Journal Archive > 2002 > January

Divided loyalties

The role of ethnic groups in shaping U.S. foreign policy

The inspiration behind Tony Smith's new book on foreign affairs was born close to home—in a Tufts classroom.

During a 1995 seminar about perspectives on U.S. foreign policy, Smith and his students read an essay about the influence of ethnic groups on international relations. The majority of students saw the issue differently than Smith did.

Tony Smith © Mark Morelli

"I don't have an ethnic identification, and I am not sympathetic to ethnic politics in foreign affairs," said Smith, Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science. Yet, the majority of students had strong ethnic identifications and were attached to the idea that ethnic groups should yield influence on American decision-makers.

With student interest in the subject running high, Smith's class set about trying to find more information. They found there was scant research, and much of what did exist was not particularly scholarly or objective.

And so Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2000) was conceived.

"It was totally based on student interest," said Smith, who since has used his material in other seminars. He was also able to involve students in his ongoing research.

Failing the national interest
Smith's premise is that organizations devoted specifically to furthering ethnic interests often fail to serve the national interest. He also maintains that ethnic lobbies have more influence in Washington than is generally recognized, and that discussion of the tension between ethnic and national loyalties has become a "taboo topic."

"How do we determine America's interest?" he asked. "We all do. But it's supposed to be about what's good for the United States. It's not supposed to be about what's good for Armenia or Greece or Israel.

"All too often, ethnic [advocates] make it transparently clear that they are unconcerned about American national interests…they want to know what's in it for Greece or Armenia or Israel, or what happens to Fidel, or how do immigration laws affect their Mexican or Korean family—not, what is this doing to the democratic system in the United States?

"Not that I have the answer to what is in the U.S. national interest, but we should try to think in terms of our own interest," Smith said. "These groups typically dismiss any such questions, and say, ‘what is good for my homeland or ancestral homeland is good for America.' "

For example, he said, in March 1999, when the United States was bombing Serbia, "you quickly saw people of Orthodox Christian background, whether Russian or Greek or Serbian, critical of American policy, whereas Muslim Americans tended to favor the attacks. What it was all about was ancient rivalries abroad, not what was good for the United States."

Divided loyalties
Smith's thesis isn't easily embraced by many.

"It's very hard to suggest that there are times when you can't be loyal to your homeland and a patriotic American, too. That's vigorously denied," he said.

At the university, for example, ethnic ties are strong, Smith said. "At Tufts, it's ‘in' to be hyphenated," he said. In his seminars, "virtually everybody feels positive about their ethnic background. They don't use the class to question their ethnic group.

"I personally encourage them to be critical. Sometimes I'm successful; sometimes I'm not. Sometimes they are quite right to point out that there are reasons not to be critical."

The popular emphasis on national unity that arose after the September 11 terrorist attacks changes the picture only slightly, Smith said.

"Americans are highly patriotic compared to most other peoples, and those with strong ethnic identities can be very offended if it is suggested that there may be tensions between their different loyalties. That said, a moment of national emergency is bound to raise the national over the ethnic identity in most cases," Smith said.

However, "an exception could be made for the concerns of Muslim and Jewish Americans," Smith said.

"While some Muslims feel their American side being affirmed—especially compared to 1979 [when Muslims were ostracized during the Iranian hostage crisis]—still others feel a heightened sense of what it means to be of that faith," in light of worries about profiling and bias incidents, Smith said. Jews, meanwhile, have found themselves divided over the Bush administration's support of a Palestinian state and whether they should voice public criticism of the Sharon government, he said.

What to do
Smith offers two ways to temper the influence of ethnic lobbies.

The first is that "people should be more comfortable debating ethnic preferences," he said. "We know how to talk about corporations, to criticize them when they're engaging in environmental pollution, or exporting sensitive technology or exploiting child labor. We have the vocabulary and the concepts for that," he said. "But we don't have the vocabulary and concepts to talk about differences in ethnic policies.

"A democracy needs to debate the pros and cons without people getting bent out of shape to the point where they can't speak to each other," he said. "We have to get out of this custom of calling people ‘un-American' or ‘racist' [depending on their views about ethnic issues.] We need to debate the argument on its merits."

The second solution lies in limiting special interests of any type. One method is through campaign financing reform. Another is by giving the president more authority, relative to Congress, in international affairs. "At this point in history, Congress is too strong," he said.

Enthusiastic response
Smith received support for his research from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and as a Whitney Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Smith says his students have shown great intellectual curiosity about the subject matter. "They have written some wonderful papers about ethnic groups and foreign policy," he said. Since 1998, three students have had essays on the subject published in the journal Hemispheres, and others have won writing prizes for their papers from the class.

"It's fair to say that student enthusiasm is quite high," he said.