It’s well past time to push back against foreign interference
Securities are often illusions. We feel safe walking near home, and then we’re mugged. We feel healthy, and then we’re diagnosed with cancer. We’re prosperous, but then we’re laid off and left to the ravages of a challenging economy. Illusions of securities can intensify into outright delusions. Insecurities already abound, but we construct an image that allows us to ignore them until precisely the moment when our positive perception perishes.
Canada experienced an awakening from its security stupor this week when prime minister Justin Trudeau accused India and its leader Narendra Modi of assassinating Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. Nijjar, a leader of the Khalistani separatist movement that aims to build a breakaway state from India for Sikhs, had been the target of long-time harassment and intimidation from India’s government. India denied involvement, Trudeau denied India’s denial, and now both sides are tossing out diplomats while India suspends visa processing for Canadians.
Canada’s abrupt awakening was already underway though. Thanks to a series of leaks from Canadian intelligence agencies to the press, there’s been a growing public understanding that China has been broadly interfering with the country’s elections. The controversy is awkward: in many cases, Trudeau was the beneficiary of Chinese interference and won the elections under study. After resisting action, the prime minister and parliament opened a public inquiry earlier this month.
These would be extraordinary revelations in any context, but Canada’s self-stylized image of peaceful existence and international bonhomie makes the news particularly hard to swallow. Calm security has turned into frenzied insecurity, particularly for the three quarters of a million Sikhs living in Canada, the highest population proportion in the world, along with 1.7 million Chinese.
There’s a simple question at work here: who controls whom? The simplistic view is that a nation controls the affairs of its own citizens. Canadian citizens are subject to Canadian laws and due process. If India had evidence that a Canadian citizen was a terrorist, it could appeal to the Canadian government and demand extradition, and Canada’s justice system would adjudicate the request.
Simple, but wrong. Technology and globalization have tightly coupled the world, and the barriers between nations have become more porous than ever. Secure sovereignty is now much harder to defend and protect, and incursions are becoming ever more commonplace.
An extrajudicial murder is an extraordinary example of extraterritoriality, the idea that the laws of a country can apply outside of that country’s borders. India believes that Nijjar is a terrorist, and therefore, assassinating him wherever he might be is within its rights as a nation. Indian political commentators have noted a parallel between India’s killing of Nijjar with America’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which was done without the authorization of Pakistan’s government.
China has proclaimed vast extraterritoriality in the past few years. For example, laws passed by Beijing at the crushing end of Hong Kong’s democracy movement makes it illegal to promote Hong Kong independence anywhere in the world. Earlier this year, secret Chinese police stations were uncovered in the United States, United Kingdom, and yes, Canada. Chinese electoral interference and computational propaganda efforts appear to be universal across all democracies and autocracies alike. Britain just arrested a prominent anti-China parliamentary researcher, accusing him of working as a spy for Beijing.
Russia, similarly, has been on something of an extraterritorial offensive in recent years. A brutal murder believed to be ordered by Vladimir Putin in Berlin’s central Tiergarten riveted Germany back in 2021. The convicted murderer, Vadim Krasikov, is now an omnipresent name on Western-Russian prisoner swap lists. Vienna has become so enmeshed in Russian spying that one European intelligence leader called it a “veritable aircraft carrier” for Putin. Then there’s Ukraine, the greatest example of extraterritoriality the world over right now.
Europeans, Canadians and Australians (who are dealing with their own Chinese interference investigations) are coming to terms with their delusions of immunity. Autocracies have more tools and resources to undermine democratic states than ever before, ranging from sophisticated cyberattacks to plain old skullduggery. Increasingly, they seem to be using such tools with impunity.
There’s an irony here, of course, and comeuppance is certainly one appropriate perspective. The West intervened all around the world with near impunity itself the past few centuries, extracting the resources it wanted and terrorizing the people who attempted to stop it. In short, we controlled them. Now, with the rise of the rest and a global rebalancing of economic and political power, there’s a good slathering of hypocrisy when the West has the audacity to complain that foreign countries now have the wherewithal to interfere in its own affairs.
We should acknowledge that hypocrisy, but we also need to move past it. At stake isn’t just the lives of dissidents finding refuge from their homelands, but the very machinery of progress and democracy.
The first step is dispelling our illusions about security at home. Like our allies, the United States is not immune to pressure and interference from other governments. Many countries operate clandestinely on U.S. soil, all without sanction. That means rebuilding trust between citizens and our police force, and between companies and counterintelligence teams. Distrust between people and the people’s institutions is ripe for exploitation by adversaries that would like to do America harm.
Then there must be stronger and more consistent consequences for foreign interference. Governments that engage in extrajudicial murders, electoral interference or industrial espionage need to face not just legal consequences, but passionate and unified wrath. Any case of interference may perhaps benefit some citizens or candidates or parties more than others — one person’s gain is another person’s loss. But rather than seeing these actions as zero-sum, we should instead judge them as a negative-sum crisis. We all lose something when our own independent choices and constitutional protections are thwarted by malevolent actors.
The challenge then becomes what to do about democracy and economic promotion overseas. Does the improvement of civil society or human rights in authoritarian countries undermine our own claims that foreign interference is wrong?
No. Emphatically no. The twenty-first century is not a time for moral relativism, or liberal quietism in the face of bold evil. There is an objective lens to evaluate these actions, and it derives from understanding who is being freed and who is being subsumed under authority. The extrajudicial murder of dissidents, journalists and artists is wrong, because free speech is a fundamental human value. No one should be killed for what they have to say. To equate the murder of a dissident with the assassination of a terrorist like bin Laden, who organized the killing of thousands of people, is a relativity I can’t compute.
Quietism doesn’t work because the other side isn’t quiet. Authoritarian regimes are emboldened, tearing down the fabric of the liberalism that has guided the freedom and prosperity of humanity for more than two centuries now. Freedom of speech, freedom of business, freedom of association and religion — these rights and many others combine to create a life free of tyranny.
I just finished reading Waiting to be Arrested at Night, a harrowing memoir from dissident Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil. Izgil spent decades under the thumb of the Chinese state in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, plotting an escape to America over years as the central government’s dragnet against Uyghur intellectuals closed in ever tighter. He’s now an Uber driver living in Washington, DC.
The United States is still the last bastion of protection for “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as Emma Lazarus wrote for the Statue of Liberty. I am under no illusions: it can be hard to be the final destination for so many people running from economic devastation and political persecution. It requires sacrifice to protect our own while still welcoming others. But it will be a very dark day indeed when dissidents and dreamers are dissuaded that America is no longer the final rampart against evil.
“Securities” Video: Is Your Brain a National Asset?
The knowledge economy demands the brightest minds, and nations across the world are increasingly seeking out the best talent and recruiting them. But at what point do the industrial policies of countries conflict with the independence of entrepreneurs and engineers to do their work?
As a follow up to “Brainwash Departures,” our “Securities” producer Chris Gates put together a video about the challenges of managing intellectual property when national prosperity is fundamentally derived from the thoughts emanating out of the minds of citizens and visitors alike.
- Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman points to HeyGen Labs’ new creation, a translation tool that will take a video of a person speaking English, and translate it into another language with matching mouth movements. It’s dubbing, but as if the original actors were speaking the dubbed language. Finally, we know how the universal translator works on Star Trek.
- Love him or hate him, but Elon Musk and the new biography by Walter Isaacson has been everywhere the past week since publication. No one has offered a more sardonic synoptic take on the tome than satirist Gary Shteyngart in The Guardian: “Highest on the list of things Musk won’t shut up about is Mars. ‘We need to get to Mars before I die.’ ‘We got to give this a shot, or we’re stuck on earth forever.’ The messianic part of the Muskiverse is his attempt to put 140m miles between himself and his father as he tries to turn humanity into a ‘multiplanetary civilization’ even though we are having a hard enough time making it as a uniplanetary one.”
- Sam has always been a big champion of long-range human projects, and this week, The New York Times profiled one of the most ambitious. Slated for completion in the year 3,183, the Time Pyramid is “a public artwork that Wemding’s citizens are assembling at a rate of one six-by-four-foot block every decade. There are 116 more to add before [it] will be complete, when it will stand 24 feet tall.”
- Tess Van Stekelenburg points to Elliot Hershberg’s epic long profile of Illumina in Century of Bio. “I’m describing the birth of Illumina, a company that established a Measurement Monopoly in the life sciences. I mean this in the Thielian sense. Illumina invented a profound new measurement technology and paired their innovation with a business strategy that enabled them to capture enduring differential returns over time.”
- Finally, Sam recommends a “visual connection engine” called River built by Max Bittker that allows you to click and zoom into an infinite depth of generative visual imagery. Beautiful and fascinating.
That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.