Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan in Istanbul, October 2016.
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan in Istanbul, October 2016.

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 societies have reason to worry. Authoritarian influence can weaken liberal states, entrench authoritarian rule in illiberal ones, and undermine democratizing societies—as in the Balkans, where Russia has sought to destabilize Montenegro and other countries.

Democracies should try to end the enabling roles of their professionals by introducing new transparency requirements. They should more tightly regulate key sectors—from high technology to party finance—to protect them from outside influence. And activist groups should campaign against firms that provide services to autocrats. The goal should be to close off some of the channels of authoritarian influence while preserving democracies’ commitments to openness.


What unites all authoritarian efforts at influence abroad is their perception that the fate of their regimes depends in part on how democratic states approach them. Authoritarian states feel vulnerable to Western hostility and seek influence in liberal democracies in part to stave off the West’s attempts to delegitimize them and to safeguard their survival. To that end, they strive to hinder plans for democracy promotion, support for dissidents, sanctions, and regime change. Authoritarian countries from small to large seek to build a protective shield by gaining influence in the West. The great powers among them (China and Russia) also seek to prevent Western incursions into what they consider their spheres of interest.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates in Lisbon, March 2009.
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates in Lisbon, March 2009.
Hugo Correia / REUTERS

A second motivation is authoritarian regimes’ desire to enhance their domestic positions. The goal is to turn Western societies into safe havens for official interests, drawing on networks in business and politics for support. That is especially the case for states whose elites rely on illicit rents from natural resources, as in Angola’s case, since they depend on Western capitals to enjoy their spoils. Authoritarians pay bankers and accountants to launder their money and court politicians who are willing to defend them. They 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. When their fortunes sour, foreign property, bank accounts, and passports ease their flight abroad. As the political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw have argued, Central Asia’s autocrats see such services as a major source of strength: they help shore up their legitimacy abroad and protect their rule at home. (An investigation by a group of American and European media outlets recently revealed that Azerbaijani elites spent some $2.9 billion to fund personal payments, launder money, and buy luxury goods in Europe between 2012 and 2014.)

Finally, some authoritarian states seek influence to tilt the global order in an illiberal direction. Their targets include the domestic institutions of Western states and international organizations such as the UN, EU, and NATO. Russia, for instance, seeks to fracture Western societies and governments and undermine public faith in liberal democracy by discrediting democratic institutions and officials. Its ultimate goal is to make Western governments either too weak to project power against it or ideologically opposed to doing so. Many of these efforts are pragmatic rather than ideological: to preserve Russia’s power in eastern and central Europe, for instance, the Kremlin believes it must cripple the European Union. But at least some in Moscow see aggressive illiberalism as a way to defend civilization against cultural decadence.

As for China, it has cracked down on Western ideas at home and aggressively spreads authoritarian norms in international institutions—for example, by seeking to use bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union to give cover to its crackdown on Internet freedoms. Similarly, China has confronted Western academic publishers, such as Cambridge University Press, with aggressive censorship demands. Yet so far, China has shown much less interest in sowing instability abroad. Beijing seeks to promote a positive image of China and its one-party dictatorship to Western publics. Unlike Russia, China has economic interests that demand a stable, if pliant, European Union.

The China Central Television (CCTV) building under construction in Beijing, November 2007.
Reinhard Krause / REUTERS


Authoritarian influence plays out in three main areas. The first is public opinion and the institutions that support it: the media, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and universities.

A few authoritarian governments have bought Western media outlets, as Angolan interests have in Portugal. More frequently, however, states establish their own Western-language outlets to disseminate their worldviews, as Russia has with RT and China has with CCTV in the United States. Such outlets cover the news, but they also disseminate lies and distortions about the political enemies of authoritarians, which are often spread further on social media. Such influence seeking can also take more respectable forms: consider the partnership between private Australian and state-run Chinese outlets completed during Chinese propaganda chief Liu Qibao’s visit to Sydney in 2016, through which leading Australian newspapers published a supplement prepared by the Communist Party's English-language China Daily. Such measures serve Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to increase China’s “international discourse power” through “flagship external propaganda media.”

China has made major donations to think tanks in Brussels, and in 2014, wealthy businesspeople connected to the Communist Party gave $2.2 million to help found a think tank in Sydney, the Australia-China Relations Institute. Kremlin-linked players have sponsored Paris-based organizations, such as the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation; in 2016, they helped set up a major new think tank in Berlin called the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. The Gulf states have paid millions of dollars to think tanks in Washington. Gifts to universities provide a deeper veneer of respectability. The most notorious case was that of the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime’s donations to the London School of Economics nearly a decade ago, but gifts from state or state-affiliated groups from China, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are commonplace, thanks in part to many universities’ difficulty in securing public funding. Although in some contexts such donations produce explicit lobbying in favor of authoritarian interests, more often the result is the dulling of criticism.

The second area in which authoritarian states seek influence is in political parties. At the most basic level, some authoritarian states directly fund friendly organizations and politicians. Russia has cultivated close ties with right-wing groups in Europe—groups it did not create but seeks to exploit. It has provided financial support to far-right parties such as France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik, has thrown its political support behind the far-right Alternative for Germany, and has signed cooperation deals with Austria’s Freedom Party and Italy's Northern League. China, for its part, does not limit itself to groups with which it shares ideological positions. It seeks influence among mainstream parties so that they pursue policies more favorable to its interests. This year, for example, a major controversy erupted in Australia over Australian Chinese businessmen connected to the Communist Party having channeled millions of dollars in donations to the country’s major political parties. And as the China analyst Christopher Johnson told the Financial Times, New Zealand’s recent investigation into a Chinese-born member of Parliament who trained at a top academy for Chinese military intelligence officers has turned the spotlight on Beijing’s efforts to “cultivat[e] people at [the] grassroots political levels of Western democracies and [help] them to reach positions of influence.” Some French observers, meanwhile, have claimed that former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement received illicit support from Libya and Qatar during his 2007 campaign. (A probe into those allegations is ongoing.) 

Donations sometimes produce explicit lobbying in favor of authoritarian interests, but more often they dull criticism.

The cultivation of alliances with Western politicians can secure preferential treatment, even when direct support is not involved. More than any other form of authoritarian influence, such interventions depend on Western officials’ own interest in pursuing them. In Italy, for example, Russia has courted figures from across the party spectrum who seek closer ties between Rome and Moscow. That appears to have helped ensure that Italy has acted as a chief critic of the EU’s sanctions against Russia.

The third arena in which authoritarian states seek influence is business. Governments invest in major sectors not just to make profits but also to gain leverage over host countries. China’s investments in Greece’s infrastructure offer one example. In recent years, Beijing has given the austerity-squeezed country a financial lifeline, investing heavily in the port of Piraeus, Greece’s biggest, as part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project. Those investments have provided China new access to top Greek decision-makers—and, by extension, a way to influence EU foreign policy as Greek officials take the interests of their country’s key investor into account. Angola’s acquisition of controlling stakes in Portuguese banks during the financial crisis, which gave the country privileged access to top Portuguese politicians, is another case.        

Resource-rich states trust oil and mining companies to lobby Western authorities on their behalf. And even when direct ownership is not involved, a company’s or sector’s reliance on authoritarian-backed clients can shape national policies. Russia’s construction of two nuclear reactors in Hungary, for example, has helped Russian President Vladimir Putin find a friendly ear in a country where most people have long been skeptical of Russia.

But perhaps the greatest consequence of the enmeshment of authoritarian interests in Western economies is the capture of the Western professionals who depend on their patronage. Service providers in banking, accounting, the law, and public relations are eager to meet authoritarian demand. This is a new normal—not only in London, where the trend has been particularly well documented, but in every Western capital, including Washington, where lobbyists such as Paul Manafort and the Podesta Group have worked on behalf of former Ukrainian President and Russia ally Viktor Yanukovych. Such professionals protect the interests of regimes and their elites and grant them access and respectability. Thus wealthy Russians have used London firms as back offices, turning the city into an educational hub for their children and a laundry for their money. Many of the links uncovered so far between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign similarly revolve around the economic interests of Putin’s kleptocracy.

Western professionals treat authoritarians as clients like any other. These relationships depend less on ideological affinities than on a banal alignment of interests: one that guarantees business for professionals and access and services for their clients.


Authoritarians’ most effective channels of influence are not the flashy interventions that have recently held the Western media’s attention. They are instead the stocks of power they have built up through political and economic investments. A good example was provided by the EU’s failure to agree on a joint statement criticizing China’s role in the standoff in the South China Sea last year. Hungary and Greece, in which China has invested heavily, dissented from a strongly worded draft put forward by other EU states. Similarly, this June, Greece blocked an EU statement condemning China’s human rights record. As China increases its investments abroad, these trends will deepen.

Stocks of influence can also contribute to authoritarian regimes’ prestige. Russia and China have benefited in this way, as has Qatar, which has secured some influence over French Middle East policy, a favorable regime for foreign direct investment, a measure of influence in the banlieues, and several high-status acquisitions, such as the football club Paris Saint-Germain.

As for turning Western societies in a more illiberal direction, foreign influence tends to deepen domestic trends that are already eroding trust in liberal democracy. When Western elites appear to be up for sale (as in the case of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was nominated to head the board of the Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft), it feeds the perception that democratic leaders are no more virtuous than the elites of kleptocracies. Active measures, such as the Russian operation around the U.S. election, can worsen political polarization, even if they do not create it, and propaganda from outlets such as RT feeds audiences that already distrust mainstream news sources. In those efforts, authoritarian states often seek to exploit ethnic minorities. Moscow rallied Russian speakers in Germany around the story of a Russian German girl who falsely claimed to have been raped by migrants, for example, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to mobilize parts of Europe’s Turkish-speaking communities against their governments and in support of his authoritarian consolidation of power.

Saif al-Qaddafi at a charity gala in Berlin, February 2008. 
Tobias Schwarz / REUTERS

All of this is cause for concern. At the same time, it is important to recognize that many attempts at influence do not bear fruit—often thanks to political backlash. Qatar’s closeness to Sarkozy and the special treatment it garnered led to an outburst of hostile investigative journalism, turning Qatar into a bête noire among the French public. Angola’s blunt exercise of power in crisis-ridden Portugal produced an unprecedented surge of judicial activism in the years after 2012, which exposed Angolan oligarchs’ money laundering and some Portuguese elites’ complicity in it. Despite Moscow’s efforts to invest in ties with German businesses and policymakers, Berlin decided to support sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, Russia’s actions during the 2016 U.S. election had a number of unintended side effects. At first, those effects were good for Russia, since Trump’s choices—such as his unwillingness to point a finger at Moscow—drove a wedge between the White House and the U.S. intelligence services.  But that benefit has since been outweighed by the anti-Russian backlash on the part of the Democratic Party, large parts of the U.S. political establishment, and American lawmakers, who have imposed new sanctions on Russia. And although Trump’s equivocation about the U.S. commitment to NATO is welcome in Moscow, it has not been matched by a U.S.-Russian deal acknowledging Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe.


Deterring China, Russia, and others from trying to influence liberal democracies won’t work. Threats of massive retaliation are an unrealistic and inappropriate response to the many influencing efforts that are technically legal, since they can lead to counterproductive escalations. Officials should reserve promises of punishment for the most egregious breaches, such as attempts to tamper with the electoral process by hacking voting machines.

Democracies should tackle the mechanisms of authoritarian influence head-on. As they do so, liberal states need to make sure they do not turn themselves into closed societies for fear of foreign influence. (Hungary and Israel have recently made this mistake, passing laws that target foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, many of which are critical of the authorities.)  Even introducing a form of reciprocity—under which Western states would allow Chinese media, say, to operate only in the West if Beijing did the same for Western journalists in China—would be misguided, especially when it concerns questions of liberal countries’ values. It would put open societies on the same footing as authoritarian states without seriously changing their calculus: if pushed, most illiberal governments would choose the more restrictive path and drag democratic governments down with them.

The right way to handle the problem is through transparency requirements, regulations, and campaigns to build public awareness, all of which make use of one of democracies’ key advantages: critical public debate. When the mechanisms and effects of authoritarian influencing are exposed, it politicizes the issue, stripping authoritarian governments of the free pass they too often enjoy.

The United States and EU governments should require firms and consultants competing for government contracts to disclose their previous business relationships, including with clients from authoritarian states, and they should force lobbyists to make similar disclosures. Nonprofits, sports clubs, faith groups, universities, and political parties should likewise be required to come clean about funding they receive and the conditions attached to it.

Open societies should welcome foreign investments, but their governments should bar the foreign takeover of companies in crucial sectors.

At the same time, activist groups must aggressively seek to raise public awareness of the problem, making use of the data governments should force firms to disclose about their relationships with authoritarian clients or donors. And government agencies should take into account the degree to which candidates for public tenders may have been compromised by work for authoritarians. All of this would increase the costs for enablers in the West by exposing them to the court of public opinion. As shown by the case of the British public relations firm Bell Pottinger—which recently went bankrupt after it was revealed to have run a racially charged campaign in South Africa—companies’ bottom lines are vulnerable when they receive such hearings. Finally, because transparency measures and public campaigns can’t uncover everything, journalists and academics should work together to do so, as Cooley and Heathershaw have suggested.

Public awareness is not a panacea, but it can help make societies more resilient. Consider the recent experiences of France and Germany, where this year political and intelligence officials sought to acclimate the public to the possibility that outsiders would seek to meddle in their elections. France was prepared for the outbreak of the so-called #MacronLeaks, which occurred just before the first round of France’s presidential elections in April and were meant to undermine Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy. The German public is unlikely to be caught off-guard if there are similar attempts to exploit hacked data from politicians ahead of this month’s election. It also helps when officials swiftly debunk lies spread on social media and when news outlets carefully assess the veracity of leaked documents, which can be tampered with or forged.

Officials should introduce regulations that eliminate vulnerabilities and cut off channels of influence. First, they should shore up the critical infrastructure of their democracies: their political parties, legislatures, and ministries. Democracies should institute rules that mandate a high level of cybersecurity measures across such institutions to better protect them from hacks. Right now, the safeguards fall far short. And although Western states should not apply a blanket stigma to foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, they should not hesitate to close down institutions that act badly (for example, by harassing the critics of their allies, as some organizations in Austria and Germany have done on Erdogan’s behalf).

Democracies should prohibit their political parties from receiving foreign funding. And while open societies should welcome foreign investments, their governments must also bar the foreign takeover of companies in crucial sectors, such as high technology, public infrastructure, and the media. That would safeguard their intellectual property, strip foreign governments of the political leverage associated with owning big utilities, and protect the independence of news outlets. That the EU is moving toward a tougher screening process for foreign investment is a good start.

More broadly, liberal states need to stop the infiltration of dirty authoritarian money and the complicity of Western professionals in laundering it. That means ending hidden ownership and other vehicles authoritarians use to shield their assets in the West and pursuing the kind of judicial activism that is uncovering the trail of Angolan money in Portugal. Democracies’ provision of a safe haven for money and assets stolen from the populations of authoritarian states is morally indefensible.

Twenty years ago, the German British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf argued that "a century of authoritarianism is by no means the most unlikely prospect for the twenty-first century." Preventing that outcome from materializing is the central task of open societies today. Internal illiberal challenges pose the greatest threat—but they must not be fortified from without. The first order of business must be to disrupt the all-too-smooth links between authoritarian states and their enablers among Western elites and to regulate the one-sided openness that allows authoritarians to influence liberal democracies. Only if this first line of defense holds will open societies be in a position to stand up for their values, curtail the international influence of authoritarians, and hinder their ability to oppress and rob their citizens.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • THORSTEN BENNER is Director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @thorstenbenner. Research for this article was funded by Stiftung Mercator.

  • More By Thorsten Benner