For two decades after the end of the Cold War, the direction of international influence was clear: it radiated from liberal democracies outward, as the West sought to spread its model of governance around the world. With the help of Western-led democracy promotion, the thinking went, authoritarian states would be relegated to the dustbin of history.
That has changed. In recent years, authoritarian states have boldly sought to influence Western democracies. They have done so to strengthen their own regimes, to weaken Western states’ ability to challenge authoritarianism, and to push the world toward illiberalism.
Russia’s brazen attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election thus fits a broader pattern, even though much of the analysis of that operation has presented it as an anomaly. Authoritarian influencing, as it might be called, involves actions not just by Russia but also by China and other states Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It has affected many Western democracies. And it involves not just political meddling and propaganda programs but lower-profile work through political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses.
Authoritarian elites hire Western public relations firms to polish their reputations, Western lawyers to file libel suits against their critics, and Western real estate companies to transform ill-gotten wealth into legal assets.
Some of these tactics—such as the release of kompromat, or compromising material meant to undermine political targets—recall those used during the Cold War. Yet today’s authoritarian states have more tools than their predecessors, because contemporary elites and institutions are deeply enmeshed in Western economies and can use digital channels to spread ideas and meddle in their politics. Democracies’ openness to foreign money and ideas, the eagerness of their professional classes to profit from illiberal clients, and their political weaknesses have made authoritarians’ jobs easier.
States have always sought to influence one another, and democracies have been no exception: some may find it fair that they are now getting a taste of their own medicine. Still, advocates of open
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