Washington has lost much of the primacy that made it a capital of life and death during the Cold War. Now the world hangs as readily on the economic numbers from Beijing, interest rates fixed in Berlin, energy policies in Brasilia, and strategic manoeuvres in Ankara. But Washington endures as a unique magnet for the world’s best and brightest. In a dizzyingly multipolar world, the capital has been reborn – with perhaps more clout in the process – as a bazaar for worldly policy minds, military tacticians, and corporate expansionists.
“Washington is a city that is full of that talent in a way that you don’t have in many other places,” says Richard Solomon, a former assistant secretary of state who heads the United States Institute of Peace. “The policy-world types who end up in this town want to show up because we have a glut of minds compared with about any city in the world.”
Nearly every entity with a global agenda has a man in Washington, somewhere on the continuum from shadowy lobbyist contract to full-fledged staff and office. There are 180 embassies maintaining US relations, plus Cuban and Iranian interest sections. With 110 countries posting defence attachés, a lunchtime stroll down the Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row can evoke an armed-forces day parade. Regional governments aspiring to be treated like countries plant flags, too: Québec, Kurdistan and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic all have Washington offices.
Beyond embassies, nearly one-quarter of Washington’s international economy (over $9bn/€7.1bn annually) derives from the presence of multilateral institutions. These international NGOs – led by the IMF, World Bank, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank – produced 58,068 jobs, nearly 7,000 at the bank’s headquarters. There are 700 area companies tied to foreign firms, 350 law firms with global practices, and 400 international associations, 35 of them committed to specific bilateral trade ties.
Washington think-tanks employ enough government veterans, policy experts and soldiers to administer a mid-sized country. The University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program identified 542 institutions in Washington and neighbouring Maryland and Virginia – over 100 more than across China. They are there partly to charm the planet’s largest foreign press corps, with 1,500 correspondents, a ten-fold increase over four decades. The intellectual ecology of Washington is so dense – and fraught with policymaking influence – that Moscow now dispatches spies whose sole mission is to attend think-tank panels and report back. Washington, says BBC America’s Matt Frei, resembles “a university with a big army attached to it”.
Most capitals have a visible point of influence depending on the issue – perhaps the president’s office to sway political strategy or the defence ministry to win a military contract. But Washington is a congeries of relatively independent power centres: the White House, the Pentagon, foreign service and permanent bureaucracy of Cabinet departments. Political life is dominated by a robust legislative branch, not always strong enough to change policy but almost always positioned to meddle with it. With 538 elected members and dozens of subcommittees able to exert formative influence over US foreign policy, Capitol Hill is an unending maze for those seeking to win friends.
Finnish embassy official Kari Mokko says among the first warnings he offers visiting dignitaries is that the important people they will meet are likely to be disconcertingly young. (The British satirical comedy In the Loop dismissed Washington’s “master race of gifted toddlers”.) “In Scandinavia, you have to be 50 or 60 to do something,” says Mokko. “One of the things that really surprised me is how open this town is, how eager people are to hear your opinions and for networking. It’s easy to get the first 15 minutes with someone. What’s difficult is to convince the person to get the second 15 minutes.”
People who have successfully navigated Washington’s channels find themselves in great demand back home. Former ambassadors to Washington serve as president of Kyrgyzstan, secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council and Nicolas Sarkozy’s top foreign-policy adviser.
On Northwest Washington’s International Drive compound the Chinese have opened a massive limestone embassy – designed by IM Pei’s firm and built with Chinese workers – filled with people poised to develop long-term relationships with American peers. “What they have done very successfully is turn their generalists or America specialists into people who know how Congress works,” Richard Solomon explains. “A young foreign-service officer who’s worked the Hill and who’s gotten to know key policymakers there becomes a major asset.”
For the tiniest countries, a Washington embassy is a valuable station not only for winning American favour and attention from international elites, but as a listening post to keep tabs on one another.
Estonia has only two embassies in the western hemisphere – in Washington and Ottawa – and Väino Reinart presides over both. “Being a small country, many countries don’t have representation in Estonia,” Reinart says. “Since we’re all here in Washington, this is a good place to work on bilateral relations with other countries.” That makes it neutral turf for major third-party battles. Kosovo uses Washington to campaign for recognition of its sovereignty, as nemesis Serbia lobbies nearby for EU inclusion.
At its most romantic, this Washington bustling with agents and operatives – or, more likely, public-affairs consultancies on costly retainers – can evoke the chiaroscuro mid-century Vienna of The Third Man. “Washington opened up a whole set of connections that I would never have had in Israel, like ambassadors of countries still formally at war with Israel,” says former peace negotiator Daniel Levy. He often now acts as tour guide for countrymen, in and out of government, who plan Washington trips knowing they are unable to travel to Damascus or Riyadh. “There are occasions where I would be taking an Israeli official around the Capitol,” Levy recalls, “and coming out of some congressman’s office you run into a Lebanese warlord.”
Meet the persuaders
From the son of Iraq’s president to the Chilean ambassador’s chef, these are the men and women posted to Washington to serve their countries’ businesses, media and diplomats.
Presenter, BBC America
After stints in Hong Kong, Singapore, and London, Frei was sent by the BBC to Washington in 2002. “Everybody wants to be here at some point,” Frei says. Three years ago Frei, 47, helped to launch BBC World News America for US cable systems, imagined as “news programme for Americans with passports”.
Diplomatic sales manager, Four Seasons Hotel
The Four Seasons in Georgetown has 222 beds and, for a few nights in April, 48 of them were filled by heads of state. The occasion? Barack Obama’s nuclear summit – a test for Boukhnif, 33, who handles diplomatic customers. Official delegations often arrive short notice. “All of a sudden, a head of state needs to meet with the president of the United States because something happened in the world,” says Moroccan-born Boukhnif.
Goverment representative, Kurdistan Regional Government
When representatives of Iraq’s Kurdistan opened their first Washington office in the early 1990s, it was a basement and they were a self-described revolutionary movement. Since Saddam Hussein’s fall, Kurdistan has had a new agenda: drawing foreign investment to the semi-autonomous, oil-rich region. Under Talabani, the 33-year-old son of Iraq’s president, Kurdistanis have spent aggressively in DC ($2.7m/€2.1m on lobbyists since 2006) to raise their profile. The message: we’re different than the rest of Iraq. “We don’t want to step on the toes of the Iraqi embassy,” says Talabani, from a mansion that’s a quasi-embassy. But now “there’s a greater air of credibility to us. We are greeted at a more semi-official level.”
Press secretary and spokesman, Finnish Embassy
Mokko was producer-presenter with his own news magazine at the Finnish Broadcasting Company. “At first, I was so naïve. I thought my job is to make Finland look good,” he says. “My job is to make Finland look interesting.” Mokko persuaded the ambassador to open his sauna to journalists and congressional staffers for a Friday-night sweat. “In Finland, there’s a tradition of big deals being done in the sauna,” says the 43-year-old. Mokko’s “Finnish Diplomatic Sauna Society” now convenes monthly.
President and CEO, Alstom US
“We had to be much closer to the policymakers,” says Gauthier, head of train maker and power generator Alstom US. He moved from Alstom’s HQ in Windsor, Connecticut to Washington. The office is an easy metro trip to the Department of Transportation, which oversees $8bn/ €6.3bn for high-speed rail.
Defence attaché, Egypt
Egypt has military staffers stationed in various capitals but Major-General Mohammed Elkeshky is the only two-star attached to an embassy. “Here is the centre of the whole world,” he says. The US-Egypt military relationship comes with historical ties, along with $1.3bn (€1bn) annually in aid that makes Elkeshky and his four-man staff major players in the Washington procurement game.
Chef to the Chilean ambassador
In 1978, Salcedo was poached from a delicatessen in Santiago to work for the Chilean ambassador to Washington. And she is still in the kitchen of the Embassy Row residence. She works for ambassador Arturo Fermandois and his family, and often cooks for events that promote the country’s produce. “Even if it’s a French recipe,” says Salcedo. “I’d like to make it with Chilean ingredients.”
When Estonia was a Soviet republic, Reinart was a physicist but when his homeland gained independence in 1991 he joined its government. “After a while it didn’t make any sense to sit in your lab and observe what was happening outside of it,” he reflects. Reinart enlisted in the young foreign ministry and has since been chief negotiator with Russia and permanent representative to the EU. The Baltic country has found much of its clout comes from hugging Washington close. Estonia has volunteered its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, even increasing its commitment. Reinart says it’s payback for Washington maintaining diplomatic ties to the republic during what it considered a Soviet occupation.
The Japanese press corp
No country is as aggressively represented in Washington as Japan, whose foreign correspondents chase scoops about US-Japan relations. “For Japan, the US is the most important country, economically and politically,” says Jiji Press bureau chief Yoshiki Kishida. Every major Japanese media outlet has a Washington presence, typically a mix of reporters from Tokyo and Americans hired locally.
Manager, World Bank AIDS Campaign Team for Africa
Lule, 58, was raised in Uganda and educated in London. She arrived at the World Bank in 2001 and now presides over all AIDS efforts on the continent, most stemming from $2bn/€1.5bn committed under the Multi-Country HIV/AIDS Programme. Her office is in a building devoted to Africa operations, even as the bank has decentralised 60 per cent of its staff to the field. “We are moving aggressively to be closer to the client,” Lule explains.
Events manager, Canadian embassy
No embassy looms as large in Washington as Canada’s megalith on Pennsylvania Avenue. Keeping the house in order is the job of Glen Bullard, 62, a Calgary native who first came to Washington as the son of a Canadian military man. Bullard started working at the embassy at age 18 in building maintenance. He is now responsible for the embassy’s hectic events calendar – 25,000 guests come annually.
Daniel Levy and Ghait al-Omari
Former Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators, respectively
Levy and al-Omari faced off at the 2001 Taba peace negotiations and left as an at-large negotiating unit, drafting their own Geneva Initiative agreement. Both decamped to the New America Foundation think-tank in 2006, both now building a US pro-peace constituency. “A solution is either going to be driven from Washington or we’re just messing around,” explains Levy.