Special-Interest Lobbies - Conclusion




Foreign affairs experts have criticized the role and influence of domestic politics on the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Former secretaries of state took no pleasure in the difficult task of conducting foreign affairs with other nations while simultaneously negotiating policies with Congress or, worse still, with powerful interest groups. Dean Acheson ruefully observed that the limitation imposed by democratic political practices made it difficult to conduct foreign affairs in what he saw to be the national interest, and Henry Kissinger and others complained of the near impossibility of effectively conducting foreign policy in an open society. George Shultz lamented when Congress, persuaded in large measure by public advocates, proscribed executive-branch diplomatic initiatives. It may be inevitable that practitioners of diplomacy, faced with the difficult task of reconciling U.S. national interests, as articulated by the president, with the demands and expectations of other nations, will view with distress and even horror the public airing by interest groups and their lobbies of facts or issues that can embarrass and constrain diplomatic relations. American negotiators, comparing their situation with the virtual autonomy often enjoyed by foreign diplomats, must often feel handicapped by the uninvited and unwelcome intrusions of interest groups and their lobbies.

Not only are lobbies recurrent obstacles to policymakers and negotiators, but they have gathered around them more than an aura of operating outside of traditional rules and roles. Gifts and favors from lobbies and interest groups to members of Congress and officials of the executive branch heighten the fear of corruption in the lobbying process. "Single-issue" groups convey a sense of narrow selfishness pursued at the expense of the larger good. On the other hand, the activities of lobbies regarding various aspects of foreign policy in the last quarter of the twentieth century made the policy process far more transparent than ever before. The need to protect the national security information that lay at the heart of foreign policy generated an elaborate security mechanism, but it also gave rise to its antithesis—growing public pressure for freedom of information and "government in the sunshine."

Lobbies, including those representing single-issue groups, are after all only giving necessary expression to an articulate and committed engagement with the democratic process. They have become another kind of check and balance to the branches of government beyond those provided by the Constitution. Lobbies and the government have been exploring various ways by which the rulers and ruled can get along. The public, for better or worse, has become interested and engaged in thinking and speaking about foreign policy. Many Americans, defining themselves in terms of economic, ideological, and ethnic loyalties and interests rather than the more traditional party preferences and geographic residences, have gravitated to those advocacy groups that allow them more effectively to inform elected and appointed officials about their particular views on foreign policy.

On the positive side, lobbies have contributed to the emergence of more durable foreign policies based on the interests and involvement of a broad range of people rather than those of a handful of top leaders. It can be argued that American foreign affairs officials blundered more often when they operated secretly than when they engaged interest groups and developed broader consensual policies that were more likely to have sustained understanding and support. At the least, lobbies present information and articulate issues in a manner that the executive branch cannot provide because of traditional political logrolling or concealment behind the shield of national security. They also reflect the interests of an increasingly well-informed American public more concerned with the moral and humanitarian concerns of foreign policy than with strategic considerations of traditional diplomacy, most of which faded with the end of the Cold War. Moreover, foreign powers have learned to live with the vagaries of American foreign policy as influenced and conditioned by frequent elections, ethnic group sensitivities, and an independent legislature.

Perhaps the balance of lobbies and government, however messy it can sometimes be, is the best sign of a vital democracy dealing with circumstances hardly envisaged by the Founders of our nation. The danger exists, of course, that one side or the other will gain an excessive advantage. The government, both the executive branch and Congress, is learning to cope with, and perhaps even exploit, the proliferating lobbies and interest groups. Surely the greater danger would be the stifling of full public debate of foreign policies in the name of narrowly or secretly defined national interests and national security. The challenge is for government to use the information and resources so willingly provided by the myriad lobbies operating in the foreign affairs field to make informed and wise decisions for the nation and the world.

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