Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
All around the world, authoritarian governments are interfering with the institutions of democratic societies in ways that would have been unthinkable even during the Cold War. Universities, news organizations, think tanks, film studios, museums, publishing houses, and every aspect of the political process are being targeted by outside influence. This kind of sharp power is so effective because institutions in democratic settings are open to the outside world and thus vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Policymakers within democracies need to grapple with the challenge of repelling outside influence while upholding essential democratic values.
Australia offers a good case study. On June 28, the Australian parliament voted to adopt two new bills to contend with the threat of foreign political interference, which the bills defined as efforts that are covert, corrupting, or coercive. Although recent attention to meddling by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) motivated the legislation, the new laws do not single out any specific country. The first, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018, updates the categories of behavior that constitute espionage and increases the state’s legal capacity to prosecute covert and deceptive conduct on behalf of a “foreign principal,” that is, a foreign government, political organization, or public enterprise, as well as individuals and entities connected to them.
Its companion, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018, requires people who carry out certain specified activities on behalf of a foreign principal to register their relationship and disclose the nature of their activities. A proposed third piece of legislation, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, would prohibit political candidates from receiving campaign donations from abroad and create a public registry of non-party political actors, such as political campaigners, third-party campaigners, and associated entities. Parliament has not yet acted on the bill due to concerns that labor unions and nonprofits may face onerous registration and reporting requirements, but it has generated significant public debate and prompted some state governments to increase political donation disclosure requirements.
Australia’s civil society and media have played a vital role in the conversation about authoritarian interference and other harmful forms of influence. They have documented authoritarian activities, communicated them to the public, and vigorously debated the proposed legislation. Over the past several months, Australian universities, schools, China scholars, and other groups in civil society have voiced their varying levels of concern over, criticism of, and support for the laws. Australian and international media outlets have extensively covered the various drafts of the legislation. International human rights organizations have weighed in, too.
The issue has divided Australia’s scholarly community. Two groups of academics issued separate public letters, one expressing concern about the tone and precision of the public discussion, the other registering support for the debate as “valuable and necessary.” Some in civil society, as well as some opposition politicians, were concerned that the laws would define political interference too broadly, thus impinging on freedoms of expression and association.
As a result, the two laws passed in June incorporated over 200 amendments aimed at safeguarding civil and political freedoms. Although the amendments may not address every possible concern, the new laws will allow Australia to begin taking meaningful action against foreign interference while reserving the possibility of fixing legal problems that arise.
Yet Australia’s experience also shows that democracies cannot rely solely on governmental measures to address such a complex challenge. The world is still at an early stage of dealing with sharp power. For many years, Australia, and virtually every other democracy, did not recognize the growing problem or take the initiative to address it. For too long, observers in democracies interpreted authoritarian influence through an outdated lens, even as China and Russia embedded themselves in democratic societies as part of the autocratic regimes’ broader internationalist turn. As we noted in Foreign Affairs last November, China, in particular, has established platforms for educational, cultural, and other forms of influence within democratic societies. Such initiatives tend to be “accompanied by an authoritarian determination to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions.”
Because sharp power can affect democratic institutions so subtly and in so many different ways, understanding how it works is a tricky business. For instance, China’s authorities can disguise state- or party-directed projects as private media firms or grassroots associations. The CCP can also use academic exchange programs and other forms of institutional cooperation to disseminate its propaganda. Our analysis of Beijing’s various influence initiatives suggests that the CCP seeks to preempt, neutralize, or minimize challenges to the regime’s presentation of itself. The Chinese government often portrays the country as a benign influence, yet it systematically discourages anyone from challenging its standing or positions, which can lead people and organizations to censor themselves, even when the Chinese government cannot censor them directly.
Democracies need better ways of responding. In the past, leaders of important public institutions—publishers, university administrators, media executives—did not need to take into account the prospect of censorship or manipulation by external authoritarian forces. Today, they must renew their commitment to democratic values and free expression. The institutions they run should establish common standards and transparency measures to reduce their exposure to sharp power and safeguard their integrity. Universities, especially public ones, might commit to publishing any contracts they have entered into with foreign governments or entities connected with foreign governments. Private-sector groups could adopt voluntary codes drawing from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or help set up new initiatives with other parts of civil society to discuss private and public responses to manipulation by authoritarian powers.
The same holds true for electoral systems. Until recently, election observers focused on upholding standards in countries where governments might seek to rig the election process. Today, democracies also need to defend their electoral systems from external attacks. Such measures could include ensuring that governments share up-to-date information about hacking efforts with local authorities and equipping journalists with the knowledge they need to report accurately on the types of foreign disinformation tactics that typically spike before elections.
In many democracies that are vulnerable to sharp power, there is a severe shortage of information about influence efforts by China, Russia, and other authoritarian governments. Attempts by these regimes to curb free expression and corrode democratic institutions need to be rigorously documented in order to create a shared understanding of the challenge. That will require independent sources of expertise, such as academic centers, media outlets, and think tanks that are unbeholden to authoritarian governments’ agendas and that can understand authoritarians’ political objectives and monitor their influence activities. Such support is especially important in democracies in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America that may be less able to defend their norms and institutions themselves.
Journalists, civil society organizations, and country and subject matter experts must work together—within their own countries and with international counterparts—to analyze events, share information, and combine expertise. They should consider how they can agree upon common institutional standards to safeguard the integrity of the public sphere within their democracies.
Australia’s new laws, and those that other democracies are bound to debate and adopt, may prove essential to defending against corrosive forms of authoritarian influence. But they need to be the beginning, not the end, of the fight against sharp power.