By Christopher Walker, National Endowment for Democracy

On the occasion of the participation at GLOBSEC 2017 Bratislava Forum


Around the world, powerful anti-democratic forces have taken the initiative. In recent years, formidable state (and non-state actors alike) have gained momentum, seized the advantage, and sought to undermine liberal democracy.

The forces working against democracy are not limited to any single country or region but instead have multiple sources. First among these is a group of influential and ambitious authoritarian states that have organized themselves to directly contest democratic development and ideals. Regimes in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere are devoting vast resources – in the media sphere and elsewhere –  to making the world more agreeable to their interests, which favor governance systems based on monopolization of politics and state control.

Another way of looking at this is that the trendsetting authoritarian powers have made a priority of containing democracy, applying a twist to the ideas expressed in George Kennan’s “X-Article” that argued for a policy of containment to combat the spread of Soviet influence (Christopher Walker, 2015. The New Containment: Undermining Democracy. World Affairs, vol. 178, no. 1, p. 42-51).

“(…) authoritarian powers have made a priority of containing democracy, applying a twist to the ideas expressed in George Kennan’s X-Article”

To achieve their aims, these regimes are swiftly adapting, learning from one another, and sharing know-how and technology. They not only repress reform-minded voices at home but today are working hard to reshape the political operating environment beyond their borders.

Today, a new era of competition is underway between democratic and autocratic states, whose regimes have made especially dramatic inroads through massive investments in non-kinetic instruments of influence.

“China, Russia, and Iran invest billions of dollars in their own malign forms of “soft power.” The effort carried out by these regimes aims at eroding the integrity of the democratic systems of the U.S. and its allies. The autocrats invest in international media and cyberspace because they appreciate that these are the arenas in which ideas take hold and today’s political battles are fought and won.”

“In the era of globalization, authoritarian regimes have become especially adept at using state power to exploit the openness of democratic systems. By insinuating themselves into the financial, political, and media systems of the democracies, these authoritarian powers have identified an area where they have a competitive advantage” (Christopher Walker. The Hijacking of ‘Soft Power’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 2016).

Given the potent array of forces now challenging democracy, a status quo approach will not suffice. If the current trend continues, it will seriously jeopardize the international political order that the United States and its democratic allies in Europe have worked so hard to build. The new competition from antidemocratic forces requires a more serious, concerted, and long-term response.

Authoritarian Interests are Animated by Domestic Political Preferences

China and Russia pursue their own interests, of course. But we must recognize that these interests are animated by their authoritarian political preferences, which privilege state control above all else.

“Such privileging of state control is clear from the way the regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran treat their own media and civil society. In an era of globalization, ambitious regimes that are used to playing by their own corrupt and predatory rules at home are keen to reshape the international playing field.”

“A crucial case in point is the competition over the rules that govern cyberspace. Here, the autocrats are all on the same team, arguing that this realm should be controlled exclusively by governments, while seeking to exclude private business, civil society, and any other non-state participation in decision making. This approach on the international level is a natural outgrowth of the autocrats’ suppression of all independent voices and institutions at home.”

Domestic Techniques of Manipulation are Adapted for International Application

The authoritarian trendsetters have adapted their domestic techniques of censorship and repression for international application. These insidious methods increasingly jeopardize the national security of the U.S. and other democratic states.

“The Russian and Chinese authorities cannot control information space abroad in the way they do domestically. Instead, they exploit, ju-jitsu-like, the openness of democratic societies and use disinformation, trolls, and cyberattacks to muddy the waters and manipulate discourse beyond their borders.”

The leading authoritarian regimes emphasize the use of modern technology to pursue their objectives. The countries that serially violate cyber standards at home also tend to be the most troublesome for governments and business internationally. Russia, Iran, and especially China are the leaders in online manipulation and censorship within their borders.

Not coincidentally, these unaccountable autocratic governments and their surrogates regularly engage in industrial espionage and hack into official agencies abroad, resulting in billions of dollars of losses for European and American interests.

Developing an Effective Response in the New Competitive Environment

A determined effort is needed to reclaim the initiative by defending democratic institutions and norms, and safeguarding the democratic information space. Such a response should include:

Inoculating democratic societies from the malign influence of increasingly sophisticated foreign forces through efforts to educate crucial audiences. The democracies have grossly underestimated the national security threat posed by the authoritarians’ export of manipulated media, cyber subversion, and various forms of corruption, including transnational networked kleptocracy. A serious and comprehensive response to this multi-front challenge is required. It must include initiatives for education at the mass and elite levels; systemic efforts to safeguard democratic societies from the ever-adapting forms of cyber pollution and subversion; and a much clearer understanding of the threat to the democracies of modern kleptocracy, which is integrally linked to autocratic governance systems.

Affirming democratic ideals and standards as part of a dedicated effort to effectively compete with authoritarian power projection in the sphere of ideas. The leading democracies must explain their ideals and put down clear markers regarding their standards – or else others will continue to do this instead of the democracies. Autocratic regimes are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their international media infrastructure, while learning and modernizing their capacity to advance authoritarian views and interests. The democracies ignore this disparity and the challenge its presents at their peril, and must make a far more serious commitment to supporting independent journalism and modernized international broadcasting efforts that transmit independent news and information to unfree societies.