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 entails—must 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 policy—the actual management of it—is 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.