Coronavirus, Guest Column

How COVID-19 upended foreign lobbying

The COVID-19 pandemic distorted nearly every aspect of life in America, changing the way we work, play — and even dream.

The pandemic also dramatically changed the foreign lobbying industry in the U.S., as documented in a just released report, “What the COVID-19 Pandemic has Meant for Foreign Influence,” published by the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI).

First, the pandemic dramatically changed how FARA registrants work on behalf of their foreign principals. Given the necessity for social distancing and, generally, the need to avoid our fellow humans for fear of contracting or spreading the virus, in-person meetings were virtually non-existent during the pandemic.

One FARA registrant reported that he did not, “travel, or have in-person contacts with anyone representing the U.S. Government during this time.” More generally, many firms indicated “reduced activity due to COVID-19 pandemic,” as another registrant put it.

Second, what FARA registrants were seeking dramatically changed during the pandemic. Lobbying for big ticket items, like arms sales, took a back seat to lobbying for recognition of country efforts to combat the pandemic. Taiwan’s agents reported efforts to “advise of Taiwan’s international philanthropy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Cambodia’s lobbyists let it be known that, “Cambodia is dealing so well with the COVID-19 crisis.”


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Other countries wanted to highlight how they were helping the United States. Turkey’s agents, for example, spread the news to policymakers that Turkey had supplied personal protective equipment to the U.S.

On the other hand, many developing countries were lobbying to secure pandemic aid and assistance from the U.S. KRL International, for example, reported seeking “debt forgiveness, emergency assistance, addressing supply chain challenges for medications and medical supplies,” on behalf of Ghana. Similarly, Dickens and Madson reached out to “U.S. intelligence and the executive branch of the United States of America with respect to the COVID pandemic and economic assistance” on behalf of Kyrgyzstan.

As, or perhaps if, the pandemic ultimately recedes, many of these changes in the foreign influence industry may come to an end, as in-person meetings become more commonplace and the threat of a global health crisis shifts down the list of foreign powers’ priorities in the U.S.

In the meantime, much of this will continue as the foreign influence industry, much like the rest of America, slowly recovers from the fundamental changes wrought by the pandemic.