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Diaspora Communities: Influencing U.S. Foreign Policy

Thomas Ambrosio, Assistant Professor of Political Science, North Dakota State University;Yossi Shain, Professor of Comparative Government and Diaspora Politics, Georgetown University

Date & Time

Jun. 23, 2003
3:00pm – 4:00pm ET


Thomas Ambrosio, Assistant Professor of Political Science, North Dakota State University and Yossi Shain, Professor of Comparative Government and Diaspora Politics, Georgetown University

In an age marked by the greater ease of communication and travel, recent research on ethnic groups and conflict has begun to examine the influence of diaspora groups. Of particular interest are their efforts to affect political environments in their "home" and host countries through their remittance of funds, lobbying and the dissemination of information. Dr. Thomas Ambrosio, Assistant Professor at North Dakota University presented material from his recent edited volume Ethnic Identity Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy. Commentary was provided by Yossi Shain, Professor at Georgetown and Tel Aviv Universities, author of "Marketing the American Creed Abroad: Diasporas in the U.S. and their Homelands" and a contributor to Ambrosio's book. The meeting marked what moderator Carla Koppell, Interim Director of the Wilson Center's Conflict Prevention Project called, "a relatively new area of analysis and dialogue for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars."

Ambrosio, stated that as we seek to understand diaspora groups and their influence on U.S. foreign policy, the question is not should ethnic groups influence foreign policy but how they effect foreign policy, what are their goals and why do they mobilize. He began his presentation by defining ethnic identity groups as "politically relevant social divisions based on a shared sense of cultural distinctiveness." This would include racial, religious, national and ethnic identities. Ethnic identity groups often form institutions that effect U.S. foreign policy or ethnic communities abroad, most commonly in the form of ethnic lobbies.

These ethnic lobbies seek to influence U.S. policy in three ways. First, by framing the issues "they help set the terms of debate" or "put items on the country's agenda." Second, they are a source of information and analysis that provide a great deal of information to members of Congress and serve as a resource for other branches of government and non-governmental organizations, and shaping general perspectives. Finally, ethnic group lobbies provide policy oversight. "They examine the policies of the U.S. government, propose policies, write letters and [are] involved in electioneering activities."

Ambrosio cautioned, that we must not believe that the effort by "ethnic groups to influence U.S. foreign policy is new." It has a long history but "has become increasingly active in recent years." To illustrate, he presented five periods of ethnic lobbying in the United States--Pre-WWI, WWI, Cold War, post-Cold war, and post-September 11.

Since before WWI, there has been a "steady rise in the number of ethnic groups in the U.S. mobilizing to influence the foreign policy process." Both the WWI and Cold War periods saw an explosion in the number of interest groups affecting domestic and foreign policy. According to Ambrosio, however, it was the post-Cold War period that gave way to a real increase in American multiculturalism. U.S. interests during this period were not clearly defined, and the Congress had more influence than the Executive Branch over policy-making. That balance of power according to Ambrosio allowed ethnic lobbying groups greater access to policy-makers and potential influence in policy formation. Since September 11 quite the opposite is true; there is a re-centralization of foreign policy in the White House. That re-centralization is restricting influence over policy.

Ambrosio concluded by suggesting several areas for future research. First, the question of the legitimacy of ethnic group influence on foreign policy deserves some attention. Second, more case study analysis is need. In Ambrosio's view, we need to look at specific groups, and why or how they influence policy. In particular, greater attention should be paid to the case of Muslim Americans. Third, is the need to examine the relationship between ethnic and non-ethnic interest groups. For instance, Ambrosio suggested that a comparison of the influence of "the Oil lobby versus the Armenian lobbies over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan" could provide some interesting insights. Fourth, the reliance on natives for intelligence information should be examined more closely. In the case of Iraq, there is the question of "how Iraq exiles influence U.S. foreign policy." Finally, the export of American values must be better understood. Further research could help the U.S. government mobilize diaspora groups in the United States to deal with growing anti-Americanism throughout the world.

Shain, began by commenting that while the topic of diaspora group influence on U.S. foreign policy is important, "it is perhaps an overblown topic." He agreed with Ambrosio that the idea of transnational influence on U.S. foreign policy is not new. However, Shain contends that people have always been wary of such influences. The topic, according to Shain, became more salient in the 1990's with the end of the Cold War when the "us versus them posture was no longer in existence." It was also a time when more people began "shuttling back and forth," retaining greater ties to their home country. According to Professor Shain, the question is "who really speaks [in U.S. foreign policy]?" This was the period of increasing American multiculturalism; the identity of the U.S. itself was changing. As a result, attention to issues reflected the makeup of the U.S. For instance, before September 11, relations between the United States and Mexico in the age of NAFTA, had center stage.

Shain suggested that while ethnic Americans mobilize to influence U.S. foreign policy, their ability to do so is quite limited. Ethnic lobbies have more often been used to market American ideals in their home countries or to "democratize their countries of origin." When they do have influence, it has generally been at the electoral level in connection with a domestic issue, or when an issue is of little importance to the administration. Professor Shain continued contending that the influence of ethnic lobbies relies on their ability to advance a message that resonates with the American values and ideals. This is one reason he believes Arab-Americans have had difficulty influencing U.S. foreign policy; there is a perception that they are attempting to influence policy in ways that would be contrary to American values. When issues promoted by an ethnic lobby are priorities, and are in line with the administration, ethnic lobbies have the greatest influence in policy oversight.

According to Shain there are several issues that warrant future research and understanding. The first is to understand the explosion of Islam in the United States; rather than lobbying for national country interests, there is greater mobilization around religious beliefs. According to Shain, this has little to do with ethnic lobbies; rather it is a question of who is mobilizing communities. This is a difficult question to examine because, depending on the time period, different people will speak for a community. Another issue for further study involves tracking and better understanding economic influence. For example, donations for Israel at the same time support local organizations and Jewish-American issues; financial support drives diaspora politics. At the same time, many country economies depend on money sent from abroad; this gives diasporas a greater say in their "home" countries. "When you do any politics in Haiti, there is the 10th department... the 10th department is here. This is the community that can mobilize and has money."

The final issue for further study according to Shain is the concept of identity in America. While there is identity as an American, many still "retain some affinity and memories" of their home country. This is particularly galvanizing where there is still instability in the country of origin. Shain concluded that the subject of the influence of diaspora communities in the U.S. was most important in regard to identity in America. "Identity is critical for America because the American makeup has always been changing." "The market, democracy and human rights are much more on the minds of ethnic groups as they relate to their country of origin,"concluded Shain.

Carla Koppell, Conflict Prevention Project, Interim Director, 202-691-4083
Drafted by Channa Threat


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