The National Catholic Review

Who speaks for America? Today, for Tony Smith the answer clearly is American ethnic groups, because they play a larger role in the shaping of the foreign policy of the United States than most recognize. That impact, he fears, is largely negative, and in his new book, Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy, he sets out to sound the alarm.

Smith, the Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, celebrates the golden era of the cold war. Americans of every hue and persuasion shared a sense of national destiny defined by their anti-Communist zeal and buttressed by their American patriotism. The Marshall Plan and NATO solidified Western European unity, and the concerted thrust against Communist-dominated Eastern Europe mitigated the importance of national differences and identities for most immigrant Americans. The cold war policy of the United States, it seems, allowed all Americans to meld their ethnic identities with American national interests.

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all this. Ethnic nationalist conflicts erupted abroad, and the demise of Communism undermined any reason for solidarity at home. Ethnic group activism reared its head as never before. Serbs, Estonians, Armenians, Latvians, Poles, even African-Americans and Mexican- Americans joined the earlier ethnic interest groups of Jews, Irish and Cubans in clamoring for attention. Smith concedes that the multicultural nature of American society that spawned such behavior is the logical extension of the history of the American democratic experience. He defends the principles of minority rights and even argues that these ethnic minority groups, by extension, have the right to influence the making of American foreign policy.

But, he laments, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union threw American foreign policy out of focus, the decline of the imperial presidency, the increasing partisanship of Congress, the absence of crisis and the cumulative effects of more liberal immigration laws catapulted ethnic groups into an unprecedented position of access to American foreign policymakers. The problem, according to Smith, is that each of these ethnic communities now seems to have conflicted loyalties, claims its exclusive right to determine foreign policy in regard to its country of origin and has lost all sense of a national purpose.

There is no question that lobbyists exercise considerable influence in the shaping of all sorts of policies. Smith notes that 69 percent of Americans believe special interest groups carry too much weight. Ethnic communities are no different. Eastern Europeans argue for the expansion of NATO, Jews lobby for trade sanctions against Iran and Libya, Cuban-Americans insist on trade embargoes against Cuba, Armenians and Greeks collaborate on an anti-Turkish stance, African-Americans urge investment in sub-Saharan Africa, and Mexican-Americans press for looser immigration laws.

Smith is unhappy with this state of affairs, laying blame in part on the American political system itself. The constitutional limits on the power of the state and the nature of the American political party system that divides politicians’ loyalties between party and constituency has created a low threshold for political influence. Smith’s Washington sources assure him that a mere $1 million and 250,000 votes are enough to gain access to policymakers.

For Smith, too many ethnic groups have learned too well the steps to gaining influence in Washington. Through their votes, their campaign financing and especially their organizational leadership, American Jews, Armenian-Americans, Cuban-Americans and others (however small their percentage of the national vote) emerge as power players in policy-making. The tyranny of the majority is no longer the issue in American politics for Smiththe enemy is the tyranny of the minority. As the Cuban American National Foundation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Irish Northern Aid Committee or the National Council of La Raza have become increasingly adept at maintaining unity, creating agendas, melding coalitions and monitoring policy, Smith wants to get them a bit more under control.

Smith is not alone in lamenting the lack of focus in American foreign policy since the demise of the Soviet Union, nor is he the sole voice criticizing the influence of special interests. George Kennan, the venerable architect of cold war containment, warned recently in The New Yorker that the country is coming apart not only because of its susceptibility to immigration, but also because there are limits to what the United States can do abroad. In linking the present miasma of American foreign policy with the nation’s immigrant politics, Kennan echoes Smith. Others, like Henry Kissinger, in his occasional op-ed pieces, upbraided the Clinton administration for its lack of strategic design and its responses to specific crises that seemed driven by pressure groups. During the recent presidential campaign, George W. Bush criticized the Clinton-Gore administration’s lack of focus in foreign policy and attacked nation-building, while his national security advisor has called for a withdrawal of American troops from Bosnia, signaling not only a retrenchment of American global intervention but also a diminution of the influence of transnational ethnic groups.

Smith’s arguments are merely suggestive, border on the polemic, exhibit little evidence of causation and are sometimes internally contradictory. At one point he cites Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s outrage at Clinton and other American politicians for selling their votes to Eastern European lobbyists who urged the expansion of NATO, but later he dismisses Chretien as uninformed. It turns out it was the Clinton administration that wanted membership for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary and aggressively courted that lobby. AIPAC is Smith’s focus for how ethnic groups actually determine policy, but he then notes that Richard Nixon, arguably the strongest shaper of American foreign policy in the last half of this century, was little beholden to Jewish money or votes, but was the one who made the decisive decision to back Israel come what may. Irish-Americans’ promise of the return of Reagan Democrats created the opportunistic reason for Clinton’s involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process, yet Smith cites only Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and his own assessment of Irish-American organizations is that they are seriously divided and garner only shallow support.

Such contradictions mar an otherwise interesting thesis and, combined with the frequent use of phrases such as presumably, perhaps, it seems and my assumption, cast a shadow on Smith’s conclusions. His idea that ethnic groups seem so powerful in the making of foreign policy is less persuasive as well, when he notes that though second in size only to the AARP, AIPAC is the only ethnic organization among the Fortune top 25 lobbies. Because he eschews any serious discussion of other special interest groups (business, religious organizationsthe Christian right, after all, allies itself with AIPAC on American-Israeli issues), the balance of power in Washington, the emerging role of the United States as a global peacekeeper or the multilevel effects of globalization, Smith trivializes the issues involved in the making of American foreign policy.

Who speaks for America? Perhaps ethnic groups do on occasion, but if they do, Smith himself acknowledges that they represent a wide cross-section of the American people. Hearing and heeding minority voices, after all, is one of the glories of a multicultural democratic nation.

Constance M. McGovern, author of Masters of Madness, as well as articles on American social and womens history, is a professor of history at Frostburg State University in Maryland.