James Jay CARAFANO, PhD
Here is my nightmare scenario. The great power competition of the 21st century begins looking like the Cold War of the 1970s. We should have every expectation that China, Iran and Russia will increase their efforts looking for means to fracture the free world. They could well resort to tactics employed in the past to sow doubt, disunity, and disruption, exploiting strains in civil society and domestic political turmoil to an unprecedented extent. The challenge for the free world will be to protect not just its security but its liberty and prosperity as well – not just from our competitors but also from ourselves. In the course of dealing with threat, we must be vigilant against starting to look like the threats we are facing.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union thought the balance of power in the Cold War was shifting in their favor. The Americans were bogged down in an intractable war in Vietnam. In the U.S., main streets were wracked by protests. Civil rights and anti-war demonstrations reached virtually every city and college campus. Political violence included the assassination of a presidential candidate and a revered national Civil Rights leader. Meanwhile, despite sustained economic growth, the U.S. economy was weighted down with excessive government spending, slowing productivity, and rising inflation. American monetary policy was in shambles, with the U.S. experiencing an unprecedented gold drain. Amidst the flood of political and economic disruption, social values were challenged and questioned including sexual mores, women’s rights, drug use and materialism. All these developments suggested that perhaps the “decadent” United States was ready to collapse.
The disruptions experienced by Americans knew no borders. The rise of a transatlantic counterculture became “a serious source of cultural and political division in the United States and affected European countries in many different ways.”1 Concomitant with the fracturing of Western culture other stresses were transforming the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. Politically, economically, and diploma-tically, the rifts widened. “A leftward trend that had begun in Western Europe in the sixties,” concluded historians J. Robert Wegs and Robert Ladrech, accelerated “Europe’s desire to pursue an independent foreign policy promoting a policy of détente, or increased understanding and contacts, between Western Europe and the Communist world.”2
While many Western Europeans interpreted these trends as a cooling of the Cold War in Europe, the Soviets viewed the situation as an opportunity drive a deeper wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies, as well as shape the future of Europe more towards Moscow likes.
Soviet policy shifted to the strategic offensive. Moscow’s initiatives largely took the form of an indirect approach. The goal was to have the West collapse from within through a combination of external pressure and fostering internal division. To achieve these ends, new measures took on even greater prominence in Soviet foreign affairs.
While the Soviet Union’s Cold War arsenal bristled with arms from nuclear bombs, tank divisions, and backfire bombers to gulags, spies, terrorists and revolutionaries, one of Moscow’s most prized, secretive and diabolical weapons was disinformation. Thorough a relentless campaign of political and psychological warfare, the Soviet Union planned to undermine the West with propaganda, rumor and lies. In Disinfor-mation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, Ion Pacepa, a former Romanian intelli-gence officer who defected to the United States in 1978, and Ronald Rychlak, a professor of the University of Mississippi, collaborated to produce a saga of Soviet disinformation from the Stalinist era to the fall of the wall.3
In addition, the Soviets supported “wars of national liberation,” insurgencies in Africa and Latin America, looking to either reduce the space of American influence or drag the U.S. into another Vietnam-like quagmire.4 Moscow also ramped up support for transnational terrorism. The level of Soviet finance and influence over transnational terrorist activities remains a subject of some dispute. There was no question at the time the U.S. was gravely concerned about Soviet activities.5 It was also indisputable that Soviet intelligence and government official maintained close relationships with governments and organizations that were direct supporters of terrorist groups. Even independent groups, including the Black Panthers in the US, the Red Army Faction (also known as Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe) in Germany, the Italian Brigate Rosse, and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez’s (Carlos) Organization of Armed Struggle, that may have not had direct ties with Soviets mimicked Soviet-style Marxist ideology and advanced Moscow’s agenda.
THE WAR WITHIN
In addition, to the threats Soviet adventurism posed, the West committed their own missteps that threatened freedom and political stability. Parsing domestic and foreign threats could be problematic, sometimes resulting in governments inappro-priately adopting robust national security responses or even implementing illegal actions. Among the most noteworthy was COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program of the U.S. FBI which conducted unlawful spying on antiwar and civil rights activists. Many of their abuses were documented by a Congressional investigation popularly known as the Church Committee. Senior officials were prosecuted for crimes including the agency’s deputy director.6 Another self-imposed problem for the U.S. was the Iran-Contra scandal, a covert operation organized to respond to Soviet-backed insurgency in Latin America, which almost toppled the presidency of Ronald Reagan.7 Still another example of egregious abuses occurred in the United Kingdom as part of the government’s response to violence in Northern Ireland.8 Such government actions proved as potentially damaging to Western democracies as the dangers posed by Soviet Aggression.
Ultimately, Moscow’s strategy failed. In addition to excessive military spending, the Soviet Union was weighted down by an inefficient economy and pummeled with a series of disasters including a debilitating war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviet Union collapsed before undermining the West, seemingly a victim of what the Historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial over reach.”9
WIN WITHOUT FIGHTING
Looking back, today’s adversarial powers might be less concerned with what led to the Soviet’s downfall than the tactics Moscow used to successfully bleed, distract and disrupt the West for decades. Like the Soviets, adversaries in contem-porary great power competition look to win without fighting, avoiding debilitating costs and risks of direct military conflict. These competitors are predisposed to adopt indirect approaches to whittle-away at the strength and solidarity of the free world.
There is little question that Iran, Russia, and China have already employed these tactics including disinformation, covert action, supporting insurgencies, undertaking economic warfare, espionage and aggressive cyber activity. At issue is how much more will they rely on these tactics in the future and to what extent nations can effectively counter them without undermining their own freedom, prosperity and security.
Iran. At present the regime in Tehran represents the least threat, for the simple reason it has the least capability to underwrite an aggressive global campaign. Iran today is still regarded as the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism.10 Further, it supports several violent armed groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran has also conducted cyberattacks and transnational criminal activity against Israel, the U.S. and other countries. U.S. intelligence has also accused Iran of attempting to interfere in American national elections.11 Yet, the regime is also under enormous external pressure, has a poorly performing economy, and significant internal dissent. Tehran, in practice, has few cards to exploit in promoting on-going turmoil in the U.S. or Western Europe.
Russia. Under Putin, Russia has revived all the old tactics of disinformation and active measures employed by the Soviet Union. For all these efforts, however, Moscow has little show. While Russian meddling in U.S. politics has fired-up domestic partisan discord (demonstrating the potential of nations to do more damage to their internal tranquility than the actual operations aimed against them) Putin has little to show for the effort. There are no confirmed examples of the Russians successfully interfering in U.S. elections; changing the minds of voters; or impacting U.S. policies. Further, whether employing “little green men,” mercenaries, assassins, or overt pro-paganda online, Moscow has few clear victories to point to. Russian interests in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and Libya are all stalemated. In each case, Moscow has spent a lot for not much gain. On the other hand, operations like the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent, and his daughter sparked wide spread condemnation. In addition, Russia, like Iran has a troubled economy, internal weaknesses, and the lacks the resources to conduct a robust wide-spread campaign against the West. Putin may achieve some future tactical successes, but he lacks the means to conduct sustained operations.
China. Of all the adversarial threats to the free world, the Chinese Communist Party has a lot of cards to play with substantial resources, capabilities and networks to conduct indirect warfare against the West. The question is – will they?
Less likely is that China will closely coordinate with Russia and Iran.12 China has not risked close cooperation in the past and has little to gain in doing so in the future since the other powers have far less to offer Beijing than what China might receive of value in return. China has also long demonstrated it is unwilling to tether its interests to the needs of other powers. What is more likely, is that we will see more of what we are seeing at present where the powers adopt or leverage the tactics of the others; cooperate in international organizations; and conduct independent but similarly aimed activities, such as attempting to influence U.S. elections.
Chinese support for surrogates is a more open question. Would China out-source terrorist and insurgent attacks against others financing and supporting groups they do not directly control or influence? That seems less likely.
On the other hand, we have to open to the possibility that China might become much less risk averse than the regime has been in the past. Chinese diplomacy has become much more overt and aggressive in recent years. Perhaps, this is in part reflects Beijing’s increasing confidence. It may also reflect that the regime sees opportunity to exploit divisions in the free world. Chinese aggression could also represent China’s frustration with increased competition from the U.S. and others. All these motivations might inspire China to adopt more activist and destructive policies.
The upshot is that the free world can’t assume that its future won’t hold prospects for more state-sponsored terrorism, insurgencies and efforts to internally disrupt democracies as well as leverage and exacerbate existing divisions within free societies.
SURVIVING THE STORM
The free world shouldn’t wait for a new wave of dangers to materialize before beginning to assemble an arsenal to defeat the threat. Here are some key aspects of the competition that we need to get right.
Defending Civilization. The fundamental difference between free nations and China, differences which in the end could make compatible relations untenable, is that free nations believe in freely elected governments, human rights, and free enterprise. China, and for that matter, Russia and Iran, believe in none of them. In fact, they see the core attributes of the free world as an obstacle to their interests. Despite our many differences and debates, the nations of the free world need to make a more concerted effort to enunciate and defend the values and interests that bind them together, as well as the virtue of authentic civilizations that promote human dignity.13 A good example of such efforts is the recent commission on unalienable rights organized by the U.S. State Department.14 We need more of that. In the end, our common beliefs and values will make us more resilient to destructive influences whether they are from home or overseas.
Protecting Our People. Domestic law enforcement needs to be up to the challenge of dealing with domestic and foreign extremism, while maintaining civil liberties and equal protection under the law. The recent protests and rioting in the United States offer an object lesson in the scope of the challenge.15
Winning the War of Words. Public diplomacy and information operations in an age of great power competition represent a significant challenge for free societies. The U.S., for instance, has struggled in this aspect of the competition.16
Mastering Networks. Social networks, the internet, and other technological linkages matter most, whether for exploitation by our enemies or as tools of the free world, when they are integrated and connected to human networks on the ground. It is this linkage between the virtual and real world that really enables competitors to leverage technology.17 That said, the free world needs to be much better at the technological aspects of competition. In particular, the free world will have to work hard to keep an online world that is safe, a tool for productivity, and a public square of free speech all at the same time. In addition, there are key aspects in the technological competition that the free world can ill-afford to lose. This effort will required robust cooperation between the public and private sector.18 Joint U.S.-European efforts supporting digital infrastructure in the Three Seas Initiative is a good example of the kind of pro-active efforts the free world needs.
Holding International Organizations Responsible. International organizations are no longer places where nations come together to hammer out international norms. They are one of the premier battlegrounds in great power competition. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, has a deliberate strategy of placing individuals who are answerable to the party in high posts at international organizations. Chinese nationals are already in charge of four of the UN’s key fifteen specialized agencies. Recently one of them, Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the International Telecommu-nication Union, declared that opposition to Huawei, the Chinese telecom company was “political.” In reality, the company has raised significant national security concerns. Zhao’s outrageous comments are just the ice shavings on the tip of the iceberg.19 Cooperation among the nations of the free world in combating malicious influences at the UN and other international organizations will be an important part of great power competition.
Together the free world has what it takes to survive this age of great power competition. The free world just needs to take the coming dangers with the serious-ness it deserves.
1 Grzegorz Kosc, et al., eds., The Transatlantic Sixties: Europe and the United States in the Counterculture Decade (Transcript Verlag: Bielefeld, Germany, 2013), p. 8.
2 J.R. Wegs J.R. and R. Ladrech, “Western European Political and Economic Trends Since the 1960s,´in K. Kurzman and P.M. Phelan, eds., Europe Since 1945 (Palgrave: London, 1996), https://doi.org/10.100 7/978-1-349-14052-7_14.
3 James Jay Carafano, “The Soviets’ Secret Weapon to Defeat America,” PJMedia, December 28, 2013, https://pjmedia.com/culture/james-jay-carafano/2013/12/18/the-soviets-secret-weapon-to-defeat-america-n148364.
4 Galia Golan, Moscow and the Third World National Liberation Movements: The Soviet Role, Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 2, (Winter/Spring 1987), pp. 303-324.
5 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Soviet Support for International Terrorism and Revolutionary Violence,” November 2, 1981, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP90T00155R000200010009-2.pdf. See also, for example, Leon Romaniecki, “The Soviet Union and International Terrorism,” Soviet Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 417-440.
6 See, Loch K. Johnson, A Season of Inquiry Revisited: The Church Committee Confronts America’s Spy Agencies (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015).
7 See, David M. Abshire, Saving the Reagan Presidency: Trust Is the Coin of the Realm (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005).
8 See, for example, Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (New York: Doubleday, 2019).
9 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (Lexington, Mass: DC Heath and Company, 1989), pp. xvi-xvii.
10 U.S. State Department, “Countries Certified as Not Cooperating Fully With U.S. Counterterrorism Effort,” May 13, 2020, https://www.state.gov/countries-certified-as-not-cooperating-fully-with-u-s-counterterrorism-efforts/.
11 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Statement by NCSC Director William Evanina: Election Threat Update for the American Public,” August 20, 2020, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public.
12 See, for example, James Jay Carafano, “The China-Russia Relationship Is More about Survival than Friendship,” The National Interest, November 11, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/china-russia-relationship-more-about-survival-friendship-94056.
13 James Jay Carafano, “Maybe “Civilizations” Aren’t the Problem,” The National Interest, July 7, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/maybe-civilizations-aren%E2%80%99t-problem-25187?page=0%2C1.
14 U.S. State Department, Commission on Unalienable Rights, https://www.state.gov/commission-on-unalienable-rights.
15 Lore Ries, et. al., “14-Step Action Plan for Stopping Targeted Violence in America’s Cities,” The Heritage Foundation, August 6, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/homeland-security/report/14-step-action-plan-stopping-targeted-violence-americas-cities.
16 James Jay Carafano, “Michael Pack Will Need to Tackle America’s Great-Power Problem,” July 6, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/michael-pack-will-need-tackle-america%E2%80%99s-great-power-problem-164183.
17 James Jay Carafano, “Social Networking and National Security: How to Harness Web 2.0 to Protect the Country,” The Heritage Foundation, March 18, 2009, https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/social-networking-and-national-security-how-harness-web-20-protect-the-country.
18 James Jay Carafano and Klon Kitchen, “America must counter China’s “military-civil union,” Risky.Biz, August 13, 2020, https://risky.biz/commonground/.
19 James Jay Carafano, “International Organizations are the Devil’s Playground of Great Power Competition,” The National Interest, May 15, 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/international-organizations-are-devil%E2%80%99s-playground-great-power-competition-154706.