Ethnic Lobbies in America: Outsourcing U.S. Foreign Policy?

It's fashionable to say these days that the world is entering the era of post-Americanism.  Few can explain what that means in reality, but the gist is that U.S. influence in world affairs is gradually declining, and sooner or later, another country — most likely, China — will become the only world superpower.   

We shall see.  However, today it's hard to think of any major global problem — be it climate change or aid to poor countries (take a look at the recent rescue efforts in earthquake-ripped Haiti) — can be solved without at least the financial involvement of the United States.  Besides, should the U.S. screw up big time — a number of great examples are available over the past decade — no one would be immune.

This keeps making Washington DC a natural target of numerous ethnic lobbies trying to promote their agendas through U.S. foreign policy institutions.  According to John Newhouse, “nearly one hundred countries rely on lobbyists to protect and promote their interests [in the U. S.].” 

As Zbigniew Brzezinski explains in his book “The Choice” (2004), the influence exerted by ethnic lobbies originates from the very nature of the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process.   It’s generally believed that the president has the upper hand in designing and implementing foreign policy.  However, the entire executive branch of the U.S. government lacks a central planning organ responsible for this task.  Theoretically, this role should be played by the National Security Council, but in practice, the NSC is so busy with day-to-day coordination of policy (between the presidential administration, Department of State, Department of Defense, CIA, etc.) that it simply has no time for strategic planning, resulting in a decentralized and fragmented decision-making process that is open to external influence. 

Besides, presidential prerogatives to direct foreign policy are often challenged by Congress.  Due to its composition and structure, Congress is especially susceptible to the influence of special interests, including ethnic lobbies.  This is reflected in countless congressional resolutions and legislative amendments introduced and lobbied by special ethnic interests (which, in the process, have become very skillful in using campaign funds to win congressional support for their causes).  A common place is congressional caucuses identified with specific ethnic interests; so are congressmen and senators serving as spokesmen for specific ethnic lobbies.  For example, the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, one of the largest of this kind, includes over 150 members, none of them being Indian.  Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, in her days as U.S. Senator, used to co-chair the Senate India Caucus.

In their daily activities, ethnic lobbies perform a number of functions.  First, they serve as subject-matter experts and sources of information to members of Congress and other branches of government.  Second, they participate in drafting legislation and providing policy oversight.  Third, they organize media and public campaigns to advertise and promote their pet issues.  Naturally, special attention is being paid to providing campaign contributions to elected officials through political action committees (PAC).

It's important to point out that not every ethnic group living in the U.S. forms a functional lobby.  Addressing this issue, James Lindsay identified a number of factors that could predict a transformation of an immigrant group into a bona fide ethnic lobby.  First, immigrants who came to the United States as political refugees (e.g. Cubans) are more likely to be politically active than those who came for “purely” economic reasons (e.g. Italians).  Second, immigrants whose homelands are threatened by their neighbors (e.g. Armenia or Israel) are more likely to lobby for their homeland than those who came from “un-threatened” countries (e.g. Norway, Sweden, or Germany).  Third, the most efficient ethnic lobbies are formed by economically successful ethnic groups (such as Jewish, Armenian, Cuban, and Greek Americans).  Fourth, ethnic lobbies are the most successful in their activities when the issues that they promote are supported by U.S. political elites.  Obviously, they are least successful if their issues go against of what is perceived as American national interest.   

In their influence exerted on contemporary American political life, no ethnic lobby can rival the Jewish-American lobby (The Israel Lobby, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call it in their highly-publicized 2007 book).  Many consider its power comparable with that demonstrated by such titans of American lobbyism as National Rifle Association (NRA) and  American Association of Retired Persons(AARP). 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Jewish-American lobby (organized under the aegis of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)) , Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid since WWII: over $140 billion in 2004 dollars.  Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-sixth of the total U.S. foreign aid budget and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli – not a bad deal for a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income in the top 30 countries in the world. 

In addition, the U.S. provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support: between 1972 and 2006, the U.S. has vetoed 42 of the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions critical of Israel. 
 
What makes the Jewish-American lobby so successful is its commitment, unity, resources, and political skills.  (The last two factors, when combined, are especially powerful: it is said that presidential candidates from Democratic Party depend on Jewish support for as much as 60% of campaign contributions).   The "ideological" unity obviously distinguishes the Jewish lobby from the Arab-American lobby, which has been hurt over the years by national and religious divisions.  However, one cannot also discount the fact that the Jewish lobby faces almost no opposition to its actions because it advocates policies that are considered (rightfully or not) as fully aligned with American national interests. 

Recent years have witnessed the impressive rise of the India lobby, whose influence may one day become comparable to that of the Jewish lobby.  Perhaps, non-coincidentally, both ethnic groups share a number of similarities: Indian Americans are also well educated, financially successful, and strongly inclined toward political activism.  (Add the real or perceived military threats to India from Pakistan and China).  The India lobby also benefits from strong ties to the U.S.-India Business Council, an umbrella organization for 200 companies doing business with India or otherwise having Indian connections.  (As pointed out by John Newhouse, 20% of all companies in Silicon Valley are owned by Indian Americans).  

So far, the most visible demonstration of the strength projected by the India lobby has been last year’s congressional approval of the U.S.-India “123 Agreement” on civil nuclear cooperation.  Concerns were raised in the arms control community that the agreement will increase India’s ability to produce fissionable material for its nuclear weapons program.  To ensure the passage of the controversial deal, the lobby joined forces with the U.S.-India Business Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and two U.S. companies producing nuclear reactors, General Electric and Westinghouse.

Speaking of successful ethnic lobbies one must mention two more: Cuban and Armenian.

The power wielded by the Cuban exile lobby (associated with the Cuban American National Foundation, CANF) in Washington is even more impressive given that Cubans are concentrated primarily in only one location: Miami, FL.  However, the special role played by Florida in the politics of presidential elections has allowed a bunch of noisy but politically savvy anti-Castro immigrants to completely hijack – and for decades dominate – the U.S. policy debates on Cuba. 

The Armenian lobby (and its flagship group, Armenian Assembly of America) has made Armenia one of the highest per capita recipients of U.S. aid – thanks largely to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader and a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee responsible for the distribution of foreign aid.  On the other hand, the lobby has so far failed to reach its most cherished goal: a congressional resolution condemning Turkey for the 1915 Armenian genocide.   In 2007, the victory was close, as having secured support of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the lobby almost succeeded in setting up the vote for a genocide resolution.  However, prodded by the furious Turkish government, the White House intervened and persuaded Pelosi to shelve the resolution.  Naturally, in its communication with the Bush administration, the Turks used some help too: former heavy-weight Congressmen Bob Livingston and Dick Gephardt lobbied on Turkey's behalf. 

Among other ethnic groups, the Central and Eastern Europeans do possess a significant voting strength (for example, there are more than 10 million ethnic Poles in the United States), but their lobbies lack the financial resources available to their Jewish or Armenian counterparts.  Nevertheless, the Polish lobby (through the Polish American Congress) or the Baltic lobby (represented in part by the Baltic American Freedom League, BALF, and the Joint Baltic American National Committee, JBANC) have been instrumental in promoting the admission of their respective countries in NATO (Poland in 1999; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004).

Experts disagree on whether ethnic lobbies have positive or negative impact on U.S. foreign policy.  Some consider ethnic lobbies as a welcomed sign of "globalization" of U.S. national politics and believe that ethnic lobbies will help spread "American values" around the globe.  Other are not so sure expressing the concern that "privatization" (as John Newhouse put it) of the U.S. foreign policy further corrupts American political system and diminishes its attraction to the rest of the world. An even more extreme point of view was expressed by Mearsheimer and Walt, who asserted that due to the actions of the Jewish lobby, U.S. policy in the Middle East serves the national interest of Israel rather than that of the United States. 

In their turn, American politicians are mum on the subject.  Used to campaign contributions from various special interests — the pharmaceutical lobby, the energy lobby, the agribusiness lobby, etc. — they don't seems to be concerned with taking money from their ethnic counterparts.  And is there any difference, anyway?

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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11 Responses to Ethnic Lobbies in America: Outsourcing U.S. Foreign Policy?

  1. Great insight Eugene.
    Concerning a given ethnic group, you note two key factors which concern fund raising ability and a patriotic attitude towards the old country – which includes the idea that the land in question is in need of help.
    I recall someone from a large country derisively reply to a nationalist from a small country with the following: How come people from the smallest countries talk the most and loudest?
    Of course, that image isn’t accurate of every small country in question.
    That particular comment was addressed to someone from a ethnic group whose land of origin has been involved in extended national conflict.
    The populations of smaller countries in conflict seem more prone to developing a sense of needing to be extra active to successfully prevail. A Ukrainian from Kharkov touched on this point when I asked how in Ukraine certain holidays get approved like the one honoring the ancestors of WW I soldiers who fought on the Central Powers side, with no such apparent commemoration of those who fought on the Allied side during that war? His explanation was that the mentality in the eastern portion of Ukraine is to not get as politically involved as the smaller west Ukrainian population. As he put it, the latter have a definite sense that they’ve to go all out to compensate for their small numbers.
    In the US, I’m of the impression that the “Albanian lobby” is a relatively effective one, due to its small but committed community, which gives what they can to an organized structure of two main organizations – who know how to work Capital Hill.
    The Ukrainian (particularly Galician Ukrainian) community appears to have been effective as well.
    There’re others which take a different makeup due to several variables. One of these factors might include a possible bias relating to whatever US government grants might be offered for the work that some of these lobbying groups do. Without noticeable evidence presented to me, I’ve heard that this has been an issue in some instances.
    The “Jewish lobby” is an interesting one in that it encompasses a variance of differing views and personalities. This doesn’t stop the coordinating of support for Israel.
    On the other hand, some other national/ethno-religious groups (whatever the appropriate term) seem to have greater problems sitting down with each other for comparatively trivial reasons. Within these groups, I detect a spirit of pursuing an independently activist route for reasons that might include:
    – a feeling of either not being taken seriously by an existing structure, which can be arguably improved upon
    – and/or a matter of the organization(s) and certain individuals not feeling a great need to effectively work together with each other.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    I absolutely love your comments. You’re an expert on the subject and you’re raising points each of which deserving a special post.
    However, I’d hardly surprise you by saying that my next post will be about the lack of Russian lobby in the US. So in this post, I inevitably had to cut some corners and focus on things I’ll need in the future.
    With regards to Jewish lobby, did you notice the appearance of a new organization, J Street? Their relations with AIPAC will be interesting to watch in the years to come.
    Best Regards,
    Eugene

  3. Alex says:

    IMHO A good article & summary, Eugene! I am going on to your next post hoping to read your insights about the effective absence of the Russian lobby – my guess is that it will be about Soviet /Anti Soviet division, the characteristic (of a big nation) lack of cohesiveness & relative lack of patriotism among the younger Russians – and more importantly – not enough interest in the matter from the Russia itself. Cheers

  4. Alex says:

    IMHO A good article & summary, Eugene! I am going on to your next post hoping to read your insights about the effective absence of the Russian lobby – my guess is that it will be about Soviet /Anti Soviet division, the characteristic (of a big nation) lack of cohesiveness & relative lack of patriotism among the younger Russians – and more importantly – not enough interest in the matter from the Russia itself. Cheers

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Alex,
    Your summary of what I’m going to say is absolutely perfect; no need for you even to read the next post🙂
    Please do though and perhaps we can have a sort of discussion on how to replace the perennial “Who’s to be blamed?” with not-less-perennial “What’s to be done?”
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  6. Alex says:

    C’mon, Eugene! I always learn something new from your posts, so it won’t that simple. Cheers

  7. Hi back Eugene:
    In reply to your inquiry –
    The J Street undertaking isn’t such a new concept and isn’t quite the adversary of AIPAC as some suggest.
    In this instance, Wikipedia, gives a decent (IMO) overview of J Street. (Like most sources, Wiki should be carefully judged, while not being automatically dismissed.):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J_Street
    Note the reference to J Street’s stance on matters like AIPAC, Jerusalem, and Iran.
    I recall the formation of these orgs, which are/were somewhat similar to J Street:
    http://www.newjewishagenda.net/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_Now
    The last linked one has members who’re involved with J Street.
    Conservative, neoconservative and neoliberal Jews remain attached to AIPAC affiliated Jewish orgs., as do some liberal Jews. Keep in mind that some AIPAC affiliated orgs. concern themselves with social and cultural issues, which aren’t so related to politics. In turn, this attracts a less politicized element to AIPAC, which helps it for popularity sake.
    J Street appears geared to a more (for lack of better definition) dovish and left of center grouping of Jews.
    At the same time, this shouldn’t be seen as straying completely away from the generally understood pro-Israeli position to be found within AIPAC:
    These links have some additional commentary on that very point:
    http://www.google.com/search?q=J+Street&btnG=Google+Search&domains=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.counterpunch.org&sitesearch=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.counterpunch.org
    http://www.google.com/cse?cx=009175551005644198388%3A9ub1v-agbos&ie=UTF-8&q=J+Street&sa=Search&siteurl=antiwar.com%2Fsearch%2F
    From the critical and not so critical viewpoints, come the position that AIPAC and J Street reveal differences, along with some core points of agreement.
    In a comparative sense, I liken this a bit with the differences to be found within former Communist bloc ethnic communities – where politically left and right of center elements have differences with each other – while at the same time maintaining a patriotic level of support for their nation of origin – in a way that includes some mutual agreement.

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike for the great input and helpful links. I agree that AIPAC and J Street have both similarities and differences. But, IMO, that’s what great about the situation in general: groups of Jewish Americans holding different political views — and, by implication, representing different political “wings” in Israel — peacefully co-exist and do their respective jobs in civilized manner.
    What a stark difference from Russian Diaspora where first you have to say are you for “Jews” or for “Russians”, then you have to “unite”, then you have to “bring order to Russia first” — and only AFTER, people would be willing to discuss the LACK of the Russian lobby.
    Regards,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike for the great input and helpful links. I agree that AIPAC and J Street have both similarities and differences. But, IMO, that’s what great about the situation in general: groups of Jewish Americans holding different political views — and, by implication, representing different political “wings” in Israel — peacefully co-exist and do their respective jobs in civilized manner.
    What a stark difference from Russian Diaspora where first you have to say are you for “Jews” or for “Russians”, then you have to “unite”, then you have to “bring order to Russia first” — and only AFTER, people would be willing to discuss the LACK of the Russian lobby.
    Regards,
    Eugene

  10. kamagra says:

    Is good to be inform thanks for the add.

  11. I absolutely love your comments. You’re an expert on the subject and you’re raising points each of which deserving a special post.
    However, I’d hardly surprise you by saying that my next post will be about the lack of Russian lobby in the US. So in this post, I inevitably had to cut some corners and focus on things I’ll need in the future.

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