Charges by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana that South Africa interfered in United States domestic affairs have raised eyebrows among Washington diplomats. These senators were objecting to phone calls that some farm belt lawmakers received from South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha earlier this month on legislation imposing American sanctions against his nation.
Trying, unsuccesfully, to prevent the Senate from overriding President Reagan's veto of the bill, Mr. Botha threatened to take his nation's grain purchases elsewhere and block shipments to neighboring African nations.
Senator Kennedy responded: ``We should not let the bullies and thugs of Pretoria intimidate the Senate of the United States.'' Senator Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, described Botha's lobbying as a ``despicable'' attempt at ``intimidation and bribery.'' The senators' indignation may have been genuine. Diplomats, however, shared no such shock, for several reasons:
First, when one nation moves to harm another economically, the threat of economic retaliation is fairly standard behavior.
When the US imposed high tariffs on Canadian shakes and shingles last spring, Canada at once threatened to retaliate; and when the ``escape clause'' duties remained in place, Canada acted.
Second, it would have been pointless for South Africa to have gone through the normal diplomatic routine of protesting to the US State Department. South Africa's diplomats might have obtained a few clucks of sympathy, but they would not have obtained sanctions relief. In the matter of national interests, success is measured by results, not clucks.
Third, the US regularly tries to change domestic policies in other nations through diplomatic contacts or visits by prominent Washington officials. A few examples: drugs in Latin America; secret bank accounts in Switzerland or Caribbean tax haven countries; farm policy in the European Community.
Fourth, because decisionmaking is so scattered in Washington, compared with most other capitals, many diplomats try to affect legislative initiatives in Congress or in the circle around the legislature.
That's a tricky business for diplomats. It involves identifying the special interest that may be seeking the legislation or the regulation that threatens a particular nation's interests in a world that's increasingly interdependent economically. It means trying to find the right levers to pull to counter those special interests.
``There are limits,'' one diplomat notes. ``They are delicate. They are hard to ascertain, and you may get your fingers burned.''
Certainly, Mr. Botha's fingers are stinging. But South Africa is not a nation with what might be called special diplomatic privileges in Washington.
Canada, Britain, and, increasingly, Japan and West Germany do enjoy particularly close ties. Not only do they rely on diplomatic contacts to protect or promote their economic or other interests. Their ministers and lower level officials meet regularly with their Washington counterparts. Their representatives (and not just diplomats) talk frequently with legislators on Capitol Hill. They hire ex-legislators, former White House officials, or other knowledgeable and influential individuals as consultants to guide them in pressing their cases in Congress.
There are some 46,000 lawyers in Washington, most engaged in lobbying for special interests. Several thousand organizations in the city attempt to promote and protect their individual interests.
Some 20,000 aides work for Congress. One estimate has some 200,000 people in the capital trying to make the system work or not work. Legislative initiatives spring from almost anywhere in this kaleidoscopic scene. One diplomat calls this network the ``third house'' of Congress.
When it has a complaint, a foreign nation could go through diplomatic channels and protest to such international organizations as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But those methods are regarded as relatively impotent.
Thus diplomats are playing more and more in the domestic political arena. Israel often calls on domestic allies -- Jewish voters. Ireland, Greece, and a few other nations also have semi-cohesive groups of ethnic supporters in the US. But most nations do not have such an American voting lobby to help them.
But Washington ambassadors know this type of diplomacy can arouse public resentment about foreign interference in American affairs. ``It depends,'' one diplomat notes, ``upon how it is done, when it is done, and the style.''