Consider the dark fraternity of strongmen inhabiting today’s global political stage. Under the invisible cloak of counterfeit democracy lurk the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad Bin Salman and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to name the most prominent.
In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, Anne Applebaum, a noteworthy international journalist and Pulitzer prize winner, advances her perspective that this “new league of autocrats is outsmarting the West … the bad guys are winning.”
Autocrats love to tout the “efficiencies” of centralized socio-economic control under the transformative cloak of democracy. They have become experts at gaslighting their own people and people abroad by means of misinformation, disinformation and other forms of manipulation through social media.
What’s different in today’s world is that instead of dictating and controlling in isolation, these strongmen now have the means for global amplification of their propaganda, and they support each other when the rest of the world punishes them with sanctions. These autocrats have created a league of their own. Could Maduro, for example, survive U.S. sanctions without Russian, Cuban and Chinese handouts?
Tolerance for their repressive regimes is manifest through social media, a force multiplier of propaganda and misinformation. And selective censorship of digital media is their cynical yet effective mechanism for filtering out critical information.
Borrowing the jargon of American football, when running backs hit a wall of opposition, they make quick decisions, “jump cuts,” and go. There’s no deliberation, just go fast to beat the opposition, no need for huddling required or desired. Centralized control of policy and planning allows for “jump cuts,” quick decision making as events unfold. It’s hard for truly deliberative representative democracies to compete when changes come at us quickly in the 21st century. Our coaches (legislators), need 21st century innovative practices to counter these determined and dangerous demagogues.
What motivates those in dictatorial regimes are the temptations of corruption. We all know of the rich and corrupt Russian oligarchs, but imagine being a Third World leader when China comes at you with its “Belt and Road Initiative.” They offer the country’s leadership billions in funding for infrastructure to build roads, ports and communication systems. And, by the way, all they want in return is payments on the loans, no other accountability. Corrupt leaders do what corrupt leaders do, they skim enough to make themselves instant millionaires and if the country defaults on its loans, who cares? And these Third World leaders become newly minted and loyal sycophants to autocrats.
This is how China and Russia win friends and influence people and in return they get naval bases around the world and develop loyalties from tyrants like Assad of Syria or Lukashenko of Belarus.
Masters of propaganda and misinformation, these strongmen not only weaponize disinformation and propaganda at home, they attempt to outsmart us in the western world using these same tools. If they can destabilize our elections, cast aspersions on our leadership and create social chaos and divisions within our own union, who the heck needs missiles?
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are anachronisms whose funding is fading. Our intelligence communities have been fighting propaganda and misinformation battles for some time now, covertly, but not so well publicly, in ways that the American public can feel it. This leads to the pervasive sense that we are losing the war of words and deeds.
In her article, Applebaum was more blunt. “If the twentieth century was the story of liberal democracy’s progress towards victory over other ideologies — communism, fascism, virulent nationalism — the twentieth century is so far a story of the reverse.”
Our laissez-faire responses to these provocations seem to be to put the spearhead of democratic idealism in the hands of our corporations. The thinking is that they can and must use their economic, broadcast and branding influences to counter demagogic propaganda and win the hearts and minds of the world. I fear that Karl Marx, were he alive, would laugh out loud. The many moral and political compromises American corporations have made to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market are self-evident. Corporate loyalties tilt towards investors and shareholders, not homelands or nation states.
That said, the New York Times reported last week that, “Facebook and Twitter have removed thousands of accounts connected to Chinese information campaigns, in the latest sign of Beijing’s ambitions to shape the global narrative.”
Western democracies need to combat the tactics of these 21st century dictatorships with strong and tangible information strategies and actions. Where is the defense department’s outward facing “Department of Information Defense”? Where’s the State Department’s “Agency for Information Defense”? Such agencies could be proactive in combating cyber disruptions and disinformation. Such agencies could and should be so well branded that Americans see and feel their presence and impact, reassuring us that we are putting up a good fight, and winning hearts and minds.
Where is NATO’s “International Center for Democratic Media”, whose tagline or statement of purpose could be, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and whose chartered purpose as a factual resource would be to report truth to power with evidence. For example:
1. Russia has in fact interfered in western democratic elections.
2. Syria has become a rogue national drug cartel.
3. Belarus has weaponized immigration.
4. Climate change is real.
5. China is selling spyware into autocratic states.
6. Unvaccinated people are dying by the thousands more than vaccinated people. Research by the Texas Department of Health concludes that you are 40 times more likely to die of Covid if you are unvaccinated.
The western world needs its own transnational “League of Democracies.” Such an institution could broadcast non-stop truths based on facts in harmony with our own values and ideals. This, preferred to letting an underworld of autocratic strongmen define them for us.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.