Look Homeward to Fight for Global Freedom
A review of Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power by William J. Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker.
The world that gathers together again in New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly is a more fragmented one than in the recent past. This meeting comes at a time of stepped-up geopolitical competition between countries like the United States, China, and Russia. In that competition, America’s autocratic rivals have accelerated their campaigns to shape and influence debate inside the United States and other democracies.
One recent example: according to researchers from Microsoft and other organizations who track cyber and information warfare actions, China deployed artificial intelligence in a sophisticated effort designed to sow discord and spread disinformation about wildfires in Hawaii this summer. This campaign promoted conspiracy theories that U.S. intelligence agencies and the military deliberately set the fires, and its goals included undermining already weakened public trust in key institutions and turning a divided U.S. public even more against itself.
These sorts of actions by a variety of foreign actors have become increasingly common in recent years. A 2021 intelligence community assessment outlined a number of foreign attempts to impact the 2020 elections. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community’s most recent annual public global threats assessment highlighted that “broader digital influence operations that many autocrats are conducting globally to try to shape how foreign publics view their regimes, create social and political upheaval in some democracies, shift policies, and sway voters’ perspectives and preferences.”
With the 2024 elections a little more than a year away, expect foreign actors to attempt to exploit America’s internal divisions to their advantage. America’s domestic partisan and ideological divisions are a big gift to America’s global adversaries and competitors, and America needs to step up its own efforts to defend its political system against these threats.
A Thoughtful Analysis on the 21st Century Autocratic Playbook to Stymie Open Societies
One useful guidebook examining these campaigns and the way they’re deployed against America and other democracies is Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, a book edited by William J. Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker. A collection of essays from a range of expert voices examining the strategies of autocratic governments to shape the intellectual, media, and political landscapes in open and democratic societies, the book offers important food for thought about the steps democracies can take to protect themselves in an uncertain geopolitical landscape.
The book hones in on “sharp power” as a central concept, in contrast to hard power (predominantly military force, but also other instruments of coercion like sanctions) and soft power (diplomacy and other mostly non-military tools of national power and the sort of informal influence that persuades one country to align with another).
Sharp power was first coined in 2017 to describe how authoritarian governments aggressively seek to influence and shape politics, the media, and educational systems in open societies in order to divide and confuse them. Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig call this form of power “sharp” because it “pieces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in targeted societies.”
In an introductory overview essay, William J. Dobson and Tarek Masoud describe a world in which autocrats view democracies not just as competitors but as existential threats. A number of these authoritarian leaders have embarked on more assertive strategies that are “now reaching across borders to prevent democracy where it does not yet exist, and to undermine it where it does.” Making matters worse, open societies have a structural disadvantage compared to autocratic ones: “This new attack on democracy takes advantage of democracy’s very openness to weaken it from within.”
The core of the book examines how autocratic governments undermine media freedom, deploy elaborate influence campaigns through movies, sports, and other forms of entertainment, undercut academic freedom through funding and pressure, and deploy “corrosive capital” to create financial incentives for more sympathetic responses to their tactics. In six separate chapters, leading thinkers name and frame the problem, while five subsequent chapters describe some recent success stories in countering sharp power tactics in places like Taiwan, Australia, and parts of Europe.
Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power is required reading for anyone interested in the broader phenomenon of sharp power and what democracies can do about it.
Issues Requiring Deeper Exploration in the Current Sharp Power Dynamics
The book covers important and complicated issues with a great deal of insight and expertise, but it could explore certain topics more deeply.
Much of the book heavily focuses on what China is doing in the world—and for good reason, given how the ruling Chinese Communist Party has rapidly adapted its global engagement strategies and learned from others. Russia makes important appearances throughout the book, too, including a fascinating chapter by Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov on the Kremlin’s efforts in Latin America. But a second volume could be written on what other non-democratic countries have been doing to shape debates in America and Europe to their advantage, including Middle East countries who have adopted more assertive tactics in recent years to win friends and influence people through a wide variety sharp power tactics that echo the ones analyzed in this book.
A second area worthy of greater attention is the role of global finance and capital flows in shaping and influencing debates in open society. Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power places a strong emphasis on the role that civil society and media can play in exposing and pushing back against influence campaigns, and it offers some suggestions about what government agencies can do. In some chapters, it looks at the financial incentives in a fragile and ever-shifting media financing landscape in democracies, one that was further battered and weakened by the 2020 pandemic. It also details the ways “corrosive capital” allows countries like Russia and China to influence the trajectory of debates about political economies around the world.
But a follow-up study could delve more deeply into the interconnected networks of global finance and capital and how those shape and influence power and politics in America and other democracies. Last year’s book by Sebastian Mallaby, The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future, offers some useful insights about how America’s venture capital community and many U.S.-based multinational corporations helped fund and transfer knowledge, financial and otherwise, in ways that facilitated communist China’s rise to global economic power. Indeed, the global threads that could be pulled on this topic would likely provide years’ worth more of academic and policy studies on this topic.
Lastly, the ways dysfunction and division within America’s politics and media incentivize foreign interference deserve further consideration. This issue remains a core theme in The Liberal Patriot—how the bitter cultural warfare inside America represents a major strategic liability that’s exploited by the country’s foreign adversaries. How to enhance the quality of the debate and the way our own political leaders and parties operate remains a long-term challenge, but one that requires a deeper conversation than usually occurs during election campaigns.
Physician, Heal Thyself: It Starts at Home
The set of essays in this edited volume conclude with a thoughtful chapter by Christopher Walker, a friend I’ve known for more than two decades. We worked together on some projects at Freedom House many years ago when the tide of global freedom was rising, not receding and under siege. In his essay, Walker argues that free societies operated with “misguided assumptions about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy” that caused America and other democracies put their guards down:
By turning a blind eye to the authoritarians’ corrupt practices, succumbing to self-censorship, of otherwise letting the authoritarians to set the terms of engagement, democracies and their key institutions ceded much ground.
The book offers many examples of best practices from around the world, but it is not a “how to” manual with precise policy and political recommendations. Rather, it points in the general direction of measures that America should consider about how to better build a national consensus to implement clear reforms—a tall order in our divided society. In a real sense, there’s a major conundrum that hangs over the effort to move discussions about “sharp power” from abstract, academic arenas to very practical ones about how to produce a modicum of partisan and ideological cooperation, if not unity, in pursuit of very tangible measures.
I reached out to Christopher Walker to talk with him about his personal views about the next steps, and he offered three main ideas. First, America’s leaders need to “operate from a starting logic of encouraging and pursuing unity among democracies. Beijing will attempt to drive wedges and wait the democracies out.” Second, he called for more efforts to leverage the competitive advantages that free societies have in both the government and non-governmental sectors, and that includes exposing the “serial secrecy that accompanies the autocrats’ engagement around the world.”
But his final thought struck me the most and relates closely to the mission of The Liberal Patriot, too—it’s about ideas. Walker said:
Authoritarians take information and ideas very seriously. So should democracies. Regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf states spend billions of dollars on this, and this is a reflection of how they prioritize. The perceptions in the Global South about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and views on China are a reflection of the long-term consistent investments made by authoritarian leadership in the information sphere. The free world will remain in a perpetual disadvantage absent the thought and material investment in this sphere.
Not quite a quarter of a century ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a debate emerged in America about how to win the battle of ideas against extremist ideologies that motivated the terrorist attacks. Many of the proposals that emerged reflected the complacency Walker identifies in his essay, and in any event were swamped by the unpopularity of actions like the Iraq war that alienated allies and deeply divided our own country.
But that was then. There’s a new battle of ideas under way now—and one of the central fronts is right here at home and what we all can to do to counter the rising tide of illiberalism driven by the sharp power strategies of dictators.