The area around K Street in Washington, D.C., abounds with lobbyists, many of whom represent foreign governments or entities. Although some major foreign governments continue to work mainly through their embassies in Washington, nearly one hundred countries rely on lobbyists to protect and promote their interests. The subculture of public relations and law firms that do this kind of work reflects a steady decline and privatization of diplomacy -- with an increasing impact on how the United States conducts its own foreign policy.
The strongest lobbies promoting foreign interests are driven by cohesive ethnic population groups in the United States, such as Armenia, China, Greece, India, Israel, Taiwan, Ukraine, and, historically, Ireland. Even countries that have strong bilateral relations with the United States, such as Australia, Japan, and Norway, need lobbyists as well as embassies. Lobbyists can operate within the system in ways that experienced diplomats cannot. A lobbying group can identify with a domestic ethnic bloc even though it is paid by a foreign government. Ethnic politics can trump corporate interests and, more important, influence what agencies within the U.S. government may see as the national interest.
The United States is a nation of immigrants -- a strength that has also created vulnerabilities. Although ethnic population groups have at times offset isolationist tendencies in the United States, they also can find themselves conflicted on issues that could divide the motherland from the adopted country, the United States. In other cases, these so-called hyphenated groups unhesitatingly side with the United States and, in effect, become more royalist than the king.
Many lobbyists function as surrogates. A law firm or lobbying firm can make arrangements and put forward arguments in ways that its foreign client cannot, in part because most embassies do not operate as comfortably or effectively on Capitol Hill as can the firms. And then, the U.S. government has become so complex that only insiders, such as former members of Congress or congressional staff members turned lobbyists,