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Meet the Odd Array of Foreign Politicians in Cleveland for the GOP Convention

Brexit leader Nigel Farage and far-right Dutch pol Geert Wilders are among hundreds of foreign leaders taking in the Trump show.


Nigel Farage has been keeping a low profile, relatively speaking, since he stepped down as the leader of the Britain’s right-wing UK Independence Party shortly after achieving his “political ambition” of persuading British voters to leave the European Union late last month.

The American heartland may seem an unlikely place to resurface, but Farage will be in Cleveland for the Republican presidential convention that begins Monday.

“I’ll be interested to hear what Donald Trump has to say,” Farage said last week.

When Republican insiders, anti-Trump protesters, and a-few-letters-removed-from-A-list celebrities gather for what could be the most chaotic political convention in decades, they’ll be joined by some 200 foreign dignitaries and political operatives from roughly 100 nations, including Russia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Lebanon. Farage and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders are among the best-known attendees, with the Brit speaking at a “Brexit policy luncheon” on Wednesday hosted by Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of the The Daily Caller and conservative Fox News pundit.

They’ll be coming as part of a long but little-known tradition thought to date back to the birth of the United States. Every four years, a sizable contingent of foreign ambassadors, members of parliament, and political strategists flock to the United States for two of the premier events in American politics. After Cleveland, an even larger foreign delegation will head to Philadelphia for the Democratic convention.

Chris Fussner, the Republican National Committee’s liaison to the International Democratic Union, or IDU, an association of more than 80 center and center-right parties from around the world, said they describe their major political events as, “half an hour, a few speeches, coffee, luncheon, blah, blah, blah.”

By contrast, said Trygve Olson, a political consultant who’s helped the RNC with international visitors for the last three conventions, “Our conventions are like four-day extravaganzas.”

“There’s nothing else like it in the world of politics and democratic societies,” he added.

Many of the international guests are drawn to Cleveland because of curiosity about Trump, the New York businessman who has never been elected to public office but whose Times Square-style-celebrity and ever-evolving “America First” foreign policy has caught the attention of — and alarmed — many foreign leaders.

There’s been a lot of international interest in coming to see the presumptive GOP nominee, because “capitals are saying to their diplomats, ‘We need to find out more about what a Trump administration would look like,'” Olson said.

Brian Noyes, the director of external affairs for the Republican convention, said there was a spike in foreign interest when the nominee was unknown and observers were speculating about the chance of a contested convention. Interest has leveled off “since we’ve worked that out,” he added.

After Cleveland, some 400 foreign dignitaries and political operatives from about 100 countries — including the world’s youngest, South Sudan — will head to Philadelphia to see the nomination of Democrat Hillary Clinton, well-known internationally from serving as President Barack Obama’s first secretary of state.

As early as the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, international diplomats have attended important American political gatherings, Noyes said.

For the organizers charged with carrying on this American tradition — who between them have worked for decades on the conventions and spoke to Foreign Policy in various states of travel between Cleveland and Philadelphia — several likened it to “herding cats.”

In 1983, Congress created two sister nonpartisan nonprofits, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, and Republican President Ronald Reagan, along with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also founded IDU. These organizations soon took on the bulk of coordinating foreign dignitaries at the presidential conventions, working with the State Department to look after the roughly 180 card-carrying ambassadors to the United States, as well as other political leaders visiting the United States for the events.

Shari Bryan, vice president of the NDI, pointed out that many people abroad follow American politics more closely than Americans do.

“What happens in the U.S. politically has a direct impact on every country in the world,” Bryan told Foreign Policy, so foreign leaders “want to know what the next president is going to be thinking.”

Most agreed that 2008 was a high-water mark for international interest because so many foreign leaders wanted to see Obama became the first African-American nominated for president.

In Philadelphia, Clinton will make history as well by becoming the first female presidential nominee, and more female political leaders than ever are coming from abroad to witness the moment, Bryan said.

“This was someone who was really going to change the way the U.S. approached the world,” Bryan said of Obama, before what will be her fifth convention. “This is turning out to be very similar.”

For many foreign dignitaries, the conventions are also an unprecedented opportunity to network with those who will potentially form a Trump administration and its foreign policy.

Trump has alarmed some global leaders by threatening to reduce the U.S. commitment to NATO and withdraw American troops from Japan and South Korea while encouraging the two allies to develop their own nuclear weapons. He’s also complimented strongmen from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to Russian President Vladimir Putin and vowed to ban Muslims from the United States.

Emissaries are looking for how this policy will impact them, Olson said. “If you’re a Czech diplomat, you’re going to the convention to see what it means vis-a-vis NATO and the missile shield,” he said.

In some ways, he said, the interest may be bigger for the Republicans’ convention than the Democrats’, “because that’s less defined with Trump than it is with Hillary Clinton.”

The Europeans who make up the bulk of the GOP guest list are travelling to Cleveland at an interesting time for politics across the pond in the wake of the June 23 Brexit vote.

Trump has sought to capitalize on the referendum, with his campaign soliciting donations from British politicians even though U.S. law forbids candidates from seeking or accepting donations from non-Americans.

Asked whether Trump has inspired interest or concern, Fussner laughed: “Yes and no.” One party that typically attends, the European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the European Parliament, isn’t coming.

Still, Trump has found other favorites among the likes of Farage and Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party who champions Trump’s crusade against “Islamisation.”

The United States has always had a peaceful transition of power, but violent skirmishes and incendiary rhetoric from Trump and others have led to fears of riots at the conventions.

For the first time, Amnesty International will be sending human rights observers to Cleveland and Philadelphia, the group announced on Thursday.

Olson said he was surprised that foreign visitors hadn’t raised any safety concerns or asked for security procedures in the event of potential chaos. “It’s kind of strange,” he conceded.

Observing the U.S. political process is particularly important to “endangered democracies,” Fussner said.

“One day you’re sitting next to a politician from Uganda talking about economic development, and the next day you pick up the Economist and there’s a picture of him getting beaten by his secret police,” he said, as an example. “These are people out there really fighting for democracy.”

Photo credit: JOHN MOORE/Staff

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