Getting Uncle Sam’s Ear: Will Ethnic Lobbies Cramp America’s Foreign Policy Style

The daily schedule of any secretary of state or national security adviser attests to America’s ethnic diversity. Interspersed with interminable staff meetings and appointments with visiting foreign dignitaries are sessions with domestic ethnic groups. It might be a breakfast talk with officials from the Cuban American National Foundation on U.S. policy toward Cuba, a luncheon address to members of the American Latvian Association on NATO expansion, or an evening speech to the American Jewish Committee on the Middle East peace process. In America, global politics is local politics—and local politics, often, is ethnic politics.

None of this is new, of course. Irish Americans lobbied 19th-century presidents to endorse Irish autonomy, and they joined with German Americans in pressing Woodrow Wilson to keep the United States out of World War I. Still, with the Soviet Union no longer around to give direction to U.S. foreign policy and with immigrants now arriving in America from every corner of the globe, ethnic lobbies are playing a more visible role in policymaking. In the eyes of critics, the United States has been worse off for it. Increasingly, some observers fear, American foreign policy will be driven—and often fragmented—by the pressures of small groups with intense interests.

September 11 appears to have tempered these fears, at least momentarily, by giving U.S. foreign policy a clear sense of direction for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell. Even so, ethnic lobbies will continue to shape American policy abroad. But the story of ethnic influence is more complicated, and more interesting, than it may at first appear. On balance, ethnic groups matter, but not nearly as much or as often as people might suspect. Within the ethnic universe, however, some groups will grow in influence, while others will decline. It is already possible, indeed, to glimpse who the winners and losers may be. And there is reason to think that U.S. foreign policy itself will, in the end, be among the winners.

New Kids on the Block

For a country that draws its citizens literally from around the globe, the United States is host to remarkably few ethnic foreign policy lobbies. One looks in vain, for example, for Dutch, French Canadian, Italian, or Norwegian lobbies. And their absence cannot be explained by size or geographic dispersion. Each of these immigrant communities is far larger than those from, say, Greece or Cuba and is, like them, concentrated in a few U.S. states where they could make their electoral clout felt.

The truth is that ethnic groups weigh in on foreign policy matters only when conditions are right. Immigrants who came to the United States as political exiles (think Cubans) are much more likely to try to influence policy toward their ancestral homeland than those who came to find a better life (think French Canadians or Italians). Ethnics whose real or symbolic ancestral homelands are threatened by their neighbors (think Armenia, Greece, or Israel) are also more likely to lobby than those who come from countries that are secure (think Norway or Portugal). And it is no coincidence that prominent lobbies like Armenian Americans, Cuban Americans, Greek Americans, and Jewish Americans represent the most economically successful American ethnic groups. Impoverished ethnic groups are usually too focused on their own plight to worry about those they have left behind.

Economic hardship, together with the lack of either an exile mentality or a threat, explains why, Cuban Americans aside, Latino organizations usually sit on the sidelines of foreign policy. Groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have concentrated their focus on the economy, civil rights, and immigration because those are the issues that matter to their members. Given the economic challenges facing the Hispanic community today and the relative security that most Latin American countries enjoy, foreign policy is not likely to galvanize Latinos any time soon.

What about other immigrant groups—One likely to be active in coming years is Indians. Not only does India face military threats—from both Pakistan and China—but Indian Americans are one of the most affluent ethnic groups in the United States. They have become active in politics, contributing an estimated $8 million to federal election campaigns over the past three elections. Congress has taken notice. The Congressional India Caucus, founded in 1993, now has more than 120 members, nearly double that of the Congressional Study Group on Germany.

The Chinese-American community presents a different case. Historically, Chinese Americans, like Latinos, have been quiet on foreign policy. In their case, economics has not been a major barrier—Chinese Americans have prospered. Rather, what is lacking is a policy around which they can mobilize. China is not threatened, and unlike Cuban Americans, most Chinese Americans do not see themselves as political exiles and do not push for the overthrow of the communist government. Moreover, Chinese Americans are divided over whether to promote trade with China or to pressure Beijing to improve its human rights record.

Whether other Asian-American groups will form significant foreign policy lobbies will depend to a considerable extent on how China behaves. A belligerent China will give Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Cambodian Americans reasons to mobilize. But if China is more pacific, U.S. relations with each of these countries will be more or less “normal,” and the need to reshape U.S. policy to protect ethnic interests will decline.

Who Wins, Who Loses?

Concerns that new ethnic lobbies will capture U.S. policy toward their ancestral homelands are longstanding. Yet just as their willingness to take on foreign policy is exaggerated, so too is their ability to get their way.

Consider the Jewish-American lobby. No one doubts that it helps shape U.S. policy toward the Middle East. But it does not have an unbroken record of success. The United States sells high-tech weaponry to neighboring Arab states, pushes Israel to trade land for peace, and refuses to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

And the Jewish-American lobby is in many ways an exception. Most other ethnic lobbies have far less impressive track records. The East European lobby failed in the 1950s and 1960s to persuade successive administrations to roll back Soviet gains in Eastern Europe, and while it pressed for NATO expansion during the 1990s, it was far from pivotal in the decision to expand. The Greek lobby had brief success in persuading Congress to impose an arms embargo on Turkey, and the Armenian lobby has made Armenia one of the highest per capita recipients of U.S. aid, but neither has disrupted close U.S. security ties with the Turkish government. The Serbian lobby had no impact on U.S. policy toward the Balkans in the 1990s. In short, ethnic lobbying does not translate automatically into policy influence.

So when are ethnic lobbies likely to get their way? That depends on both the characteristics of the lobby itself and the broader political context in which it operates. On the internal side of the ledger what matters is a community’s size, commitment, unity, resources, and most important, its political skill or ability to make effective use of the first four qualities. The Jewish-American lobby scores high on all counts. By contrast, the Arab-American lobby has been hobbled over the years by national and religious divisions.

The broader political factors that influence an ethnic lobby’s effectiveness begin with whether it wants to preserve or to overturn the status quo. Preserving it is far easier—a lobby prevails if it wins at any step of the political process. For instance, cracks have developed in recent years in support for the four-decades-old embargo on Havana—a policy, by the way, that predates the rise of the Cuban-American lobby—as Midwestern farmers have sought access to Cuba’s market. Yet the embargo has remained essentially intact because the Cuban-American lobby has maintained the support of House Republican leaders.

A second broad political factor is whether other powerful interests support or oppose an ethnic lobby’s aims. The Jewish lobby succeeds partly because it is pushing on an open door—it advocates policies that most Americans favor on the merits. Israel is a stable, pro-Western democracy in a region where governments are often unstable, autocratic, and anti-American. Conversely, Armenian Americans cannot persuade Congress to criticize Turkey for refusing to apologize for the Armenian genocide during and after World War I because oil companies, defense contractors, and the U.S. military have joined to fend off a policy that jeopardizes their considerable interests in Ankara. Serbian Americans found almost no allies for their call for giving Belgrade a more sympathetic hearing.

Finally, events abroad matter. Castro’s hatred of the United States has strengthened the hand of the Cuban-American lobby. Had Havana sought a rapprochement with Washington, Cuban Americans might not have been able to fight off efforts to keep the Cuban embargo in place. The Greek lobby was most powerful in the 1970s when Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus made it politically harder to defend pro-Turkish policies. The September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath may redefine the political terrain for both the Arab-American and Jewish-American lobbies. Much will depend on whether the lesson Americans draw from these events is that the United States has been too unquestioning in its support of Israel, or that America’s Arab allies will not come to its aid in its hour of need, or that the Middle East is too dangerous to merit further U.S. engagement.

Which of the new ethnic lobbies look to be winners? One group likely to emerge as a political powerhouse is Indian Americans. Not only are they affluent and interested in India, but China’s rising power and India’s decision to move toward a market economy means their calls for a more “India friendly” foreign policy are likely to meet a receptive audience in Washington. Pakistani Americans no doubt will try to prevent a tilt toward India, and the war in Afghanistan has given Islamabad renewed geopolitical importance in Washington. But Pakistani Americans will labor under two disadvantages—they are only one-tenth the size of the Indian-American community, and Pakistan’s military government maintains close ties to China.

The potential for worsening U.S. relations with China is a major reason a Chinese-American lobby is unlikely to be influential. Again, Chinese Americans tend to favor engaging Beijing rather than isolating it. Should China act more aggressively, as its critics contend it will, Chinese Americans will find it hard to sustain a conciliatory policy toward Beijing. They (and their supporters) will find themselves vulnerable to politically damaging charges that they are aiding America’s adversary—a charge that could resonate given that one out of four Americans harbors “very negative attitudes” toward Chinese Americans and one out of three doubts their loyalty to the United States. A more belligerent China would also strengthen the hand of other Asian ethnic groups that oppose demands for conciliatory policies. Conversely, if U.S.-Chinese relations follow a cooperative path in the years to come, the incentive for Chinese Americans to inject themselves into foreign policy debates will diminish.

What about the Latino lobby? Although Hispanic groups are likely to focus on domestic issues rather than foreign policy ones, the tremendous size of the Latino community means that a Hispanic lobby could be formidable when it does take up foreign policy issues. The open question is whether a Latino lobby can maintain a united political front. Issues that galvanize Salvadoran Americans may not arouse Cuban or Mexican Americans. Even within national groupings divisions may emerge. The once-solid Cuban-American lobby now appears to be fracturing along generational lines, with younger Cuban Americans turning away from their parents’ unforgiving hardline policies. Likewise, Mexican Americans could fracture along regional lines or, assuming that Mexico becomes a vibrant multiparty democracy, perhaps even along ideological lines.

It is also possible that some small ethnic communities may come to dominate U.S. policy toward their homeland. Somali-American groups might carve out a powerful role on U.S. policy toward Mogadishu, or Hmong Americans might take control of policy toward Vientiane. But given the small number of voters such groups represent, their power will largely reflect the fact that no one else cares about U.S. relations with their ancestral homeland rather than any magical sway they might have over foreign policy.

Whom Will Ethnic Lobbies Represent?

Ethnic lobbies have passionate critics because of the lurking suspicion that they put the interests of their ancestral homeland before those of the United States. It is impossible to say whether this claim is true. The national interest and the best means for promoting it are not objective facts. Reasonable people can disagree over whether U.S. support for Israel is excessive, whether Washington should tilt toward Ankara or Athens, or whether NATO expansion makes sense. For that reason, the charge that an ethnic lobby puts its own interests ahead of the national interest can be (and have been) leveled against any lobby, be it the Cuban American National Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturers, or the AFL-CIO.

What is clear is that many foreign governments hope to use ethnic lobbies to influence U.S. policy. Visiting Armenian, Greek, Israeli, and Mexican officials routinely meet with fellow ethnics to enlist their support. Dominican President Fernandez Reyna once went so far as to encourage Dominicans in the United States to become U.S. citizens so they can vote, and presumably influence Washington’s attitudes toward the Dominican Republic. At the same time, it is likely that some ethnic activists worry more about the interests of their ancestral homeland than about those of the United States.

Still, concerns that ethnic lobbies sacrifice U.S. interests can easily be overblown and usually are. To begin with, policies that benefit other countries do not necessarily harm the United States and may even help it. One need not belong to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to believe that supporting Israel serves U.S. interests or be Lithuanian to favor expanding NATO. Nor do ethnic lobbies march lockstep with their fellow ethnics abroad. During the 1980s, for instance, many Jewish groups had testy relations with Jerusalem because of intense disagreements over Israel’s policies. On NAFTA and related issues Mexican-American groups have been more interested in how policies affect Mexicans living north of the border than south of it. Nor is there evidence that Chinese Americans have been particularly interested in doing Beijing’s bidding.

Finally, the focus on where the loyalties of ethnic lobbies lie misses the contributions that they make to U.S. foreign policy. The transmission belt that enables ethnic lobbies to inject foreign perspectives into American politics also operates, perhaps even more strongly, in the opposite direction. As the political scientist Yossi Shain argues in Marketing the American Creed Abroad, ethnic lobbies are instrumental in disseminating American values and interests in their ancestral homelands. They frequently press ancestral governments to accommodate themselves to American political realities and hold them to American standards on everything from human rights to good governmental practices to economic policy. For that reason the consequence of America’s growing Latino community may be as much the “Americanization” of Latin America (or parts of it) as it is the “Latinization” of America. Likewise, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans may play a crucial role in blunting anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

None of this is to say that ethnic lobbies don’t complicate the lives of policymakers. They do, at least when they oppose what an administration or Congress wants to do. (Often overlooked is that policymakers frequently find ethnic lobbies useful allies. The Clinton administration actively recruited Latino groups—which had been spectators—into lobbying for NAFTA’s passage. It also used Eastern-European groups to secure Senate approval of NATO expansion.) What it does say is that ethnic lobbies confront the same constraints that all interests groups do. And while the end of the Cold War means greater societal influence on foreign policy, that holds true for all interest groups, many of which have agendas at odds with those of ethnic lobbies. As a result, the appearance of new ethnic lobbies will undoubtedly change some policies; but, in the main, the end result of ethnic lobbying will be not so much to capture American foreign policy as to enrich it.