Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Does It Mean To Have Dual Loyalties?

One of the more pernicious charges leveled at pro-Israel Jewish voters is that they possess "dual loyalties" -- their allegiances are split between Israel and the United States. Some make the point with the characteristic vitriolic racism we've come to expect. But Glenn Greenwald ties it to the ever-present Republican push for Jewish votes through claiming that their party is better for Israel:
I've previously noted the glaring contradiction among neoconservatives, whereby they simultaneously (a) tell American Jewish voters to vote Republican because (they claim) the GOP is better for Israel and (b) insist that it's anti-Semitic to point out that some are guided by their allegiance to Israel when forming their political beliefs about U.S. policy. Obviously, anyone who does (a) is, by logical necessity, endorsing the very premise in (b) which they want (when it suits them) to label anti-Semitic. Neoconservatives constantly make political appeals to Jewish voters expressly grounded in the premise that American Jews are guided by allegiance to Israel (vote Republican because it's better for Israel), yet then scream "anti-Semite" at anyone who points this out. When faced with this glaring contradiction, their typical response -- as illustratively voiced by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, after she argued in a 2008 Jerusalem Post column that American Jews should vote against Obama because he'd be bad for Israel -- is to deny that "that the interests of the U.S. and Israel are antithetical" and insist that "support for Israel in no way requires sacrificing one’s concerns for America’s interests." In other words: to advocate for Israel is to advocate for the U.S. because their interests are wholly indistinguishable, even synonymous. [internal hyperlinks omitted]

Now, I think I've sufficiently registered my displeasure at the notion that Jews are single-issue voters whose vote can be grabbed based on whomever runs to the most hawkish position possible on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's deeply patronizing to begin with, and clearly doesn't match either Jewish political behavior nor expressed Jewish preferences regarding the conflict; yet, instead of re-evaluating what it would take to get Jewish votes, Republican operatives just moan louder and louder that we're crazy. So yes, that annoys the hell out of me.

Nonetheless, I think this dual loyalty argument needs some interrogation. Specifically, what does it mean to have dual loyalty?

The general definition I read is that one has conflict loyalties when one is willing to prioritize the interests of another nation over ones own. So I constantly read folks saying how the US supporting Israel clearly isn't in America's interest, because it has this effect on our budget or that effect on our other foreign policy priorities in the region or the other effect on our general national security posture. Implicit in all of this is a pretty narrow, generally neo-realist (think Walt and Mearsheimer), understanding of what "American interests" are. Neo-realists would hold that nations are only interested in maintaining and augmenting their national security posture; because the structure of the international system is anarchic, states cannot trust one another and must perpetually behave defensively.

I don't entirely reject this outlook, but I think that it is typically taken too far and doesn't match actual state behavior. And particularly for a hegemon like the United States, it really doesn't make sense. To say the United States must adopt its foreign policy towards Trinidad and Tobago with an eye towards minimizing security threats simply defies belief. States want security, yes, but states want lots of other things as well: prosperity, cultural interchange, and moral progress, to name a few. And, as we might expect, these values are often contested -- what is in "America's interest" depends greatly on moral priors which can and are disputed; in most cases, to say "you're not behaving in America's interest" is to say "you're not behaving in my conception of America's interest". So long as one is putting forward a good faith vision of what the American project should be, I don't think it makes sense to accuse them of failing to be loyal to America. Fool-hardy, perhaps, but not disloyal.

And I do think such a conceptualization of pursuing the American interest can encompass urging policies which help another nation. Let's say the United States was considering adopting a policy which would simply gratuitously hurt Greece. I think a citizen would be perfectly justified in opposing it; it is quite reasonable to conceptualize American interests in such a way so as to not be vicious to other countries for no reason (I also would expect Greek-Americans to be more vocal in their opposition -- something I see no problem with. Greek-Americans have the same right as everyone else to promote their own conception of the national interest). Even if we modify the hypothetical so that the policy was not "gratuitous", but instead was just financially exploitative: suppose Wall Street had an opportunity to loot Greece blind, sending billions of assets into our borders. Once again, I don't think "loyalty to America" requires one to support the action. Mutual international prosperity can be an American interest. And once we accept that, we can accept anything as at least potentially in America's interest, because that category is something that gets developed through a process of democratic deliberation -- it doesn't exist in the ether waiting to be plucked out by Salon columnists and Harvard neo-realists.

The point is that these appeals to "American interests" (and this is hardly the only context in which they pop up -- including, often, assertions that folks opposed to the prevailing wisdom regarding the American/Israeli relationship are hostile to American interests) almost always take as a given a static conception of what American interests are that is usually the very thing under dispute. By fiating that conflict away, they can then cast their opponents out of the realm of true citizenry. I don't think the move is legitimate.

So is there such thing as "dual loyalties"? I can think of two examples, neither of which describes what pro-Israel Americans are doing. The clearest example is when someone simply does not see themselves, in good faith, as pursuing a project that is in the American interest. Often times, people don't -- I doubt the American al-Qaeda terrorists think they're doing what they're doing for the ultimate good of America (even if they think that it is ultimately good for the people of America). Loyalty in this case means loyalty to the sovereign. Second, I think one could argue that pursuing benefits for an extraterritorial body in a way that runs contrary to domestic law is an example of dual loyalty. I'm not actually convinced of this, because I really think that loyalty is a state of mind, and if a person truly believes their acts are good for America even if they breach the law, I'm not sure loyalty is the block I'd hang them from. Nonetheless, it is a little semantic, since I have no qualms about saying such a person can be punished for their malfeasance. And since I think that loyalty to a country does provide at least a general duty to obey the sovereign, I don't feel that uncomfortable with this formulation (though consider the age old movie plot where the hero has to deliver some secret to the enemy that reveals domestic treachery in order to stop the war which would destroy America).


N. Friedman said...


I do not think that I disagree with your point. However, I think you sligthly mischaracterize what so-called realists such as Walt hold - or, until Mearsheimer and he wrote The Israel Lobby seemed to hold.

Walt's theory is not quite, as you write: "that nations are only interested in maintaining and augmenting their national security posture." This is not entirely a question of national interests. Instead, his theory concerns the structure of International relations. And, it is the structure of the International system which determines how states act. Or, in simple terms, whatever lobby groups and factions and political personalities may exist in a country are not, except for so-called "revolutionary states" (e.g. Nazi Germany) the primary determiner of the behavior of a state towards other states. Hence, a state can be forced by the structural realities of the International system to act against interest.

Which is to say: prior to the time The Israel Lobby was written, people like Walt took the view that internal lobbying was of no substantial importance, including in the US. In fact, if his new theory is correct, then his entire life's opus would seem to be wrong. Such ought to tell you that realists who believe in the supposed "truth" of The Israel Lobby are driven by passions by which they are willing to walk away from their viewpoint.

David Schraub said...

I'm aware of that (and made the same observation about Mearsheimer's sudden discovery of domestic lobbying); I was oversimplifying. In an anarchic international system, states must default to self-help and act to maximize their relative power in order to minimize risk, because (a) there is no way to be assured of another state's threat capacity and (b) there is no "911" to call if you get in trouble.

N. Friedman said...


You might read a book by a personal friend of mine, Arthur Eckstein, titled Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome, in which he provides a stellar explanation and analysis of IR theory - which, unlike me, he believes in wholeheartedly -.

His approach involves applying the theory as an organizing theme by which he writes a history of how Rome came to conquer the ancient Mediterranean region.

His reason for writing the book was to explain that, in fact, Rome was not really any more inherently aggressive than the other states in the Mediterranean region and that outside forces made all them aggressive.

I also disagree somewhat with your new (or, since it is a restatement, existing) explanation. The issue is driven by outside factors but they do not preclude collective action. Rather, the possibility of collective action is the product of the environment that exists among states. Where one or two countries, due to their military power and/or location, etc., control the International situation, then the rules created by that power or the interaction of powers determines what occurs including any alliances, etc. So, this is not about self-help, alliances, collective or other action. It is about what the structure of International relations causes countries to do.

As with most political science theories, I think that IR has inherent weaknesses. Which is to say, while it looks primarily to structure, it is forced to resort to an endless number of ad hoc inventions that allow for things such as one country preferring self-help to collective action, etc., etc.

joe said...

My reading this post is a little belated, but when you say a person with dual loyalties "simply does not see themselves, in good faith, as pursuing a project that is in the American interest," aren't you just embracing an entirely subjective standard? What if a Greek-American with deep ties to family and friends in Greece wants the US to bail out Greece to avoid it from going bankrupt? Let's say he even makes an argument that it's good for the US too because it improves our image abroad or because we live in a global economy or whatever. But let's also say this person would not support similar bailouts for similarly-situated countries he doesn't have that tie to. Let's say that if we could make him exactly the same in his general political outlook, but take away his ties to Greece, he'd be against such a bail-out (as most Americans don't seem to like foreign aid in general). Now, it seems to me that such a person has a certain conflict of interest or bias when he's evaluating the interests of the U.S. even if he can rationalize his position. Is that dual loyalty? I don't know, it sounds like this person feels some sense of identity-based obligation to separate nations, but it's a nebulous term, and to the extent it's also used (mostly out of racism, as with Japanese-Americans in World War II) to suggest something much more sinister than mere evaluative bias, it's better to call what I just described something else.

I'm curious what you make of PM Netanyahu's alleged statement that Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are "self-loathing Jews." It seems to me that if true, and if prompted by their support for Obama's policies, he is asserting that they have a special obligation as Jews to support the policies that are (in his opinion) best for Israel, and that obligation should override any duty they might have to their own country.

In addition to being extremely offensive on its face and revealing a personal sense of entitlement on his part, I think that's an unsettling quote because it seems to imply they should have dual loyalties (under the first definition you provided) and conform with a genuine anti-Semitic stereotype.