Race and Ethnicity - Ethnic politics and sound policymaking

As American diplomacy enters a new century, it is indisputable that ethnic politics plays an important role in shaping policy. A substantive question is whether such influences upon the conduct of foreign affairs are an obstruction to sound policymaking or make a legitimate contribution. The traditional approach has been for students of American diplomacy to condemn the interrelationship between ethnic pressure and the direction of foreign policy. Diplomatic decision making, it is often said, should be determined solely on the basis of what is best for the national interest of the United States. This sentiment was presented clearly by the political scientist G. Lowell Field, who in 1964 wrote that he was interested in discovering remedies "for the curse of ethnicity in American politics."

According to Field, ethnicity poses a "danger to prudent national decision-making." Besides suggesting the abolition of the nationalities divisions of the Republican and Democratic parties, Field favors the "ostracism…[of] any political leader who obviously directs special appeals for the support of particular foreign policies to ethnic groupings with an undue emotional involvement."

Field argues that in the "proper moral climate" an ethnic group should be embarrassed when politicians make "this kind of appeal, just as a judge would be embarrassed by efforts to get him to participate in the decision of a case involving a close relative." It is simply illegitimate, Field says, to promote or even "tolerate situations—like those in which foreign policy hearings are conducted by the major parties before their national conventions—in which it appears that the feelings of ethnic minorities are legitimate grounds for deciding whether or not such intervention by American power is possible or desirable."

Taking decision making in foreign policy out of domestic politics and consigning it to the experts is a suggestion not limited to academe. In 1961 Senator J. William Fulbright insisted that foreign policy should not be determined in a deliberative forum in which parochial domestic interests would have influence. "The question I put," wrote Fulbright, "is whether in the face of the harsh necessities of the 1960s we can afford the luxury of 18th century procedures of measured deliberation."

Fulbright doubted that a successful foreign policy could originate "by continuing to leave vast and vital decision-making powers in the hands of a decentralized, independent-minded, and largely parochial-minded body of legislators…. I submit that the price of democratic survival in a world of aggressive totalitarianism is to give up some of the democratic luxuries of the past." Foreign policy, Fulbright argued, should be determined by the experts in the executive branch of government and should not be a political football in Congress. Implementation of Fulbright's thesis that Congress should play less of a role in foreign policy formulation would clearly hinder the ability of ethnic groups to lobby for their particular interests.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, those who approve of the link between ethnic minorities and foreign policy no longer argue from a defensive position. They instead point out that policymakers are themselves often highly partisan and political on specific foreign policy issues. For example, Jewish Americans have long contended that the Middle East desk at the State Department has traditionally been staffed by personnel who are pro-Arab. Since some persons in the State Department contend that the national interest lies in protecting American commercial interests in the Middle East, ethnic bias is not the only possible explanation of the State Department position. Similarly, supporters of America's pro-Israel stance are not necessarily Zionists but can instead insist that the national interest is best served by supporting democracies, such as Israel, wherever they exist. Why, the critics of official Washington ask, should it be assumed that the State Department's interpretation of the national interest is any more creditable than the views of State Department critics?

Ethnic leaders have suggested that nothing could be more appropriate in a democracy than to bring interest groups into the decision-making process. Following an era in Washington marked by governmental disdain for the public, the concept of broadening the public's role in decision making has substantial appeal.

Promoting good relations with foreign nations is basic to American diplomacy. One way to foster such friendly ties would be to make conspicuous a link between specific ethnic minorities and U.S. foreign policy toward their homeland. Ethnic leaders have argued that the goodwill that can be won by emphasizing the interrelationship between the ethnic group and policy toward the land of origin provides a compelling argument for encouraging such a relationship.

Among world powers, only the United States, with its diversity of ethnic populations, has had such obvious opportunities. Individual representatives, as well as an entire ethnic community, can be effectively used for diplomatic purposes. When President John F. Kennedy visited his ancestral home in Ireland and when he frequently referred to his Irish background, the resulting benefit to Irish-American relations was enormous. Similar goodwill is gained when a prominent member of an ethnic group is given a diplomatic assignment.

One example of using an entire ethnic group to obtain a foreign policy goal was presented in Italian-American relations during the late 1940s. Washington became concerned that the Italian electorate might vote the Communist Party into control of the national government. Encouraged by U.S. officials, Italian Americans mounted a mail campaign in which relatives in Italy would be persuaded to vote against the Communists. Italian Americans responded enthusiastically.

The legitimacy of ethnic groups' lobbying for policies they desire no longer seems as questionable as it was once considered to be. American elections and the political process have moved in the direction of multiple interests seeking to have their ideas heard and the policies they support accepted. Why is the attempt by ethnic minorities to influence the direction of foreign policy any less legitimate than the lobbying efforts of any number of economic interest groups? Why should it be any less legitimate to vote from ethnic considerations than for economic or social reasons? These are questions asked by spokesmen for ethnic minorities involved in foreign affairs issues.

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