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date: 17 February 2018

Ethnic Lobbying in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Much of the literature on ethnic lobby groups comes from either research on interest groups or ethnicity that looks to foreign policy cases, or foreign policy analysis studies that focus on the role of interest groups or ethnic groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a burst of scholarly activity regarding ethnic interest group activism in US foreign policy, following the changes in American society and in the US Congress that emerged from the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement. Later, the end of the Cold War brought a new burst of ethnic lobbying on foreign policy, and a new wave of scholarly attention to these issues. During both of these bursts of attention, studies predominantly focused on the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was often seen as an exception to the rule that interest groups are not very significant forces in the foreign policy sphere. Another source of research on ethnic issues and foreign policy is the emerging literature on ethnicity, the construction thereof, and the political development of ethnic communities over time. The three basic issues that stand out in the literature about ethnic lobbying on foreign policy include the formation of ethnic interest groups, the roots of ethnic interest group success, and whether ethnic lobbies actually capture policy in their respective areas, at least in the context of US foreign policy. Meanwhile, the two level game perspective and the competition among ethnic groups needs further exploration.

Keywords: ethnic lobbying, ethnicity, foreign policy, interest groups, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, ethnic interest groups, US foreign policy


The role that societal groups play in the governmental process has been a central concern for classic political philosophers through to today’s foreign policy analysts. Perhaps especially in the study of US foreign policy, one subset of all societal groups has from time to time received special empirical and normative scrutiny: the role of ethnic lobby groups in the policy process. The purpose of this essay is to explore the evolution of the literature on ethnic lobbying in foreign policy, much of which has emerged from the study of US foreign policy.

During the Cold War foreign policy analysts paid relatively little attention to the role of ethnic lobbies since the “high politics” of that period seemed to concentrate decision making power in the hands of government elites. But in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the civil rights movement, some did start to notice that the foreign policy playing field had changed. “The lines between foreign and domestic policy decisions have become blurred; domestic interest groups now take great interest in issues that once would have been considered purely in the foreign domain” (Ornstein 1977:161–2). With the end of the Cold War security threats seemed less pressing and the lines between “foreign” and “domestic” politics became even blurrier. Scholarly attention to ethnic lobbying began to increase, and many have argued that ethnic lobbying increased as well. If attention receded after the attacks of September 11, 2001, they exploded back on the scene in the form of a new debate about the power of the “Israel lobby,” following the publication of an article (2006) and book (2007) on the subject by international relations scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

There is no shortage of newspaper stories about ethnic lobbying targeted at foreign policy. Former members of the US House of Representatives Bob Livingston (R-LA) and Richard Gephardt (D-MO), now high priced lobbyists of their former colleagues on the Hill and working for the “Turkey lobby,” for example, have been credited with helping keep the Armenian Genocide Bill from passing through the US Congress recently (see Thompson 2007). The close connections between Iraqi exiles and the Bush administration (and journalist Judy Miller) in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq have certainly become public record. Another story reports that former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi retained the American lobbying firm Barbour Griffith and Rogers to help put together a new coalition to replace the current government in Baghdad, and that the $300,000 they will be paid is “really much less than the figures that are being paid by others, our adversaries” (Pincus 2007). Momentum which had been building in Congress to significantly alter the embargo of Cuba began to dissipate, thanks in part to the lobbying and campaign contributions of the US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which began in 2003 and has targeted much of its giving at newly elected Members of Congress (Swanson 2007). There are also reports of companies in India hiring lobbyists to try to kill US legislative efforts to curb “outsourcing” of jobs (Giridharadas 2007). Many, in fact, have pointed to the emergence of Indian–American lobbying as perhaps the next wave of well-organized and well-funded ethnic lobbying in America (e.g. Lindsay 2002; Brzezinski 2006), especially considering the efforts of the “India lobby” on the 2006 US–India nuclear agreement (see Banerjee 2007; Kirk 2008).

But how much do we know, in a scholarly sense, about ethnic lobbying that targets foreign policy? How much of what we know is drawn from the US case in particular? And how can the relatively small but nonetheless emerging focus on the transnational significance of ethnic groups’ lobbying efforts in the field of international relations and conflict management contribute to our field? This essay reviews and assesses these developments and tries to point to some questions left unanswered, and maybe unasked, by foreign policy analysts.

Development of the Field

Much of the literature on ethnic lobby groups comes from either research on interest groups and/or ethnicity that looks to foreign policy cases, or foreign policy analysis studies that focus on the role of interest groups, including ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the standard “interest group” literature, found especially in the field of American politics, mostly ignores foreign policy cases. Fuchs famously asserted in a 1959 article that there had been little systematic examination of what he called minority group lobbying. More than thirty years later, a review of the interest group literature in a previous “state of the discipline” volume made no meaningful reference to interest group research on a foreign policy issue (Cigler 1992). Some of this lack of attention might follow the classic study by Bauer and colleagues (1963) of foreign trade policy that found interest groups to be relatively unimportant (cf. Lowi 1964). It may also derive from the common and misleading distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” policy – even though Ripley and Franklin (1991) do examine the role interest groups may play in foreign policy. By dividing their discussion of foreign policy arenas into strategic, structural defense, and crisis policy, we can see some suggestion that interest groups, including ethnic lobbies, are more likely to have access to strategic and structural defense policy than crisis policy (see also Hayes 1978). And there is a research tradition of studying the military–industrial complex (e.g. Melman 1970; Yarmolinsky 1971; Nathan and Oliver 1994: ch. 12), which obviously revolves around foreign policy issues, but other foreign policy interest group activity tends to get little attention in the study of American government.

Foreign policy analysts – perhaps particularly students of US foreign policy – often examine the role of “domestic sources” of foreign policy (e.g. Evans et al. 1993; Skidmore and Hudson 1993; Hagan 1995; Wittkopf and McCormick 2008). Unfortunately these studies have only sporadically examined the role of ethnic interest groups, and ethnic interest group activity is only one of a myriad of “sources” that is examined by scholars in the field. Skidmore and Hudson even assert that attention to the way that organized groups seek to influence foreign policy is largely missing from the analysis of foreign policy (1993:5; see also Said 1981). Tony Smith (2000) and Yossi Shain (1999) may disagree about the normative implications of ethnic lobbying in their seminal works on the subject, but they agree that the scholarly study of these forces has been lacking. As Lindsay notes, “in America, global politics is local politics – and local politics, often, is ethnic politics” (2002:37).

One burst of scholarly activity regarding ethnic interest group activism in US foreign policy emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, following the changes in American society and in the US Congress that emerged from the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement. A more open governmental system, especially a more powerful and yet more porous Congress, and the breakdown of the Cold War consensus about the proper course for the ship of state, gave real incentives for interest group activism in foreign policy – a large portion of which was driven by ethnic groups (see Ornstein 1977:162; Ahrari 1987b). Ahrari’s edited collection Ethnic Groups and US Foreign Policy (1987a) still stands as an important contribution to our understanding of ethnic lobbying. In his introduction, Ahrari tracks the ways that changes in the government and society have helped give rise to ethnic interest group activism (1987b), and the chapters that follow examine ethnic interest group activity concerning the Middle East, South Africa, Poland, Mexico, Cuba, and Ireland. Said (1981) edits a similarly helpful collection that is still relevant today. Watanabe’s (1984) study of ethnic lobbying on US policy toward Turkey was another early study still conceptually helpful today. Other useful studies from this period include Garrett’s (1978) examination of lobbying by Eastern European groups; Weil (1974) on Africa; and Stanfield’s (1989) reporting of the increase in ethnic lobbying aimed at Congress. And a collection of essays in the journal Foreign Policy discusses “new ethnic voices,” including essays by Longmyer (1985) about African Americans; by Richardson (1985) about Hispanic Americans; and by Sadd and Lendenmann (1985) about Arab Americans.

The end of the Cold War brought a new burst of ethnic lobbying on foreign policy, and a new wave of scholarly attention to these issues. The relative decline of “security” as the overarching foreign policy issue meant that foreign policy issues were now “safe” to be opened up to the dynamics of domestic politics, or perhaps more appropriately, “intermestic” politics – including interest group activism (Manning 1977; DeConde 1992; Brenner et al. 2002). Uslander even argues that the most prominent foreign policy lobby groups are now ethnic interest groups (1995:370–3), whose numbers and assertiveness have vastly increased since the end of the Cold War. Studies of US policy toward Latin America, for example, began regularly to examine the role of ethnic lobbying (Arnson and Brenner 1993; Lowenthal 1993; Dent 1995; De la Garza and Pachon 2000). And lobbying aimed at China policy (Bernstein and Munro 1998) and South Africa (Rogers 1993) would also receive more scholarly scrutiny. Dickson (1996) studied TransAfrica and its lobbying. Clough (1994) would comment on the trend in Foreign Affairs; Glastris (1997) in US News and World Report. The venerable Council on Foreign Relations would even hold a special conference on the increasingly active role of minority groups in the US foreign policy process (Vidal 1996).

One common focus of study across both of these bursts of attention was a predominant focus on the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was often seen as an exception to the rule that interest groups are not very significant forces in the foreign policy sphere. Studies of the power of AIPAC came not just from scholars but also from political leaders, labeling AIPAC as “the most effective ethnic/foreign policy lobby on Capitol Hill” (Cohen 1973; Franck and Weisband 1979:187; Findley 1989:25; Goldberg 1990; Nathan and Oliver 1994: ch. 11). Others also focused special attention on ethnic lobbying concerning the Middle East (Bard 1994; Price 1996; cf. Zogby and Stork 1987). Secondarily, across these two periods the field saw significant focus on the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), often seen as the second most powerful ethnic interest group in America, at least in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. Fernandez 1987; Brenner 1988; Nichols 1988; Robbins 1992; Bardach 1994; Haney and Vanderbush 1999; 2005; Kiger 1997; Kaplowitz 1998; Smith 1998; Morley and McGillion 2002).

Thomas Ambrosio (2002a), in his edited volume Ethnic Identity Groups and US Foreign Policy, addresses how groups representing ethnic interests operate today and considers the normative implications thereof. Contributions scan a range of issues, from support for South Africa’s apartheid regime to lobbying about Kosovo, Africa, and Turkey, and the lobbying of Latinos and Asian Americans, some of the findings of which will be discussed below. There are other recent contributions as well. Wilson’s Diversity and US Foreign Policy is a collection of previously published pieces that shows how growing domestic diversity and pluralism intersects with increasing global diversity (2004a:360). Several short pieces in the Brookings Review catch the reader up on the lobbying activities of particular ethnic and minority groups, including Telhami’s (2002; cf. Mazrui 1996) snapshot of Arab and Muslim Americans (communities that do not entirely overlap), the rise of Arab American lobbying, and how these communities have tried to cope with the aftereffects of the attacks of September 11. Marrar also tracks Arab American lobbying in a new study (2009). Watanabe discusses Asian Americans in the Ambrosio volume (2002) as well as in the pages of PS: Political Science and Politics (2001), including the complex interplay that exists between Asian American identity and past US foreign policy actions in Asia.

Another source of research on ethnic issues and foreign policy, though not explicitly rooted in either the study of “interest groups” or “foreign policy analysis,” is the emerging literature on ethnicity, the construction thereof, and the political development of ethnic communities over time (DeConde 1992; Vidal 1996; Croucher 1997; Watanabe 2001; Telhami 2002). Croucher (1999) explores the relationship between globalization and ethnic identity formation, concluding that not only does globalization influence the existence of ethnic and diaspora groups, but it shapes the mechanisms through which they mobilize, the symbols they have at their disposal, and the value or legitimacy of those symbols. Yossi Shain’s important work on ethnic diaspora can be seen as emerging from this paradigm. Shain’s book Marketing the American Creed Abroad focuses on “people with a common ethnic-religious origin who reside outside a claimed or an independent home territory” who “regard themselves and/or are regarded by others as members or potential members of their country of origin” (1999:8). Shain is interested in how diasporic dedication to homelands affects US foreign policy, and how ethnic involvement in homeland affairs influences US civic culture, ethnic relations, and the character of home country politics (Croucher and Haney 1999). This “diasporic” approach is distinct from other approaches that focus attention on an ethnic lobby organization, but can very much speak to issues of ethnic group participation in the foreign policy process in the US and elsewhere. Saideman’s study concludes, “while ethnic ties cannot explain every foreign policy, it is a good predictor of peoples’ and states’ foreign policy preferences toward ethnic conflict” (2001:215).

At least three basic issues stand out in the literature about ethnic lobbying on foreign policy: How do groups come to be formed? What makes a lobby powerful? And have ethnic lobbies actually “captured” policy in their respective areas, at least in the context of US foreign policy? After considering each of these three issues, this essay will comment on issues worthy of consideration by future research and then conclude.

The Formation of Ethnic Interest Groups

A number of assumptions and propositions about the roles of ethnic interest groups emerge from the literature, if less consensus (for an overview, see Haney and Vanderbush 1999; Ambrosio 2002b). One of the issues deals with the founding of such groups. A traditional view sees interest groups as emerging in response to social or economic changes as groups of people with shared interests seek to petition the government (Truman 1951; Latham 1952). The argument that an increasingly porous American political system and multicultural society have facilitated the growth of ethnic interest groups can be commonly found (e.g. Clough 1994; Shain 1994:812; 1995), as is the idea that ethnicity serves as a “natural base for group formation and organized political action” (Goldberg 1990:2–3).

One problem of this view is that it fails to explain how collective action problems that surround group formation are overcome (Olson 1965). Olson points to the importance of group leaders using selective benefits to break the collective action problem and get members to join a group. These leaders are then able to use the group’s power and resources to pursue the policy preferences they share with their members (Salisbury 1969). The founding of AIPAC would seem to fit in this position. Part of the idea to form a Jewish lobby group was to pressure Capitol Hill for legislation in support of Israel so as to counteract a perceived tilt toward the Arab states in the State Department (Kenen 1982:66; Tivnan 1987:34); Its formation was leadership driven. So too with CANF (Haney and Vanderbush 1999, 2005).

There may be merit in both views. There are a variety of types of groups that different people join for different reasons, though some groups (representing the interests of the well off and business interests) are better represented than others (Moe 1980; Schlozman and Tierney 1986: ch. 4). Thus, membership maintenance patterns show a variety of patterns (Moe 1980; Walker 1983; Salisbury 1984). Smith defines “ethnicity” as “a voluntary organization of people with a collective identity based on an intellectually formulated and emotionally felt assertion of their distinctiveness from other peoples” (2000:21). Is such an identity meant to be taken as a given, or is it socially and politically constructed? To the extent that ethnic identity is a strategic choice that is subject to change (Hallmark 1981:203), and that joining an organized group to pursue the interests of one’s identity is also one’s choice, then the formation and maintenance of ethnic interest groups continues to be a subject worthy of scrutiny (see also Moore 2002). The literature lacks consensus on whether to take the existence of an interest group as a given or to study how and why policy entrepreneurs overcame the collective action problem in order to form a group so as to better pursue a favored policy.

The Roots of Ethnic Interest Group Success

With all the studies that do exist about ethnic interest groups, particularly in the study of US foreign policy, we nevertheless lack a common understanding of what makes some ethnic interest groups effective or powerful and why others seem to be relatively weak. There are plenty of propositions about ethnic interest group effectiveness, however (see Haney and Vanderbush 1999; Ambrosio 2002b). One characteristic commonly pointed to as relevant to understanding powerful ethnic interest groups is organizational strength, which refers to variables such as organizational unity, a professional lobbying apparatus that provides useful information, and financial resources. This factor is cited regularly by studies of AIPAC, for example, as a reason why it stands apart from other lobbies concerned with US foreign policy in the Middle East (e.g. Trice 1977:462; Franck and Weisband 1979:187–8; Bard 1994; Price 1996). It even appears that groups have tried to model themselves on AIPAC since it is seen as a benchmark of success (Stanfield 1989:3097; Banerjee 2007). Many other studies point to this factor as well (e.g. Weil 1974; Said 1981; Watanabe 1984: ch. 3; Hudson et al. 1993:61–3; Rogers 1993:186; Uslander 1995; Dickson 1996; Vidal 1996:8–9).

Another key factor seems to be membership unity, placement, and voter participation because of the electoral implications of these variables (Weil 1974; Watanabe 1984: ch. 3; Said 1981; Tierney 1994; Dickson 1996). A key power resource for a group would be the extent to which it enjoys a large and unified base of politically active members who vote in a concentrated bloc. Saideman reminds us that even small groups can be politically powerful beyond what one might expect from their size. Smaller groups can be easier to organize and stay focused on an issue in ways that larger groups may not be able to, thus contributing to the power of small minority groups (2002a). There is also the suggestion that members need to be assimilated into American society but still retain a significant identification with the ethnic homeland (Uslander 1995; O’Grady 1996). Studies of AIPAC and CANF regularly cite this, but so too does Garrett (1978), for example, concluding that the strength of eastern European ethnic groups grew as a result of immigration increases in the 1970s. And taking it as a negative lesson, Shain notes that many Arab Americans “have never resolved the issue of their transnational identities and allegiances,” and “have yet to establish a strong ethnocultural or political presence within America’s multicultural society” (1999:93), thus contributing to the relative weakness of the Arab American lobby.

Beyond these internal factors, many argue that the salience and resonance of the message a group promotes is important because the government is not the only target of lobbying; the public is too as groups try to shape public opinion (Watanabe 1984: ch. 3). Many thus argue that ethnic interest groups will be more successful if their message is salient to the broader public (Hudson et al. 1993:61–3; Rogers 1993:186; Skidmore 1993:229–31; Vidal 1996:8–9). Weil (1974) goes even further, arguing that the message a group puts forward must appeal to the symbols of America (see also Said 1981; Uslander 1995).

Lindsay argues that a key factor in determining ethnic interest group strength is also whether the group is trying to preserve or overturn the status quo; preserving is easier (Lindsay 2002:39). Beyond this, Lindsay notes the importance of the presence or absence of other powerful interests who support or oppose a group. Pushing on an open door is obviously easier than trying to break into a locked vault. Fernandez refers to this as “ideological congruence” compatibility (1987:129; see also Trice 1976; Arnson and Brenner 1993:214; Dent 1995; Haney and Vanderbush 2005). Short of this, groups should be more successful if their opposition is weak and divided (Skidmore 1993:229–31). Watanabe, along similar lines, argues that groups would do better around “oppositionless” issues: issues around which there is little disagreement about the policy goals even if there is significant disagreement about the choice of means to be used to pursue that goal (1984:60). Saideman also points out that especially small ethnic groups are likely to lobby in an area where there is little opposition, thus enhancing their power (2002a).

Another argument about the roots of ethnic interest group success focuses on access to the government. The proposition is that ethnic interest groups are more likely to be successful when the policy in question requires a congressional role since it is usually more porous than the Executive. Skidmore (1993) argues, for example, that interest groups are more likely to be influential when congressional involvement is necessary and presidential popularity is low (1993:229–31). Similarly, Hudson and colleagues argue that groups are more formidable to the extent that they are politically proximate to the locus of decision making (1993:61–3). Franck and Weisband argue that AIPAC is successful in part because of its early access to information from inside the government, which allows the group to mobilize its lobbying and public relations efforts quickly and early (1979:187; cf. Findley 1989:37). The Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) discussion of what they call the “Israel lobby” is replete with examples of this.

A final point is the suggestion that for ethnic interest groups to be successful they should establish mutually supportive relationships between themselves and policy makers; to establish what Watanabe calls “symbiotic relationships” (1984: ch. 3). Watanabe argues that while groups need policy makers to do something for them, policy makers also need the ethnic interest groups to provide valuable resources to policy makers, including information, votes, and campaign contributions (see also Haney and Vanderbush 2005). Political leaders might even “aggressively court ethnic groups and encourage their activism” (Watanabe 1984:53), certainly the case with CANF in the 1980s, and the Reagan administration actively sought such a partnership (Haney and Vanderbush 1999).

There is, in short, some emerging consensus in the literature about what makes some ethnic lobbies “strong” and others “weak,” but far less agreement about how to actually measure the relative strength of ethnic interest groups, and even less attention to how to compare the strength of ethnic lobbies to other types of organized interests, such as business interests. The lack of consensus about the dynamics behind the formation and power of ethnic lobby groups to some extent emerges from an unclear evidentiary pattern and an understudied set of phenomena.

Ethnic Lobbies and Policy Capture

The debates that exist over the normative implications of ethnic lobbying in foreign policy, which often turn quite heated, can make the lack of consensus concerning the issues discussed above pale by comparison. Do ethnic interest groups focus narrowly on their particularized interest and on the interests of their kin abroad rather than on the national interest? Have they captured policy in ways that are counterproductive both for policy and for democracy? Or is ethnic lobbying normal and healthy for democracy? It is hard to not know that the new leaders of the ethnic lobbying pessimists are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose work – first in the pages of the London Review of Books (2006) and culminating in their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2007) – has touched off a new round of a fierce and often acrimonious debate. Mearsheimer and Walt use the term “The Lobby” as shorthand for “the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” (2007:112). They do not argue that every Jewish group or all Jewish Americans are part of this lobby, and in fact they even reject the idea that The Lobby, “is a single, unified movement with a central leadership” (2007:5) and recognize that individuals within it may disagree on some issues. Nonetheless, they argue that the only way to explain why US foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East is so skewed from what Mearsheimer and Walt deem as in the US national interest is by understanding how the Israel lobby has captured policy in this domain – a fact they see as detrimental to both US policy and American democracy. Their book is a collection of instances and groups and stories, the sheer weight of which is meant to prove the point. These international relations scholars of realism seem to be struggling to explain why American foreign policy does not conform to their view of what the rationally calculated foreign policy behavior of the US should be in the Middle East, and so turn to this explanation; analysts more rooted in American and ethnic group politics might say that they seem shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in that casino.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, commenting on Mearsheimer and Walt, seems to share the concern, if in less strident terms. He reflects that:

the participation of ethnic or foreign-supported lobbies in the American policy process is nothing new. In my public life, I have dealt with a number of them. I would rank the Israeli-American, Cuban-American, and Armenian-American lobbies as the most effective in their assertiveness. The Greek- and Taiwanese-American lobbies also rank highly in my book. The Polish-American lobby was at one time influential (Franklin Roosevelt complained about it to Joseph Stalin), and I daresay that before long we will be hearing a lot from the Mexican-, Hindu-, and Chinese-American lobbies as well. (2006:63)

And he seems to agree with their concerns, saying:

[they] provide food for thought regarding the consequences of the growing role of lobbies in American foreign policy, given the increased inclination of the US Congress to become engaged in legislating foreign policy. With members of congress involved in continuous electoral fundraising, the effect has been an increase in the influence of lobbies and, particularly, those that take part in targeted political fundraising. It is probably not an accident that the most effective lobbies are also the ones that have been the most endowed. Whether that produces the best definition of the American national interest in the Middle East or elsewhere is open to question, and worthy of serious debate. (2006:64)

In the middle but leaning toward the pessimist position, Tony Smith argues that ethnic groups play a larger role than is often appreciated in US foreign policy, and that the negative consequences of that role may well outweigh the positive effects of their activism (2000:1–2). Smith argues that, “the end of the Cold War has weakened the American state relative to the society so that in many domains interest groups are gaining in strength” (2000:30), and he concludes that while ethnic groups have every right to organize and make themselves heard in the US foreign policy arena, “they do not have exclusive and unlimited license to determine that policy” (2000:133).

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Will Moore argues that, “despite the risk that minorities can capture foreign policy,” the evidence he reviews “produces little to suggest that this risk manifests itself in practice” (2002:85). Specifically addressing whether a lobby has captured US policy toward Israel, Moore argues, “while the Jewish-American minority has certainly created a strong lobby in Washington, public opinion has historically supported US policy toward Israel. Since majority opinion has not been at odds with national policy, this is not an example of what I call policy capture. If majority public opinion breaks with policies advocated by the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States but US policy does not change, then we can speak of foreign policy capture by an ethnic minority” (2002:90).

Perhaps the leader of the ethnic lobbying optimists is Yossi Shain, best seen in his Marketing the American Creed Abroad: Diasporas in the US and Their Homelands (1999). Shain argues that the negative impact of diaspora politics has been overstated, and that diaspora groups are a force for both democracy abroad and unity within the United States. Shain argues that these groups are good for democracy because, “they must justify their actions in terms of American national interests and values, answer to their US ethnic compatriots, and prove their loyalty to their home country” (1999:52). As an example, he discusses diaspora support for democratic regime change in Haiti and draws attention to a key alliance that was formed between Haitian Americans and African Americans inside and outside Congress. “These groups were thus able to successfully mobilize support on behalf of the US preference for spreading democracy in this case, even in the face of strong opposition by the foreign policy ‘professionals’” (1999:71–3).

There are at least two problems with trying to sort out which side in this debate is more correct. First, these positions often seem to be informed more by one’s philosophical starting point than by the evidence. Shain is a believer in pluralism; Smith seems more skeptical about Madison’s solution to the problem of factions standing up to these new ethnic forces; Mearsheimer and Walt are realists trying to explain why a state’s policy does not match the expectation of their realist calculation. So where one stands on these issues philosophically is likely to shape one’s search for and reading of the evidence. But another problem is that these studies are often not talking about the same thing, so they are hard to compare; they produce evidence that is hard to directly weigh. Studies like Dickson (1996), Garrett (1978), Haney and Vanderbush (1999), Said (1981), Smith (1998), and Watanabe (1984), and those in the Ambrosio volume (2002a), tend to focus on the efforts by specific, organized ethnic interest groups to lobby on foreign policy. Ambrosio, typical of this group, defines “ethnic lobbies” as “political organizations established along cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial lines that seek to directly or indirectly influence US foreign policy in support of their homeland and/or ethnic kin abroad” (2002a:2). The focus in De la Garza and Pachon (2000), DeConde (1992), Shain (1999), Smith (2000), and Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) tends to be broader than this, focusing on societal groups that may or may not have actual lobbying groups attached to them; and these studies all have differences among them. Studies that focus on organized ethnic lobby groups and work that examines broader phenomena like diaspora have much in common, obviously, but can also speak past each other and not lend themselves to an easy aggregation of findings.

One area of ethnic lobbying research where there ought to be more comparability is in the more narrow focus of how groups use campaign contributions as part of their lobbying effort, and to what effect. The problem with “contributions” studies is in laying out the causal chain, proving that a campaign contribution led to a vote, a vote that otherwise would not have been cast. There is, though, some interesting evidence about ethnic lobbying “leading” votes, rather than just rewarding them. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), for example, was a fierce critic of the Reagan administration’s policy toward Latin America, except with respect to Cuba. He received nearly $240,000 from Cuban American political action committees (PACs) and individuals (Kiger 1997:34). Haney and Vanderbush (2005) note, however, that the evidence about CANF and the power of political contributions is far from conclusive. From 1982 through the 2000 election cycle the Free Cuba PAC did give more than $1.6 million dollars to candidates for political office, but that figure pales in comparison to the 67 pro-Israel PACs tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, which gave over $16 million in the same period (Center for Responsive Politics 2001). And the money available to members of Congress from economic interest groups opposed to the embargo is far greater than that being handed out by Cuban Americans in the 1990s. Still, studying how campaign contributions translate into policy on Cuba and Armenia, Rubenzer finds that “the results suggest that the Cuban and Armenian ethnic identity groups are able to influence US foreign policy at the congressional level. In addition, the results indicate that diasporic interest group campaign contributions are designed to do more than simply reward an existing ideological tendency. Rather, there are cases when ethnic identity group PAC contributions have a leading effect on congressional voting and sponsorship behavior” (2008a:34–5). Swanson (2007) also argues that campaign contributions targeted to new members of Congress (the most vulnerable and the ones with little track record) have paid off for a new hard-line PAC on the Cuban embargo. Much more work needs to focus on this question; “follow the money!” Related to this is to explore the link between the ethnic makeup of districts and the voting behavior of representatives (though the Helms–Burton law emerged without a lot of Cuban American voters in either Indiana or North Carolina), as well as the electoral calculations of candidates that may be driven by ethnic demographics.

Looking to the Future

There are a variety of issues surrounding ethnic lobbying in foreign policy that deserve more scrutiny. Scholars should of course be clear about how they define the subjects of their studies, how they operationalize variables for measurement, and how their work fits into past studies. Some studies in this area focus on discrete organized interest groups (e.g. CANF); others examine collections of interest groups and PACs and individuals (e.g. “the Israel lobby”); still others focus on the political activities of a diaspora (e.g. Armenian Americans). There is nothing wrong with such a diversity of research, except that it can lead us to where we are comparing apples to oranges to vegetables when we try to compare studies and build theory. The base of theory and evidence is still weak enough that studies of particular ethnic interest groups, especially longitudinal studies and studies that compare one group to others and that compare ethnic lobbying across countries, remain very valuable. Studies in the future, though, should aim to be more comparative, more replicable, and more cumulative. One nice example of such research is Rubenzer’s (2008b) comparative study of ethnic interest groups, in which he uses qualitative comparative analysis to try to find patterns of what makes these groups successful. His meta-study finds that only organizational strength and political activity seem to be necessary conditions for success, and no factors seem to be sufficient conditions for success. More work along these lines is badly needed.

One of the conceptual advances that deserves more exploration is the two level game perspective (Putnam 1988). LeoGrande (1998) uses the perspective to help show how the Cuba lobby affects US policy on the Cuban embargo; Carment and James (1996) use it to help explain state decisions to intervene in ethnic conflicts. This approach might overemphasize the amount of control over policy that the head of a government has in foreign policy, but it provides a clear conceptual place for where ethnic lobbies fit into the foreign policy process, including the likelihood that foreign governments might try to use ethnic lobbies to influence a state’s foreign policy (Lindsay 2002:40).

An extension of this perspective that has been proffered is to see ethnic lobbies and/or diaspora as part of a “three level game.” Shain and Wittes argue that ethnic diaspora (and presumably the groups that are formed to represent them) “cannot be viewed simply as a domestic constituency group within their host state but must also be viewed as independent actors” (2004:172). They go on to show the independent nature of the political activity of the Armenian and Israeli diaspora (see also Shain and Barth 2003). Wilson (2004b) also makes this point, noting that these “domestic” groups increasingly link themselves with similar groups and governments abroad. Ambrosio (2002c) shows the independent nature of lobby groups in his study of the partnership formed between Turkey and Israel lobbies in the US, which can provide for more complicated relationships between all the states involved. King and Melvin’s (1999–2000) examination of transborder ethnic groups in Eurasia is another example of how such a study would proceed.

It is interesting to note that much of this conceptual development emerges less from the classic “ethnic interest groups” literature than it does from newer literatures on ethnicity, the construction thereof, and ethic conflict. To the extent that these studies venture into an examination of the role of ethnic groups (meant narrowly or broadly) on foreign policy, they can provide valuable insights to foreign policy analysts who wish to study the role of ethnic lobbying. Another point these types of studies raise is the need for more attention to non-US cases, both in the sense that we need more studies of cases from outside the United States and also that we need to pay more attention to the ones we have, including this developing ethnicity literature (e.g. Mandelbaum 2000; Zevelev 2001; Hockenos 2003; Wayland 2004; Shain 2007).

Another issue that deserves more attention is our conception of competition among ethnic groups. We tend to think that as one group “wins” the policy game, another “loses.” Lahiri and Raimondos-Møller (2000:C63), for example, in their study of how ethnic group lobbying is related to foreign aid, build a model that begins with the not uncommon simplifying assumption that ethnic groups compete with each other directly over a finite amount of aid that can go to their homelands. But studies rarely unpack this assumption. Is it the case that ethnic lobbies always directly confront one another in a zero-sum environment? Does, for example, the Israel lobby always win as the Arab lobby loses? Are the Greek and Turk lobbies in the US locked in a zero-sum competition? Studies of how ethnic groups lobby the government in the context of a protracted struggle with other groups could be a valuable addition, perhaps building on the insights of work like Paper Stones (Przeworski and Sprague 1986), which shows how issues of “winning” and “losing” are more complicated than they might at first appear. Maybe some ethnic groups lobby differently in different competitive contexts, especially since often these “groups” are not directly comparable anyway (see Marrar 2009). We should find out.

Research on ethnic PACs and campaign contributions is worthy of more study, especially in an effort to compare the activities and power not just of various ethnic lobbies, but also to try to ascertain the relative power of ethnic groups and other interests, including business interest groups. And finally, studying ethnic lobbies in foreign policy not as independent variables but as dependent variables is worth more scrutiny. Long ago Schattschneider (1960) told us that when about to lose a political debate, a common tactic of political actors is to expand the scope of conflict, which here means that leaders may reach out to ethnic groups to help them win debates, much like the Reagan administration did with CANF (Haney and Vanderbush 1999). Research in this area widely points to this as a possibility and as a practice potentially with wide ranging effects. Shain cites Haddad (1991), for example, as arguing that “US Middle East policy ‘has had the most profound influence on Muslim identity [in the United States]’” (1999:95) as a sign that policy makes groups. Marrar’s (2009) examination of the Arab American lobby also shows how events can drive the agenda of an ethnic interest group, rather than our normal conception of groups driving the policy process. An explicit study of how governments target groups, and how these groups and their lobbying strategies are affected by events, is overdue.


This is a field with frustratingly few firm conclusions. The weight of the literature seems to land on the side of the argument that says ethnic lobbying in foreign policy making matters, especially in the US case, and that it is accelerating. Yossi Shain and Tony Smith and Mearsheimer and Walt may not agree on much beyond this point but they agree on that. As the distinction between foreign and domestic policy becomes more blurred, as the US governmental system becomes more porous (after some backtracking after September 11), as Congress gets more engaged in “intermestic” policy (again, after some backtracking after 9/11), most expect ethnic lobbying only to increase. But some keen observers point out that this can be more tricky than it appears. DeConde (1992) argues that ethnic lobbying has always been present in the US, but that in the past it was the interests of white Anglo-Saxons that were being pursued, while now lobbying on behalf of ethnic minorities is on the rise. Making a different point, Salisbury concludes that, “where interest groups were seen as the prime motive force pressing politicians to make policy decisions in their favor, now the officials very often exploit the groups” (1990:213). Durant and Diehl argue that interest groups, including ethnic lobbies, generally hold little sway in the agenda setting process of making foreign policy (1989:186–7). And lest we think that these slightly dated conclusions have been overcome by events, Lindsay argues that, “on balance, ethnic groups matter, but not nearly as much or as often as people might think” (2002:38). He argues that the willingness to engage in struggles over foreign policy, and their ability to get their way, is exaggerated, noting that the most powerful of the ethnic lobbies in America, the Jewish American lobby, “does not have an unbroken record of success,” and it is an exceptional case (2002:38–9). And Schier argues that, “once at the center of US politics […] immigrants are now much closer to the fringes. That is no accident. The centripetal forces drawing immigrants into electoral politics in 1900 have been succeeded by a strong set of persistent centrifugal forces that discourage the full electoral participation and political assimilation that earlier generations of immigrants enjoyed” (2002:17).

There is a difference of opinion over whether cases like AIPAC or CANF (which has admittedly been in decline) are outliers or harbingers of the politics that is to come, especially in democratic polities. But assuming that ethnic lobbying does matter in the foreign policy process, and that it is increasing as Wilson’s “double diversity” (2004b) takes root, there is real disagreement about the normative implications of such a trend. Shain (1999) sees these diaspora, and their political activism through interest group politics, as valuable and healthy – both for the American political system and for the interests of the US abroad. But Smith (2000) is not so sure, concerned that these groups may capture policy behind their interests narrowly defined, perhaps in the ways that Mearsheimer and Walt argue that policy has been captured by one ethnic lobby.

Assuming the worst, what is to be done? Ornstein concluded 30 years ago that “paradoxically, the best counterbalance to the vast increase in foreign policy lobbying might be even more lobbying, but from different sources and directions” (1977:165). Burdette argued, “Politics is a struggle, and Congress should not be censured for welcoming struggles which are better debated than fought. Organized debate in the area of foreign policy, appreciated and understood rather than criticized or denounced, will strengthen American leadership in a free world” (1953:99). And Fuchs, whose first few words on the subject are often quoted in the ethnic interest group literature – when he notes that there were relatively few systematic studies of the influence of minority group lobbying on foreign policy – rarely has one of his key conclusions quoted. He asserted, in words reminiscent of Eisenhower’s second famous warning in his farewell address about the danger of a “scientific-technological elite,” “there is one important argument on behalf of minority group pressures on foreign policy. It is that foreign policy is too important to be left to the experts. Were it not for the propaganda of nationality groups, public apathy and expertise might take over” (1959:173).


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Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). At, accessed Feb. 26, 2009. CANF is often recognized as one of the most powerful ethnic interest groups in United States Foreign Policy, although its importance has waned in recent years. CANF was formed in 1981, somewhat in partnership with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and then with the help of his administration. CANF perhaps reached the zenith of its power in the late 1980s, and its charismatic founder Jorge Mas Canosa died in 1997.

Center for Responsive Politics. At, accessed Feb. 26, 2009. A nonprofit research organization promoting transparency in government and tracking lobbying and campaign contributions by individuals, groups, and Political Action Committees across US presidential and congressional election cycles. This is a great resource for tracking campaign contributions of interest groups of all types.

J Street. At, accessed Mar. 15, 2009. A relative newcomer to Jewish-American lobbying, J Street promoted a diplomatic solution to the problems in the Middle East, including a “two state” solution, that is, for a sovereign Palestine. Many think that J Street, and its political action committee, will have greater access to the Obama administration than was the case under the Bush administration.

US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). At, accessed Mar. 15, 2009. The US India PAC is one of the newest ethnic lobby groups, and is quickly becoming one of the more powerful ones. The group lobbied hard for the US–India nuclear cooperation agreement at the end of the Bush administration, but had been quietly growing in influence over the last few years.

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA). At, accessed Feb. 26, 2009. Published by the American Education Trust, a nonprofit foundation formed by former United States Foreign Service Officers, that seeks to “provide the American public with balanced and accurate information concerning US relations with Middle Eastern states.” By “balanced,” this journal means that it is more open to Arab perspectives than some think is often the case in other similar publications.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2008 convention of the International Studies Association; I would like to thank Patrick James for his helpful comments at that panel. I would also like to thank Ryan Barilleaux, Phil Brenner, Salwa Hamati, Laura Neack, Jeff Pickering, Philip Russo, Karen Ryan, and two anonymous reviewers of this essay, as well as the participants on the 2008 ISA convention panel that I chaired on ethnic interest groups, each of whom wrote very helpful papers: Arturo Lopez-Levy, Khalil Marrar, Guy Martorana, Henriette Rytz, and Trevor Rubenzer.