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------------------------------------------------------------------------ H-DIPLO ROUNDTABLE REVIEW Tony Smith. _Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy_. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. x + 224 pp. bibliographical references and index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0674002946. Review Editor: Gerald Horne Reviewers: Robert Dean, Andrew DeRoche, Mark Lawrence, Elizabeth McKillen ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Review by Mark Lawrence <email@example.com> Scholars of U.S. foreign relations have been oddly silent on matters of race and ethnicity. Only a handful have examined the impact of Americans' racial attitudes on the formulation of foreign policy, and still fewer have studied the policymaking role of ethnic and racial groups in the United States. Indeed, only one book, Alexander DeConde's _Ethnicity and Race in American Foreign Policy_, published in 1992, treats the latter issue with any historical rigor. The reason for our reticence is not entirely clear. Perhaps it stems from the unwillingness of foreign-policy scholars, a relatively homogenous and cautious lot, to paddle into such turbulent waters. The result of our inattention, however, is abundantly clear. While other scholarly fields have made enormous strides in examining race and ethnicity, ours -- despite its central concern with the relationship between the United States and foreign societies -- lags embarrassingly far behind. Tony Smith's _Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy_ is a tremendously important step forward. The book is immensely valuable in part because it provides an illuminating catalog of information about how several ethnic groups within American society have sought -- and are increasingly seeking -- to influence national policy. Smith shows impressive range, taking account of the activities of Armenian-American, Greek-American, and other relatively obscure groups, alongside the much better-publicized Jewish-American and Cuban-American lobbies. Most importantly, however, the book is a deeply provocative work that will, with luck, spark a lively debate. The book merits the careful attention of historians and other scholars of foreign policy. But it deserves an audience far beyond the halls of academia. Policymakers would do well to pay attention to this book, whose humane and balanced -- albeit ultimately unsatisfying -- argument offers a welcome break from acerbic attacks on multiculturalism that have become all too common. At a minimum, the book offers a persuasive argument for campaign-finance reform to loosen the grip of special interests over policymaking. At best, it will challenge Americans to think hard about how to reconcile the interests of minority groups with those of the rest of the population, a task bound to become even more pressing as the United States grows more diverse in the years ahead. Smith sounds an unmistakably shrill alarm about the role that ethnoracial groups are playing in the formulation of American foreign policy. Working through highly sophisticated and well-funded lobbying organizations, Smith asserts, ethnoracial activists are gaining influence wildly out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. In some cases, these minority groups, exploiting an American political system designed to permit a high degree of popular influence, have obtained virtual control over U.S. policy toward their ancestral homelands. Smith illustrates, for example, the tight hold of Jewish-Americans over U.S. policy in the Middle East, as well as the extraordinary roles of Cuban-Americans in policymaking toward the Castro regime and of Armenian-Americans in shaping policy in the Caucasus. What most worries Smith is that these organizations' narrow policy agendas frequently clash with the "national interest" -- that elusive but, in Smith's view, quite real concept that should rightfully hold center-stage in Washington decision-making circles. "The nation's representatives should determine policy based on some idea of the common good," argues Smith, decrying the fact that in the peaceful and prosperous times since the end of the Cold War "the lobby for the common cause is not particularly strong." Certainly, he insists, it is nowhere near capable of standing up against the likes of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), organizations that Smith contends have little regard, whatever their patriotic rhetoric, for America's best interests. "Although ethnic activists seldom explicitly claim that the self-defined needs of their kinfolk abroad should determine American policies," writes Smith, "implicitly this belief is frequently basic to their agenda." In the most egregious cases, the book argues, ethnically based lobby organizations cooperate with -- even operate on behalf of -- foreign governments. Smith steps back from declaring a national crisis. "I am not saying that the house is on fire or that the sky is ready to fall," he asserts. He acknowledges, too, that ethnic activism has sometimes produced beneficial results. Pressure from Irish-American voters pushed Bill Clinton to seek peace in Northern Ireland, for example, and African-American pressure helped lead his administration to restore democracy in Haiti in 1991. Still, Smith's pervasive anxiety overwhelms any cheer he derives from such isolated cases. Indeed, Smith asserts near the outset of the book that special-interest activism may be threatening no less than the long-term survival of American democracy. The entire democratic experiment, he writes, "may eventually fail not so much because of external challenges as for internal reasons, if social differences legitimized by democracy breed division to such a point that national political cohesion is undone." Even if such an apocalyptic scenario fails to materialize, Smith asserts that ethnic activism has already significantly damaged the cohesion of U.S. foreign policy. Competing demands from ethnic groups have blocked the development of a unified foreign policy based on broadly agreed national priorities. Instead, policy has an uneven, quixotic and sometimes contradictory quality. "In Washington," Smith says, "it would appear that the proverbial right hand (wielded by the ethnic groups and elected officials) does not know what the left hand (wielded by business interests and most of the government bureaucracy) is doing." What is to be done to rectify a situation that promises only to get worse? Smith positions his answer at a midpoint between two political extremes. Looking to his right, he rejects the position suggested by Samuel Huntington and other commentators who oppose multiculturalism in all its forms as an onslaught against civic unity and national identity. Looking to his left, Smith rejects the position of those he paints as multicultural extremists, unwilling to accept any restraints on the expression of ethnic identity. Smith's middle way, what he calls "pluralism," seeks to take the best of both sides. "Pluralists do not doubt the cogent historical and moral grounds on which ethnoracial communities join together politically, but we do believe that in debates about the formulation of American foreign policy, national identity, values, loyalties and obligations must be places above ethnic ones," Smith writes. "Pluralists are the natural bridge between multiculturalists and their nationalist critics, for we respect the cogency of each side's position but believe that a credible middle ground can be staked out, even if with difficulty." It is a seductive argument, even an admirable one in its effort to reconcile competing goods: the preservation of democracy and the assertion of individual identity. For all the book's strengths, however, Smith fails to convince in every way. In at least three important areas, his argument is open to doubt. The first problem concerns Smith's insistence that the "national interest" is the rightful basis for the conduct of foreign policy. Smith concedes that the national interest is difficult to pin down with any precision, yet he insists that it is very real -- a set of objectives that most Americans support at any moment, adding to more than the sum of the desires of various groups that comprise American society. It is a commonsensical view, and surely most Americans agree that there is such a thing. But this notion of a unified national purpose guiding the nation at home and abroad does not stand up under scrutiny. Smith's main problem is that he draws on a fictitious past to sustain the idea of the national interest. Like other recent commentators, Smith looks back wistfully to the Cold War as a period when Americans of all types supposedly buried their differences and united behind a common objective. It was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Smith argues, that removed the need for national unity, clearing the way for ethnoracial groups and other special interests to seize foreign policy from a general populous no longer attentive to public affairs. But was the Cold War really such a clear-cut case of voluntary common purpose? To the considerable extent to which the Cold War consensus rested on repression, surveillance, manipulation, propagandizing and fear, it is hardly a model of national togetherness. If the Cold War was a model of "national unity," then it seems we would be infinitely better off without it. There is a very real case to be made that what we imagine as the "national interest" reflects only certain ethnic and class interests that managed to gain a hold over policymaking at the nation's founding and to perpetuate its control in more recent times. Yet Smith rejects this kind of thinking out of hand, instead buying into the elusive "common cause." Most troubling, Smith brushes past Alexander DeConde's important book with hardly any discussion, caricaturing it as a "nothing but the saga of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants acting in a pro-British fashion thanks to their ethnic heritage." In fact, DeConde (hardly a radical) offers a careful, reasoned analysis showing quite convincingly that American foreign policy has been, over the last two centuries, thoroughly dominated by men who identified closely with Great Britain and constantly fought off challenges to their vision of the world. Following DeConde's logic, the "national interest" -- for Smith, a sacred quality that we possessed in the past but have lost recently -- turns out to have been hardly "national" at all. In fact, the recent trends about which Smith is so concerned would seem to be leading the United States toward international policies that are more truly "national" than anything the country has known to date. The book's second, closely related problem is that Smith fails to convince that ethnic minorities, on balance, are doing more harm than good through their influence over foreign policy. There can be no doubt that Smith is correct in identifying very serious problems. The stranglehold of Cuban-American groups over U.S. policy toward Castro is the most outrageous example of an ethnic group controlling U.S. foreign policy in deeply harmful ways. The grip of Jewish-Americans over Middle Eastern policy is another clear-cut case. Smith shows convincingly that AIPAC's influence has damaged U.S. relations with the Arab world in ways that would outrage most Americans, if they looked carefully at the issues involved. Similarly, Smith demonstrates the power of Polish-Americans in leading the Clinton administration to support NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, a step with troubling implications for stability in Europe. Yet there are myriad ways -- some acknowledged by Smith, others not -- in which ethnoracial activism has strengthened, or promises to strengthen, the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. Simply by applying pressure on the U.S. government to bring more minorities into the policymaking bureaucracy, for example, these groups have surely had an enormously beneficial effect. It is no exaggeration to say that until very recent years the U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy was populated by an overwhelmingly homogenous group of men sharing a remarkably similar worldview. Diplomatic historians know well what a profoundly racist, homophobic and elitist lot these men have been for most of American history. To open up that bureaucracy to groups systematically excluded from such positions in the past can only be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go toward the creation of a foreign policy bureaucracy reflective of the needs and interests of all Americans. Benefits are flowing not only from personnel changes, however. Ethnoracial groups have had an enormously positive impact in putting issues on the national agenda that never would have captured attention without their activism. To the extent that African-Americans are responsible for driving recent U.S. concern for Africa, Mexican-Americans responsible for debates over immigration laws or the injustices of NAFTA, or Asian-Americans responsible for calling attention to the outrageous treatment of Wen Ho Lee, for example, Americans should welcome their activism. We are all much better off for it. Ethnoracial activism also helps matters by providing U.S. administrations with natural bridges to many of the most critical "hot spots" around the world. Surely, the presence of assertive African-American, Mexican-American or Irish-American groups, for example, provides U.S. administrations with a useful instrument of applying pressure on foreign governments or, perhaps more importantly, obtaining a chair at the world's bargaining tables. Engaged ethnoracial groups at home provide a handy justification for Washington's involvement in nearly every part of the world, as well as a natural conduit for exerting pressure and shaping outcomes abroad. Pressure, exploitation and manipulation can work both ways. There are grounds for believing that reining in ethnoracial activism would result in a worse, not better, American foreign policy. The third problem with the book relates to Smith's prescriptions for the future. After raising so much alarm with his discussion of the problem at hand, his suggestions for fixing things are oddly vague and unrealistic. The core of Smith's proposals is that ethnoracial groups in the United States must act more responsibly, especially by accepting that their identity as Americans should trump their ethnic attachments. Except where their kinfolk abroad are directly threatened, Smith argues, members of ethnoracial minorities have a duty to think of themselves as Americans first and Cubans, Jews, Armenians, Poles or Mexicans second. Minority activists, Smith continues, should no longer speak of "homelands" abroad or exaggerate threats to those areas in order to coerce attention from the U.S. government. Furthermore, Smith suggests, minorities must accept that all Americans, not just those with direct kinship connections, have a right to influence policy toward any given part of the world. These prescriptions seem off the mark in various respects. First, they place the onus for change entirely on minority groups. If anything, the burden of adjusting to new, more democratic times should fall most heavily on those in the mainstream who have benefited from the exclusion of alternative voices throughout American history. In addition, Smith's suggestions involve no proposals likely to have any real effect any time soon. Instead of proposing any ideas to reform the foreign-policymaking or political processes, he calls for no less than a change in consciousness involving minorities' self-perception, their political priorities and the very language they use to understand their experiences. Such sweeping suggestions seem unlikely to do much good, at least in the near- or medium-term. Finally, Smith fails to address the crucial question that his evidence so clearly poses: How should Americans distinguish between the beneficial and harmful effects of ethnoracial activism on policymaking? Or, to phrase it with an eye toward policy prescription, how should government be reformed in order to encourage the benefits and to curtail the harm? From the evidence that Smith himself supplies, it would seem that the central problem -- certainly the problem most susceptible to solution -- is not ethnoracial awareness or activism per se but the fact that some ethnoracial groups have amassed vast treasure chests that they draw on liberally to affect an American political system that is extremely susceptible to their cajolery. It is no accident that the groups Smith describes as most damaging to national policy, Jewish-Americans and Cuban-Americans, are also among the wealthiest of the ethnoracial interest groups with the most formidable organizations in Washington. In the end, then, Smith's book seems a better argument for campaign-finance reform than for the changes that he proposes. To limit the nefarious influence of ethnoracial groups -- along with other, far more destructive organizations like business lobbies or the National Rifle Association -- we need, above all, to close off avenues along which they are now able to buy political support and to assure that all interest groups play on a level playing field. By accomplishing these objectives, the United States could curb the excessive influence of lobby groups while making no demands on anyone's rights to think and act as they see fit. Those rights -- and the assertive defense of them -- remain at the heart of what is good about the United States. Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu or H-Diplo@h-net.msu.edu.