Regulating Foreign Influence: Some Starting Points

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.

Public Diplomacies and the Pathologies of Liberal Statecraft

Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe has offered some suggestions about what the EU can do in response to the cycles of protest and repression in Belarus and Russia, she calls for a public diplomacy response: broadcasting, internet freedom, student exchanges and preparing for the day after Putin and Lukashenko by supporting opposition movements.

Seems reasonable but it also seems to reflect the basic patterns of Western statecraft over the past 25 years: make some tactical responses and wait for history to do its job.  The problem is that is precisely what has produced situations like Syria or Libya.  It’s like the plan of the underpants gnomes: phase 1: steal underpants  phase 3: huge profits while  phase 2 is a blank.

It also reflects an older realist critique of liberal statecraft and its displacement of politics. Reinhart Koselleck makes the point that enlightenment political thought shifted the moral and political burden of revolution onto History ie revolutionaries don’t kill people, History does.  Max Weber’s demand for an ‘ethic of responsibility’ is for politicians to deal with the consequences of their choices and not to retreat behind empty formulae or abstract categories.

In confronting the situations in Russian and Belarus the position is effectively we support regime change and we’ll take some steps that possibly push things in a regime change direction but we don’t want to take responsibility for this. What we don’t want to do is to think through possible consequences, for instance Russia deciding to ‘help’ in Belarus, or to recognize that not all values are consistent with each other and that choices need to be made about which should be prioritized.  It is this refusal to recognize, let alone fill, the space between the present and History that creates the impasse of Western statecraft.

More on the Closing Space Problem

I’ve written before about the ‘closing space problem’ where NGOs are faced by restrictive legislation on their operations and especially constraints on foreign funding. There’s an interesting addition to this literature by Jonas Wolff and Annika Elena Poppe which is worth the attention of public diplomacy researchers. They point out that much comment from Northern NGOs and governments tends to assume an unfettered right of freedom of association and an unlimited right to receive foreign funding. In contrast Southern governments tend to call on the norms of sovereignty as the basis for imposing restrictions. While the advocacy literature tends to see these claims as window dressing for political repression they argue that this should be seen as contest over norms: not least because Northern states impose restrictions on foreign funding of political parties. They also argue that donor states ought to take a more nuanced view on the issue, for instance distinguishing between restrictions on foreign funding and broader restrictions on civil society.

I think that this is an interesting issue for students of public diplomacy because the whole normative basis of the practice is rarely explicitly addressed. On one side there is a whole practice of state to state agreements where there is approval given to public diplomacy activities but there is also a strand of Western statecraft that would take the refusal to allow public diplomacy access as invitation to undertake it – based on human rights norms or a broader liberal political theory.

Jonas Wolff and Annika Elna Poppe, From Closing Space to Contested Spaces: Reassessing Current Conflicts over International Civil Society Support (Frankfurt: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2015)


(Not) The Freedom House Guide to Policy Advocacy

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the place of civil society in public diplomacy and International Relations. One of the things that is interesting is the way that the use of the term gets narrowed down to mean ‘liberal, cosmopolitan, pro-Western elites’ and forgets that the religious extremists protesting outside the embassy or the guy sitting in his mother’s basement and inciting nationalist hatred on the internet are part of civil society too. The result is that civil society in the first sense is less popular and less influential than it appears when you put it in the context of civil society as a whole.  This has been a recurring problem in public diplomacy programmes over the last decade.

This was the frame of mind that I encountered a new article in The National Interest Power to the People: Taking Diplomacy to the Streets, written by Mark Lagon (the president of Freedom House) and Sarah Grebowski it demands ‘societal diplomacy’ that is a

” more nimble, realistic foreign-policy strategy requires diplomacy with civil society. At best, it will contribute constructively to political change brought about by domestic actors, serving more liberal rule and U.S. interests.”

I read it with some scepticism but then I realized that it offered a practically perfect guide to how to write a policy advocacy piece – so here’s what I learned.

1. DO make it clear that you policy is completely new and has nothing to do with any policy that has ever been tried before. This is much easier than having to explain the difference from public diplomacy, democracy support, human rights work or any other sort of contemporary diplomatic practice. This has the added advantage of ensuring that you don’t have to respond to any criticisms of these previous policies and strategies.

2. DON’T hide any of the massive advantages your new policy has

“can catalyze change at a minute fraction of the cost the United States pays to maintain its military dominance. It also aligns with U.S. values, since aiding civil society is a way for the United States to bolster universal human rights and cultivate democratic aspirations….restore America’s reputation as a force for good. Above all, it can serve a dynamic understanding of U.S. interests by anticipating and, where possible, influencing shifts in countries’ leadership…gain flexibility in responding to unpredictable outcomes…the United States can position itself on the “right side of history,”….societal diplomacy would have positive ramifications for the United States’ legitimacy as a global leader”….”the United States can chip away at the false idea that its goal is to spread democracy by force—and the well-founded suspicion that its support for democratization is self-servingly selective in practice.”

3. DO ignore or minimize any downside to your new policy (this particularly applies if you choose the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as priority targets) but don’t completely ignore them as they can be easily overcome – if the Saudi government is unhappy: “the United States should exercise leverage over the regime”

4. DO assume that the targets of your new policy won’t expel your diplomats or act in a way that can damage US interests.

5. DON’T waste space on practicalities like the kind of resources needed to execute this strate

Keep those rules in mind and policy innovation will be no problem!

The Closing Space Problem and Democracy Support

The Carnegie Endowment has put out an interesting report by Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher that looks at the phenomenon of the ‘closing space’ for international democracy and human right support.  The core argument is that more and more governments (and not just the usual authoritarian suspects) are enacting legal constraints on the operation of civil society groups and their ability to receive support from abroad in the form of money, training or other support.  They argue that this is not an isolated or temporary phenomenon and stems from recipient governments gaining a better understanding of what democracy support is and what it appears (to them at least) it can do.

The report looks at the impact of this ‘pushback’ and what donor countries have done about this and what they can do about it.  Part of the problem is that democracy support practices have developed piecemeal and that the sector is fragmented across different governments, different agencies within governments and non-governmental organizations and then across countries.  This works against coordinated responses to host governments clamping down and learning across the sector.  The authors make the point that they think that the people doing the learning are authoritarian governments – if one can force donors to back off from pro-democracy activities others will take similar actions.  Also if donors don’t take the same view on what democracy support is for and what is acceptable then there is a lack of mutual support.

One of the strengths of this paper is that it recognizes the tensions between sovereignty and democracy support efforts, it also appreciates that typical liberal strategies of depoliticisation may not always work; for instance offering help with building the capability of political parties may not help if on one side you have a well entrenched incumbent versus poorly resourced challengers.

This is obviously a policy oriented report and it points towards the need to resolve some more fundamental theoretical and conceptual issues.

Firstly, to what extent is it acceptable to restrict foreign support for NGO and similar organizations?  Given that most (all?) countries have limits on foreign political contributions or media ownership because of concerns about the impact on the political process a straight libertarian answer will lack credibility.

Secondly, is it possible for donor countries/agencies to reach a consensus on aims and means in democracy support work that would make it easier for them to work together and develop a coordinated response to the ‘closing space’ problem?

More Western Soft War Aimed at China

At the Jamestown Foundation Nicholas Dynon of the Line 21 Project has a nice short piece on Chinese perceptions of Western ideological ‘soft war’.  In the Chinese perspective the West is engaged is a project that aims at ideological dominance.  This is simply a new case of  the ‘peaceful coexistence’ strategy that dates back to the time of John Foster Dulles.  This requires a dual response: ideological vigilance at home and the effort to ideologically shape the international order.

Dynon points to the work of Zhao Jin of Tsinghua University

in which “morality” and “justification” become the basis for a state’s relative power. In this sense, we see a link between moral authority and soft power: the more widespread the acceptance of a state’s moral authority within the international system, the greater its soft power. The logic of commanding the international moral high ground within a soft war era thus requires that a state achieve moral authority among a more dominant collection of states than do its competitors.

In reading this piece I’m struck by two things:

Firstly, how much this echoes the latter days of the Soviet Union when the KGB devoted huge amounts of effort to hunting down ‘ideological subversion’ , by coincidence last week War on the Rocks posted a link to a transcript of a 1969 meeting between the KGB and the Stasi devoted to just this issue – from their point of view any act of dissidence is evidence of Western interference.

Secondly, Zhao Jin makes a good point but what is the claim to moral leadership that China can make?  Essentially it’s a defence of a Westphalian state centred order, reinforced with a Herderian claim that we ought to have lots of different nations to bring out the diversity of the human spirit.  I think state-based orders are good but all state based orders have also had some kind of ideological or cultural content that doesn’t remain with state boundaries or within state approved cultural relations channels; that true whether that’s black market Levi’s during the Cold War or jihadi videos today.  Certainly I think that there are lots of people who will support the state sovereignty argument against western ideological exports but the problem is that the Herderian argument for diversity may work in theory but in practice nationalism isn’t that cuddly.  It can work to bind people and state but at the cost of alienating the neighbours.  We’re also more relaxed about small state nationalism than big state nationalism.

China is much more dynamic than the Soviet Union was but if it’s going to compete ideologically it needs something that is more universal that nationalism.

Russian Media in the Post Soviet Space

There’s a minor excitement today after the refusal of the Russian government to grant a visa to David Satter of RFE/RL.  I’ve no idea if there’s a connection but Satter authored a report published last week by the Center for International Media Assistance on The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics

This looks at the impact of Russian media in most of the states on the periphery of Russia.  Satter argues that in most of these countries even including the Baltics Russian media continues to play an outsize role and is frequently used to exert pressure on recalcitrant leaders or to support cooperative ones.  More broadly the popularity of Russian media affects local perceptions of the world. In some countries Russian media seems more reliable than local media outlets that are dominated by authoritarian leaders.

Satter doesn’t think that this is a good thing but apart from a couple of paragraphs in the summary of the report he doesn’t have much in the way of policy suggestions.

Apart from the propensity of Russian operators to make life difficult for those that oppose them there are structural issues at work.  Many people in the post Soviet space speak Russian even if they’re not members of the Russian diaspora and in a situation where an adjacent big country and a small country share a language you would expect the big country’s media to attract a large share of attention because it’s likely to have better programming.  This is basic media economics.   Interestingly Satter points to cases where Western channels have cut deals that appear to give Russian channels a monopoly on their programming in the former Soviet space.  One response would be  Western controlled Russian language entertainment channels but I don’t see that any governments are going to put their hands in the their pockets for that the moment particularly when we can assume that Russia will do its best to keep these channels off terrestrial and cable systems.





Does The EU Need a More Pluralist Approach to Democracy Support

Last week the European section of the Carnegie Endowment put out a paper by Richard Youngs and Kateryna Pishchikova calling for ‘a more pluralist approach to European democracy support’ it’s quite helpful in making sense of the current state of thinking on democracy support but I have a strong sense that the prescriptions don’t follow from the analysis.

The paper starts by arguing that the EU has approached democracy support indirectly as an offshoot of its theory of integration. Essentially if you are outside the EU you want to get access to its market to get access you need to sign up to its rules, regulations and systems of governance.  If you do this you will end up with something that looks like democracy.   The problem is that particularly since the economic crisis countries outside the EU are less convinced that the EU actually has all the answers.  Further, authoritarian regimes are getting wise to the democracy support toolkit and are seeing the EU as something to be managed.

The nuts and bolts of the EU approach have been about ‘exporting rules and conditions’ in the assumption that if you accept and implement enough you are going to move governance in a positive direction.  But in both the Middle East and the former Soviet space this doesn’t seem to be doing the job.  In the former democrats can’t see what EU rules have to do with democracy.

What is to be done?  The EU needs more coherency across its own programmes and across those of its member states.  It also needs to be willing to be more directly political in its approach.

There also needs to be a broader rethinking that recognizes

  • That there are now multiple scenarios of change – I think that the point here is that the EU thinking is dominated by the Eastern European experience – and the EU needs to be able to recognize and deal with different situations.  A telling point is that the paper uses the term  ‘transition’ at several points even as cites the argument that we should stop thinking in terms of transition.
  • The EU needs better ways of dealing with the range of restrictions on civil society organizations.  Here the paper hedges its bets on one hand arguing that the EU should make its democracy activities more transparent so it is clear that they are not partisan but on the other hand considering whether they can be hidden within larger development packages.
  • The EU should do a better job at recognizing the possibility of different models of democracy  and of working with rising democratic powers such as Brazil and India.

The paper concludes

Democracy support is at a crucial juncture. It could either be reinvented or begin to lose both credibility and traction. Organizations that promote and support democracy face multiple challenges in this environment. But there are also new opportunities for organizations to seize a leadership role in rethinking crucial aspects of democracy support.

The democracy support community has known for a number of years that democracy policies cannot merely continue as before. Yet organizations tend to continue with their short-term, day-to-day business of running projects instead of seeking to coordinate a higher-level and deeper reassessment of how democracy support strategy needs to adapt to stay relevant and useful in a reshaped world order.

The conclusion complains that situation today is one of ‘abundant eclecticism’ and that we need ‘greater pluralism’

This all leaves me a bit puzzled.  I’m persuaded that the EU model isn’t working as effectively as it did in the past.  But if you’ve got ‘abundant eclecticism’ I’m not sure that ‘greater pluralism’ is the answer unless pluralism is somehow going to impose more order on the situation.   I think what’s needed is much greater degree of realism about what can be achieved.  That means focusing efforts on a smaller range of countries that are important to the EU and require a greater concentration of resources.  The chance of the EU doing agile and flexible is zero, so there’s no point pretending that it can.  If we look earlier discussions of similar activities in this sphere the record isn’t good and if states are bad at joined up statecraft the EU is worse.

German Democracy Support in Middle East

I’ve written before about the difficulties of democracy assistance programmes, so you might be interested in this piece from the International Herald Tribune, Judy Dempsey reports on the view of participants in a German scholarship programme for young people from the Middle East.

While welcoming the programme the graduates comment on who gets to participate –

The German Parliament’s scholarship has particular weaknesses. The Parliament’s administration asked the German Embassy in Cairo for help in finding participants. The embassy then contacted the foundations and other prominent nongovernmental organizations, choosing established, predictable channels rather than reaching out to different strata of society

The problem is that any programme large enough to make a difference is not going to fly because of the expense and because regional governments are not going to allow it.    As the report mentions

“Our government, for example, hates the foundations,” said Imen Nefzi, 29, who is involved in a nongovernmental organization in Tunisia. “They think we are foreign agents, that we are trying to undermine the system. It is not easy trying to build democracy even on a small level.”

Some German nonprofit organizations — like the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party — have been under constant pressure by the Egyptian authorities since 2011. Last June, its offices and property were confiscated.

Another issue was who to support

Others said that the Europeans were too selective. They supported only liberal parties while shunning the moderate Islamist movements that represent large parts of these countries’ populations

Well worth a read to get some local perspective on the democracy support activitity.


EU Aid to Egypt ‘well intentioned but ineffective’

Adding to my occasional series of posts on democracy support

The European Court of Auditors has just issued a report on the EU’s efforts to support reform in Egypt in the period since 2007 (press release), the bottom line is that programme (involving €1Bn) has been ‘ineffective’.  This programme had two main strands providing budget support to selected bits of the Egyptian state and grants to civil society organizations.

Reading between the lines the Egyptians have been taking the money and not worrying too much about the EU agenda of transparency, anti-corruption and human rights while obstructing grants to CSOs.  While there are some differences between the Mubarak, military government and current periods the continuities are more obvious.  In return the European Commission and the European External Action Service have failed to insist on conditionality and to use their leverage against the Egyptians.  My reading is that in dealing with multiple programmes applying conditionality is just too difficult, further I suspect that a calculation was at work that continuing the dialogue was more important than applying pressure.

The full report also contains a spectacularly defensive paragraph by paragraph rebuttal by the Commission and the EEAS.  Technically the report is into the management of the programmes and the response is concerned with showing that the Commission and EEAS did a good job ‘in the given circumstances’ which included ‘continuous resistance from the Egyptian side’ on some issues.  Where the Auditors point out aspects of a programme have been ineffective the response is that as the programme still has some time to run there’s still room for progress to be made even though there’s no sign of it. I particularly enjoyed the phrase that occurs at several points ‘this file has been closely monitored’.  The best though is the abbreviation of budget support to BS hence ‘future BS operations’.

In the end the report and the rebuttal are operating within a relatively narrow bureaucratic discourse and  I’m left with a bigger set of questions about these programmes.  Essentially the EU is attempting to generate change in a foreign country that doesn’t want to (or can’t) change; was there any realistic prospect for success? If this type of programme is unlikely to succeed are there alternatives? Is it possible to effectively use complex, multifaceted, technical programmes, executed through mediating organizations as an effective tool of influence – this doesn’t just apply to the EU but to large parts of contemporary statecraft.