Hyphenating Foreign Policy

Hyphenating Foreign Policy

Mini Teaser: The new game of ethnic politics in foreign polics is a curious development--no less than American leaders' support of it.

by Author(s): James Schlesinger

Tony Smith, Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

From the days of the Founding Fathers, who were forced to contend with a good deal of regionalism, the search for national unity has been a perennial American goal. That aspiration was captured in the happy Latin phrase of Benjamin Franklin, e pluribus unum, inscribed upon our coinage. After the close of the Civil War, the focus of that quest began to shift toward ethnic divisions in the body politic. Indeed, concern about "ethnic politics" can be traced back a long way. In my office in Washington, there hangs a cover from a Harper's Weekly of 1877 -- with a set of Irish-American protesters, gathered under the banner of Saint Patrick, proclaiming, "we demand in the interest of the Irish people", and a similar group of (potbellied) German-American protesters, gathered under the banner of Saint Gambrinus, proclaiming, "we demand in the interest of the German people." The message is direct: Uncle Sam says, "If you come simply as Americans, this is the place. But if you persist in your distinct nationality, you must call at the State Department, where all foreign affairs are considered."
With the explosion of immigration at the end of the century and the emergence in 1898 of the United States as a world power, the challenge presented by ethnic politics began to intensify. At the time of the First World War, it led to considerable bitterness about "hyphenated-Americans."

Now, in the wake of the Cold War, the issue has once again grown more intense -- a result of America's dominant position in the world, the loss of interest in foreign policy by the general public, and a new wave of much more diverse immigration. As well, and giving the whole issue a different complexion, the forces that have tended in the past to forge national unity have weakened seriously. At least up until the 1960s, the American consensus was to view askance such ethnic demands, if not to repudiate them outright, as the Harper's Weekly cartoon did. By contrast, in these more recent decades, not only have the centrifugal forces in the United States been strengthened, in what is a substantially new climate of opinion, but they have been legitimized in a way that goes well beyond the acceptance of cultural diversity. It includes an acceptance of the more extreme forms of ethnic politics, such as single-issue constituencies, which are in some quarters treated as having positive merit. Politicians are eager to exploit these tendencies, most notably for fund-raising. Indeed, some politicians even brag about their mastery of "ethnic politics."

In Foreign Attachments, Tony Smith examines the changing roles and the power of ethnic groups in the making of American foreign policy. His is overall an excellent study and deserves to be read by anyone who has an interest either in foreign policy or in the workings of the American democracy. Along with a thorough review of the evidence, he provides a generally balanced and fair-minded treatment of the subject, proceeding in a calm and non-polemical manner. It is precisely because he has these considerable virtues that the evidence of an intellectual tension in his handling of the issue is interesting and significant.

Smith styles himself a "pluralist." He seeks to combine the American aspiration for maximum freedom with a deep concern regarding the progressive evaporation of the concept of national interest. While he regards this balance as representing the "moderate middle ground", he is really rather ambivalent about the position that he takes. He fears that ethnic groups will become extreme in their demands, with each one of them insisting that it should have priority in setting U.S. foreign policy with respect to its homeland. He also fears that the search for national unity will thus be abandoned. In brief, he recognizes the "dilemma" of granting maximum freedom to ethnic groups in this respect, while merely hoping that they will recognize a national interest that transcends their own. Though he speaks of the "contradictions of pluralist democracy", in the end he appears firmly on the side of pluralism and less interested in resolving these contradictions. Thus, while recognizing the horns of his dilemma, he shies away from grasping those horns.

Despite Smith's general even-handedness, his partiality breaks through from time to time. The notion of the melting pot turns out to be an "ideology", whereas pluralism is simply the working out of democracy. He is a little harsh in his treatment of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, who quite evidently did not share the current Zeitgeist -- far harsher than he is of contemporary politicians who violate his norms regarding the appropriate limits to pluralism. He characterizes the behavior of the Irish, the Germans and the Scandinavians in the period from 1910 to 1930 as a "significant drag" on American foreign policy, when by his own lights these ethnic groups were behaving quite properly in expressing their convictions in this pluralist democracy. One finds more than a touch of fashionable academic liberalism. In our universities today, pluralism and multiculturalism, whether moderate or otherwise, have become dogma that can scarcely be challenged.

Yet, in the larger society -- and for those who take the shaping of U.S. foreign policy seriously -- such a challenge is unavoidable. In the years before Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt, as Wilson before him, was prepared to ignore the wishes of large ethnic constituencies. More recently, the society has been willing to run roughshod over the concerns of some ethnic groups, as Serbian-Americans, Orthodox Christians, Greek-Americans, Arab-Americans and others might attest. Such groups can suddenly become unfashionable, lose most of their access to the media, and their protestations are barely heard. When this happens, it is truly remarkable how little attention is paid to their concerns, even in the academic institutions most dedicated to pluralism.

The case of Elian Gonzalez proves an interesting example of this phenomenon. For more than a generation, the Cuban-American community has been the dominant force in determining U.S. policy toward Cuba. Nonetheless, when demonstrations in Miami were compounded by threats of physical resistance to any government attempt to return Elian to Cuba, the public decided that things had gone too far and gave remarkable support to the Clinton administration when it seized Elian. The Cuban-American community lost not only Elian, but a good deal of its political clout, as well. The event underscored the limited political power of ethnic groups and the dangers of overreaching.

What this tells us is that, in order to achieve their goals, ethnic groups are obliged to work stealthily -- without overplaying their hands and attracting too much notice from the larger society. Thus, the underlying problem is the inattention to foreign policy by the general public, which allows such stealthy shaping of our policies to take place. The end of the threat from the Soviet Union and the substantially diminished danger of major war have diverted the general public from issues of foreign policy. Concern only arises when there is a likelihood of American involvement that threatens serious casualties. The upshot is that diplomatic action can take place and financial assistance can be given or withdrawn, while attracting scarcely any public attention. It leaves the political system both free and likely to propitiate the best organized groups -- especially when re-inforced by the lure of ever needed campaign contributions.

The result is that foreign nations, far more likely to calculate in terms of national interest than we are, are perplexed by American foreign policies. They cannot judge what we will do or what we will say on the basis of the touchstone of national interest, permanent or transitory. They are thus obliged to judge our actions by the vagaries of an ever shifting constellation of domestic pressures. Even though they recognize that the United States, as a dominant power, is remarkably benign, inevitably they grow frustrated by attempting to predict what we will say or do. For a nation that aspires to international leadership, indeed one that styles itself the "indispensable nation", this tendency makes it hard for others over time to follow us, let alone understand us.

Thus, the United States is faced with a unique problem. Never before in history has a dominant power been a democracy so sensitive to the claims of multiple domestic pressure groups. To be the international leader, one must be able to give clear and timely signals, comprehensible to others. The clear danger in the present and emerging situation is that the United States, while aspiring to international leadership, will be so divided by its various ethnic and other loyalties that it provides a cacophony of confusing and rapidly changing signals. In the long run, that inevitably will undermine our position of leadership.

For the moment, we may be so powerful that other nations will have to accept American capriciousness. But that relative position will not last forever -- especially if we are inattentive. Because of the complexities of our style of policymaking, we would be forfeiting our capacity to act with the strength that comes from national unity.

It strikes me as curious, at a minimum, that many of those who insist on a highly assertive foreign policy for the United States -- whereby we instruct other nations how to act internationally (and indeed domestically) -- are the very ones who are most acquiescent in the new game of ethnic politics. They fail to realize that, as we temporize with these tendencies, inevitably our influence will weaken.

To be sure, this kind of sympathetic attentiveness to the concerns of different ethnic groups is less of a problem for those who are prepared to accept a less ambitious foreign policy. But at the moment, they are a clear minority, at least among elites. Devoting one's attention to the careful balancing of different ethnic constituencies may be an acceptable role for secondary powers, such as the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, but is clearly an inappropriate guidepost for those leading powers that have an interest in the stability of the international system as a whole. The irony is that those who have embraced the legitimacy of ethnic politics, which means the propitiation of different ethnic groups, are engaged in undermining the very foreign policy they wish the United States to pursue.

Unless one is all powerful, foreign policy for major powers is about the steady building of one's national position and the husbanding of political capital and strength. It is not about quixotic ventures launched in response to countless domestic constituencies. The present degree of American dominance is not normal and will not last forever. If we wish our present international role to continue, we must shape our domestic arrangements to support that role, rather than have our policies shaped by those incompatible domestic arrangements. For a great power, policy is about preserving and wisely expending one's strength, not about harmonizing domestic constituencies.

Vice President Gore, in what may have been a Freudian slip of the tongue, or a political calculation or a simple error, interpreted e pluribus unum as "from one, many", rather than "from many, one." Whatever its provenance, his comment reveals the growing barrier to the ideal of national unity, represented by recent manifestations of ethnic politics.

We owe Professor Smith a great debt of gratitude for laying out in considerable detail so much of the recent history of ethnic politics in the United States, and, in particular, for his careful recording of the extent and the methods of ethnic politics. He may, under the rubric of pluralism, have been too lenient in his critique of these activities. Perhaps he felt that laying out the extent and the methods so employed was all that could effectively be done at this time, and that a proper critique should be left to future works or to others. Perhaps this self-limitation was necessary to disarm his potential critics by paying lip service to the current gods of academia. In any event, we remain indebted to Tony Smith for his delineation of these problems in a volume that merits widespread and careful attention.

Essay Types: Book Review