RT, the controversial Russian state propaganda network that has extended its tentacles into the United States and Europe, finally is seen as a clear menace to democracy. Operating in dozens of countries around the world, the network serves as a crucial artery for pumping Kremlin spin into the public discussion. It would be unwise, however, for observers in the U.S. and the European Union to become fixated on RT (formerly known as “Russia Today”). The Russian state-run network is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to modern tools of authoritarian influence in the realm of ideas.
In contrast to inward-leaning democracies, which have an “End of History” sense of complacency, today’s autocrats are vibrant internationalists in the ideas sphere. In recent years, the leading autocracies have forged a diverse constellation of efforts to shape perceptions and project their preferred worldview, while contesting the ideas they find anathema. They have upped the competition in this arena at a time when the world’s leading democratic states have largely gone to the sidelines.
Leaders in Beijing, Tehran and Moscow invest heavily in such efforts because they understand that their political preferences are best advanced through a strong capacity to communicate ideas. These regimes therefore have developed an array of tools that include cultural, policy and educational initiatives; people-to-people exchanges; and wide-ranging, multiplatform media enterprises, of which television outlets such as RT are only one part. As capacity has caught up with intentions, the autocrats’ toolkit now is used to actively compete on the democracies’ home turf.
Consider this: As part of its “Great Leap Outward” in recent years, China has quietly built up a multibillion dollar international media empire transmitting content in a multitude of languages that is making inroads in dozens of countries around the globe. As an indication of its growing sophistication, Xinhua, the state news agency, and CGTN, the Chinese state television global network (until 2016 known as CCTV), cultivate content-sharing agreements in a growing number of countries, especially in young democracies. In countries such as Argentina, Kenya and Peru, the Chinese authorities embed their own entertainment, documentary and news programming into domestic media platforms, enabling CCP-friendly soft propaganda to reach audiences in these settings.
Russia has taken a more visible and pugnacious approach to the ideas realm, attempting to subvert the global information space by using both traditional and new forms of media to spread disinformation, reshape narratives and thwart the open exchange of ideas. As part of its effort to numb, but also poison, minds, the Kremlin has invested significant attention on the democracies of Europe and the Americas, including the United States. Russian state media has also taken a special interest in Latin America.
In October 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced the start of RT broadcasts in Spanish to nationwide audiences in Argentina. This arrangement has continued into the administration of President Mauricio Macri since his election in 2015. RT now broadcasts in Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia and can be viewed on cable television networks in nearly every country in Central and South America. It is complemented by paid Russian state media supplements in newspapers across the continent including Argentina’s La Nacion, Brazil’s Folha de S.Paulo and Uruguay’s El Observador. The editorial line of Russian state media content dovetails with that of Telesur, the Spanish-language network inspired by the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, enabling the Kremlin content to more intensively reverberate across the region.
The Russian-state-backed information sources, like those of the Chinese, take a sophisticated approach to their audiences and are differentiated by country with the goal of influencing specific demographics.
Sputnik, a Russian state online and radio service, produces content in 30 languages, feeding Russian state spin into the global information ecosystem. For its part, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has expanded its reach in recent years. Its international branch, which in March 2016 changed its name to Pars Today, now broadcasts in 32 languages.
The Chinese government has placed enormous resources into relationship and network building, undertaking extensive people-to-people programs in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. Through such efforts, many hundreds of students, media professionals and policymakers each year are brought to China, often full-freight paid by the Chinese hosts. Emblematic of these wide-ranging efforts are initiatives such as the June 2016 “Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation” and the December 2013 “High-Level Symposium of Think Tanks of China and Central and Eastern European Countries,” which convened hundreds of media and think tank professionals in China. Chinese state-backed Confucius Institutes operate a vast network of cultural influence embedded in universities and schools—more than 1,000 institutes and classrooms operating worldwide. Iran spreads its ideas and influence through international educational exchanges with universities in the Middle East and Eurasia.
Why should we care about this dramatic influence buildup? After all, aren’t China, Iran and Russia simply pursuing their own interests? They are, to be sure. But such interests are animated by authoritarian political preferences, which privilege state control above all else, something that is abundantly clear from the way they treat their own media and civil society.
What we have been slow to recognize is that in an era of globalization, ambitious regimes that play by their own coercive and predatory rules at home are keen to move the goalposts toward authoritarian preferences internationally. And their strategy is working.
A crucial case in point is the competition over the rules that will govern cyberspace, itself a critical field for the battle of ideas. Here, the autocrats are on the same team, arguing that this realm should be controlled by governments, while seeking to exclude private business, civil society and any other nonstate participation in decision-making. This approach on the international level is a natural outgrowth of authoritarians’ domestic suppression of independent voices and institutions of any kind.
More fundamentally, through their media platforms and other influence initiatives, these regimes seek to blur the distinction between autocratic and democratic governance systems and the ideals that underlie them. That creates a strategic vulnerability for the United States and its democratic allies, whose values have long been a source of strength.
For decades, the balance of power in the world has favored the democracies. A perception is now taking hold, however, that raises doubts about this balance and we may be approaching a tipping point at which the balance would shift toward the leading authoritarian states. If such a shift were to occur, it would dramatically change our world into one that would undoubtedly be more corrupt, unstable and hostile to U.S. interests.
The fact that an increasing number of democratic countries are facing serious internal challenges does not absolve them from competing and addressing the multifaceted challenge offered by the ever-more ambitious authoritarians; in fact, the stakes are higher in the new competitive environment, providing all the more reason for the democracies to refresh their arguments on fundamentals of openness and democratic accountability, and to do what it takes to defend their ideals.
In the present global competition of ideas, the autocrats are playing to win. By ceding the field, the democracies only will allow the authoritarians to dictate the rules of the game.