"When in Rome" comparing Canadian and Mexican strategies for influencing policy outcomes in the United States.

AuthorBow, Brian

The United States is both very strong, in the sense that it towers over the rest of the world in virtually every measure of state capability, and very weak, in the sense that its policy-making process is extraordinarily fragmented and susceptible to external influences (Krasner, 1978). This combination of strength and weakness invites--and sometimes compels--other countries to try to influence American policy "from inside," by cultivating cross-border alliances with powerful governmental and non-governmental actors in the US. Thus at the disciplinary intersections between International Relations, US Foreign Policy, and American Politics there has been a sporadic accumulation of theory and research on foreign lobbying and transnational coalition-building in the United States. The work that has been done so far, though, has mainly been concerned with understanding--in a general way--the challenges that the complexity of the American system poses for US diplomats and/or for foreign governments, or cataloguing and evaluating--again, in a general way--the strategies that particular countries have pursued in managing their bilateral relationships with the US. That leaves a number of important questions unanswered, and even unasked: Why do different states "play the Washington game" differently? When and how do states change from one strategy to another? And what difference do these strategies make for their ability to influence policy outcomes in the United States?

Here I propose to make a start on the first and second of these questions, through a long-term historical comparison of Canadian and Mexican efforts to influence US policy. Canada and Mexico have generally been seen as not particularly comparable, because of their very different political systems, levels of economic development, and cultures. But these differences are precisely the kinds of things that seem most likely to provide explanations for different approaches to the management of bilateral relations with the US. There is in fact a solid baseline for comparison in the basic structure of their respective relationships with the US: Each is attached to the United States by a complex web of social and economic inter-penetration and interdependency, which creates bases for vulnerability and for leverage in bilateral bargaining. And each has been increasingly tied to the US (and each other), by various formal and informal policy-coordination regimes, including, but not limited to, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Prior to the early 1980s, the two governments pursued markedly different approaches to relations with the United States, with Mexico relying on formal intergovernmental contacts and Canada on informal bureaucratic networks. But the post-Vietnam assertiveness of Congress and of various "domestic" bureaucratic agencies, mounting protectionist pressures, and the NAFTA institutional framework have driven both governments toward the same kind of "multiple-pathway" approach. Among the key features of this strategy are efforts to access the policy-making structure at a wider variety of points, including direct lobbying of members of Congress and various regulatory agencies, and the reconfiguration of embassies and consulates as vehicles for identifying and coordinating ad hoc transnational alliances. In both countries, these trends have been supported by the rise of a new generation of political elites, often US-educated and with career paths and network relationships that straddle the respective borders.

However, this process of strategic convergence has been channeled by enduring features of the two countries' respective political institutions and cultures, including basic structures for diplomatic oversight and ratification, public-private relationships, and the organizational culture of foreign policy agencies. Variations in their political and social structures have set up important differences in where and how the two governments have adapted to changes in the nature of the US foreign policy-making structure. These differences seem to have had important effects on when and how they have succeeded in influencing US policy.


    One does not have to accept the recently-ubiquitous parallel with imperial Rome to think of Washington as the political center of the contemporary world order; all roads lead there, and all important deals are made or broken there (Lind, 2002). The US has had its ups and downs over the last sixty years, but it still towers over the rest of the world, in military terms particularly, but in economic terms as well. America is no longer so powerful that it can do whatever it wants--if it ever was--but its support is still necessary to the maintenance of intricate regional security balances, to the economic institutions that keep the world economy running, and to the infinite variety of smaller states' biggest concerns (Nye, 2001). At the same time, Washington is an extraordinarily fragmented policy-making machine, with many decision-making tracks and many centers of power. And it is an extraordinarily "open" one, whose dedication to political pluralism is so reflexive that it regulates foreign and domestic lobbying in much the same way. (1) When we put these things together, it seems that one of the most important determinants of other states' success or failure within the larger international arena lies in their capacity to influence US policy. (2)

    The American political system is a relatively inflexible one, anchored in a fairly rigid constitutional structure, which has been deliberately designed to prevent concentrations of power and radical changes (Burns, 1963, 60; Huntington, 1982). We might therefore expect little change over time in the organizational forms and diplomatic strategies that other states rely on to try to influence US policies. The American political system is also too complex and too introverted (in design and in spirit) to be much differentiated in the way that it receives foreign inputs. We might therefore expect most states to tend to approach the US policy-making process in the same way. There are some important continuities and similarities in the way that other countries have engaged with the US over the last sixty years. But there have also been some significant changes in the way that policy decisions are made in the US, and in how other countries have adapted to these changes. Moreover, while the American system does tend to confront all other states with the same tangled labyrinth of cross-cutting institutional and legal mechanisms, other countries have responded very differently to this complex of opportunities and obstacles. Yet the whole question of other countries' efforts to influence US policy is remarkably understudied, having apparently fallen into the cracks between disciplines.

    There is of course a very large literature on how American foreign policy decisions are made, some of which has directly addressed the resulting incentives and constraints for other countries (e.g., Maier, 1978; Cutler, 1980; Ikenberry, 1988). For the most part, though, this work has been premised on an implicit assumption that these incentives and constraints strike other countries in pretty much the same way, and that they will all tend to respond to them similarly.

    There has also been a fair amount of research on other states' successes and failures in bargaining with the US (Nye, 1974; Keohane & Nye, 1977,165-218; Paarlberg et al., 1978; Odell, 1980; Odell, 1985; Moon, 1988; Zartman & Rubin, eds., 2000). Most of this work is mainly concerned with the more general problem of bargaining under asymmetry and/or interdependence. Very little of it has paid much attention to what is unique about the United States as a target for (small state) diplomatic pressures. Most of the research on specific small states' efforts to influence US policy has looked to underlying structural features of the respective bilateral relationships. These include international-systemic conditions, asymmetry of resolve, fragmentation of decision-making, and the availability of transnational allies (Keohane, 1971; Krasner, 1978; Habeeb, 1988; Elman, 1995; Zartman & Rubin, 2000). Only a few studies have looked past these structural features, to try to describe (and, to a lesser extent, to explain) smaller states' institutional adaptations and diplomatic strategies (Odell, 1980; Odell, 1985; Moon, 1988).

    Drawing together bits and pieces from these scattered sources, we can put together a basic typology of different strategies that smaller states might pursue in trying to influence US policy outcomes. Here I am primarily thinking about strategies in terms of choices about different "pathways" for accessing the US policymaking process. Each pathway strategy is expected to match up with an associated organizational form. I assume that strategies will sometimes be conditioned by organizational forms, and organizational forms will sometimes be conditioned by strategies.

    The most basic approach is a strict intergovernmental one, focusing on formal contacts between high-level negotiators, primarily through the respective foreign ministries, but occasionally moving up to cabinet-level negotiations. This is the way that things are most often assumed to work in conventional approaches to international relations. The primary dynamic in this kind of intergovernmental bargaining is the acquisition and exploitation of bargaining leverage, which--as explored in the vast and complex literature on bilateral bargaining--depends on a variety of conditions. These include alternatives to negotiated settlement, resolve, information, and signaling.

    The normal practice in all countries is of course for foreign governments to bring their concerns to the executive branch, which then may convey them to the legislature. However, given the separation of powers in the American system, foreign governments may...

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