In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Normative Debates

Political Science Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy
David G. Haglund, Elizabeth Stein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0069


The past two decades have witnessed a growing scholarly interest in the role that “ethnic diasporas” play in the formulation of America’s foreign policy. While the connection between these ethnic groupings and the policy process is not anything new in American political life, the systematic study of that connection is of relatively recent vintage. There are two chief reasons for this. First, changes in American demography since the 1970s have led to a fascination with issues related to “multiculturalism” and ethnic “identity”—in the context not only of domestic public policy, but also of foreign policy. In the case of the latter, an outpouring of articles and books has appeared dedicated to the phenomenon of ethnic “lobbying,” construed widely enough so as to include discussions of the “ethnic vote.” In addition, changes in the external environment set in motion by the ending of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union have put a premium upon such new relatively new categories of analysis as “ethnic conflict” and diasporas. Widespread stories about its “decline” to the contrary notwithstanding, America remains the most powerful state in the international system; thus, it offers ethnic diasporas the promise of exerting outsized influence should they be able to make their preferences become Washington’s preferences. This article surveys leading bibliographical sources pertaining to these various themes, embracing as well the normative debates they have engendered. Also included in this article are a set of references to a trio of very significant historical cases of ethnic “politicking” in US foreign policy, for, although the systematized study of the phenomenon may be fairly recent, the phenomenon is nearly as old as American foreign policy itself. Accordingly, three “classical cases” will be discussed: the Irish Americans, the German Americans, and the Anglo-Americans. Finally, the article surveys recent writings on contemporary cases in which ethnic diasporic activism has been said to have influenced the shaping of American foreign policy toward one region in particular (the “greater” Middle East) as well as toward regional dilemmas elsewhere (including Europe, Africa, and Latin America).

General Overviews

Many specialized studies have been undertaken into ethnicity’s impact upon US foreign policy. Some were published as long ago as the late 19th century, a time when attention focused most frequently on either the Irish Americans or the German Americans, the two largest non-English groups to have become established in the United States through immigration at that time. But attempts to move beyond the idiographic, single-case approach began to be made in earnest only in the decades after the Second World War, with Gerson 1964 considered to be a pioneering effort in explicitly linking ethnic diasporas with overall foreign policy orientations. An important article predating Gerson 1964 and also seeking generalizable policy insight is Fuchs 1959. Developments in the Mediterranean during the 1970s stimulated the author of Halley 1985 to reflect upon the impact of diasporic lobbying on America’s national interest. This can be interpreted alongside the theory in Milner and Tingley 2015 about how presidents respond to interest groups’ reactions to various foreign policymaking options. The theme of diasporic lobbying is developed further in DeConde 1992, in a work that has become a standard reference on the topic. Within less than a decade, two other books joined DeConde 1992 as essential reading: Smith 2000 and Shain 1999, whose arguments are implied or made explicit in many sources throughout this article. Paul and Paul 2009 contributes valuable data and insights into the mooted influence of ethnic diasporas on policymaking. Trautsch 2018 presents the more conventional argument that international relations can explain foreign policymaking, and that in the late 19th century—when the largest diasporas in America were English Americans, Irish Americans, and German Americans—foreign policymaking was directed by the need to forge an American national consciousness apart from Britain and France.

  • DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

    An oft-cited summary of the impact of ethnicity upon the scholarship on American foreign policy from the perspective of a diplomatic historian whose thesis is that fellow historians need to move beyond traditional approaches favoring either economic variables or state-level attributes associated with “power” and bring “culture” (meaning, in this case, ethnicity) into their analyses. Especially notable for treating English-descended Americans as an ethnic group in their own right.

  • Fuchs, Lawrence H. “Minority Groups and Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly 74.2 (1959): 161–175.

    DOI: 10.2307/2146629

    One of the first articles to draw attention in the post–Second World War era to the surprising scholarly neglect of ethnicity’s impact upon foreign policy in a multiethnic country such as the United States. Noteworthy for arguing that ethnic group interests have served as a vehicle for reinserting Congress into a foreign policymaking process hitherto thought to be the near-exclusive preserve of the executive branch.

  • Gerson, Louis L. The Hyphenate in Recent American Politics and Diplomacy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1964.

    An intensive focus upon the impact of European-origin ethnic diasporas in the United States, and their efforts to influence American policy in a direction favorable to the interests of their ancestral homeland, primarily through threats to mobilize the “ethnic vote” in national elections both during and following the First World War.

  • Halley, Laurence. Ancient Affections, Ethnic Groups and Foreign Policy. New York: Praeger, 1985.

    Stimulated by the response of Greek Americans to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the author goes on to discuss how various administrations had dealt with the problem of trying to get “hyphenated” Americans to sublimate what Woodrow Wilson once called their “ancient affections” toward their kin countries.

  • Kertzer, Joshua D., and Thomas Zeitzoff. “A Bottom-Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy.” American Journal of Political Science 61.3 (2017): 543–558.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12314

    Argues for a more positive assessment of public opinion in foreign policymaking, as opposed to the conventional IR assessments that public opinion is driven by elite cues, and pessimism toward it as a factor in foreign policymaking. Rather, while the public lacks information elites have, they are heavily influenced by their social networks and their own ideas of what role the United States has in the world. Theories of public opinion on foreign policy that are based on elite cues overlook these influences.

  • Milner, Helen V., and Dustin H. Tingley. Sailing the Water’s Edge: The Domestic Politics of American Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400873821

    Examines how domestic politics restricts presidents in foreign policymaking, specifically in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The authors argue that foreign policymaking processes in the United States encourage presidents to favor military options rather than “softer” tools such as trade, economic aid, immigration, and domestic military spending, which are more likely to provoke pushback and conflict from the public and interest groups such as ethnic lobbies, even if these softer tools would be more effective.

  • Paul, David M., and Rachel Anderson Paul. Ethnic Lobbies and US Foreign Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009.

    A study that distances itself from the assumptions in both Smith 2000 and Shain 1999—assumptions of the influence of ethnic diasporas, with the caveat that there are some exceptions to the rule, and singles out among these exceptions the Israeli and Cuban-American lobbies. In general, though, it is governmental elites and not ethnic lobbyists who shape the country’s foreign policy.

  • Shain, Yossi. Marketing the American Creed Abroad: Diasporas in the US and Their Homelands. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Often juxtaposed with Smith 2000 as the alternative perspective on the implications of ethnic diasporas for the national interest. Challenges the notion that the post–Cold War period witnessed too much influence on the part of diasporas, claiming, instead, that the latter can and do promote the national interest.

  • Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    An essential source for current debates. The argument is that the ending of the Cold War and the loss of a threat from a rival great power unsettled US foreign policy, opening the door to growing interest group (especially ethnic interest group) participation in policymaking. The implications of this are not altogether positive for America’s “national interest” or for the long-term sustainability of its pluralist political ethos.

  • Trautsch, Jasper M. The Genesis of America : US Foreign Policy and the Formation of National Identity, 1793–1815. Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108635301

    A foreign policy–based argument to explain how Americans developed a national identity from the time of the French Revolution to after the Revolutionary War, despite lacking a unique culture of their own and basing their claim for independence on universal rights. Foreign policymakers provoked crises and wars with Britain and France, creating external threats and thus allowing for a national consciousness to emerge. Foreign policy is thus the product of international relations rather than domestic issues, and is a vital component of national identity.

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