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The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2008

Daniel W. Drezner
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University (


For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their world view is inimical to the American public. For a variety of reasons—inchoate attitudes, national history, American exceptionalism—realists assert that the U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite and not because of public opinion. Indeed, most IR scholars share this “anti-realist assumption.” To determine the empirical validity of the anti-realist assumption, this paper re-examines survey and experimental data on the mass public's attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and world views, the use of force, and foreign economic policy over the past three decades. The results suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans are at least as comfortable with the logic of realpolitik as they are with liberal internationalism. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact: American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.Daniel W. Drezner is Associate Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University ( Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 2007 International Studies Association meeting in Chicago, IL, and at Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He is grateful to Bethany Albertson, John Brehm, Joshua Busby, Jon Caverley, Richard Eichenberg, Benjamin Fordham, Nikolas Gvosdev, Don Green, Jacob Hacker, Lawrence Kaplan, Andrew Moravcsik, John Mearsheimer, Gideon Rose, Bruce Russett, Gregory Sanders, Stephen Teles, and John Schuessler for their comments and suggestions. Luisa Melo performed valuable research assistance, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States provided generous support during the drafting of this paper.

Research Article
© 2008 American Political Science Association

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