It should be clear by now that the West is at war. It’s not the kind of war we’re accustomed to. Conflict between states is no longer primarily about tanks and planes and missiles (even though they still figure in it).
We’re now confronting the capacity of governments to reach deep into the political systems of their rivals from afar, often leveraging the power and anonymity of modern technology to sow chaos and exercise influence. The Russians, as their intervention in the 2016 election demonstrates, have proved to be masters of this new art of remote subversion. Yet over the longer term, they may be outdone by their wealthier frenemies: the Chinese.
Moscow seems so bent on trolling its enemies in the West that it’s already squandering some of the advantages it has built up on this new and unconventional battlefield. This week we’ve seen the liberal democracies demonstrate a new resolve to push back — not least because of the Kremlin’s sheer brazenness. More than 20 countries — including the United States, Canada and 18 states of the European Union — have joined together to expel dozens of presumed Russian intelligence officers in retaliation for the nerve agent attack in Britain.
It took a while for the West to wake up — and we still have a lot to do if we want to tackle this threat effectively. But from now on, it will be harder for Moscow to play these games in the shadows.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the Kremlin has adopted this new form of asymmetric warfare — featuring covert influence operations, disinformation and cyberattacks — from a position of weakness. The Russian economy is anemic. Vladimir Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine are stretching an already shaky budget. Given those constraints, trying to undermine the United States and the E.U. by remote meddling is a relatively cost-effective strategy — though the risks are now becoming evident.
Now consider the example of China. Xi Jinping’s Communist Party is also pushing its agenda overseas, yet it is doing so from a position of far greater strength. Beijing’s biggest influence operation is its gazillion-dollar “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to bring Eurasian countries into China’s orbit through gigantic infrastructure projects. Recent revelations about Chinese influence in the Czech Republic are illustrative: Chinese companies have been buying up industrial assets for a song, allowing Beijing to gain a crucial foothold inside the E.U. Australia, meanwhile, has experienced a string of scandals involving burgeoning Chinese influence in its political system.
It has become something of a cliche, but it’s true: The Chinese are playing a long and subtle game. In the United States, they are lavishing money on think tanks and universities as part of a well-thought-out strategy to shape public perceptions about China. They have been using their Confucius Institutes, which promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture on more than 100 college campuses in the United States, to promote favorable views of the Communist Party and to suppress opposing ones. (A Chinese official once described the Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”) Beijing has also been exercising tight control over the large population of Chinese students in the United States, deploying them to lobby for Chinese interests on campus. That can be seen as part of a broader strategy to tap the huge ethnic Chinese diaspora in the United States and elsewhere as foot soldiers in China’s influence campaigns.
Of course, the Chinese — like the Russians — have also been happy to use more aggressive tools, such as cyberattacks and espionage, to further their interests in the West. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the Chinese are even better at it. The Russians made shrewd use of social media to affect the 2016 U.S. election, but they still haven’t pulled off anything comparable to the Chinese hacking of the Office of Personnel Management the year before, which compromised the personal data of some 21 million people, including not only former and current government employees but also their friends and family members. Chinese cyberwarriors have systematically stolen vast amounts of confidential information from U.S. companies. And their intelligence operations, including the apparent recruitment of a former CIA agent who betrayed an entire network of U.S. spies in China, have been devastatingly effective.
Small wonder, then, that some experts believe that the Chinese pose an even bigger threat to the West than the Russians — which doesn’t change the fact that we have to counter both. The remedies are fairly obvious. Western democracies should take decisive steps to limit Russian and Chinese economic influence over their societies and to impose transparency on government-sponsored institutions (such as the Confucius Institutes). We need to launch serious efforts to track and counter covert influence campaigns and disinformation. We need to dramatically boost our counterintelligence capabilities, which have withered since the end of the Cold War. And we clearly need to broaden our cyberdefenses, as shown by recent revelations about Russian infiltration of our critical infrastructure.
But we must start by acknowledging the hardest reality of all: Our democracy is under attack. If we really value it, now is the time to start fighting back.