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How Foreign Governments Influence Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the United States, but you’re more likely than not to see the flag of a foreign government before you see the Stars and Stripes wafting in the breeze. Embassies of more than 175 foreign states are located in the district, many concentrated in a ritzy section of Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row.

Foreign embassies are Washington institutions. Politicians, corporations, and interest groups come and go, but in a hundred years’ time it’s likely that the list of foreign countries with a diplomatic presence in the capital will closely resemble today’s.

Some diplomats have stayed so long that they have become institutions themselves: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, was a notably close friend of the Bush family. Singaporean ambassador Chan Heng Chee has been in Washington since 1996, making her one of the longest-serving female envoys to Washington.

Of course, time spent in Washington does not automatically make one a member of the permanent establishment. Taking part in the policymaking process is also a prerequisite.

Foreign governments, often through their diplomatic representation in Washington, are integral participants in the U.S. policymaking process. Take away their diplomatic immunity, and they are a special interest lobbyist like all the rest. And just like special interests, their effectiveness is measured in the weight of their voice, the persuasiveness of their arguments, and the degree of their access.

Like other lobbyists, some foreign governments are more successful than others. Among the most successful participants in this game of international lobbying was William Wiseman. Wiseman became a close associate of President Woodrow Wilson and his chief advisor Colonel Edward House. One British observer commented that Wiseman was “the only person, English or American, who had access at any time to the President or Colonel House.”

Needless to say, most foreign officials never get more than a handshake from the U.S. commander-in-chief. But like other special interests, their success depends on how many doors they can open and whom they can persuade to do what they want.

Foreign diplomats use the same tactics that other lobbyists employ. They engage with both the executive and legislative branches, occasionally even playing one against the other to get their way. They cultivate supporters in government and Congress whom they can rely on to argue their case with the American public and with any intransigent colleagues.

Understanding the intricacies of the Washington system makes such diplomats valuable inside their own governments, too. Moreover, foreign diplomats who cultivate relationships with congressional staffers and administration officials can help improve U.S. relations with their home country over time, because the personal connections they make can be drawn on as such people achieve higher office.

Diplomats also leverage outside groups, like expatriate networks or bilateral business councils, to reinforce their messaging. Foreign governments have other tools, like cultural promotion or organized trade missions, to vary their tactics. A lot of coordination exists among embassies of different countries that happen to have common interests in U.S. policy. Many of them employ professional lobbyists.

Of course, foreign governments are not identical to the special interest lobbyists that represent corporations and labor unions. Foreign officials don’t have to register as lobbyists or report on all their activities and meetings with covered officials.

But they do have to battle to be heard: While big domestic special interests may represent thousands of American workers or icons of American industry, few foreign officials can draw a direct link between their interests and a congressman’s constituents or reelection prospects. The result is that many diplomats spend most of their time just trying to get attention. And they normally can’t flee town when they get unwanted attention.

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