Foreign influence or interference has become a mediatic topic. The fear and suspicion of interference in the elections and democratic process have been in news headlines. For the western countries, the suspicion bears on Russia and China. Revisionist powers have a long history of influencing, spying and spreading propaganda to extend their positions in the global world, a phenomenon that can occur even between allies. If government-led influence is associated with foreign influence, private and non-profit sector-funded influence can also be a powerful tool to shift a policy.
Moreover, the influence can be political as well as economic. In a globalized world, the economic sector faces fewer borders compared to the governments. If a political agenda is used through the private sector and particularly the non-profit one, it offers a global influence vector.
In 2014, the secretary-general of NATO and former prime minister of Denmark declared that Russia will fund and work with European environmental groups to campaign against fracking. NATO officials stated that the goal is to maintain the European dependence on Russian gas. By funding environmental groups, Russia could prevent the European countries from extracting their gas and improving their energy independence.
These accusations are not only in Europe. The investigations about the connections between Trump and Russia led to exhibiting a Russian influence behind US environmental groups. As shown by the Hill newspaper, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence has highlighted in January 2017 that: “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability”.
If these assessments are just suspicions, the fact that they are coming from different sources shows the situation must be taken seriously. The use of non-profit by a foreign government is a real possibility and threat. It seems logical that Russia does not want to promote anti-fossil energies (considering that a large part of the Russian economy is based on it), and is looking to weaken competitors.
However, Russia is not the only problem and definitely not the principal in terms of influence. The Chinese 2017 National Intelligence Law wants private citizens and companies to aid in the state’s intelligence work. David Mulroney, former Ambassador of Canada to the People’s Republic of China, stated that this law “means that any Chinese company can be required to act on behalf of the Party.” He also reported that “China is very willing to weaponize trade and investment to compel people to say what they want them to say.” This has to be linked to the polemic around Huawei. There are strong suspicions that the Chinese communication society conducts spying activities in western countries like Canada and the USA. As reported by The Globe and Mail in September 2020, Huawei wanted to target Canadian influencers (former politicians, university professors, lawyers and business people) to promote the enterprise. A different type of influence than Russia can be more insidious because it uses economic interdependence to achieve its goal.
Political influence is a more mediatic topic than economic influence. However, the second could be more impactful. Money is the sinews of war, and impacting the economy allows it to affect the political. Indeed, it is the economy that enables people to live their lives and prosper: disturbing the economy will cause trouble for their everyday lives and lead to political turmoil.
Accordingly, these threats must be taken into account critically. Of course, the international economy remains an asset, and globalization and free trade are essential for Canada. But to ensure the full potential of this system, we must protect against those who want to use it to pervert it. If the influence of countries like Russia and China is the most visible, many governments can use the same vectors to push their political and economic agenda abroad.
Alexandre Massaux is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash.