Op-Ed Columnist - The Spies Who Loved Us - NYTimes.com
I was on vacation when the story broke that 11 Russians had been charged as sleeper agents planted in America by Moscow’s spy agency to gather intelligence on the United States and to recruit moles who could gain access to our top secrets. 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!
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?
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, D.C., 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.
There is just one problem, notes Aron: “Importing ideas and technology from the West has been a key element in Russia’s ‘modernizations’ since at least Peter the Great in the early 18th century. ... But Russia has tightly controlled what it imported: Machines and engineers, yes. A spirit of free inquiry, a commitment to innovation free from bureaucratic ‘guidance’ and, most important, encouragement of brave, even brash, entrepreneurs who can be confident they will own the results of their work — most certainly no. Peter and his successors sought to produce fruit without cultivating the roots. ... Only a man or woman free from fear and overseers can build a Silicon Valley. And such men and women are harder and harder to come by in Russia today. ... Disgusted and scared by the lawlessness and rampant corruption. ... Russian entrepreneurs are investing very little in their country beyond their immediate production needs.”
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 honor. It’s just an old habit. Because they are no longer our peers, except in nuclear weapons unlikely to ever be used. The countries we need to be worried about are the ones whose teachers, bureaucrats, savers, investors and innovators — not spies — are beating us in broad daylight at our own game.