How to counter autocrats’ soft power


A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion,” notes London University researcher David Brydan.

“This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media,” he adds.

President Xi Jinping also views his country in an ideological competition with the West, say Mareike Ohlberg and Bertram Lang, research associates at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. No longer content with stopping the influence of democratic ideas at China’s borders, Chinese propaganda experts have decided they need to focus on making China’s political system attractive abroad if the Communist Party wants to stay in power, they write for The New York Times:

Backed by an estimated annual budget of $10 billion, Chinese media organizations are expanding their global presence, heeding Mr. Xi’s call to media organizations to “tell China’s story well.” This means casting the Chinese political system, the so-called China model, as meritocratic, efficiency-oriented rule by well-trained technocrat visionaries that is superior to Western democracy.

Colossal investment

According to Cai Shankun, rated as one of the country’s top 10 bloggers by Phoenix TV, the Chinese government had been seeking systematically to build influence around the world by donating to parties in foreign countries, establishing Confucius Institutes, purchasing overseas media, and so on, The Australian adds.

“This has been a colossal ­investment. In the face of such big funding, especially when the ­global economy is not so healthy, foreign parties and other interest groups are easier to incline to the Chinese government,” he said.

“And the overseas media are bought, to sing praises that the government shows to Chinese people inside the country,” he added. “I don’t feel surprised to see some foreign politicians become spokespeople of the Chinese ­government, to speak on its behalf, either openly or secretively.”

Putin has also waged a soft-power irredentist campaign to mobilize millions of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the “near abroad,” the former Soviet republics that now ring Russia’s western and southern flanks, analyst Benjamin Nathans writes in The New York Review of Books. And where a Russian political diaspora cannot be found, the political analyst Agnia Grigas shows in Beyond Crimea, Moscow creates one: via humanitarian assistance, media saturation, and widespread granting of Russian passports. But these efforts to recoup at least some of what was lost in 1991 have been both selective and opportunistic.

Rather than trying to sell a glossy version of democracy or silence their critics, Western countries should focus on measures that foster pluralistic discourse, Ohlberg and Bertram Lang suggest:

One option would be to expand programs at American and European universities to promote more interaction between locals and their visiting Chinese students. Likewise, measures to increase transparency for university and think-tank funding, which can be murky and in the West has been tied to Chinese sources, would be effective.

Above all, it’s crucial to show that it is possible to point out the flaws and failures of current Western political systems without undermining what is valuable about them: pluralism, freedom of speech and the willingness for introspection. Let’s not sacrifice those values by entering into a propaganda war.

In the face of Moscow’s strategic effort to promote its narrative, the United States must work with industry, academia, and its international partners in the cyber domain, argues Robert Caruso, who served in the Department of Defense and Department of State in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama. The Department of State’s Global Engagement Center will be essential in ensuring information superiority. Executive Order 13721, signed by President Obama on March 14, 2016, states the Center “shall lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad”, he writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Because of this, the Global Engagement Center would lead policy execution efforts and a new, empowered policy coordination group visible to NSC principals would lead the policy formulation efforts. Leveraging private-public partnerships will be essential to this effort. Engaging industry and academia to synthesize, synchronize, and support these efforts will be critical to the success to countering Russian active measures.

The U.S. should take more specific steps to counter China’s soft power, former Congressman Frank Wolf writes for The Washington Post:

  • First, Congress and the Obama administration should consider expanding the charter for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to cover strategic “soft power” sectors, allowing the committee to review how foreign ownership from autocratic regimes might restrict creative freedom. 
  • Second, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, originally passed in 1939 to address concerns about Soviet and Nazi propaganda, should be updated to consider the role of foreign censorship and influence in U.S. media ownership. A Justice Department Inspector General report released this month called on the department to update its FARA enforcement strategy, specifically citing foreign media operations, among others, as entities that should be covered by disclosure and reporting requirements, as well as federal civil investigative demand authority.
  • And finally, recent provisions in the annual defense and intelligence authorization bills before Congress to create an entity in government to monitor and respond to foreign propaganda and misinformation should be expanded to cover authoritarian foreign ownership of U.S. media.
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