Europe Needs Congress to Pay Greater Attention to Confusing State-Level Lobbying | Commentary

Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:05pm

In Europe, America is viewed as the epicenter of global politics, which is why many nations strive to build with it special rapport. They frequently hire lobbyists who waste state lawmakers’ time, talking them into actions that send misleading foreign-policy signals overseas — when it is Congress that actually answers for U.S. foreign policy. Thus, amid today’s geopolitical crises, including Syria and Ukraine, Congress must pay greater attention to state-level lobbying to ensure that America’s foreign policy is seen as inviolable.

In some cases, this lobbying oversteps legal bounds.

Recently, an Illinois federal jury convicted Gregory Turner of Chicago of breaking the law by lobbying for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in violation of sanctions against his regime.

In other cases, the lobbying is legal but opposes U.S. foreign policy, confusing America’s partners.

For Europe, a fitting example is the California Legislature’s recent passing — at lobbyists’ behest — of a resolution recognizing the separatist Nagorno Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as a sovereign nation.

The enclave lies at the heart of a longstanding frozen conflict in Europe, and is a source of tension in the South Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

When those outside America — including reform-oriented nations — see a powerful American political body taking such an action, they cannot help but be confused about U.S. foreign policy. They may not realize that America’s Constitution stipulates that Congress — not state legislatures — is responsible for foreign policy, and a state legislature’s foreign-policy stance is only for show.

Examples like these are why Europeans think foreign lobbying is spinning out of control. And while the press covers this issue, too many cases go unreported. Meanwhile, congressmen are little aware of the damage these signals bring, and how separatists use them to showcase “support” for their regimes.

In the Zimbabwe incident, Turner was convicted of conspiring to violate sanctions that Washington levied on Mugabe for human rights transgressions. Turner arranged for state legislators to visit Zimbabwe with an eye toward them “rethinking” U.S. foreign policy. He brokered the lobbying deal for $3.4 million.

If Turner had successfully convinced the legislators to go on record as wanting to give Mugabe “another chance,” his lobbying might have undermined the U.S. government’s ability to freely shape foreign policy.

Much more unsettling, however, for a native of Georgia — not the U.S. state with arguably the world’s best peaches but Europe’s agricultural giant known for its wine and 2008 war with Russia (which resulted in the loss of 20 percent of its territory) — was the California Legislature’s foreign-policy statement recognizing a separatist regime in our own backyard, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is supported by the state’s tiny Armenian-American community, introduced the resolution in September and succeeded in getting it passed. A war was waged over the region decades before, and though a ceasefire was achieved, the conflict is unresolved. Nevertheless, America supports Azerbaijan on the issue, stressing that a settlement must honor its territorial integrity.

While Gatto might defend the resolution by saying he was acting on behalf of a constituency, it conflicts with U.S. foreign policy and strikes fear in the hearts of European allies like Estonia and Georgia, whose territorial integrity is threatened. This is especially so today amid Ukraine’s dismemberment by separatists. Yet while U.S. journalists covered musingly Russia’s efforts to secure recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — two separatist regions lost by Georgia in the war — on obscure Asia-Pacific islands, on this subject they are decidedly mum.

But this legislation more than wasted California politicians’ time and resources. It sent the wrong signal to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, whose leaders have used it as propaganda, flooding their media to bolster their call for the separatist regime’s independence.

The result: greater tensions and delay in settling the conflict, increased violence and more bloodshed. All unknowingly backed by the people of California through their representatives. Why would California state legislators waste time on a non-binding resolution with no chance of reversing U.S. policy on Nagorno Karabakh?

The most salient answer is that lobbying on behalf of other countries has gone to extremes. Clearly, U.S. foreign policy is weakened in situations like the Nagorno Karabakh resolution. Congress suffers, and its own foreign-policy signals are demoted by state legislatures. Such lobbying excesses bring good neither to Washington, nor to its European partners.

Congress should thus rein in state-level lobbying that delegitimizes America’s foreign policy, confuses its allies and generates harm in a world that desperately needs leadership and stability – once the calling card of that great nation.

Giorgi Meladze is the director of the Ilia State University Center for Constitutional Studies and the executive director of the Liberty Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Tbilisi, Georgia.