Foreign Policy Essay

Washington Needs a Plan for Pushing Back on Autocratic Advances

By Jessica Brandt
Sunday, March 28, 2021, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: One of the biggest challenges for the Biden administration will be meeting the challenges posed by China and Russia. These countries are not just competitors—many of their actions are direct threats to democratic systems around the world. Jessica Brandt of the German Marshall Fund details the threats these authoritarian states pose and how the Biden administration should respond.

Daniel Byman

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The United States and other liberal democracies are engaged in a persistent, asymmetric competition with autocracies—one that is playing out far from traditional military battlefields, in interlocking domains of politics, economics, technology and information. Authoritarian challengers seeking to preserve their grip on power at home have pursued deliberate, though at times subtle, strategies designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of liberal democracies while compensating for vulnerabilities of their own, as they endeavor to fashion a world safe for, if not converted to, their worldview.

By engaging in economic coercion and cyberattacks, funneling donations to favored political entities, and carrying out assertive information operations online, Moscow and its proxies advance Russia’s interests abroad in a manner inconsistent with liberal values. Ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Russian operatives recruited real American journalists to write for an online news journal that they created as part of a bid to target left-wing voters in the United States and Europe with content about the campaign and the coronavirus pandemic. They set up a troll farm in Ghana that aimed to influence African-American voters with divisive messages about race and policing. And multiple Russian agents were sanctioned by the U.S. treasury for efforts to influence the election, including laundering information through intermediaries and working to spur politically motivated investigations into one of the candidates. Meanwhile, Russian hackers tried to infiltrate the Biden campaign, and succeeded in penetrating some state and local government networks.

Although operating from a very different strategic position and in pursuit of different long-term goals, Beijing has adopted many of the Kremlin’s tactics and debuted several of its own, from exporting surveillance systems that undermine democratic principles while enlarging China’s power to censoring critical speech far beyond China’s borders. The coronavirus pandemic, and the economic downturn that it ushered in, have exacerbated these dynamics, emboldening Beijing to pursue an increasingly forceful information campaign abroad as it seeks to deflect criticism, increase its influence and promote its way of doing business. As part of this effort, Beijing’s diplomats have repeatedly trafficked in outlandish conspiracy theories suggesting that the virus emanated from a laboratory in Maryland, while trolling the United States on issues of race.

This is a strategic competition with far-reaching implications for international order and the balance of power between democracies and autocracies. But it also poses profound challenges closer to home. That’s because it increasingly entails direct interference in the domestic politics of democracies, including the United States. And because that interference aims to drive polarization up and trust in institutions down—and targets not only elections, but legislative and judicial processes, academic institutions, civil society groups and the free press—it may make it more difficult for the United States and many of its closest partners to govern themselves.

The United States has been slow to recognize this contest and to develop a national strategy to push back, allowing autocrats to seize the initiative by taking advantage of the openness of its systems. But it is awakening to the challenge. “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face … autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges,” President Biden argued in a speech before the Munich Security Conference in February.

Working with its partners and allies, Washington must regain the initiative, and quickly. Fortunately, there are steps the new administration can take to reset the competition on favorable terms, including several that can be implemented without an act of Congress early in Biden’s presidency. That’s important given the urgency of the task and the likelihood that legislative progress, crucial though it may be, is likely to be slow going—even as unified Democratic control opens up new possibilities to make headway.

With that in mind, the Biden administration should start by organizing itself to integrate technology considerations into policy deliberations, recognizing that technology is the most intense domain of competition today—one that underpins all others. Power and influence are being exercised in new places—from social media platforms on American smartphones to international technical standards-setting bodies that once seemed arcane—and that has challenged policy processes and bureaucratic structures. China has integrated technology objectives into its national strategy, promoting a doctrine of civil-military fusion that aims to increase connectivity between defense and commercial applications. Through initiatives like the Digital Silk Road, Beijing is heavily subsidizing the development and deployment of advanced technologies that provide it with new tools for repression and pathways to power. And it uses state control over key players in China’s technology industry to facilitate surveillance and undermine privacy. Meanwhile, the gap between Washington and Silicon Valley is growing. Arduous U.S. government procurement processes are not aligned with the speed of innovation and undermine the agility of investments in new technologies. Structured to reduce government risk, they tend to favor mature technologies, slowing the adoption of new ones and deterring innovation for national security benefits. And the government lacks a coherent structure to integrate technology policy considerations into domestic, economic, national security and foreign policy deliberations. This must change.

That is why it’s constructive that the Executive Office of the President has set in motion the establishment of a clear, integrated structure that empowers a senior official—newly appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger—to coordinate technology policy across national security departments and agencies. And it is why the establishment of an emerging technology directorate on the National Security Council should be cheered. Within the directorate, relevant staff should be jointly appointed to the Office of Science and Technology (OST) or the National Economic Council (NEC) to ensure that technology policy decisions with domestic or economic dimensions are considered holistically and to prevent technology policy discussions from becoming siloed. Relevant interagency policy committees should be regularly attended by OST and NEC staff, and the leadership of those offices should track and support technology policy work. Doing so could go a long way toward equipping the United States to compete in new arenas, from quantum computing to synthetic biology, while better managing new challenges, from information operations to genetically engineered biological threats. It will also enable the government to allocate resources to relevant priorities and take a more active role in shaping the norms and governance of emerging technologies in ways that affirm democracy, which is ultimately the competitive advantage of the United States.

In that vein, the administration should also develop a sound plan for establishing a new bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technology at the State Department to lead government efforts to develop and reinforce international norms in cyberspace, as the bipartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission recommended. The Trump administration approved the creation of the bureau during its last days in office, but did so in a controversial way that would splinter responsibility for policymaking, threatening to silo technology policy within the State Department rather than cohere it. A Government Accountability Office report found that the previous administration did not “demonstrate that it used data and evidence” to develop its proposal for the new outfit, failing to address how it would develop unified cybersecurity policies, including on digital economy issues, while placing responsibility for doing so in two distinct bureaus. These are serious failings but ones that can still be remedied, and should be, since the underlying principle—that the U.S. government needs to organize itself to lead diplomatic efforts in cyberspace—is sound. It is a principle that Congress recognized when the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act of 2018. And according to the current State Department spokesperson, it is also one that Secretary of State Antony Blinken supports. If established thoughtfully, the bureau could help coordinate cyber and technology policy across the department, and more importantly, inform and guide norm and standards-setting efforts in a significant, contested domain.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration should work to stymie autocratic kleptocrats who deploy corruption to consolidate power at home and perpetrate malign influence abroad. No longer primarily held together by communist ideology, today’s autocratic regimes buy loyalty by filling the pockets of cronies with plunder and use corruption as an instrument of national strategy. These governments and their proxies exploit the openness of democratic systems, secretly funneling money to civil society and political groups. As Josh Rudolph and Tom Morley have documented, over the past decade, Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes have channeled more than $300 million into more than 30 countries to interfere in democratic processes. Russia is alleged to have directed money to right-wing politicians in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Beijing has funded apparent straw donor schemes in Australia and New Zealand. And the largest known case of foreign money in the 2016 presidential election was an alleged clandestine effort by the United Arab Emirates to purchase influence with the Hillary Clinton campaign. This activity has accelerated dramatically in recent years, from two or three cases annually before 2014 to 15 to 30 in each year since 2016. Meanwhile, historically high levels of economic inequality within democracies have made anti-corruption issues increasingly salient among broad segments of the American public on both sides of the political spectrum.

Accordingly, the administration should launch a global anti-corruption campaign that exposes the failures and false promises of kleptocratic autocrats and closes avenues for foreign interference in our politics at home, playing offense and defense at the same time. In particular, it should initiate a broad effort within the Treasury Department to prioritize rooting out malign foreign financial influence. As Rudolph has suggested, the administration could appoint an anti-corruption counselor reporting to the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, to coordinate efforts within Treasury as well as with the rest of the U.S. government, Congress, international partners and civil society. Treasury could also publish a National Corruption Risk Assessment, focused on kleptocracies and their oligarchs, which would evaluate vulnerabilities and gauge risk. And the administration could urge U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to elevate the fight against offshore financial secrecy as a top priority at the G7 leaders’ summit this summer, which could build diplomatic momentum in other fora, including the OECD, G20, United Nations, and Summit for Democracy. These measures would enable the United States to track down graft hidden in Western financial markets and mobilize the international community to reform mechanisms that are frequently subject to abuse while implementing new standards that support “clean capitalism.”

Finally, recognizing that authoritarian interference frequently relies on deception and puts both the private sector and civil society in its crosshairs, the Biden administration should equip itself to develop a clear sense of the threat and to share information with those who are targeted. As part of that effort, the administration should move quickly to undertake a review of current authorities and determine if additional, narrowly tailored ones are required to enable the intelligence community to better understand authoritarian interference. At the same time, and as much as possible, the administration should work through bilateral relationships and multilateral institutions to share information on malign authoritarian activity in order to help democracies organize and lead collective responses to authoritarian behavior. Bringing partners along may require reassuring them—through words and deeds—that the United States has their back and will stand up for them if attacked or coerced. That should include solidarity with Australia, which is ground zero for Beijing’s influence activity. Through these measures, the administration can build resilience to authoritarian interference without compromising democratic values of openness and transparency, which—to the extent that they enable the United States to sustain a strong network of partners and alliances, substantial soft power, vital private sector and responsive political system—are themselves assets in the broader geopolitical contest.

These steps should be the starting point for the Biden administration’s efforts to put the United States on a sound competitive footing. Long-term success will require action from Congress on a range of legislative priorities, from increasing investment in research and development of strategic technologies and critical infrastructure to passing legislation to increase privacy protections for online users. It will also call for contributions from other corners of American society, including social media platforms, news outlets, and state and local officials. And it is most likely to be achieved in coordination with like-minded partners. But the current moment calls for prompt action and a clear signal from the top that the United States appreciates the nature of the contest and that it is prepared to seize the initiative—and prevail.