Race and Ethnicity - Three balancing factors

There are countervailing pressures that can neutralize or even eliminate the opportunity an ethnic group has to affect foreign affairs. If public sentiment is clearly defined as opposed to the policy being sought, or if nonethnic special-interest lobbies in the United States wage a campaign against an ethnic minority's goals, or if other ethnic groups commit themselves to work on behalf of a different policy, the influence that an ethnic minority can command is mitigated.

The first of these balancing factors has frequently proved to be critical to ethnic minorities desiring to convince a president and Congress that specific policies should be accepted. Ethnic groups can exert disproportionate pressure in a specific area if their demands arouse no broad opposition from the public at large. Part of the Jewish-American success in winning American support for the creation of a Jewish state following World War II resulted from the existence of this condition.

It was fortunate for the Zionists that throughout the struggle to obtain official U.S. backing for a Jewish state, the American public was either mildly sympathetic or at least apathetic. The basic Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish state was consistently favored by those in the polling samples who had an opinion, although at times the margin of support was as narrow as a few percentage points.

Perhaps as significant as the opinions expressed was the fact that so large a percentage of the public did not follow the Palestine controversies. Only 45 percent of those questioned in one poll (National Opinion Research Center poll, May 1946) could identify Britain as the country that had the mandate for Palestine. As late as the fall of 1946, 49 percent admitted that they had not followed the discussion about establishing a Jewish national homeland (American Institute of Public Opinion poll, September 1946). Outside the Jewish community the Zionist program did not raise very intense political issues.

Generally, the public tunes in to foreign policy issues only at times of international crisis or when a policy debate is infused with overwhelming significance—for example, when a war may be on the horizon, or when policies fail (as with the continuing commitment to fighting in Vietnam). Most international issues do not interest the public at large; such apathy translates into public ignorance. In 1964 only 58 percent of those surveyed knew that the United States was a member of NATO. Nearly two-fifths replied that the Soviet Union was a member,

Only half of Americans polled in 1978 knew that the United States imported any oil, at a time when approximately half of the nation's oil came from overseas. It is a tremendous advantage to members of a unified, organized ethnic group when they have the field to themselves to promote an issue that does not interest the public at large.

When an ethnic group does recommend a policy position that is clearly opposed by the general public, they are unlikely to receive it. Significantly, the one aspect of the Zionist program in 1948 that ran into clear-cut public disapproval was never accepted by the American government. Following Israel's birth in May 1948, the new nation asked for positive action by the American president on three specific issues. One was for President Harry S. Truman to extend de jure recognition to Israel. Great urgency was also attached to the request for a $100 million American loan to Israel. Truman responded favorably to both requests. Truman was also asked to lift the American arms embargo on the Middle East, thereby allowing Israel to purchase weapons. On 5 December 1947 the American arms embargo had been imposed at the request of the UN Security Council.

Truman was persuaded by the State Department that any unilateral revocation of the embargo would be regarded as exhibiting a striking disregard for UN efforts to pacify the Middle East. Another compelling reason for presidential inaction derived from the public response to the embargo. Although the Zionist program generally met with either mild public approval or indifference, one nationwide poll (National Opinion Research Center, 1 July 1948) indicated that 82 percent of the electorate opposed any change in the status of the embargo.

A second balancing factor that can challenge the influence of an ethnic minority's ability to influence policy is nonethnic special-interest lobbies that are determined to have foreign policy conducted along the lines they desire. For example, economic interests within the United States might seek policies that are diametrically opposed to the programs sought by ethnic groups. In a democracy, ethnic minorities make up just a small percentage of pressure groups hoping to influence foreign policy.

A third factor that works against the policymaking influence of a particular ethnic minority consists of other ethnic groups taking on the role of the adversary. President Wilson was faced with a variety of ethnic groups, each of which insisted that he fully endorse the claims of their homeland. America's ethnic populations collided over how the map of the world should be redrawn. Wilson's attempts at compromise left most of the groups dissatisfied, and led in part to his inability to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified.

The situation of having one ethnic group lined up against another occurred in 1935 when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent his troops into Ethiopia in an effort to expand his colonial empire. Supporting their ancestral home, most Italian Americans defended the action, and many lobbied against any American plan to establish a discriminatory embargo against Italy. Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed Mussolini's actions during the Ethiopian campaign, large numbers of Italian Americans turned against the president and the Democrats.

On the other side, African Americans rallied to Ethiopia's support on the basis of their ethnic identification with the black African nation. They called for the United States to stand up firmly against Italy. Lester Taylor, the chairman of the New African International League, wired the State Department: "Black citizens are surprised and filled with misgivings at the lukewarm attitude of this government." In the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, there was a tendency for the two ethnic groups, Italian Americans and black Americans, to cancel out whatever political influence the other hoped to wield on this issue.

In summary, the three countervailing factors that can diminish an ethnic group's ability to shape particular policies are the existence of widespread public sentiment in opposition, the presence of nonethnic special-interest lobbies on the other side, and the existence of other ethnic groups who take a contrary position. Where none of the three countervailing pressures exist, even a relatively small ethnic minority can dominate a policy area.

Placing foreign policy in the context of electoral politics, the candidate or officeholder has everything to gain and nothing to lose by endorsing the goals of a particular ethnic group. Politicians can obtain the political support of the members of the group who consider the issue in question to be of significance; at the same time no voters are alienated.

Truman's political advisers made just this argument in obtaining the president's support for the new state of Israel during the 1948 presidential election. White House staff members Clark Clifford and David Niles suggested to the president that he could obtain the support of Jewish voters by taking a pro-Israel stand; at the same time he would not lose any significant number of votes.

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