The State Department’s cable to embassies on Sept. 12 laying out Russia’s covert political funding around the world had the overtones of a Cold War thriller: bags of cash, shadowy subversion and legions of trusty allies. But the reality is that this message just barely pulled aside the curtain on a much larger drive by authoritarian regimes to export dictatorship beyond their borders, a serious challenge for democracies.
The Biden administration made the cable public after carrying out an intelligence review of Russia’s political influence campaign. It says Moscow funneled at least $300 million to foreign political parties and candidates in more than two dozen countries since 2014 and planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more. The cable declares, “As Russia wages war against Ukraine, it is imperative that democracies identify and counter covert Russian political influence in our societies and systems of governance.” An administration official told reporters that the United States wanted to put foreign parties and candidates on notice “that if they accept Russian money secretly we can and we will expose it.” This is useful, just as it was important to expose how Russia attempted to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
But this spreading of political influence is part of a much larger story. China, Russia and other nations are routinely exporting methods for authoritarian rule. Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, writing in the October issue of the Journal of Democracy, asserts that autocrats have in recent years developed “more interactive, multidimensional, and often nuanced ways to project influence.” It is not military hard power, but extremely potent “sharp power,” he says. “Chinese authorities are training officials from developing countries on censoring the internet, controlling civil society, and building a single-party regime,” he writes.
In a just-published study examining China’s influence in 30 countries from January 2019 to last December, Freedom House found Beijing spent billions on propaganda but also increasingly used coercion, censorship and covert tactics to sanitize China’s image. The report concludes China has flooded the media in other nations with content favorable to Beijing, while aiming “harassment and intimidation” at outlets “that publish news or opinions disfavored by the Chinese government,” and China is using “cyberbullying, fake social media accounts, and targeted disinformation campaigns” against those it dislikes.
A disturbing underside is “transnational repression,” in which regimes that govern harshly think they can reach abroad with the same coercion, threats and violence. The murder of our Post Opinions colleague Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi Arabian hit team four years ago was an example but hardly the only one. Mr. Walker writes that the digital revolution has made it “even easier for dictators to hound and intimidate activists, journalists, and critics, no matter where they are.” Freedom House has recorded 735 incidents of direct, physical transnational repression that took place from January 2014 to December 2021, with 85 incidents in 2021 alone.
Democracies and open societies are easy targets. They must not be complacent about these malign threats.
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