“We don’t do foreigners,” said a man behind the Republican Party headquarters counter issuing rally tickets in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Christoph Eichhorn crestfallenly put his diplomatic credentials away. Looking to escape “the Washington Beltway’s political bubble,” he would later explain, Eichhorn, then the congressional affairs counselor at the German Embassy, wanted a sneak peak of “everyday” America on the 2002 midterm-election campaign trail. President George W. Bush’s “Get Out the Vote” rally — scheduled the week before the elections in Sioux Falls that year — seemed the perfect opportunity to gauge American attitudes about the upcoming November congressional races. There was just one problem: a ticket was required and the man at the counter — apparently — didn’t believe non-Republican foreigners merited an invitation. Amused and baffled by the campaigner’s choice of words — “we don’t do foreigners” — Eichhorn fished through his pockets for the old press badge he’d formerly donned during his decade-long job as an anchor and reporter for German Public Radio. “How about German media for the Bush event?” But his second attempt also failed because “only South Dakota and Washington press are invited,” the man said. Bummer. As Eichhorn turned to go, another man with a curious gaze pulled up beside him in a pickup truck. The stranger, an American veteran, had served in Germany 20 years previously and identified Eichhorn’s German accent. Pulling him aside, he told the German man he was trying to track down an old German friend, his former dentist, with whom he sought to reconnect after decades of lost contact. “Could you help me find my old dentist?” the man asked the German diplomat. Within minutes, in a gas station adjacent to the Republican headquarters, Eichhorn found the man’s dentist on the German equivalent of the White Pages. The two men shared coffee and a brief conversation, and as it turned out, the veteran was a friend of South Dakota’s Republican governor at the time, William Janklow. “Would you happen to have or know how to get a ticket to the Get Out the Vote event?” Eichhorn asked. Three hours later, Eichhorn found a ticket awaiting him at his hotel’s reception desk — compliments of his new friend. Reflecting on the experience eight years ago — a favorite story he’s shared with many since then — Eichhorn told The Washington Diplomat that it was not his diplomatic title or press credentials that secured him admission to the campaign rally. It was his unexpected bond with a South Dakotan stranger-turned-friend who happened to have a positive life experience in Germany years ago. Eichhorn’s own experience is a reflection of the ever-changing dynamics in diplomacy at a time when so many international and national interests overlap and sometimes collide — a fact not lost on the many congressional attachés working in the city’s foreign embassies, especially as U.S. voters gear up for another congressional midterm election this month. As people increasingly move from country to country and continent to continent, Eichhorn has noticed how globalization has made even disparate parts of the world more tightly knit. And the increasing interconnectedness of people from island nations to landlocked countries in Europe or Africa has catalyzed a change in Eichhorn’s job. It’s a trend he’s noticed over his 24 years working on political negotiations, trade agreements and security treaties as a diplomat: Globalization has made the connections between diplomats and the United States (or people of any country for that matter) extend far beyond tradition foreign policy matters. International relations today permeate domestic politics and affect assembly-line workers in North Carolina, ranchers in Wyoming, lawyers in Chicago and, so it seems, even a Dakotan looking to track down an old dentist buddy. “There is something that is fascinating in the 21st century: The distinction between the traditional foreign policy matters and things which sound domestic is nil and increasingly blurred,” Eichhorn said. As minister and head of the Political Department at the German Embassy, Eichhorn follows the U.S. Congress and almost all the same domestic matters that Americans might track on a daily basis. He heads a two-person Capitol Hill team that visits members to discuss upcoming U.S. legislation in areas of interest to both Germany and the United States. “Traditionally people on the Hill would think about foreign countries and their diplomats in terms of traditional foreign policy questions: How do we keep the country safe? How do we keep NATO safe? The exchange between diplomats and Congress was more centered on security and stability,” Eichhorn said. “Now, it makes much more sense to talk about international relations in broader terms because international relations in the day and age of the Internet and globalization is everything.” The blurred boundaries of international and domestic politics make Eichmann’s job and “to-do” list rather lengthy. The congressional attaché and his fellow diplomats follow a bevy of subjects, a list that continuously balloons over time as Germany, the European Union, the United States and NATO tackle ever-growing global challenges. They talk with American lawmakers about domestic issues such as the health care debate, pharmaceutical laws, climate change and German businesses creating American jobs, in addition to the latest security threats to NATO allied forces. Eichmann often finds himself on the road to visit members of Congress in their districts or home states, or to set up business meetings between American and German entrepreneurs or university faculty and students. Given its close proximity and interdependent trading system with the United States, the Canadian Embassy also closely tracks the domestic agenda — namely issues related to immigration, security and trade, which can have a huge impact on America’s northern neighbor. Ian Burchett, Canadian minister-counselor for congressional and legal affairs, engages House and Senate members as well as their senior staffers to discuss domestic legislation that is of particular interest to Canada. He and other congressional attachés study upcoming legislation, brainstorm about the effects of bills, and listen in on hearings (which conveniently take place right down the road from the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avene). Like Eichhorn, Burchett’s agenda with Congress goes far beyond mere border and security issues, though such items are certainly on his list of talking points. “Given our bilateral trade agreements, a lot of [our discussions with Congress] have to deal with the integrated nature of our economies,” said Burchett, who’s served in the Canadian Foreign Service for more than 21 years. “We’re constantly working with Capitol Hill to discuss our trade relationship. The way in which our two countries work together is very critical and central to economic recovery.” The relationship binds the countries to one another, he added, and requires the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament to integrate their policies and ensure they’re on the same page. “We make things together,” Burchett said. “A Canadian product sometimes crosses the border many times before finally being finished and exported to other countries. Trade is an economic benefit for both of our countries. [Our team] must ensure that U.S. legislation helps facilitate this trade. We’d want nothing to inhibit the longstanding free flow of products to and from our economies.” But trade legislation is just one example of how American domestic laws touch Canada. Burchett noted that Canadian diplomats also work closely with Congress on energy and environmental issues. Canada, he pointed out, continues to be the largest supplier of oil, gas and uranium to the United States, and the two countries share key water resources, including the Great Lakes and many rivers. Thus, laws on American imports of gas and oil or the cleanliness of the shared freshwater bodies affect Canada as well, he said. The list of domestically linked international issues certainly doesn’t stop there: How can national economies prosper without hindering global trade? What about immigration? How can nations ensure cyber security and protect their databases from hackers? Is cap and trade the best way to tackle climate change? What should developed nations make of a rising China? What will happen when gas and oil supplies are finally depleted? What about nuclear concerns? How can we defeat HIV? How can lasting peace be achieved between Indians and Pakistanis, Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Turks, North and South Korea — the list is virtually endless. “Governments, administrations, the parliaments and congresses have to work on common solutions together,” Eichhorn said. “The percentage of things they can no longer legislate on their own is increasing on a daily basis. The Germans can’t solve these questions on their own, and the Americans can’t either. Issues may look domestic, but they are domestic no longer.” Perhaps that’s why Germany and Canada are hardly the only nations that assign congressional attachés to follow U.S. domestic politics. Embassies all over the world are noticing a similar blurring between foreign and domestic issues, and most therefore assign groups of diplomats to specifically follow legislatures. Another natural part of these diplomats’ mandate is to follow congressional elections and prepare for a change in power, which means American voters are not the only ones reading up on candidate positions and their potential policy implications. Eichhorn and Burchett told The Diplomat that their embassies have to re-evaluate their approaches after any given shift in power. The congressional attachés, for example, may often find Democrats more agreeable on cap-and-trade legislation, whereas some Republicans reject the idea that climate change is even an issue; strong backers of the START treaty with Russia also seem to be predominately liberal. Yet, when it comes to trade issues, Republicans are often more agreeable to diminishing tariffs and reducing barriers to free trade. “Obviously there are differences depending on who’s in power,” Eichhorn said. “It affects how realistic it is that a piece of particular legislation we support will be ratified.” Both men, however, diplomatically stressed that their countries do not prefer the power of one party over the other. “I’ve found that it’s relatively easy to engage with either party’s contacts on the Hill and get information from them and share information,” Burchett said. “They’ve both been welcoming.” Burchett said the Canadian Embassy has been researching upcoming candidates’ interests and positions on noteworthy issues. The Germans take a different approach in prepping for the election: They try to keep open lines of communication with the minority party. “During the eight years of the Bush administration, we talked with Republicans on the Hill but also the Democrats on the Hill and those who had been rotated out into lobbying or think thanks after the Clinton administration,” Eichhorn explained. “We talked to the minority knowing they might come back, and when Democrats came back with Obama, we knew a lot of them. Now, we’ve been talking to Republicans who had rotated out after Bush knowing some day — perhaps in November — they might return.” For Congress-focused diplomats like Eichhorn and Burchett, discerning and taking part in another country’s domestic affairs makes sense given the long list of problems looming over any international agenda. But Eichhorn doesn’t think all Americans appreciate their close work with Congress. He believes most voters outside the Beltway wonder why their members “waste their time” on diplomats who have “nothing to do with bringing home the bacon.” Perhaps that was the sentiment of the South Dakota Republican committee worker who said event organizers “don’t do foreigners.” “We try to be very practical when approaching congressmen,” Eichhorn said after acknowledging the challenge. “If we know one district or state is interested in, say, climate change, we don’t talk in abstract terms about climate change. Instead we’re specific. We’d say, for example, ‘We know of this university or the following 10 companies focusing on renewable energy and wind turbines. Let’s collaborate. What can we do to work together?’ Suddenly members are interested in bringing together professionals, businesses, students and universities, and the whole cascade starts.” When explained in such a way, Americans (or people of any nation) who are wary of globalization may better understand the benefits of such exchanges. And even the common fears — fear of job loss, fear of cultural clashes, fear of the unknown and unfamiliar — are diminishing given the increasing and inevitable interconnectedness of societies. Burchett, for example, cited the fact that 8 million American jobs depend on Canadian businesses and 34 U.S. states count Canada as their most frequented export market. And who’s to say that any country wouldn’t rejoice in cleaner oceans, the discovery of cheap, renewable energy sources, an end to terrorism, or a cure for AIDS and cancer? “Having your diplomats involved in domestic politics and, vice versa, having congressional members involving diplomats in their work is no longer a waste of time,” Eichhorn said. “These connections are invaluable,” Burchett agreed. “For the great breadth and depth that we cover on all these topics, we must have this ongoing dialogue between our two countries for everyone’s benefit.”
About the Author
Rachael Bade is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.