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Ruthless and Rootless

July 13, 2010

Looking at the pictures of the recent spy swap between Russia and the US caused me to think about what motivates a spy these days.

During the sixty-odd years of the Cold War, the motivation of those who passed the secrets of the West to the Soviet Union was largely ideological. Burgess, MacLean, Philby and Blunt in the UK, and the Rosenbergs in the US, acted out of a sense of commitment to a social ideal represented by Soviet Russia. Soviet missions in the West did their work though planting agents in deep cover, and through judicious use of honey traps and financial inducements.

Those who spied for the West seem to have done so for similar reasons, except that when they betrayed Soviet Russia for reasons other than blackmail, their motivation was anti-ideological rather than ideological. They were against communism rather than for capitalism. Many had been to the West and compared the luxury they found with the privations of their homeland. They defected for the same reason that brought economic migrants to the US and the wealthier parts of Europe for centuries: the desire for a “better life”.

Of course this is a massive generalization, and no doubt you could find in the archives of the KGB, CIA and MI6 learned tomes analyzing down to the last detail the motivation of every traitor who crossed the border since 1945. But I suspect that the general theory holds true.

But where do today’s spies come from? What is the Russian ideology that they might hold dear? It seems to me that since the collapse of communism there is no driving political and social ideology in Russia. The only unifying force is patriotism, which is still strong enough to enable politicians like Vladimir Putin to reestablish many of the government controls that were a way of life under the Soviet system. And, ironically, strong enough to allow George W Bush rein in personal liberties in the Land of the Free after 9/11 through the Patriot Act.

Looking at the backgrounds of the recently repatriated spies, it seems that altruism and love for country played little or no part in their willingness to spy for Russia. The deal seems to have been this. “Espionage is a career, not a vocation. In return for a pleasant lifestyle in the West and a guarantee of a state pension, carry out intelligence gathering under assumed identities. If you’re caught, we’ll do our best to swap with the spies we’re holding, and bring you home.” So Anna Chapman, the daughter of a former KGB official, swans around the world, sets up a dotcom with the aid of the Russian government, blissfully unaware that she and her colleagues have been watched over by the FBI for the past eight years. Others, including two couples whose children were born in the West, lived unexceptional lives, and carried out unspecified but apparently ineffective espionage.

In the halcyon days of the Cold War spy scandals, state secrets were perceived to be critical to the balance of power. The West and Soviet Russia saw each other as enemies in waiting, and Russia’s success in getting hold of America’s nuclear secrets in the Forties and Fifties sparked a protracted arms race, with massive consequences for both sides. In contrast, today’s East-West espionage seems a tame and inconsequential activity. The spies themselves seem to have been rootless citizens of the world familiar through experience with the Western world, far more comfortable with LinkedIn than the Lubianka.

The other night I had dinner with a friend who holds a senior position with one of the UK clearing banks. He told me about an intern from South America who was working in his team. He mentioned him as an example of a generation of rootless young professionals who feel that they owe no loyalty to any one country. Their sole focus is personal advancement. Their aim is to make as much money as possible in the country which offers the best prospect of doing so. He wondered if this guy represented a transnational elite who in the future will flit from country to country with no responsibility to anyone but themselves – the individual equivalent of the multinational corporation. The rest of us will slowly descend to helot status, tied to our countries, our declining economies and our increasingly authoritarian political systems.

You could argue that people like Roman Abramovich, Lakshmi Mittal and others of their ilk already form that elite. But they are few. As people like my friend’s intern join them, perhaps they will become many – and travelers like Anna Chapman nee Kushchenko will represent the transnational ruling class – or appear to do so.

I don’t actually believe that we will become bonded laborers any time soon, though you could say that many people in developing countries have been reduced to that status by globalization. Even in the poorest countries there is a route out of poverty, and money usually serves to ease the weight of social and political control. But I do believe that the wealthy and well connected, regardless of nationality, are fast becoming an elite which is largely immune from close political control, albeit one that still accepts new members. And just as football clubs promoted to the top leagues find it hard to become permanent fixtures, so people who join the economic elite find it hard to stay there. Political and economic volatility see to that, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch crushed (as he claims) by the Russian state, would testify.

It’s also untrue to think of the world as ideology-free. In 2010, the West wakes in the middle of the night on a cold sweat not about international Marxist Leninism, but about Islamism, another transnational ideology far harder to confront than the monolithic and very physical threat of Soviet Russia, in that it has no borders, no state apparatus and an ephemeral organization. Yet the same secrets that the former protagonists worked so hard to protect – nuclear technology and delivery systems – are still the target of every would-be nuclear state, and many believe that it’s only a matter of time before an Al-Qaeda inspired group acquires a nuke in a backpack.

Which is why Anna Chapman and her colleagues are a sideshow. The real challenge for Russia and America is preventing technology that has already leaked beyond their borders from blowing up in their faces.

Meanwhile the transnational elite get more rootless and ruthless, and the rest of us find our privacy and liberties steadily eroded in the name of the War on Terror.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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