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Regulating Foreign Influence: Some Starting Points

March 29, 2019

Public diplomacies are things ‘we’ do that affect other people.  Almost all discussions whether in academic or policy contexts are understood in these terms; other people show up in terms of ‘audiences’, ‘publics’ and ‘effects’.  Even the idea that public diplomacies should be understood in terms of ‘relations’ or ‘dialogue’ start from ‘us’ as the actor.  This opens the question of what this looks like from the ‘other’ side.

One manifestation of the flip side is ‘foreign influence’.  Or more precisely illegitimate foreign influence. The interesting thing is that discussions about foreign influence are far more heated that debates about public diplomacy, cultural relations or the state of our soft power.  It’s worth underlining how much political energy gets poured into these issues – think about questions over Russian or Chinese influence, the Turkish diaspora in Germany, the Israeli lobby in the US, or the ongoing Qatar-UAE struggle.  In a world where the range of countries who can set out to build influence is expanding these questions are likely to become more significant.

One of the reasons why these issues become so contentious is that we lack a tradition of really thinking about these questions in an abstract way; we can’t just slot cases into well worked out frameworks.  Western political thought tends to separate the domestic and the international at both analytical and normative levels thinking about these transnational issues is quite fragmentary.  This also means that our discussions tend to mix up different normative frameworks and a starting point is to recognize that there are different set of ideas at work.

I was really stimulated to think about this by a report that came out last week from the ‘Venice Commission’ the European Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe.  Their report was concerned with the extent to which states can limit the extent to which NGOs can access foreign funding.  The fundamental human rights declarations give states fairly extensive powers to regulate organizations and in the context of restrictions on NGOs in Hungary or Egypt the Venice experts were concerned with how minimize the scope of restrictions.  In reading it though I was thinking what if we were talking about getting funding for diaspora organizations from authoritarian governments would they be quite as keen on restricting state powers?

I would argue that we can see four different ways of thinking about the legitimacy or otherwise of foreign influence

The starting point is a liberal perspective.  People have rights to freedom of speech, thought, association, travel, religion etc.  Therefore any restriction is bad.  Given that these are the sticks that liberal states use to batter other kinds of states with it’s not surprising that any of the other perspectives look suspect.  From a liberal position you can argue the foreign influence question doesn’t exist.  It only exists because people insist on sorting people into foreign and non-foreign.  I suspect very few people actually embrace this position but part of the difficulty is that they don’t really think through how they deviate from it.  I can see three positions.

Polity protection:  The polity is a distinct political community that regulates its own affairs.  Therefore it needs to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens and to ensure that its institutions function in the interests of the community.  In practical terms this means restrictions on the funding of politics and on the ownership and operation of media companies.  This perspective does not require democracy but it seems that democracy requires some degree of protection.

Cultural/Identity: The second position is a set of ideas around identity and culture.  That is foreign actors threaten our culture and must be excluded/regulated.  In the current climate this is likely to be read in terms of Victor Orban or Steve Bannon but it is also has to be recognized that it is the same idea that underpins discourses of cultural imperialism, the UN Convention on Cultural Diversity and decades of European and Canadian cultural and media policy.  Foreign influence is what threatens ‘our’ culture.  Of course this leads to other arguments about what our culture is and who defines its.

Westphalian Reciprocity: This is less about any particular content but about the right to regulate through the exercise of sovereignty and treaties.  This starts from the presumption of equality and hence reciprocity.  In theory at least foreign influence activities can be managed by insisting on reciprocity.  This is may look unacceptably restrictive from a liberal perspective but normatively is quite straightforward.

These three positions tend to get mixed up in thinking about modern states but actually rest on different normative foundations and suggest different prescriptions.  Yet there is another complicating factor; in practice debates about ‘foreign influence’ happen when people are unhappy about it, positive influence isn’t framed in these terms, instead we get more “what we can learn from them”.  Any systematic development of a position based on protection of the polity, culture or on Westphalian reciprocity will be rather restrictive from a liberal perspective.  Judgements on ‘foreign influence’ tend to contain evaluations of who is a friend which will often rest on issues of cultural or ideological proximity.

Having said that liberal states have no alternative but to begin to think through these questions.  There are lessons to be learned from the practices of European neutrals in the era of the World Wars but I’ll take this up in a later post.

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