Nearly 40 years ago, Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer wrote that “the immigration process is the single most important determinant of American foreign policy.” Immigration determined the ethnicity of the electorate to which our foreign policy responds. “It responds to other things as well, but first of all to the primary fact of ethnicity.”
The two scholars did not elaborate, but probably had in mind the ferocious political conflicts over American intervention in World Wars I and II, in which an Anglo-American establishment eventually prevailed over fierce opposition to intervene on Britain’s side. They might have been thinking of the German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrant communities’ intense efforts to keep America out of the Great War (I explored this subject in more detail here), efforts that prompted Woodrow Wilson reportedly to say, “We definitely have to remain neutral since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.” The “hyphenates,” as non-Anglo ethnic groups were called at the time, were eventually bullied into silence, but later gained a kind of revenge by helping to derail Wilson’s bid to enlist America to the League of Nations. In the ’30s, Walter Lippmann interpreted American isolationism as an ethnic phenomenon: intervention in Europe risked exacerbating America’s own tensions. In a famous post-World War II analysis, political scientist Samuel Lubell opined that American isolationism was more an ethnic than a geographic phenomenon, rooted in anti-British prejudices stoked by the Republican Party.
If, in the pre- and post- World War I eras, ethnic diversity served as a brake on an interventionist Washington, that had changed by World War II. The “Good War” sped up work of the melting pot, and in postwar America the most notable ethnic influence on foreign policy—save perhaps the pressure to recognize and then support Israel—manifested itself as hawkish anticommunism. Refugees from Eastern Europe and Cuba were among the most politically visible of the small number of immigrants in the 1950’s and ’60’s—and refugees from Communism were an important leg in the Cold War anti-communist platforms of both parties.
That postwar electorate exists no more. The Immigration Act of 1965, eliminating national origins quotas, ensured that. The 2012 presidential election results showed Americans of European origin accounted for only 72 percent of the electorate, and that a Republican who garnered the same percentage of the white vote as Ronald Reagan did in a landslide victory can now lose decisively in the electoral college. Republicans are now trying to figure out how to win a reasonable share of the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian vote, amidst widespread speculation that their reliance on an overly white base threatens their long-term viability as a national party.
But just as important as the question of whether the new immigrants will sink the GOP is the one introduced by Glazer and Moynihan: what impact will the new immigrants have on American foreign policy? Of course, the answer may be unknowable, subject to combinations of events no one can now foresee. Nevertheless visible signposts point in one direction: from the evidence thus far, it is likely that the new, more ethnic elements of the American electorate will act—as they did in the pre- and post- World War I eras—more as a brake on an interventionist or militarized foreign policy than a leaven for one.