Democracy is under attack: here is how to protect it

Mikael Wigell

Unite the Right 2 protesters walk from the metro to their rally point in Lafayette Square surrounded by a police escort on 12 August 2018 in Washington DC. Image: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Democracy is being attacked like never before. These attacks are often subtle, manipulating the very same liberal democratic values that they seek to subvert. In my recent International Affairs article, I show how particularly China and Russia have attempted to penetrate western democratic societies through clandestine diplomacy, geo-economics and disinformation in order to undermine their internal cohesion and accelerate political polarization.

For instance, Russia has been supporting radical and secessionist political parties and, at its most extreme, used targeted violence to inject fear and exploit emotional pressure points, such as the refugee influx in Europe. There is also evidence of collaboration between organized criminals in Europe and Russia’s intelligence services in order to infiltrate ethnic and political groups or stage acts of aggression between them to provoke societal polarization. Russia has also had some successes with planting and disseminating disinformation, not least through its army of internet trolls and bots operating out of its so-called Internet News Agency.

Moreover, China and Russia are both offering business links to groups in Europe to generate interest convergence and cultivate loyalty. Criminals with links to the Chinese Communist Party have been attacking pro-democracy protesters in Taiwan. All these means are designed to reinforce each other and exploit the ‘open platform’ inherent in western democracy.

The four cornerstones of liberal democracy — state restraint, pluralism, free media and economic openness — thus provide openings for hostile external actors to interfere in western democratic society through these covert, non-military means. Democracies urgently need to find means to defend against such hybrid interference, without jeopardizing the very same values that they are meant to defend. Extending state control over civil society is not a viable strategy. The particular advantage of liberal democracy lies in its soft power and inclusive politics. Beyond the rigidness of solely state-based solutions, western democracy harnesses market- and society-based approaches to dealing with risks and threats. These approaches can readily be used to strengthen deterrence against hybrid interference.

Countering hybrid interference calls for a more comprehensive security perspective. Herein lies the deterrent value of democracy itself, which should be recognized as it can provide means to discourage hybrid interference both through strengthening democracy and by ensuring there are punishment measures.

Civil society protects against hybrid interference

While the open environment of western democracy presents loopholes for covert interference, it simultaneously provides an enabling environment for citizen activism. Citizen activism can play a major role in recognizing interference and building institutional and societal resilience against it. This resilience involves preventing or making hybrid interference difficult by harnessing liberal democracy’s strengths: autonomous civil society, independent media and transparency.

First, increased transparency will help disrupt and deter alliances between hybrid aggressors and domestic groups. This requires the updating of regulations regarding ownership disclosure and mechanisms for the screening of foreign investment. NGOs, media, political parties, research institutes and think-tanks should all be required to publicly report their sources of funding. Financial regulation and anti-corruption mechanisms are key means in building institutional resilience.

Second, western democracies should encourage investigative civil society groups and media to monitor and detect hybrid interference. Civil society and media can perform essential watchdog functions when it comes to exposing links between hybrid aggressors and domestic businesses and political groups. Civil society groups are often more acutely aware of localized dynamics and more agile in their scrutiny. Through civil society support and media capacity-building, society’s ability to detect and prevent covert interference can be strengthened.

Hybrid interference must have consequences

To be effective, democracies also needs to incorporate a focus on reciprocity and punishment. At present, hybrid interference largely goes unpunished and, as long as it does, it remains a highly tempting and potentially effective strategy. For democracies it will be key to communicate their red lines by highlighting what are deemed unacceptable behaviours that will have consequences. The response may not be symmetric, but it should be made clear that punishment measures will be taken. Moreover, if democracies strengthen their civil societies, the naming and shaming will become automatic which will put pressure on democratic governments to actually take these counter-measures.

An example of such a punishment might be using a democracy’s soft power as a retaliatory measure against hybrid interference. Since antiquity, many authoritarian powers have been terrified by democracy and the threat it poses to authoritarian control. The Spartans were famously terrified by the culture of democracy that helped sustain Athens’ empire. Visibly strengthening programmes of democracy promotion would communicate resolve and challenge hybrid aggressors on their own turf. What they most fear is bottom-up democratizing developments, such as the ‘colour revolutions’ and the Arab Spring. Planning for a vigorous and concerted democracy promotion effort could help create a situation in which hybrid aggressors need to more carefully weigh benefits against potential risks.


Of course, any hybrid defence will also need to rely on armed forces, but putting the focus on non-military means to tackle hybrid interference has the advantage of avoiding outright escalation. Make no mistake, democracy is also a strategic weapon, much feared by the Spartans of both today and yesterday.

Reduced clarity about who is doing what or whether somebody is actually doing something to tackle hybrid interference complicates a devolved method of dealing with it. Yet, the ‘attribution problem’ is not insurmountable: the responsibility for interfering in US elections, for example, was traced and attributed.

The important thing is to decouple this strategy from the traditional binary view that it can either only succeed or fail. In the era of hybrid interference, the focus should be on consistency and making attacks less effective, less efficient and less attractive as a strategy, while recognizing that some elements of interference will be hard to deter entirely.

Mikael Wigell is Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and Adjunct Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Tampere.

His recent article, ‘Hybrid interference as a wedge strategy: a theory of external interference in liberal democracy’, was published in the March 2019 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.



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