secretary of defense. Most pertinently, as chairman of a bipartisan commission that in 1998 had produced the Rumsfeld Report, the new secretary was a strong advocate of building a national missile defense (NMD) system, if necessary with the United States doing so alone.

Environmentalist associations and arms control groups at home and abroad weighed in heavily against what seemed a hard-right political turn, which the uncertain outcome of the November 2000 U.S. presidential election did not seem to warrant. The popular majority, which the Democratic candidate Al Gore had won, clearly had not chosen such a radical departure. The president seemed to be a captive of his Texas cowboy persona, perhaps of defensive feelings about having been established in office by the U.S. Supreme Court and of the interested elites in the Bush camp.

Viewed from many perspectives, especially from outside the country, the younger Bush was initially perceived as the most divisive president of the United States since Ronald Reagan. Foreign opinion, including the influence of European and other elites, had an impact on U.S. decision making. Not merely President Bush's trip to Europe in June 2001 to meet his counterparts in NATO and the European Union but also the media-reported popular reactions abroad to the stark positions he had taken brought about immediate adjustments in at least the presentation of his policies.

This responsiveness was something new. In Galtung's transnational scheme of analysis, the "center" in America was being harmonized with, and to some extent by, "centers" of influence within Europe. The intra-institutional processes of the NATO alliance and also of the increasingly structured U.S.European Union relationship described by Éric Philippart and Pascaline Winand as an "Ever Closer Partnership" (2001), as well as the interpersonal chemistry of relations at the leadership level, made the new president, and administration, much more sensitive to foreign, particularly European, opinion. This was evident not just with regard to foreign and security policy matters, including global warming and military defense, but also cultural and moral matters, such as the death penalty.

For elite theory, as applied to international relations, this pattern of development is instructive. The intellectual and social division over policy issues may increasingly become cross-national, with elites in one country joining with elites in other countries to influence the publics, as well as the governments, within. The American "foreign policy elite" has always been internationally minded to a degree, though actual contact with its counterparts elsewhere has been limited. In an age of nearly instant global communication, with travel and networking made easier than ever before, it is likely to become more even globalist in outlook. In the process of globalization, the elite itself may be globalized.


The idea that a cosmopolitan elite has controlled, even actually dominated, American foreign policy and diplomacy is a difficult thesis to evaluate. The subject is an elusive one. Part of the reason is the uncertain relation of elites to institutions, of actors to structures. There is a continuing debate among sociologists, political scientists, and other commentators on American social patterns between those who see power as founded on and inhering in institutions, including, but not limited to, the formal institutions of government, and whose leadership almost by definition constitutes the elite, and those who see power as requiring actual participation in decision making, which can be somewhat extra-institutional. Institutions and their representatives may not in fact be actively involved in important historical events. Outside forces, including a variety of organized groups and even unassociated individuals, may at times participate in them very effectively. The former, institution-oriented view, stressing positional power and latent influence, sometimes is called the "elitist" school. The latter, more group-oriented view, requiring actual involvement and impact to prove the reality of power, is commonly known as the "pluralist" school.

C. Wright Mills believed that "great power"such as foreign policy entailsmust be institutionalized and, more specifically, that America's leaders are institutional elites because they are the ones who possess formal authority in the country. Among scholars who later emphasized this was Thomas Dye, whose book Who's Running America? Institutional Leadership in the United States (1976) and its sequel volumes attested to this view in detail, "naming names." Somewhat similar, though concentrating on persons occupying powerful institutional positions who come to government and other command positions from what is regarded as the "upper class," was G. William Domhoff, whose book Who Rules America? (1967) and other studies carried on a more radical tradition. Both were basically on the "elitist" side. The opposing view, that mere potential control and formal authority are not enough, and that an examination of actual decisions made in America shows a wider variety of participants, was perhaps most influentially stated by Robert A. Dahl in numerous works, including Who Governs? (1961), a study of local politics in New Haven, Connecticut. This, the "pluralist" view, resists the argument that there is a single power structure, describing instead a basic competition for power and control.

Such an approach offers not a hierarchical model of American politics but a polyarchical model, suggesting that different groups of individuals exercise power in different sectors of society, that they acquire power in different ways, and that the interplay among them has an indeterminate outcome. It should be noted that neither the socalled elitists nor the so-called pluralists see the mass of the population as capable of leadership. This basic point is shared with Mosca, who posits a permanently ruling minority of variable composition. Elitism theorists see groups as being socially and in other ways interlocked, operating in monopolistic or at least oligopolistic fashion. Pluralism theorists see intergroup dynamics, much less constrained by social and other structures, as the essence of American policymaking. According to the pluralists, the public, though incapable of directing itself, can maintain its freedom and thereby preserve American democracy by choosing among rival elites that compete for its favor.

A question that has not adequately been addressed in most of the pertinent sociological and political scientific literature is whether the making of foreign policy is essentially different from the making of domestic policy. There is some evidence, to be sure, of a difference between elite opinion and mass opinion with regard to foreign policy, especially now that the Cold War international consensus has somewhat broken down. Eugene R. Wittkopf and Michael A. Maggiotto have found (1983) that elite views among Americans tend to be more "accommodationist" as well as "internationalist," and American mass, or public, opinion tends to be more "hard-line" and "isolationist." Nonetheless, it still may be supposed that "politics stops at the water's edge," and that such internal differences, involving opinion only, make little difference, on the traditional premise that foreign policythe actual management of itis an elite preserve.

In general, it still is true in the United States that foreign affairs is an elite sphere, with those in office running things. The federal government is recognized constitutionally as the nation's "one voice" in speaking to the world. Increasingly, however, America's international relations, which include more than policymaking and formal diplomacy, are coming to involve and affect a much wider array of direct participants, official and unofficial. This may challenge the institutionalized elite character of U.S. foreign policy and its conduct. It may be that the only way the American foreign policy elite, or Establishment, can retain its historical and accustomed control will be to continue to outcompete the growing list of participants by concerting more closely with elite counterparts in other centers, through interallied consultation and meetings such as those of the Group of Eight. The more that transnational "civil society" penetrates the global plane of power and influence, however, the more the making of foreign policy in the United States is likely to become pluralistic, and anti-elitist.


Acheson, Dean G. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. New York, 1969. An ornately written, historically informative public autobiography of an American diplomatic exemplar.

Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire: The AntiImperialists, 18981900. New York, 1968. An elegant set of biographical sketches, well compared and contrasted, of members of a mostly conservative elite opposed to U.S. imperial expansion.

Cohen, Warren I. The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I. Chicago, 1967. The best treatment of the subject.

Dahl, Robert A. Who Governs? New Haven, Conn., 1961.

Domhoff, G. William. Who Rules America? Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967.

Dye, Thomas R. Who's Running America? Institutional Leadership in the United States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976.

. Who's Running America? The Clinton Years. 6th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1995.

Galtung, Johan. "A Structural Theory of Imperialism." Journal of Peace Research 8 (1971): 81117. A seminal essay, powerfully reinterpreting imperialism as a set of interconnected center-periphery relationships.

. The True Worlds: A Transnational Perspective. New York, 1980. A full development of Galtung's complex model of the international system, aimed at transforming it.

Gill, Stephen. American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission. Cambridge, 1990. A well-constructed study of the Trilateral Commission that is also an attempt to develop "a historical materialist theory of international relations."

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New ed. New York, 2001. Originally published in 1972. A sprawling but scintillating journalistic treatment of U.S. policymaking during the Vietnam War, with numerous short biographies.

Heinrichs, Waldo H., Jr. American Ambassador: Joseph C. Grew and the Development of the United States Diplomatic Tradition. Boston, 1966. Rightly described as a majestic diplomatic biography dealing with institutions and policies as well as its central figure and other persons.

Higley, John, and Michael G. Burton. "The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns." American Sociological Review 54 (1989): 1732. A statement of the "new elite paradigm," emphasizing the importance of elite divisions and elite settlements.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York, 1965. A distinguished American political and intellectual historian's critique of "conspiracy" theorizing in the United States, and also of "pseudo-conservatism."

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. New York, 1986. An admiring group biography of Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, George Kennan, and Charles Bohlen"two bankers, two lawyers, two diplomats"by two editors of Time.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 19351941. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966. The best analytical treatment of isolationist thinking, with a focus on isolationist leaders rather than on American isolationist opinion or organization.

Kissinger, Henry A. White House Years. Boston, 1979. Inscribed "To the memory of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller," his early patron, the first of Kissinger's monumental volumes recording his central role in U.S. foreign policymaking.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992.

May, Ernest R. American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay. Chicago, 1991. A new edition of his 1968 book, with an introduction by the author that includes a retrospective assessment of relevant scholarship.

McNay, John T. Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy. Columbus, Mo., 2001. Acheson's affinity for imperial-style international relations, owing in part to his family background, is shown to go beyond the secretary of state's clothing and mannerisms.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. 2d ed. New York, 1999. Originally published in 1956. The controversial work that introduced this phrase to the American language.

Mosca, Gaetano. The Ruling Class: Elementi di Scienza Politica. Edited and revised by Arthur Livingston and translated by Hannah D. Kahn. New York and London, 1939. The major statement of classical elitist theory, including the "ruling class" concept progressively developed by the Italian jurist-politician.

Philippart, Éric, and Pascaline Winand, eds. Ever Closer Partnership: Policy-Making in US-EU Relations. Brussels, 2001.

Rovere, Richard H. The American Establishment and Other Reports, Opinions, and Speculations. New York, 1962.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston, 1965. A politically partisan but highly professional and polished account of foreign policy, mainly during the brief Kennedy presidency.

Schulzinger, Robert D. The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs: The History of the Council on Foreign Relations. New York, 1984. The first scholarly study of the council to make use of its archives, but not governed by an "inside" perspective.

Silk, Leonard, and Mark Silk. The American Establishment. New York, 1980. A clearly written, informative, and balanced interpretation.

Sklar, Holly, ed. Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management. Boston, 1980. Somewhat amateurish in part, and to be handled with care, but a collection of radically oriented essays that is a repository of interesting information.

Weil, Martin. A Pretty Good Club: The Founding Fathers of the U.S. Foreign Service. New York, 1978.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. New York, 1972. A search for the roots of U.S. foreign policy, found to be involved with the Open Door principle. A New Left classic.

Wittkopf, Eugene R., and Michael A. Maggiotto. "Elites and Masses: A Comparative Analysis of Attitudes Toward America's World Role." Journal of Politics 45 (1983): 303334.

Yergin, Daniel. Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. Boston, 1977.

See also Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives; Imperialism; Isolationism; Revisionism; Television .


"Some of my education was supplied by consulting many men and women who had been prominent in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. For the entire postwar period foreign policy had been ennobled by a group of distinguished men who, having established their eminence in other fields, devoted themselves to public service. Dean Acheson, David K. E. Bruce, Ellsworth Bunker, Averell Harriman, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, Douglas Dillon, among others, represented a unique pool of talentan aristocracy dedicated to the service of this nation on behalf of principles beyond partisanship. Free peoples owe them gratitude for their achievements: Presidents and Secretaries of State have been sustained by their matter-of-fact patriotism and freely tendered wisdom. While I was in office they were always available for counsel without preconditions; nor was there ever fear that they would use governmental information for personal or political advantage. Unfortunately, when I came into office they were all in their seventies."

Henry Kissinger, White House Years (1979)


views updated May 21 2018



Elitism refers to the belief that leadership positions within a society, or in government more specifically, should be held by those possessing the highest levels of education, wealth, and social status. According to elitism, a select subgroup should make or influence decisions for the whole society. Overall, elitism as an ideology advocates that select citizens are best fit to govern.

First noted in Western philosophy by Socrates (c. 470399 BCE), who described the good society as one headed by philosopher kings, elitism is distrustful of the masses and is in clear opposition to egalitarian or pluralistic principles. Contradicting democratic theory, elitism contends that the capacity to effectively control a dynamic and multifaceted political arena is absent in the average citizen and should be reserved only for a limited few. Thus elitism defers to those individuals whose backgrounds and experiences are believed to make them superior. Depending on the society in question, superiority can be based on perceived intellectual aptitude, skin color, or other factors. Most commonly, characteristics of the elite include educational achievement, family background, and economic affluence. In some societies ethnic heritage, religious affiliation, or gender are the basis of a classification system that distinguishes the elite from the nonelite. In sum, elitism can be defined as an asymmetrical relationship in which a select few, who are considered superior, exercise control over the many, who are considered inferior.

In practice, elites pervade most societal institutions in industrialized Western democratic nations, according to Jack C. Plano and Milton Greenberg (1997). Elites may wield significant influence in such specific arenas as commerce, the military, and government operations. Sociology and political science scholarship has analyzed the role of elites in decision-making processes in various institutional settings. A seminal work by the sociologist C. Wright Mills (19161962), The Power Elite (1956), argues that a single elite, rather than a variety of competing groups, makes key decisions for the nation as a whole. The governing elite includes political leaders, corporate leaders, and military leaders.

Due to its advocacy of the virtues of the select over the commoners, elitism as a normative theory often comes under fire for its antidemocratic tendencies. Critics argue that elitism leads to corruption, greed, intolerance, racism, and other undesirable social outcomes. Many political reform movements have been defined by their desires to eliminate elitist political structures. The historian Richard Hofstadter (19161970), in his book The Age of Reform, gives as an example of antielitism the late nineteenth-century populist movement in the United States. The populists, he argues, believed in the people versus the interest, the public versus the plutocrats, the toiling multitude versus the money powerin various phases this central antagonism was expressed (1955, p. 65).

SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Corporatism; Elites; Hierarchy; Inequality, Wealth; Leadership; Meritocracy; Mills, C. Wright; Populism; Power Elite; Stratification


Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Vintage.

Plano, Jack C., and Milton Greenberg, eds. 1997. The American Political Dictionary. 10th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Beth A. Rosenson
H. E. Schmeisser


views updated May 14 2018

e·lit·ism / əˈlēˌtizəm; āˈlē-/ • n. the advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society. ∎  the attitude or behavior of a person or group who regard themselves as belonging to an elite: he accused her of racism and white elitism.