Interest Groups and Foreign Policy: Clinton and the China MFN Debates

By Dietrich, John W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Interest Groups and Foreign Policy: Clinton and the China MFN Debates


Dietrich, John W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing into the post-cold war era, the U.S. foreign policy-making system has been transformed from the relatively closed and presidentially dominated system of the early cold war into a more open, contentious, and pluralistic system. The president remains the most powerful actor, but he now must contend with an active Congress, oversee a complex executive bureaucracy, and respond to pressures and ideas generated by the press, think tanks, and public opinion. During this period, there also has been a sharp increase in the number of interest groups actively seeking to influence U.S. foreign policy. These interest groups have mobilized to represent a diverse array of business, labor, ethnic, human rights, environmental, and other organizations. Thus, on most issues, the contemporary foreign policy-making system has become more similar to its domestic policy-making counterpart, with multiple interest groups using multiple channels to try to influence policy choices.

It is, therefore, important to understand how the foreign policy system's structure, its agenda, and the international environment have changed in ways that encourage interest group activity and access to policy makers. From this activity and access, interest groups have been able to assume new policy roles and possibly have increased policy influence. At the same time, though, it is crucial to remember a lesson learned from the study of interest groups and domestic policy; although activity and access both are necessary for interest group influence, neither alone is sufficient for, nor should either be equated with, actual influence.(1) The paths to government decisions are extremely complicated and interest group activities are but one variable in the pathway. Additionally, although there are similarities between the domestic and foreign policy systems, important differences remain that further constrain interest group influence on foreign policy. Therefore, to get an accurate assessment of interest group influence, it is necessary to look beyond high levels of activity and to view interest group efforts in the broader context of the domestic and foreign pressures shaping particular policy decisions.

Before beginning such an examination, it is important to define the term interest group. Although many definitions exist in the literature, this study will follow Robert H. Salisbury in defining an interest group as "an organized association which engages in activity relative to government decisions" (italics in original).(2) Under this broad definition, interest groups therefore would include citizens' groups organized around a particular issue, such as human rights, as well as professional lobbies, businesses, and public interest law firms. Importantly, though, this definition does not extend to government divisions or organizations. This is not to deny that one can identify specific groups within the U.S. government, such as particular bureaus within the Departments of State or Treasury, that act with a shared interest in the pursuit of particular policy objectives, or to deny that foreign governments and their agents are increasingly active in Washington, but simply to say that the purpose of this study is to assess the impact of domestic, nongovernmental groups on foreign policy.

One policy arena that has drawn intense interest group activity over the last decade is U.S. relations with China. In the years after the 1989 Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square, the central issue in question has been whether to renew China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status. Two broad coalitions of interest groups joined the MFN debate. Chinese students in the United States, several human rights organizations, labor unions, and religious groups argued that MFN should either be revoked or be made conditional on future Chinese behavior. On the other side, business and farm groups strongly advocated the unconditional renewal of MFN. …

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