Vladimir Putin is not a Bond villain, the Kremlin is not Spectre and, in the real world, we don’t need Daniel Craig to push back against Russia’s hybrid foreign policy. But we do need to elect Hillary Clinton for president. If we don’t, as we learned in recent days, we’ll be led by a man who appears bent on destroying the alliances that preserve international peace and American power, a man who cheerfully approves of hostile foreign intervention in a U.S. election campaign. And please remember: If that’s how he feels about Russia, there’s no guarantee that he’ll feel any different about China or Iran.
We also need a President Clinton to distance herself from the current administration, at least in this sense: President Obama has consistently refused to take seriously Russia’s hybrid foreign policy, a strategy that mixes normal diplomacy, military force, economic corruption and a high-tech information war.
This hybrid strategy needs a complex response. The reinforcement of NATO that began a few years ago was an important change but is insufficient: A further empowered alliance will help deter a devastating military conflict in Europe. At the same time, a crackdown on corrupt oligarchs, not just from Russia but also from around the world, could help stem the flows of illicit money that distort the politics of many developing countries and, increasingly, the United States and Europe, too.
The information war matters as well, particularly because the tactics are unfamiliar, at least to us: Americans aren’t used to the idea that foreign governments might use hacked emails for the purpose of distorting their politics. In fact, the Russian government has been playing similar games for years. Back in 2007, Russian hackers launched a major attack on Estonian government and commercial websites — including banks, the defense ministry, the parliament — in apparent revenge for a decision to move a Soviet war memorial. In 2014, hackers attacked Ukraine’s national election commission, three days before people went to the polls, in an attempt to disrupt the vote. In a report to be published next week, the Center for European Policy Analysis (where I am a senior adjunct fellow) documents Russian disinformation tactics in Europe, ranging from far-right websites in Poland to assistance for an anti-European Union referendum campaign in the Netherlands.
Russia has been experimenting in U.S. cyberspace, too. In 2014, police in St. Mary Parish, La., woke up to reports of a disastrous accident that turned out to have been faked. Hundreds of Twitter messages and even a fake YouTube video had been designed to create a panic and convince people that the Islamic State had blown up a chemical factory. Months later, the New York Times Magazine traced the perpetrators to St. Petersburg: Apparently, Russian trolls were trying to learn what works.
It’s not hard to imagine how these kinds of tactics could be used in the case of a real disaster — or in combination with military power — to increase panic and create false rumors. It’s also not that hard to imagine how the skillful production of fake information can be used in a fraught and highly emotional election. I confess, I thought the U.S. media ecosystem was too big to feel any impact from ill-intentioned outsiders, that this was mainly a problem in Europe. After this week, I’m not so sure.
It’s difficult for democracies to counter the rise in fake news. Our next president won’t control the media, and we wouldn’t want her to. But she can direct more resources into tracking disinformation and understanding how it works. She can invest in cutting-edge media literacy campaigns (an ugly term, but there isn’t a better one) both at home and abroad, and try to understand why fact-checking sometimes works and often doesn’t. She can inspire the development of a more secure Internet, even follow the lead of Estonia, which, after attacks on its cyberspace, created an electronic identity card that makes it much safer for Estonians to operate online.
Most of all, she can also place the growing influence of authoritarian states closer to the center of U.S. concerns. This isn’t about “regime change”: Western democracies are now playing defense, not offense, against dictatorships that openly seek to undermine them. I don’t think President Obama has ever understood this dynamic, but President Clinton might.
And if there isn’t a President Clinton? Then all of this is moot: There won’t be a pushback against the world’s authoritarians. In Donald Trump’s White House, they’ll be welcomed — and will feel right at home.
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