Friday, 8 November 2019

Far From the Meddling Crowd

Foreign interference in domestic politics is as old as politics. Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War makes that clear. Over the long era from the early Middle Ages to the end of the Early Modern Period, politics was dominated by international dynastic relations in which state boundaries were often incidental. It was only with the Age of Revolutions and the emergence of the notion of a sovereign people that meddling became de trop among the leading nations, though this simply led to elite carve-ups, from the Congresss of Vienna onwards, and more indirect methods of pressure rather than an actual moratorium. At the same time, these same nations thought nothing of meddling in the affairs of "lesser" states in the old manner of peremptory demands and naked violence, and not just in the field of formal empire but in the informal empires of trade and economic exploitation.

The era of modern democracy did little to reduce meddling, though it did introduce new covers for old habits in the form of international mandates, peace-keeping and sanctions. The spectre of the inter-war Communist International fed into the Cold War belief in the West that meddling was essentially anti-democratic, which both damned Russian and later Chinese influence as subversion while excusing US and British interference as virtue. After 1989, meddling was largely privatised, with economic liberalisation doing the bulk of the work in facilitating influence, formally through notionally independent international bodies (the Washington Consensus) and informally through private business relations. What was consistent over the twentieth century, like the centuries before it, was the basic dynamic: the strong do the meddling, the weak are meddled with.

This has changed since the millennium. Now the relatively weak can equally meddle in the affairs of the relatively strong. The reasons for this are usually given as a mix of the facilities provided by the Internet and the expertise developed in managing public opinion in countries like Russia, which has allowed authoritarian states to exploit the vulnerabilities of more established democracies in a form of "asymmetric warfare" minus the shooting (give or take the occasional assassination). But we shouldn't forget the extent to which the leading democracies themselves still meddle, nor the extent to which global businesses pursue their interests through politics. Russian and Chinese paranoia about US Internet companies is not without foundation. A feature of the digital economy is that it flattens and universalises the sphere of meddling, hence Americans now worry about the influence of Facebook in the same way that non-Americans once worried about the influence of McDonalds.

This worry is articulated as a belief that commercial greed is allowing Facebook's platform to be abused by foreign states, but the reality is that those foreign actors are, like domestic lobbies, simply making intended use of a medium designed to meddle at the most granular level of society. Meddling has been both democratised and commercialised. It is no coincidence that the deregulation of American political campaign finance (the infamous Citizens United judgement) occurred at the same time as the growth of new and more intrusive media; and it is no coincidence that the titans of the new digital economy are making full use of that latitude, their data assets and their wealth to influence politics both domestically and internationally. While traditional pundits wonder which party Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg will endorse, or even seek the nomination of, those gentlemen simply pursue their own political objectives directly, bypassing democratic accountability where possible.

The probable reason why the UK government had decided to shelve the Intelligence & Security Committee report on Russian meddling in British politics is not that it uncovers corruption in the Conservative party or embarrassing security breaches, but that it reveals an establishment culture that has blithely tolerated meddling as part of "doing business". It almost certainly chronicles an increase in hostile activities over the last decade coincident with greater technical capability and weaker regulation. The political risk is that the public may wonder whether the government has been dilatory in protecting the polity, a charge that could only realistically be laid at the door of the Conservatives in this timeframe. The more curious may wonder whether the scope of the ISC's investigation should have been wider than just Russian interference in the EU referendum.

It's no secret that Washington and a variety of mostly rightwing US lobby groups have sought to exert influence on British politics, and not just to open up the NHS to private health interests. This isn't new - ironically, the foundations were laid by British intervention in 1940 against isolationist candidates in US elections - but it has become much more obvious of late. For example, we recently had the spectacle of Donald Trump phoning-in to Nigel Farage's LBC radio show to rubbish Jeremy Corbyn. This might appear small beer for a President facing impeachment for meddling in Ukraine for partisan gain, but it highlights the extent to which the covert arm-twisting of the past now takes place in full public view. This isn't a sudden change brought about by Trump's gangsterism. Obama's "back of the queue" remark in 2016 would have been unthinkable twenty years earlier.

Similarly, the state of Israel makes little attempt to disguise both its actions and its aims in pushing an anti-Labour propaganda campaign in the UK. My point here is not that it is inflaming the fears of the diaspora in order to bolster its policy in the Occupied Territories, but that it is conducting this campaign in full public view. This cannot be excused on the grounds that its interests dovetail with Labour's domestic opponents and so provide it with some common legitimacy. It is meddling in British politics and doesn't feel the need to apologise for its actions any more than Russia feels the need to apologise for its disinformatzya or the poisoning of its former citizens in exile. Likewise, India has decided that it can support para-state and diaspora campaigns against Labour in order to stymie criticism of its policy in Kashmir and elsewhere.

What all these examples have in common is the belief that a state, and often a dominant faction within the state, can pursue its interests without regard to borders, which in part explains why modern international relations are more evocative of the Borgias than Bismarck (it's worth noting in passing that the preferred genre representation of geopolitics has shifted from the relative subtlety of espionage to the zero sum of sword and sorcery, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Game of Thrones). The 2019 UK general election is likely to become a textbook study of foreign political meddling, not just because of the number and variety of meddlers, or the ambiguous attitude of the British politico-media establishment, but because it will be overwhelmingly one-sided.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment10 November 2019 at 12:33

    The Russiaphobia in the US is simply projecting the internal problems of the US outwards.

    It is also an example of blaming 'foreigners' for the problems of society, as the Nazi's did in relation to the Jews.

    The fact that the liberals are doing this beside the point.

    What the democrats are doing is blaming Russia for the election of Trump, rather than laying the blame at the feet of the Americans who actually voted for him.

    At the end of the day all sorts of ideas enter the minds of voters, usually from the Billionaire class (though with social media that may be changing) but ultimately it is the voter going into that booth to vote and frankly the buck stops with them.

    If Boris Johnson wins this election i won't be blaming Putin, I will be blaming the voters who voted for him.

    Politics can never do anything but pander to the voters, and find any excuse for their actions, so parties always have to come up with some external reason why the vote didn't go their way. This is the fundamental problem with the popularity contest that is politics.