Facing Up to Authoritarian Influence-Peddling

Benner  Oliveira  Facing Up To Authoritarian Influence Peddling 685 X 420

Source: Associated Press

While the US was debating Russian hacking and leaks ahead of its elections, EU leaders met last month to discuss Moscow’s efforts to influence European liberal democracies through misinformation and propaganda. We don’t have the tools to look at this centrally,” one senior EU diplomat complained, referring to a lack of cooperation between EU intelligence services. The official is right – but in a much deeper sense.

For 25 years, open societies saw themselves as the uncontested winners and expected that the remaining autocracies, with the help of western pro-democracy actors, would be relegated to the dustbin of history. So it is with disbelief that we are facing a thrust reversal. Not only have authoritarian state capitalist regimes such as China and Russia stabilized; they use sophisticated strategies to influence the internal affairs of liberal democracies, just as domestic populist forces are weakening them. However, we currently lack the right perspective to make sense of authoritarian influence-peddling in liberal democracies. It is time to open our eyes and take decisive steps to curb it. With the populist takeover of the presidency in the US and the prospect of a Trump administration agnostic on the virtues of liberal democracy, this must become an urgent priority for all those defending and promoting open societies in the west.

First of all, let us identify the larger story behind apparently unrelated trends. Russian intelligence operations seeking to discredit the US electoral system; authoritarian state broadcasters such as Russia Today and CCTV spreading propaganda masked as journalism; Middle Eastern states buying up influence at universities and think tanks; Angola’s acquiring the commanding heights of the Portuguese economy, including the media; Russian support for populist parties spreading across Europe; Chinese signing memoranda of understanding with Australian newspapers and taking easy pickings in southern Europe’s moribund economies. These are not isolated activities. They are part of a macro-phenomenon of authoritarian influencing targeted at western democracies. This is carried out by myriad government actors, intelligence services, national champions and sovereign wealth funds as well as by wealthy, seemingly private individuals intimately connected to authoritarian regimes.

The puzzle is not why and to what end authoritarian players do this. It is rational for authoritarian states, large and small, to seek to increase their influence and to weaken the self-confidence and political resolve of liberal democracies so as to avoid concerted mobilization against them. The real question is why their efforts haven proven so successful. The standard narrative emphasizes authoritarian cunning. Yes, authoritarians are smart – but mostly in that they opportunistically exploit western permissiveness. Liberal democracies have left their key institutions unguarded against cyber breaches and failed to invest in countering authoritarian propaganda.

More important, western enablers play a crucial role in authoritarian influence-peddling. Bankers, accountants, politicians, PR consultants and lawyers have become essential service providers for authoritarian states. We can observe the capture of key professional classes that make money from brokering authoritarian states’ access and enhancing their respectability. These enablers turn into powerful lobbyists who directly affect policy decisions. Last year’s leaked UK government memo on EU-Russia sanctions, expressing concern that the City of London stood to lose business, was a conspicuous instance of this.

But the motivations of enablers go beyond personal profiteering. Mainstream politicians have welcomed authoritarians. As London’s deep pragmatism towards Russian money has shown, and David Cameron’s obsequious courting of China (or Nicolas Sarkozy’s closeness to Qatar and Gaddafi’s Libya) confirmed, they accept authoritarianism as a durable feature of the contemporary world and have adopted an amoral approach to maximizing the benefits of providing services to them.

The UK’s frantic search for post-Brexit viability will likely accelerate this. In addition, many populist politicians on the far right and far left openly admire authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and support them as a way to express hostility towards the west and its foreign policies in eastern Europe and the Middle East. President-elect Donald Trump’s infatuation with Putin on the campaign trail raises questions over whether he fits right into this pattern. With Stephen Bannon’s appointment as Mr Trump’s chief strategist and his right-wing media group Breitbart expanding to Europe, it is clear that European liberal democrats must be ready to counter any support for right-wing populists potentially coordinated or at least supported by the White House.

Open societies need a comprehensive strategy to limit and counter authoritarian influence. As a first step, we must secure their critical infrastructure: political parties and other democratic institutions all need first-rate cybersecurity protection. But some leaks and hacking will happen despite the best defenses. We must therefore nurture broader societal and political resilience against authoritarian propaganda and kompromat leaks in order not to be caught unprepared when these happen.

Second, countering authoritarian influence means raising the costs for western enablers who currently have little to fear from the court of public opinion. Leveraging public knowledge through better data, transparency and advocacy is crucial. For this, a full audit of authoritarian influence and investments is needed. Right now, little comprehensive data and analysis are available. All consultants and other companies competing for public tenders and government contracts in the EU and the US should be obliged to disclose any business relationship (past and present) with clients from authoritarian states. Lobbyists should be obliged to disclose authoritarian clients when registering. Similarly, non-profits, sports clubs, faith groups, universities and political parties should be forced to come clean about funding they receive from authoritarian players and the conditions attached to it. This should be complemented by aggressive campaigning by open society-minded NGOs that will make use of the available data on this pervasive influence.

Third, transparency will allow for a robust public debate but it is not a panacea. It needs to be underpinned by stringent measures in the economic and financial sectors. While the west should remain open for investments, the authoritarian takeover of companies in systemically important sectors, especially the media, must stop. Much more must be done to weed out authoritarian dirty money and the complicity of western financial players in its laundering, especially through the uncovering of hidden ownership and other vehicles used by authoritarians to shield their assets.

Given the entrenched interests within the west (and the prospects of a Trump administration at best lukewarm on liberal democracy), countering authoritarian influence will be an uphill battle, but it is one we cannot avoid. After the end of the Cold War, liberal democrats assumed that the struggle for freedom concerned the future of authoritarian systems or transitional states. Today, the decisive frontier of freedom is at home, in our fragile liberal democracies.

This commentary was originally published by the Financial Times on November 152016.