The influence of foreign money in American politics is hardly a novel concern. Indeed, the very structure of power relations in the global arena—itself dominated by US hegemony—predicts that foreign agents will look to influence the direction of American policy abroad, as Samuel Huntington observed fifteen years ago. “American politics attracts foreign money,” Huntington wrote in Foreign Affairs,
“because the decisions of its government have an impact on people and interests in every other country. The power to attract resources is thus a result of the power to expend them, and the resource inflow is aimed at affecting the direction of the resource outflow.”
And yet, very little academic attention has been directed at the problem. While Stephen Krasner may have famously decried the “organized hypocrisy” of Westphalian state sovereignty—namely, that far from the exception, government meddling in the business of other countries is the norm of international relations—everyone else seems to have taken this recognition as, well, good enough. Even so, it is surprising that so few scholars have bothered to ask how governments mobilize their most effective tool—money—to get what they want from Washington. To be sure, there are notable exceptions. The most well-known study of the effects of foreign lobbying on American policy is John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby, a book better known for the firestorm of controversy it ignited than the substance of its content. Aside from this, however, political scientists and other interested observers have had surprisingly little to say on the topic.
Ben Freeman has gone a long way towards filling that gap. In The Foreign Policy Auction: Foreign Lobbying in America, Freeman unpacks the ways in which governments from around the world attempt to use finance capital to ensure that the sausage factory on Capitol Hill churns out American foreign policy in their favor. The book is unrelentingly thorough, engaging, and sober. “There is no arch-villain here,” Freeman warns at the start, “no dark lord, no one to unmask at the end of the show. There are only politicians seeking reelection, lobbyists seeking more revenue, and foreign governments competing for influence over the most influential government the world has ever known.”
Drawing on an abundance of data that tracks the work of agents advocating the interests of outsiders inside the Beltway, Freeman details the buyers and sellers animating the auction house, and the issues that compete for congressional attention in this foreign policy marketplace. The picture he paints isn’t pretty. The buyers of American foreign policy include some of the shadier characters in world politics, and everything—from the definition to genocide and the suppression of democracy to the trade in nuclear materials—is for sale. The process of influence-purchasing is even worse, and surprisingly straightforward. Lobbyists pay visits to members of congressional to plead their case on behalf of foreign clients. Shortly thereafter—in as little as a few hours in some of the cases Freeman documents—campaign contributions are made to these same congresspeople by these same lobbyists. Those willing to pay hefty sums to the top-flight lobbying firms prowling the corridors of power in Washington tend to get what they want.
Republicans and Democrats are equally prone to influence peddling. So extensive is the bipartisan practice of trading influence for campaign reelection cash in the US Congress that Freeman doesn’t even bother listing party affiliation. Nevertheless, the names that surface are all too familiar. To take but one firm that is focused upon in the book, Freeman finds that lobbyists from DLA Piper contacted and contributed campaign cash to over 20 percent of voting members in Congress. “This is not a randomly selected group of legislators either; the list disproportionately includes the most powerful members of Congress, particularly in the foreign policy realm.” DLA Piper paid into the war chests of heavyweights like Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Mitch McConell, John Boehner and John Kerry. Interestingly, Freeman notes that “The only key party leader missing from this list is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who did not accept, or was not offered, a dime.” Over a hundred others, however, were.
What can be done about all this? Precious little, if recent efforts to amend the system are any indication. When then-Senator Obama, along with Senators Charles Schumer and Claire McCaskill sponsored the “Closing the Foreign Lobbying Loophole Act” in 2008—which would have imposed stricter oversight of foreign powers looking to purchase influence in the US Congress—the bill quickly disappeared without a trace. As Freeman relates, “the bill was read on June 6, 2008 and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, the same Committee on Foreign Relations where all but four representatives had received campaign contributions from foreign lobbyists. Not surprisingly, the bill never made it out of committee.” This, along with numerous other examples throughout the book, lead Freeman to conclude that “politicians value public welfare less than self-interested goals like reelection.”
Still, he’s not completely without hope. For one thing, not all lobbying firms are profit-seeking auctioneers willing to sell their wares to the highest bidder. Effective groups like Independent Diplomat, which often works pro bono to advance the interests of countries otherwise shutout from congressional consideration, offer an alternative model for grabbing American attention where it’s most needed around the world. For another, basic legal reforms, like those proposed in the “Closing the Foreign Lobbying Loophole” bill, would go a long way, Freeman argues, to stemming the tide of foreign influence in American foreign policy decision making. While the powers that be certainly resist these institutional changes, it’s the people that ultimately decide. “In our current hyper polarized political environment,” Freeman suggests, the need to prevent the hijacking of American policy by foreign interests “is one of the few issues upon which nearly all Americans can agree.”
Until then, however, the foreign policy auction will continue to attract agents competing for influence, and worse, the army of lobbyists who fight to ensure they get it. After all, as Freeman himself points out, lobbyists “are in the business of buying foreign policy, and business is good.”
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]