Wednesday, 9 September 2009

“Foreign Policy, Inc.”, by Lawrence Davidson (University of Kentucky)

Davidson-ForeignPolicyInc The Privatisation of American Foreign Policy?

In one of the few books that discusses the general role of special interests in the American foreign policy-making process (as opposed to specific lobbies, e.g. the Israel Lobby), Lawrence Davidson has written a valuable resource for those who are interested in how the US makes the policies it does, and who is involved in the process. Over the course of the book, Davidson touches upon all the key issues and areas involved in the topic: outlining the rise of lobbying, the constitutional window that allows for lobbyists (First Amendment), the impact on Senators and Congressmen, and the role of the media.

The book is well-structured, with the author first setting the scene, as it were, by providing his explanation as to why non-governmental special interests are able to influence policymakers (“localism”), and why the general population is largely unaware of this influence. Following this, Davidson provides two solid chapters of historical context, explaining the evolution of lobbies (corporate, ethnic, and so forth), followed by two case studies (the Cuba and Israel Lobbies), and a conclusion.

The aim of the book, the author writes, is to

“challenge the notion that the United States is a democracy of individuals... Instead, the United States is, I suggest, a democracy of competing interest groups or lobbies.”

To describe this, Davidson coins the phrase “factocracy”, referring to a democracy taken over by competing, proportionately small factions.

Davidson suggests that the lack of public awareness of government and, especially, foreign affairs is the product of “localism”, whereby people are naturally more interested in issues that directly affect their lives, ignoring issues that appear remote or, well, foreign to their lives:

“if most Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it follows that foreign policy has no necessary connection to popular concerns or even preferences. If this is so, whose concerns and preferences does foreign policy reflect?”

Davidson continues, arguing that a

“consequence of naturally occurring localism and its accompanying disinterest in foreign events is that the general population in effect abdicates influence over policy formulation in favour of whatever numerically small subset of the citizenry does care about foreign policy.”

The author spends a short amount of space discussing the role of media corporations in the foreign policy debate, and how they help to shape and frame foreign issues in ways that suit their parent companies; “stylizing” the news, as Davidson puts it. This leads to the situation where local news can be run through personal filters due to actual knowledge,

“The further from home they go in terms of [news/foreign] reporting, the less local citizens are able to judge objectivity and accuracy. Under such circumstances, just how exposed are local citizens to misinformation and media manipulation?”

While Davidson doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, it does help to set the tone for the rest of the book.

When considering Davidson’s thesis, there are some issues with it. Mainly, Davidson takes evidence of special interest activity as proof that American national interest and foreign policy has been usurped by business and/or special interests. In this respect, he follows the theses of Noam Chomsky and Valerio Volpi, who argue (to put it simply) that business is basically in control of every aspect of American politics and society. The author’s arguments do not convince me of this – with the exception of America’s Cuba policy, which has been hijacked by Cuban-American interests, as a congressional pander for votes and campaign finance.

For the main, and in relation to US foreign policy as a whole, it has to be assumed that profit-oriented businesses will always exploit any opportunity to increase profits – if a foreign policy opens up such an opportunity, of course corporate lobbyists will look to their clients’ interests. However, Davidson argues that this is evidence of lobbies directing foreign policy. The furthest I’d be willing to go, based on what he’s presented in this book, is that business and special interests are very adept at taking advantage of governmental policies.

One piece of evidence, for example, is in reference to America’s (admittedly far-from-stellar) actions in South America. The author points to testimony from Chiquita Brands executives admitting to funding right-wing paramilitary groups as evidence that

“U.S. foreign policy in Central America had... been privatised by the economically oriented special interests that represent businesses such as United Fruit/Chiquita Brands. It is their parochial interests that had come to define the U.S. national interest in this part of the world.”

While this may very well be true, the example he presents contains no evidence that this action was done on the government’s behalf – it looks like it was actually done irrespective and counter government policies and aims. Davidson also places responsibility for the Spanish-American War (1898), the Mexican War (1846-48), the annexation of Hawaii (1898) and the subjugation of the Philippines (1898) at the feet of business interests.

While it may read as if I am discounting Davidson’s argument as a whole, I should clarify that I am not. I believe the inference of corporate influence is very strong, however no author or academic can ‘prove’ direct influence over or subordination of policy to special interests – regardless of how ‘obvious’ it might be to us that the media and lobbies ‘greatly influence’ government discourse and decision-making. It is quite probable that policymakers are influenced by what they see, hear and read about any given subject – especially considering lobbies expertise at exploiting the media as their mouthpiece – but this does not mean they will take their cues from outside interests.

The book is well written, and should be accessible to all, though some sentences are a bit clunky, with the occasional malapropism that the editor should have caught (“purposively”). At times, it feels like the author is using the book as his soap-box to outline his grievances with the George W. Bush administration, American business, the Israel Lobby, and so forth. While this is disappointing, it is hardly surprising or new, and Davidson at least doesn’t descend into writing ad hominem, unsubstantiated attacks.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his arguments, or if you believe the evidence he provides could be considered definitive ‘proof’ for non-governmental influence, Foreign Policy, Inc. will give you plenty of information to help formulate your own opinions, as well as locate the information in an easily-digestible history of special interest activity in the United States. Benefitting from extensive research, Davidson has written an excellent introduction to the role of special interests in the American foreign policy process.

Given the importance and wide-reaching impact of US foreign policy, greater understanding of the process by which it is made is invaluable and essential. This book will set you in the right direction.

Despite its minor shortcomings, I would definitely recommend this book.

Also try: Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, Silence of the Rational Center (2006); Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent (1988, 2008); Valerio Volpi, The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism (2009); Stephen M. Walt & John J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007); Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2004); John Newhouse, “Diplomacy, Inc.” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2009)

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