Voice

America Is Wide Open for Foreign Influence

If you’re an outsider with a political agenda, there’s no better country to target than the United States.

A security guard walks past a welcoming banner at Pristina International Airport prior to the arrival of the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Kosovo on May 21, 2009. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)
A security guard walks past a welcoming banner at Pristina International Airport prior to the arrival of the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Kosovo on May 21, 2009. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia, the idea of territorial sovereignty has been central to how most of us think about international politics and foreign policy. Although a huge amount of activity occurs across state borders, one of the chief tasks of any government is to defend the nation’s territory and make sure—to the extent it can—that outsiders are not in position to interfere in harmful ways. But for all the effort and expense devoted to keeping harmful influences out, sometimes countries wind up locking and bolting the windows while leaving the front door wide open.

Take the mighty United States, for example. It has a vast Department of Homeland Security, whose job is to defend its borders from international terrorism, illegal migration, drug smuggling, customs violations, and other dangers. The United States has intelligence agencies monitoring dangerous developments all over the world to keep them from harming Americans at home. It has spent trillions of dollars on a sophisticated nuclear arsenal designed to deter a hostile country from attacking the U.S. homeland directly, and it’s spent additional hundreds of billions of dollars pursuing the holy grail of missile defense. Americans now worry about cyberthreats of various kinds, including the possibility that foreign powers like Russia might be interfering in U.S. elections or sowing division and false information via social media. And then there’s President Donald Trump’s obsession with that southern wall, which he declares is necessary to keep the Republican base riled up—oops, sorry, I meant to say “is necessary to protect us from impoverished refugees or other undesirables.”

Given all the time, effort, and money the United States devotes to defending the realm against outside intrusions, it is ironic that the United States may also be the most permeable political system in modern history. More than any great power’s that I can think of, America’s political system is wide open to foreign interference in a variety of legitimate and illegitimate ways. I’m not talking about foreign bots infecting the national mind via social media—though that is a worrisome possibility. I’m talking about foreign governments or other interests that use a variety of familiar avenues to shape U.S. perceptions and persuade the U.S. government to do things that these outsiders want it to do, even when it might not be in America’s broader interest.

Suppose you were a foreign government, or perhaps an opposition movement challenging a foreign regime. Suppose further that you wanted to get America on your side, or maybe you just wanted to make sure that the United States didn’t use its considerable power against you. What avenues of influence are available to achieve your goal?

Obviously, you can use traditional diplomatic channels. You can tell your official representatives (ministers, ambassadors, consular officers, envoys, etc.) to meet with the relevant U.S. counterparts and plead your case. While they’re at it, your official representatives could also shmooz with other members of the executive branch and try to win them over too. There’s nothing remotely dodgy here; it’s just the usual workings of the normal diplomatic machinery. And sometimes that’s all you’ll need, especially when your interests and America’s interests really do coincide.

But you don’t have to stop there. For example, you could also take your case up to Capitol Hill. There are 435 representatives and 100 senators, and that’s an awful lot of potential points of access. Most of them don’t care a fig about foreign policy (and know even less), but some of them do care and a few of them have real clout. If you can win over a respected and well-placed representative or senator—or even just persuade one of their top aides—there’s a good chance a lot of the other lawmakers will follow their lead. Back in the 1950s, for example, Sen. William Knowland (R-Calif.) was often derided as the “Senator from Formosa” because of his consistent opposition to communist China and ardent support for Taiwan. More recently, Beltway denizen Randy Scheunemann was both a paid lobbyist for the government of Georgia and a top foreign-policy aide to the late Republican Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign, which may help explain why the latter was such an ardent defender of Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia.

On top of that, there are plenty of politicians outside Congress who might be enlisted to your cause as well. Over the past decade or more, for example, Democrats including former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Republicans such as former New York mayor (and Trump apologist) Rudy Giuliani or current National Security Advisor John Bolton have spoken at rallies sponsored by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) an Iranian exile group that was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department from 1997 to 2012. The MEK is despised within Iran for its past collaboration with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, but that didn’t prevent it from recruiting a wide array of prominent Americans to its side, many of whom received lucrative speakers’ fees. See how easy this is?

But wait, there’s more! Foreign governments, corporations, and opposition movements can also hire public relations firms and professional lobbyists to clean up their public image, lobby politicians directly, and try to get influential Americans to see them as valuable partners. In his amusing but disturbing book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship, the journalist Ken Silverstein showed how eager D.C. PR firms were to serve as the paid agents of a ruthless Central Asian dictator, along with the various ways that savvy spin doctors can scrub a despot’s reputation and get them access to influential people in Washington. The sad news is that Silverstein’s saga is far from atypical.

And don’t forget the rest of the Blob. In recent years, for example, we’ve learned that several prominent D.C. think tanks took millions of dollars from foreign governments eager to enhance their visibility, presence, and influence in Washington. The receiving organizations predictably denied that the money had the slightest influence on what they did, said, wrote, or believed, but former employees tell a different story. And yes, I know: Universities are not immune to temptation either.

The influence of self-interested foreigners increases even more when they can partner with domestic groups that share their objectives, and that will use their testimony to sell whatever course of action they are trying to promote. The most notorious recent example of this phenomenon was the infamous Iraqi schemer Ahmed Chalabi, who joined forces with American neoconservatives to help sell the Iraq War in 2003. Foreign voices like Chalabi’s often exercise disproportionate influence because they are (falsely) perceived as objective experts with extensive local knowledge, making uninformed, gullible, or mendacious Americans more likely to heed their advice. It is usually a good idea to listen to what foreign witnesses have to say about conditions far away provided that one never forgets that they may be telling Americans what they think they want to hear or feeding Americans false information designed to advance their interests at America’s expense.

Notice I haven’t said a word about espionage, bribery, or more ordinary forms of corruption, though each can be another way for foreign powers to advance their aims inside America’s borders. After all, when the U.S. president continues to defy the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and when his son-in-law and White House advisor is still financially connected to a real estate firm that recently got bailed out by a Qatari-backed investment company, one may legitimately wonder whether key foreign-policy decisions are being influenced by the personal financial interests of the president or his entourage. Trademarks in China, anyone?

Last but by no means least, foreign governments (or in some cases opposition groups) can also benefit from support by Americans with a strong attachment to the countries in question. Ethnic lobbying by Greek Americans, Polish Americans, Irish Americans, Indian Americans, Jewish Americans, and other ethnic groups has been part of the U.S. political scene for more than a century, and foreign governments understand that such groups can be a valuable asset. As an official Indian government commission noted back in 2002, Indian Americans “have effectively mobilised on issues ranging from the nuclear test in 1999 to Kargil … and lobbied effectively on other issues of concern to the Indian community. … The Indian community in the United States constitutes an invaluable asset in strengthening India’s relationship with the world’s only superpower.”

To be clear: Americans holding strong attachments to a foreign country are free to express their views and try to influence what the government does, regardless of whether their particular attachment is based on ethnicity, ideology, family connections, or personal experience (such as tourism, a Peace Corps stint, or whatever). That’s how our system of interest group politics works. Nonetheless, India and other countries have also recognized that Americans with powerful connections are a potent source of political influence, and it would be naive to expect them not to take advantage of it.

This issue is not one-sided, of course. The permeability of the U.S. political system allows more sources of information to penetrate U.S. politics and undoubtedly contributes to a broader understanding of complicated international problems in some cases. U.S. foreign policy would be even less effective if Americans tried to wall the country off—sorry, Donald!—or if they foolishly tried to bar politicians from talking to people from other parts of the world. So my warnings are not a recommendation for a head-in-the-sand approach to the outside world.

Rather, it is an argument for a more hardheaded, cynical, and realistic approach to the influence that foreigners invariably seek to exercise over U.S. foreign policy. As long as the U.S. political system is so permeable, it behooves Americans to treat foreign efforts to shape their thinking with due discretion. It also requires preserving a sophisticated and independent analytic capacity of their own, so that they can distinguish when they are gaining useful information and when they are being conned. Americans should always be willing to exchange ideas with others—including their adversaries, by the way—but let’s try not to be foolish about it. Foreign policy is not a philanthropic activity, and even close allies think first and foremost about self-interest, which sometimes means trying to bamboozle the United States into doing what they want, even at some cost to Americans. If the United States is spending all this money securing the borders, leaving the national mind unlocked and ripe for manipulation is a tad short-sighted.

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

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