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 made—by 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 society—an 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 achievement—the 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 Act—which combined the U.S. diplomatic service and the less elitist consular service and established a merit-based classification system for officers—the 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.


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, 1898–1900. 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): 81–117. 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): 17–32. 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, 1935–1941. 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): 303–334.

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 .

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