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Defend America’s democracy from foreign threats
America’s bitter political divisions are a gift to its global adversaries and competitors
America’s foreign policy debate quite often can’t see the forest through the trees. The country’s extreme attention deficit disorder pulls the debate from tree to tree to tree – the Gaza conflict one month, U.S.-Europe relations the next, Afghanistan the month after that.
The Russia crisis was the main tree this week, and America’s political commentary industrial complex got itself wrapped around one branch of that tree: President Biden’s gaffe that sounded to the ears of some like he was greenlighting another Russian invasion of Ukraine, a statement that the Biden team spent the next day trying to clean up and clarify. Unforced verbal slip ups in the middle of tense geopolitical showdowns are never a good thing.
Words matter, but actions most definitely speak louder than words – just ask the women of Afghanistan or refugees from Syria what they think of the summit for democracy last month. What matters is what happens on the ground in Ukraine and how America and Europe respond.
Global political information warfare
Take a step back from this particular crisis with Russia. No doubt it’s an important tree because if it falls and lands in the wrong direction, it does a lot of damage to the world.
That step back to look at the wider forest of the international system reveals a broader trend: a structural advantage that dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping have over open, democratic societies in political information warfare, a war that’s happening day-in, day-out, 24 hours nonstop on your computer screen or the smart phone in your hand.
These authoritarian governments aggressively use “sharp power,” efforts to manage information in the media and educational systems of open societies like America to exploit existing divisions. The aim of sowing divisions and deepening pre-existing splits is to confuse Americans and make them lack confidence in their own system. The main impact is to induce policy paralysis in the U.S. government and other democracies around the world, in part to give themselves wider room to maneuver in the international system. One additional effect is that they divert negative attention away from themselves through aggressive political information tactics.
These autocratic regimes exploit an asymmetry that exists between systems that have political freedoms and those that don’t – they work to distort political debates in democracies while at the same time stifling dissent from within and blocking support for freedom from abroad.
Elections: prime time for autocrats to exploit democracies’ divisions
Global political information warfare has existed for years, but it moved more directly into the spotlight during the past decade, with foreign interference playing an important role in America’s 2016 elections and the debate about the outcome of those elections that continues until this day.
The U.S. intelligence community released a public report last spring on foreign threats to the 2020 elections that offered some key insights:
1. There’s no evidence that foreign actors tried to alter any technical aspect of the voting process. The report highlights that it would be hard for a foreign actor to impact voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, or reporting the results without detection, for a variety of reasons. (One thing the report doesn’t mention: there are plenty of efforts to impact the voting systems coming from different directions from within America, as the debate over voting rights the past few weeks has shown.)
2. Russia actively opposed Biden and backed Trump. Russia used an extensive network of state and proxy actors to directly impact U.S. public perceptions and push negative, misleading, and unsubstantiated narratives about Joe Biden and support Donald Trump.
3. Iran actively opposed Trump and sought to sow public confusion and discord about the legitimacy of America’s elections. Interestingly, the report places Iran ahead of China in efforts to actively undermine confidence in the elections and cites specific actions by Iranian cyber actors posing as Proud Boys sending threatening, spoofed emails to Democratic voters telling them to change their party affiliations and vote for Trump.
4. China mostly stood on the sidelines in the elections. With high confidence, the report assesses that China didn’t deploy influence operations because it felt like the election’s outcome wasn’t worth the risk. But it does mention that the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber concluded that China took some cyber steps to try and undermine Trump’s reelection.
5. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Cuba, Venezuela, and Turkish hackivists got in on the influence operations act. The report notes some smaller scale efforts by other foreign actors that weren’t as significant as what Russia and others did.
The key takeaway here is that a range of foreign actors sought to shape the broader information landscape in America during the elections – an important point to keep in mind with the 2022 midterm election and 2024 presidential election on the horizon.
Foreign disinformation campaigns contribute to truth decay in America
Elections are prime time for foreign influence operations, but these efforts are always happening – including during pivotal moments such as the current Ukraine crisis or ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.
Foreign actors are conducting aggressive information warfare every day. These operations become intermeshed within America’s own political divides, left versus right, but also the internal divisions within both parties. America truly needs little help in sowing more divisions in its politics, but when you see the bitter rancor and language that its political leaders use against each other, it’s useful to keep in mind just how much America’s competitors and adversaries benefit from those divides.
On many major public policy questions, several foreign actors look to shape the debate. This includes the continued COVID-19 vaccine skepticism among some Americans as the pandemic moves into its third year and the megadeath mark in America’s official count rapidly approaches. Foreign actors like Russia and China actively push disinformation in part to advance their own inferior vaccines around the world but also to deflect attention from their own mishandling of the pandemic.
And this information warfare is only going to get more complicated in the coming years. Countries like China are actively pursuing massive data collection efforts that will serve as ammunition in future political warfare campaigns. These efforts will further accelerate what the RAND Corporation calls “Truth Decay,” the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American life.
America’s technocratic moves against “sharp power” stumble out of the gate
One startling aspect about America’s response to all of these dynamics is how slow its institutions have been to respond. Unlike the reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which prompted a swift and initially unified response that produced new institutions like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center, the response to foreign political interference has been slow and bumbling.
This is in part due to the nature of political information warfare from abroad – it is designed to confuse and divide America. Here we are six years after the foreign interference in the 2016 elections, and there’s no unified, coordinated response to this political information warfare. There have been a handful of law enforcement actions but it’s hard to point to a major victory for America in this global political information war.
Earlier this month, the director of national intelligence Avril Haines named a new officer to oversee threats to elections. This appointment came after several delays in creating a proposed Foreign Malign Influence Center to better coordinate efforts by federal agencies to respond to foreign interference in America’s elections. The lags in setting up a new center are mostly tied to bigger questions related to how to better coordinate some of the efforts already underway at different agencies such as the U.S. Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and where a new center might fit into the broader organizational chart and how it is funded.
There’s no shortage of concrete ideas about how democracies like America can respond to this aggressive political warfare efforts of autocrats – a 2020 report by the Alliance for Security Democracy initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund, a product of a task force co-chaired by Haines before she became the U.S. intelligence chief, is chock-full of recommendations from transparency requirements for online platforms to restrictions on foreign company political activity.
In the current standoff with Russia, some of America’s allies such as Lithuania have raised the prospect of more coordination on the disinformation front with the United States and European countries. Some countries like Estonia have recently launched efforts in this realm, and Sweden created a Psychological Defense Agency to fight fake news and foreign interference. In addition, it’s not just what governments do, as Kevin Sheives recently argued in War on the Rocks, but what the private sector and civil society need to do as well. All of these ideas are a good step in the right direction, but ultimately will be incomplete without a broader move towards healthier politics here at home.
Hold up the mirror, America
Just as the problem of domestic violent extremism has no simple legal or technocratic fix, the challenge of countering malign foreign influence needs to involve a new type of politics that builds coalitions and advances an inclusive nationalism – a liberal patriotism that is open-minded and built on the ideals that continue to attract millions from around the world to America.
Such an effort won’t produce results in 2022 or 2024 – the current political and media environment, with all of the financial and reputational incentive structures in place, all point to more division and fragmentation, even as more ordinary Americans grow exhausted. As John Halpin recently argued, there are few signs that the ideologues and politicians in both parties with divisive politics are going to act like decent people anytime soon.
But normal Americans can start to end this toxic downslide in American politics by stepping away from the addiction of outrage and identity politics and looking for leaders and voices that want to build coalitions, rather than fragment them.
When you hear politicians make what sound like inapt or distorted references to America’s own history in today’s political debates, raise questions about them and ask what that approach might mean for producing tangible outcomes. Will it build support to make life better for Americans and improve the health of our overall political system?
For those interested in making America’s foreign policy more effective by building greater unity at home, they should look with a discerning eye about the limitless flood of information about what’s happening in the world. It’s important for those opinion formers on foreign policy to do their best job to offer a clinical assessment driven by a comprehensive analysis and a substantive exchange of views on complicated policy questions, rather than falling into the allure of advocacy-driven sloganeering. The overall quality of foreign policy debates has declined in years, mirroring the broader slide in America’s media and politics.
While looking at the trees and the forest as the Russias of the world work to reshape the international system, America needs to look inwards and think about what it can do to move away from its own destructive politics at home. There’s a long road ahead.