Foreign Interference Starts at Home

The West is obsessing about how its democracies are under attack—except when it comes to all the self-inflicted damage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Until recently, if foreign-policy think tanks in Europe and the United States worked on democracy at all, they focused on promoting and supporting democracy elsewhere in the world. But in the last few years—and in particular since Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in 2016—a remarkable shift has occurred. There is an active proliferation underway of projects that seek to “defend,” “protect,” or “secure” democracy within Europe and the United States, which are increasingly seen as vulnerable. These days, every foreign-policy conference seems to have a session on the crisis of liberal democracy, usually near the outset.

Despite the foreign-policy establishment’s newfound interest in democracy within the West, the focus of nearly all of these projects is on “foreign interference” in Western democracies and on the role of digital technology—particularly social media—in undermining them. Many of the new democracy projects are about the nexus of “foreign interference” and technology—that is, the use of digital tools by authoritarian states such as China and Russia to “polarize and pervert the politics of democratic societies,” as one Washington-based think tank puts it (in a description of a project funded by, of all people, James Murdoch, who was at the center of a phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom).

In short, the foreign-policy establishment is focused almost exclusively on the external aspect of the current crisis of liberal democracy in the West. To some extent this is understandable—after all, foreign policy is what the foreign-policy establishment does. But this focus tends to externalize an internal problem and has produced a flawed and frustrating debate among foreign-policy think tanks about the crisis, which suggests that our democracies were in great shape before the Chinese and Russians and social media ruined everything. At its worst, its obsessive focus on foreign influence recalls Richard Hofstadter’s description of the “paranoid style in American politics.”

It isn’t so much that these projects are wrong in their claims about what the Chinese and Russians are doing and why—though democracy hawks are often a bit forgetful, or in denial, about the way in which the West itself developed many of the techniques that China and Russia are now adapting and updating, albeit for different purposes. (For example, they talk a lot about the offensive use of cyberwarfare by China and Russia, but never mention Stuxnet, the malware that was used to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program in 2010.) What China and Russia are currently doing can be thought of as “authoritarianism promotion,” a response to Western “democracy promotion.”

The real problem, however, is the way that democracy hawks fail to connect the dots. They ignore the complex ways in which the external and internal aspects of the crisis are related and in particular the way in which the policies that Europe and the United States have pursued in the past few decades have made our societies so vulnerable. Foreign-policy analysts talk endlessly about how China and Russia seek to exploit and exacerbate divisions in Western societies, but say almost nothing about where these divisions come from. Instead of engaging in difficult questions about the causes of the crisis, democracy hawks reduce it to a problem of “populism” supported by authoritarian states.

In particular, they have nothing to say about the way that, in the context of what Dani Rodrik has called “hyper-globalization,” democracy has been increasingly hollowed out as decision-making has shifted from elected politicians to technocratic supranational institutions—a trend that was driven by not by “populists” but by centrists. The European Union—which democracy hawks reflexively defend because they see it as one of the key elements of the “liberal international order” that authoritarian states like China and Russia are trying to destroy—is particularly problematic in this respect. Within the EU, deep integration has gone further than elsewhere in the world, and with it the development of technocratic governance. This is why many people want to “take back control.”

Supporters of globalization often point to the way it has reduced global inequality—though in doing so it also empowered the peer competitor to the United States about whom democracy hawks are now most worried: China. But at the same time, the liberal economic policies that have been followed since the 1980s have vastly increased inequality within Europe and the United States. Many analysts argue that this increase in inequality, and the rise in economic insecurity and precariousness that has accompanied it, has led to declining satisfaction with democracy and created the conditions for the rise of so-called populism.

What is described as “foreign interference”—which includes everything from the funding of “populist” parties to television channels such as RT to bots and social-media posts—is to a large extent a function of this deregulated, hyperglobalized world in which ideas—and money—flow freely. One might even say that “foreign interference” is what globalization is all about. Yet most of the foreign-policy analysts who criticize “foreign interference” have almost nothing to say about globalization and how it should be reformed. In fact, most of them uncritically defend hyperglobalization—and dismiss any attempts to dial it back it as “protectionism,” “illiberalism,” or “nationalism.” Of course, a distinction can be made between legitimate and illegitimate “foreign interference.” But few foreign-policy analysts have made an attempt to define this difference and apply it consistently.

Foreign-policy analysts also talk a lot about the way that China and Russia seek to create economic dependence through investments around the world. For example, in a paper on how China and Russia seek to “undermine democratic norms, weaken European institutions and cohesion, and capitalize on fissures in the transatlantic relationship,” Jessica Brandt and Torrey Taussig write that Chinese and Russian investments “provide European countries with much-needed financing—particularly in Greece during the sovereign debt crisis.” But they stop short of examining how disastrous eurozone policy, driven by Germany, in effect forced deficit countries like Greece to seek alternative sources of investment from outside the European Union.

As a result of this failure to make connections with other policy areas such as economic policy, much of this increasingly hawkish content emanating from foreign-policy think tanks in Europe and the United States feels inadequate—even if, like me, you are yourself hawkish about China and Russia. Although democracy hawks claim they want to “defend,” “protect,” or “secure” democracy, they do not actually seem very serious about the task. In particular, they do not seem interested in thinking about why our societies are so vulnerable to Chinese and Russian “interference.” Rather than figuring out how to make our democracies stronger, it is as if they just want to use “democracy” as a tool in the strategic competition with China and Russia.

Projects that focus on “foreign interference” often end up calling for more Western “resilience.” In particular, they focus obsessively on stopping “disinformation”—as if the current crisis could be reduced to a problem of deliberate political lying or false information rather than a clash of ideas and interests. But in a sense, “resilience”—which suggests we need to become tougher without ourselves changing—is actually the opposite of what is needed to solve the crisis. The real challenge is to think about how our democracies can be reformed and in particular how democracy can be deepened so that it becomes more responsive to the needs of citizens—particularly those who have been disadvantaged or ignored in the last few decades.

This is why Chatham House has taken a different approach than most other foreign-policy think tanks. In our project on the future of democracy in Europe, we started from the assumption that the crisis is driven primarily by internal factors—though, of course, external actors may seek to exploit the situation. In a forthcoming research paper, we examine these drivers and explore how the crisis might ultimately be solved. In particular, we explore the emergence of new “digital parties” and experiments in direct and deliberative democracy that are taking place around Europe and have the potential to deepen democracy and make it more responsive.

We do not offer any simple solutions—we show that there is little agreement about the causes of the crisis and the role of technology in it, let alone about how it can be solved. In particular, there is actually little evidence for much of what we think we know about the effect that social media is having on our democracies—and much of what is written about it reflects centrist assumptions about how democracy should function (e.g. the idea that “polarization” is a bad thing). But while it may be outside our comfort zone as foreign-policy analysts, we have to engage with these difficult questions. In other words, if we are serious about “defending,” “protecting,” or “securing” democracy, we need to go beyond foreign policy.

Hans Kundnani is a senior research fellow at Chatham House.

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