Stephen M. Walt

On “dual loyalty”

Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than ...


Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests."

As one might expect, this statement raised the old specter of "dual loyalty," and from several directions. Critics of Ross suggested that he was guilty of it, while defenders complained that he was being tarred with a familiar anti-Semitic slur. Indeed, Rozen subsequently updated her story with a statement by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough defending Ross and underscoring "his commitment to this country and to our vital interests," an obvious attempt by the administration to head off the issue before it gained traction.

How should we think about the "dual loyalty" question, either in this context or in many others? To me this is a tricky issue that ought to be handled with some delicacy, and we ought to employ a different vocabulary to discuss it.

One might start by remembering that the phrase "dual loyalty" has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe. Accusing anyone — and especially someone who is Jewish — of "dual loyalty" is bound to trigger a heated reaction, and for good reason. Furthermore many people believe patriotism (i.e., love of one’s country) is a profoundly important value, so any behavior that seems to be at odds with that principle carries powerful negative connotations. In a world where nationalism remains a potent doctrine, casting doubt on anyone’s loyalty is a serious charge.

More recently, however, scholars have used the term "dual loyalty" in more analytical and neutral fashion, based on the obvious fact that all human beings have multiple loyalties or attachments. Most of us feel a strong attachment to our own country, for example, but we also feel a sense of loyalty to family, friends, religion, ethnic groups, sports teams, etc.).  Patriotism is only one of these competing loyalties, and does not necessarily trump the others. The novelist E. M. Forster famously remarked that if forced to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray the latter, and a 2006 Pew survey of Christians in thirteen countries found that 42 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves "as Christians first and Americans second." All this is just to remind us that "loyalty" to a country is just one of the many attachments that we all feel.

Moreover, in a world where members of different national or ethnic groups often live in many different places, tensions inevitably arise between different sorts of national allegiance. Today, therefore, scholars use the term "dual loyalty" to describe the widespread circumstance where individuals feel genuine and legitimate attachments to more than one country. A good example is Israeli political scientist Gabriel Sheffer’s book Diaspora Politics, which distinguishes between "total," "dual," and "divided" loyalties, and Sheffer shows that all three responses are bound to occur when members of particular ethnic, national, or religious groups live in different countries. 

Needless to say, in a melting-pot society like the United States, it was inevitable that many Americans would also have strong attachments to other countries. These different attachments may reflect ancestry, religious affiliation, personal experience (such as overseas study), or any number of other sources. The key point, however, is that in the United States it is entirely legitimate to manifest such attachments in political life.  Americans can hold dual citizenship, for example, or form an interest group whose avowed purpose is to shape U.S. policy towards a specific country. This is how the American system of government works, and there is nothing "disloyal" about such conduct.

But what about getting directly involved as a government official, and in issue-areas where important interests are at stake? Instead of invoking phrases like "dual loyalty," a rhetoric that immediately invokes connotations of betrayal (or even treason), I suggest we frame the issue as one of potential conflicts of interest. Simply put, is it in the best interest of the United States as a whole to place U.S. policy on key issues in the hands of people whose even-handedness is not beyond question, and especially when there is evidence that they feel a strong personal attachment to a foreign country with whom the United States may have important disagreements? 

In many walks of life, we routinely expect people to recuse themselves from issues in which their own interests or attachments might affect their judgment. Judges and jurors are excused from cases where they have clear ties to one of the contending parties. University faculty and administrators are often expected to divulge relationships (including outside consulting) that might affect their objectivity or probity. We would also regard it as inappropriate if a financial advisor recommended investing in a company owned by a family member, and all the more so if they failed to divulge the connection. Why? Because there is a conflict of interest.

By the same logic, we have valid reason for concern whenever someone was making policy in an area where they have clear financial interests (which is why public officials are often expected to liquidate certain investments or place them in blind trusts), or if their prior associations made it clear that they felt a strong attachment to one or more interested parties. There are good reasons why a former lobbyist for an oil company might not be the best choice for the Department of Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency (which is not to say that such appointments never happen, of course). Because a public servant’s responsibility is to do what is in the best interest of the country as a whole, and not to favor the interests of any specific group, we normally worry when an obvious conflict of interest is discovered.  And that same principle ought to apply to the making of foreign policy.

Identifying potential conflicts of interest can be tricky, however, which suggests we ought to proceed carefully. It would be inappropriate, it seems to me, to disqualify anyone from public service in a particular policy area solely on the basis of their ethnic or religious background or even their family ties. It would be wrong to exclude someone from work on South Asia policy simply because they were a Pakistani-American or an Indian-American. Similarly, I would not exclude a Muslim American, Arab-American, or Jewish-American from involvement in U.S. Middle East policy simply because of their background, or exclude someone who happened to be married to a Korean from working on U.S. policy in East Asia.

But when an individual’s own activities or statements give independent evidence of strong attachment to a particular foreign country, is it a good idea to give them an influential role in shaping U.S. policy towards that country? If disagreements arise between that country and Washington, won’t this place these officials in a difficult position, and raise questions about their ability to conduct policy in a wholly objective manner? And even if they are sincerely attempting to advance the U.S. interest, won’t their sense of identity with the foreign country in question incline them towards certain approaches that may or may not be optimal?

To return to where we began: Isn’t it obvious that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region? The point is not to question their patriotism, which is not the issue. Rather, the question is whether an attachment to Israel shapes how they think about the peace process, Iran, and the extent to which U.S. and Israeli interests are congruent. Their patriotism can be above reproach, but their advice may still be advancing policies that are not in the U.S. interest. 

By the way, I’d have the same worries if U.S. Middle East policy were turned over to key figures from the American Task Force on Palestine or the National Iranian-American Council. When there are important national security issues at stake, wouldn’t it make more sense to have U.S. policy in the hands of people without strong personal feelings about any of interested parties? Ironically, someone like that might end up pursuing policies that were better for all concerned.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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