Foreign policymaking can be interpreted as the process of relating national interest to international situations. A crucial stage of the process is the definition of national interest, and it is at this point that ideals are related to concrete self-interests. A given principle of American institutions is that policy choices should be subject to public scrutiny and popular pressure. Accordingly, coalitions of peace advocates are essential in a democratic republic because they serve the twin functions of providing independent education about international affairs and of organizing public opinion and translating it into political pressure.
Pacifism has been significant for foreign policymaking insofar as pacifists have influenced peace coalitions. Pacifists have broadened the popular base of pressure, stimulated political organization, and developed techniques with which minorities may challenge majority consensus. They also have imbued the peace movements with such distinctive qualities as their transnational orientation, moral thrust, and skepticism about the efficacy of military force to bring about orderly change or an equitable distribution of world power.
Furthermore, organized pacifists have occasionally played historical roles in consensus formation, notably in the resistance to preparedness and intervention in World War I, in the neutrality controversy of 1935–1937, in constraining nuclear weapons, in the protest against the Vietnam War, and in solidarity with Latin Americans resisting repression. They have attempted to abolish conscription and have liberalized the treatment of conscientious objectors. At the opening of the twenty-first century, pacifists mobilized Nobel Peace Prize winners to challenge U.S. sanctions on Iraq and were working directly with the United Nations to promote a culture of peace.
Influenced by social-movement approaches, modern analysts have treated peace movements as transnational social change movements, often with liberal pacifists at their core. Pacifists in this sense can be understood as integral to foreign policymaking as they collectively interact with the general public, national government, other national and international nongovernmental organizations, and international agencies.
Most people who repudiate violence and war on the basis of pacifist beliefs are not politically active. But even their faith is significant for American foreign policy in two respects. First, in its conduct of foreign relations, including warfare, the nation has been obligated to protect principled dissent from persecution or repression. The fact that this rule has been abrogated does not minimize its constraint on the foreign policy process. Second, the definition of national interest and power is subject to openly advocated alternative conceptions. Whatever the merits of pacifist judgments on specific policies, the free existence of pacifism and its political expression constitute a significant index of the consistency of foreign policymaking with democratic institutions.