20 May 1999 - 22 May 1999

Shaping US foreign policy today: national interest versus special interest

Chair: Mr John E Rielly

(with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations)

We resumed Ditchley’s established and fruitful collaboration with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in the splendid setting of the Cantigny Conference Center, generously provided by the Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation;  and we set ourselves to consider whether, or how far, the making of United States foreign policy was markedly influenced – distorted? – by the domestic pressure of special interests.

We began by recognising that, for any major Western government, the long East-West confrontation had served to concentrate, calibrate and in some ways simplify the shaping of policy – and, by much the same token, to underpin the authority in external matters of government leaders, especially the US President.  The ending of the Cold War had accordingly left objectives and criteria less clear and more complex;  and some of our participants maintained that in these circumstances to yearn for some overarching framework to steer policy decisions was to cry for the moon – it was in the nature of events, not of the routinely-proclaimed weakness of leadership, that issue-to-issue pragmatism must predominate.

One strand of commentary further argued that these trends were intensified by the facts of globalisation – the growth in interdependence, the erosion of sovereign power, the worldwide flood of information all reduced the ability of national governments to frame their objectives simply and autonomously and to pursue them with tidy consistency.  The information flow indeed, some suggested, might be as likely to lead among overwhelmed lay publics to narrower parochialism as to wider understanding.  All that said, however, we knew that nation states were still the key players in international affairs;  and that the United States was a uniquely powerful one.

That reality, as we recognised, gave matching importance to the particular characteristics of the US political system.  The combination of size, diversity and the special consequences of the separation-of-powers structure meant not only that there were many actors in the formation of US policy but also that their operation was open to view, and so to evident struggle among interests, in a degree scarcely matched among major US allies.  The fundamental democratic healthiness of this was plain;  but it meant – especially given the comparative decay of old political-party mechanisms, and of the disciplines they once imparted – that there was opportunity for pressure-groups to operate in a notably vigorous and high-profile way.  We heard cited one or two recent instances in which the facts of political conjuncture had conferred remarkable leverage on narrow-seeming interests.

The system gave to members of the US Congress scope for foreign-policy intervention of a strength and directness not paralleled in Parliaments elsewhere.  We heard a touch of misgiving expressed about whether the Congress always rose adequately to its resultant duties and accountabilities in government-sharing – there seemed in some policy interventions, so one or two weighty observations suggested, a disproportion between sensitivity to local electoral (or campaign-finance) interest and responsible concern for the steady coherence of US external actions.  But these were the realities of the system, and no recipe was proposed for modifying them.

We should have liked to anchor our discussion of the part “special interests” played in a clear concept of how “national interest” was to be defined.  But we found differing schools of thought about whether any such definition was possible, other than at a level of generality too broad to be operationally useful as a criterion for policy.  For at least some participants, master concepts were infeasible, and national interest might often have to be – indeed democratically ought to be? – just whatever emerged from the competing clamour of special-interest groups, not something standing above them.  But we did agree that amid uncertainty and incommensurability elected governments/executives had to be the determining judges of national interest, even if the need in modern circumstances to husband a limited stock of political credit constrained the frequency with which leaders could step in to impose policies against the wishes of strong pressure groups.  And we acknowledged that such groups would often be inescapably – and perhaps salutarily – key players in raising public awareness of issues to be tackled, and in forming government priorities about their tackling.

As we turned to particular classes of interest group we asked ourselves how much leverage business corporations or associations had.  Popular supposition in other countries, we heard, often imputed to US business powerful influence exerted for protectionism, or for scruple-free sell-to-anyone arms trade.  The reality, we came to suspect, was much more modest – more modest even, perhaps, than the leverage which commercial concerns exerted upon policy in some European countries where the state traditionally accepted a more direct role in support of business.  In the United States business seemed generally, for example, to have been surprisingly reticent in applying its influence against unilateral sanctions (usually urged by one or another special-interest group of a different sort) which stood to harm the freedom of trade, though in respect of China its influence seemed clearly to have been exercised in favour of trade openness and technology transfer as against non-commercial concerns about China’s internal character.  The general outlook of US business clearly ran contrary to isolationism;  and we conjectured that logically it ought to be (though we were less sure that in practice it always was) a long-run supporter of stable and consistent international rule-of-law régimes for commerce rather than the pursuit of ad hoc short-term advantage. 

Ethnic pressure-groups took up much of our discussion.  Non-US participants were keenly aware of particular examples – the Jewish solicitude for Israel, the Florida-centred Cuban-exile concern about the Castro régime, the numerically-massive and vocal segment claiming Irish origin and animated by powerful perceptions/myths in respect of British policies in Ireland.  These examples were valuably offset by comment that, in the light of the wide diversity of ethnic origin in a polity as deeply immigration-based as the United States, it was if anything remarkable that coherent such lobbies were so few rather than so many.  For the most part, as immigrant elements were absorbed into the melting-pot their aspiration to shape US policy in regard to their former homes faded away, even if they might for a while retain an awareness of “abroad” that usefully offset isolationism.  It was surely noteworthy that – perhaps because of a general desire to avoid seeming to nurture outdated non-American allegiances – there was no strong or distinctive ethnically-based influence upon US policies towards Africa, Latin America, India, China or (despite growing Muslim numbers) the Islamic world.  And though groups of Polish origin had probably played some part in helping the Administration to pursue NATO enlargement despite forebodings of Senate reluctance, there was little sign of ethnic pressure in respect of dealings with the former Yugoslavia.

We asked ourselves whether the small number of ethnic pressure groups which did seek to play a part really influenced policy, and influenced it in directions contrary to true US national interest.  In the Irish case we mostly doubted it;  despite episodes irritating to British governments, when major issues arose US leaders always put first their sense of the wider importance of US/UK cooperation.  Some of us were less happy about the Cuban example, suspecting that an electorally-powerful ethnic concentration might have exploited separation-of-powers opportunities to impose unilateral US actions belonging at best to an outdated Cold-War-ism.  No clear consensus emerged on the Jewish instance.  We were reminded of the undoubted significance of Jewish influence, especially on the Democrat side and through the campaign-finance route.  Whether the particular sympathy for Israeli as against Arab concerns militated against long-term US interests was a contentious matter;  but at the least, most of us thought, the domestic Jewish pressure notably constrained US policy options in the region.

The third class of pressure group we considered was issue-centred non-governmental organisations.  In the US, perhaps even more than in most other countries, their diversity was now enormous in subject-matter, in resource, and in accountability and staying-power;  and membership had in recent decades surged remarkably.  Their focus might sometimes seem narrow or near-capricious and their biases considerable;  but they were in modern circumstance key aspects of healthy civil society, and their ability to influence public agendas and to air arguments was often a valuable corrective to the preoccupations and preferences of other actors such as business.  (The converse might of course be equally true;  the voice of business might need to clearly heard as counterweight to, for example, environmentalist zealotry, which was responsible for at least a sprinkling of policy outcomes which retrospect suggested to be unwise.)  We noted, among other features, that in the United States NGOs were not always independent of commercial sponsorship;  and that US NGOs, like those elsewhere, might increasingly work – with the help of globalised information mechanisms readily available – in modes of transnational cooperation, as in the matter of anti-personnel landmines.

The US system gave NGOs ready access to opinion-formers and to various categories of decision-maker – a pattern which, albeit by different mechanisms, European structures of government were increasingly emulating.  We were however doubtful whether, in either setting, NGOs were as effective as media opinion sometimes supposed in determining answers, as distinct from posing questions.  We discerned a few instances where NGOs seemed clearly to have managed to impose policies upon governments – in Europe, for example, on the land-mines issue and (so far) in caution over genetically-modified foods;  in the US, in the efficacy of anti-abortion groups in preventing the fulfilment of indisputable US financial obligations to the United Nations.  But the list of such achievements adduced in our debate was not long.

We found too little time to consider the role of organised labour – significant, we heard, in government policy over labour standards in trade agreements, for example – or to review the various methods by which groups might seek to bring their influence to bear (we noted very briefly that in the United States, as in Britain, the techniques of law-breaking “civil disobedience” appeared notably less successful than in some countries of Continental Europe).  In the round, however, the sense of our conference placed the special-interest influence in a more reassuring perspective – often a more modest one – than at least most non-US participants had expected.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Mr John E Rielly
President, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations

Dr Stephen J Randall

Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Calgary
Professor Denis Stairs
McCulloch Professor of Political Science, Dalhousie University
Dr Gerald Wright
Senior Analyst, Department of Industry, Ottawa

Mr Wouter L Wilton

Head of Press and Public Affairs Office, European Commission, New York

Monsieur Gilles Andréani

Senior Fellow, International Strategic Affairs, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London

Professor Hitoshi Hanai

Professor of Politics, University of Reitaku

Mr George Brock

Managing Editor, The Times
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG
Formerly British Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany
Professor Stephen Burman
Professor of English and American Studies, University of Sussex
Dr John Chipman
Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Sir John Coles GCMG
Formerly Permanent Under Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Professor Michael Cox
Professor of International Politics, University of Wales
Mr Nik Gowing
Main presenter/anchor, international TV news service, BBC World
Mr Bryan Magee
Visiting Professor, King’s College, London
Ms Dianna Melrose
Deputy Head, Policy Planning Staff, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Mr Charles Richards
Regional Adviser, Greater Middle East, British Petroleum Co plc
Mr Paul Taylor
Diplomatic Editor, Reuters
Mr Stephen Wright CMG
Minister, British Embassy, Washington

Mr Robert Z Aliber

Professor of International Economics and Finance, University of Chicago
Mr Richard A Behrenhausen
Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation

Major-General Neal T Creighton
President & Chief Executive Officer, Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation
Mr Arthur I Cyr
Clausen, Professor of Political Economy and World Business, Carthage College
Mr Darcy Davidsmeyer
Director, Government Relations, Motorola Inc
Ms April K Donnellan
Program Officer, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
Mr D Cameron Findlay
Partner, Sidley & Austin
The Honorable Lee M Hamilton
Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Mr David Johnson
Managing Director, Health Care Finance, Merrill Lynch
Mr William McNally
Formerly Head of Forest Products Division, The Tribune Company
Professor Joseph P O’Grady
Professor of History, La Salle University
Mr Geoffrey B Shields
Chairman of Management Committee, Gardner, Carton & Douglas
Mr Gary Thatcher
Foreign Editor, The Chicago Tribune
Mr Charles J Wheelan
Midwest Correspondent, The Economist
Ms Meredith Woo-Cumings
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Mr Don Wycliff
Editor, Editorial Page, The Chicago Tribune