My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!
I’m always a bit suspicious of terms like ‘foreign interference’, as it’s not obvious what they mean and people are really bad at defining them. Interference often seems to mean no more than that people are trying to influence us, which is a strange thing to deem a national security issue since influencing one another is what everybody does every time they interact with anybody else. Seen that way, the only way to stop foreign interference is to shut down all contact with foreign countries (which is perhaps where coronavirus is leading us).
The NSICOP defines foreign interference as being the same as the term ‘foreign influence’ used in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, i.e. activities that are ‘detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person.’ This immediately raises my hackles, as it makes it clear that interference is indeed a synonym of influence, but does at least clear up a couple of points.
First, open efforts to influence should not be considered interference. That should immediately rule out any complaints about foreign agencies operating openly. Unfortunately, the report then ignores its own definition by including complaints about China’s Confucius Institutes, which are anything but ‘clandestine’, thus making it obvious that its definition is rather flexible, and as such a little suspect.
Second, to amount to interference, activity must be detrimental to national interests. But that raises some interesting questions. What are the national interests? And who defines them? The reality is that national interests are decidedly subjective. One person might think that China is a serious threat and that our country needs to take a hard line against it. But another might think that our interests would be best served by allying with China. The first person might say that allowing Huawei to operate here is dangerous; the second that it is a good idea. Does that mean that somebody who tries to convince you of the latter position is acting in a way ‘detrimental to the interests of Canada’ and so helping the Chinese ‘interfere’ in our affairs? Or simply that they have a different understanding of those interests? Simply put, just because a foreign country tries to influence you to change your policy in a way which is deemed by those in authority to be contrary to national interests, it doesn’t mean that it actually is harming those interests. By ‘interfering’ they could actually be helping us redefine our interests in a way that is beneficial. Who can tell?
In short, foreign interference is a slippery term best avoided. But thanks to Russiagate it has become de rigueur, to the extent that the NSICOP report claims that foreign interference and espionage are ‘the greatest threat to Canadian prosperity and national interests’. I find that rather reassuring. For if that’s our greatest worry, we must be really safe.
So who are these foreign interferers? The report identifies two: China and Russia. Actually, that’s not strictly speaking true, as there are redacted paragraphs which identify others, but since they’re redacted we don’t know who they are. And that raises the question of why they’ve been removed. Is it because the committee thinks it will harm our relations with those countries if they are publicly identified? Are they supposed allies? If that’s the case, then producing a report identifying just two countries when there are really many more is rather disingenuous.
Beyond that, most of the report focuses on China, with just a little bit about Russia, but I’ll focus here on the latter, as Russia is what this blog generally deals with.
According to the report, ‘The Russian Federation engages in foreign interference activities across Canada’s political system with the objective of influencing government decision-making and swaying public opinion’. ‘Influencing government decision-making and swaying public opinion’ – we can’t have that now, can we? Come on guys, what do you think every country with whom we have dealings is trying to do, if not influence government decision-making and public opinion? I assume that the difference is that Russia is somehow doing this in a ‘clandestine’ way, but sadly the report doesn’t tell us much about how this involves, because thereafter the section in question is almost entirely redacted.
There is one exception, though. For we are told, ‘CSIS assesses that the PRC and the Russian Federation are the primary threat actors on Canadian campuses.’ Unfortunately, after that we have yet another redacted section saying merely, ‘This paragraph was revised to remove injurious or privileged information. This paragraph describes Russian foreign interference activities on Canadian campuses.’
I’d love to know what this is talking about, and why the compilers of the report felt that they couldn’t tell us what exactly it is. Strangely, they have no compunctions about then providing a lot of detail about the allegedly malicious on-campus behaviour of the Chinese. So, what is it that the Russians are doing in universities that we can’t know about? Surely, the Russians know what they’re doing, so what security benefit is there in hiding this information? Is it that the allegations are potentially libellous? Or what? Maybe there’s something to this all, but maybe not. At any rate, as somebody who works on a campus and deals with Russia, I don’t find it entirely convincing.
A clue as to what’s involved perhaps lies in the previous paragraph which tell us the following:
Foreign interference activity seeks to influence public opinion and debate, thereby obstructing fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly, and the independence of academic institutions. In trying to influence public debate at academic institutions, foreign states may sponsor specific events to shape discuss rather than engage in free debate and dialogue.
This is another one of the situations when I feel really stupid, because I can’t for the life of me understand why seeking to influence public opinion obstructs fundamental freedoms of speech of assembly, let alone the independence of academic institutions. Nor can I fathom why sponsoring events suppresses free debate and dialogue. In fact, it seems to me to be the other way around. Frankly, this is all more than a little odd.
I’m not naïve. I realize perfectly well that Canada is a target of foreign espionage, especially from China and Russia, and that foreign powers can try to influence us in manipulative ways. But the interference talk has gotten rather out of control, in my opinion, and it seems to be founded on some rather shaky premises. Moreover, it runs a severe danger of labelling as malign things which are actually quite necessary, for instance a consideration of other countries’ perspectives when determining our own foreign policy. And when the state sees fit to warn us that certain actors are hostile, but won’t tell us why or how, while simultaneously hiding the names of other hostile parties, I don’t see why I should take its reporting desperately seriously. All I hear is, ‘Beware of Russians on campus. We can’t say why. Just trust us.’ Phooey to that, I say.