The spies who loved us

My first reaction was: This may be the greatest gift to America by a foreign country since France gave us the Statue of Liberty. Someone still wants to spy on us! Just when we were feeling down and out, the Russians show up and tell us that it’s still worth briefcases of money to plant people in our think tanks. Subprime crisis or not, some people think we’ve still got the right stuff. Thank you, Vladimir Putin!

Upon reflection, though, it occurred to me that this is actually a good news/bad news story. The good news is that someone still wants to spy on us. The bad news is that it’s the Russians.

Look, if you had told me that we had just arrested 11 Finns who were spying on our schools, then I’d really have felt good — since Finland’s public schools always score at the top of the world education tables. If you had told me that 11 Singaporeans were arrested spying on how our government works, then I’d really have felt good — since Singapore has one of the cleanest, well-run bureaucracies in the world and pays its cabinet ministers $1 million-plus a year. If you had told me that 11 Hong Kong Chinese had been arrested studying how we regulate our financial markets, then I’d really have felt good — since that is something Hong Kong excels at. And if you had told me that 11 South Koreans were arrested studying our high-speed bandwidth penetration, then I’d really have felt good — because we’ve been lagging them for a long time.

But the Russians? Who wants to be spied on by them?

Stagnation
Were it not for oil, gas and mineral exports, Russia’s economy would be contracting even more than it has. Moscow’s most popular exports today are probably what they were under Khrushchev: vodka, Matryoshka dolls and Kalashnikov rifles. No, this whole spy story has the feel of one of those senior tennis tournaments — John McEnroe against Jimmy Connors, long after their primes — or maybe a rematch between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in their 60s. You almost want to avert your eyes.

You also want to say to Putin: Do you mean you still don’t get it?

Everything the Russians should want from us — the true source of our strength — doesn’t require a sleeper cell to penetrate. All it requires is a tourist guide to Washington, DC, which you can buy for under $10. Most of it’s in the National Archives: the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And the rest is in our culture and can be found everywhere from Silicon Valley to Route 128 near Boston. It is a commitment to individual freedom, free markets, rule of law, great research universities and a culture that celebrates immigrants and innovators.

Now if the Russians start to find all that and take it home, then we’d have to start taking them more seriously as competitors. But there is little indication of that. Indeed, as Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted in a recent essay, President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia just announced plans to build an ‘Innovation City’ in Skolkovo, outside Moscow. This ‘technopolis’ is planned as a free-enterprise zone to attract the world’s best talent.

No, everything the Russians should want from us is everything they don’t have to steal. It is also everything we should be celebrating and preserving but lately have not: open immigration, educational excellence, a culture of innovation and a financial system designed to promote creative destruction, not ‘destructive creation,’ as the economist Jagdish Bhagwati called it.

So, yes, let’s swap their spies for ours. But let’s also remember that being spied on by the Russians today is not an honour. It’s just an old habit.
The New York Times

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