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In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a foreign power managed to exert what seemed like unprecedented influence over the sacred rites of American democracy. On social media, a legion of paid Russian trolls sowed discord, spreading pernicious falsehoods about the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and seeking to boost turnout for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Powerful Russians close to the Kremlin sought out contact with Trump and his courtiers, dangling the promise of damaging information about Clinton. State-sponsored hackers stole and leaked her campaign aides’ private emails. They went on to target election systems in all 50 states and even managed to infiltrate voter databases.
The meddling set alarm bells ringing. “We have been attacked; we are at war,” the actor Morgan Freeman solemnly announced in a video in 2017 released by a group calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia, which was backed by old U.S. intelligence hands such as James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA. A New York Times headline announced that “Russian cyberpower” had “invaded” the United States. Foreign policy experts predicted a coming wave of digital subversion, led by authoritarian states targeting their democratic rivals. “This digital ecosystem creates opportunities for manipulation that have exceeded the ability of democratic nations to respond, and sometimes even to grasp the extent of the challenge,” Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution testified before a congressional committee in 2019. “All democracies are current or potential future targets.”
U.S. policymakers scrambled to react. In its final months, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats, seized Russian diplomatic property, and pledged that the United States would retaliate at a time and place of its choosing. In 2018, Congress created an entirely new agency—the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of the Department of Homeland Security—to prevent similar intrusions in the future.
The 2016 election may have been a rude wake-up call, but no one should have been surprised. Russia’s operation was just the latest instance of a pattern that stretches back in history as far as the eye can see. Subversion—domestic interference to undermine or manipulate a rival—has always been a part of great-power politics. What stands out as an anomaly is the brief period of extraordinary U.S. dominance, beginning after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States appeared immune to malicious meddling by peer competitors, in large part because there weren’t any. Now, that dominance is beginning to wane. Great-power competition has returned—and with it, so has great-power subversion.
In international relations, subversion is best understood as the practice of trying to gain an advantage by directly influencing a foreign country’s domestic politics against its wishes. By manipulating events inside another country’s borders, a subverter hopes to change the policy of an existing regime—or change the regime itself. Subversion combines the aggression of war and the stealth of espionage but fits into neither category neatly. It lacks the overt nature of combat and military threats, the passive nature of espionage and intelligence gathering, and the arm’s-length politesse of diplomacy and coercion. It is secret, active, and transgressive.
Subversion can be classified into three levels of severity. The first level involves propaganda, a tactic as old as speech itself. In 1570, when Pope Pius V issued his papal bull declaring Queen Elizabeth I a heretic and calling on good English Catholics to remove her from the throne, he was engaging in subversive propaganda. The same was true during the Cold War when Radio Liberty beamed anticommunist broadcasts into the Soviet Union. Level 1 subversion can entail one state’s open endorsement of opposition candidates or parties in another country’s election, as when Stalin publicly backed the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace in his run against U.S. President Harry Truman in 1948.
It can also include undermining an incumbent. In nineteenth-century Europe, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck disagreed so strongly with British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s approach to European affairs that he embarked on a quest to destroy Gladstone’s reputation at home—a smear campaign of anti-Gladstone propaganda. As Bismarck’s son Herbert put it in an 1884 letter, the plan was to “squash Gladstone against the wall, so that he can yap no more.” The prime minister’s prestige, he added, “will vanish even among the masses of the stupid English electorate.”
Ramping things up a notch brings one to Level 2 subversion. This form is always covert, and it includes disinformation, a more muscular version of propaganda. In the 1980s, for example, the KGB, working with the East German Stasi, spread the rumor that HIV had been developed in the United States as part of a biological weapons program; they planted the story in an Indian newspaper in 1983, and it was eventually picked up by mainstream media elsewhere. Within two years, the story had spread across Africa and beyond, and it still has believers today. Forgery is a common tactic of Level 2 subversion. After Pope John Paul II was attacked by a gunman in 1981, KGB operatives released fake documents purporting to come from the U.S. embassy in Rome that implied Washington was behind the assassination attempt. The creation of fake personas, most recently online, is another tactic—and not one that was invented by Russia in 2016. Beginning as early as 2011, the U.S. military undertook such activities in the fight against terrorism, developing software to create fake foreign-language accounts to counter extremism online.
The 2016 election may have been a rude wake-up call, but no one should have been surprised.
Level 2 subversion can also include covert offers of money or material support to opposition forces or interest groups. With help from abroad, the subverting state hopes, these groups might be able to change foreign policy or sow discord in the target country. Thucydides recounts that in the fifth century BC, Athens dangled the promise of financial aid from Persia to conspirators on the island of Samos in an attempt to overthrow its democracy. The Athenians “urged the most powerful men in Samos itself to work with them to try and establish an oligarchy there, despite the fact that the Samians had just been through an internal uprising to avoid being governed by an oligarchy,” he wrote. More recently, in the United Kingdom in 1929, the Soviets gave a secret subsidy to the Labour Party, which, in a coalition with the Liberal Party, subsequently won enough votes in parliamentary elections to form a government.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to help U.S. presidential candidates it thought would be friendlier, directly approaching Adlai Stevenson in 1960 with a blanket offer of support and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 with financial help for his cash-strapped campaign. (Both candidates politely refused the offers.) Moscow also worked to undermine candidates deemed hostile. In 1984, the KGB embarked on an across-the-board effort, involving agents of influence, front organizations, and disinformation, to convince the American public that Ronald Reagan’s reelection would mean war. Outside the electoral system, the KGB sought to radicalize the U.S. civil rights movement in order to sow domestic instability. It tried to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., by releasing compromising information about him, and it connived to promote more radical civil rights leaders. Around the same time, of course, the CIA was bolstering dissidents in the Soviet Union, smuggling in banned materials and providing money, public relations services, and publishing outlets to Russian, Ukrainian, and Baltic nationalists, as well as reform-minded Communists.
Level 3 subversion is violent: arming and funding insurgents, sabotaging infrastructure, and assassinating opponents. When Protestants in the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule in the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth I secretly helped them pay for thousands of Swiss and other troops to come fight for the Protestant cause. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Soviet Union provided money and arms to the Irish Republican Army, bedeviling officials in London, who scrambled to stanch the flow. In the early Cold War, the United States tried to subvert the Soviet Union by funneling logistical and material support to insurgents in the Baltic states and Ukraine. It tried a similar tactic against communist China, supporting rebels in Tibet.
At all three levels, the goals of subversion can vary. Subversive activities may be used to weaken a target by sowing internal discord so that it is distracted from pursuing its interests on some other front. This is what Elizabeth I was doing when she funded mercenaries to aid Dutch Protestant rebels—she hoped Spain would become consumed with the uprising and shelve its plans to restore Catholicism in England by securing her overthrow—and what Russia is attempting today with its support for populist nationalist movements in Western democracies. Alternatively, a country may intend to change another country’s foreign policy by secretly supporting one side of a domestic debate. During the Cold War, Moscow provided, through its front organizations, logistical, organizational, and financial support to the peace movement in the West. More recently, it may have interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum, encouraging the British public to vote to leave the EU.
Sometimes, subversion has a maximalist goal: changing the nature of the regime itself. In 1875, Bismarck engineered a war scare, insinuating that Germany was about to launch a preventive attack against France. His goal was to frighten French voters away from choosing conservative monarchists, whose victory seemed to promise a more formidable great-power competitor across the Rhine. The gambit worked. The French press soon took to calling Bismarck “the Great Elector of France.”
There’s a reason states have turned to subversion so often throughout history: it’s much less costly and risky than conventional statecraft. Subversion to weaken a rival is a cheap alternative to balancing and war. Subversion to change a rival’s policy is a cheap alternative to coercion, deterrence, or diplomacy. Why raise an army and invade an adversary when you can spread propaganda, pay off politicians, or dispatch Internet trolls to achieve subtler but still tangible gains? Why entangle yourself in risky alliances or bankrupt yourself building up the means to contain a rival if you can simply join forces with a faction on the inside, eager for your help and intent on directing that rival’s power elsewhere? Even when subversion achieves less than traditional statecraft would, it can still be attractive. After all, in the competitive environment of great-power rivalry, each state faces incentives to weaken the other. And since great powers dominate international politics, even a small effect on a big target might be worth the effort.
Subversion also promises flexibility: a state can put pressure on an adversary to change its behavior without having to lob artillery over the border or offer costly inducements or concessions. If things get hot, subversion can be dialed down or denied, giving the subverter much more room for maneuver in a changing environment. It would be a foolish general who would start a war just to see how far he could get, but a subverter can do just that. Subversion can act as a safety valve, venting some of the fears and frustrations that drive states to attack one another. It is a seductive measure short of war; if the costs of conflict are prohibitively high, subversion promises an alternative method of advancing one’s position.
Subversion, in other words, is the hyena of international relations. It skulks around the edges of the legitimate world, waiting to take advantage of confusion or weakness but lacking the courage to attack in the open. And just as the hyena fills a key position in nature’s food chain, subversion has an important role to play in international statecraft. In many cases, it lets states avoid the dichotomous choice between war and peace, allowing them to play out their rivalries in unsettling but perhaps less dangerous ways.
Subversion allows victims to act with restraint, too. Great powers at the receiving end of it may hold back precisely because they find this form of statecraft useful themselves and are reluctant to take measures that might permanently remove it from the toolkit. From today’s vantage point, the Reagan administration’s reaction to the KGB’s ramped-up political warfare in the 1980s seems mild: merely the creation of an interagency group meant to publicize Soviet disinformation campaigns. One reason for the restraint may have been that the United States was busy subverting the Soviet Union at the same time. A declassified paper from 1987 outlines a CIA program “designed to exploit the current Soviet policy of ‘glasnost’ and the revolution in electronic communications, two phenomena which offer an unprecedented opportunity for our covert action program to impact on Soviet audiences.” Another declassified document, this one recounting a 1987 White House meeting, reveals that the U.S. government printed pamphlets falsely labeled as coming from a Communist youth organization. “Six thousand copies were infiltrated into the Soviet Union,” the document reads, “claiming to support Gorbachev’s reform program, but demanding democratic reforms well beyond what the regime will tolerate.” No wonder the Reagan administration showed little interest in punishing Moscow for similar behavior.
Subversion is the hyena of international relations.
Those are the benefits of subversion, but it has its share of costs, too. The most obvious one is retaliation, and the bigger the target, the bigger the retaliation. Escalation, both accidental and intentional, is a real danger, particularly with Level 3 subversion, when a target’s redline might be crossed or actors on the ground might exceed their brief.
Much less obvious, but possibly much more important, is the potential destruction of trust that comes with subversion. Trust is crucial in international relations. Even between bitter foes, a modicum of trust allows for cooperation and de-escalation. Subversion risks shattering it, and it can do so much more easily than traditional moves such as military buildups or the forging of new alliances, which promise harm only if the target makes a future move in the wrong direction.
Subversion is also a poor choice for signaling one’s intentions. It is usually far safer and easier to try to alter another state’s behavior by building up one’s own power or wielding traditional carrots and sticks. Through such traditional statecraft, a state can signal that it is not unalterably hostile to a rival but rather only preparing to impose costs should the rival undertake some further action. Subversion, however, makes such a message much harder to send. Once the subversion has been done, there is no way for the subverter to claim that it is not inherently hostile and no way for the target to alter its behavior to avoid punishment. The fact that subversion is usually denied by the perpetrator complicates matters further. It’s hard for a government to pretend it isn’t doing something while also offering to stop doing it.
Another cost is less tangible and more debatable. Governments that resort to subversion may face opprobrium for breaking one of the most cherished norms of international relations: sovereignty. This norm, often dated to the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, holds that states have the ultimate authority within their territory and thus that other states must not interfere in it. For many scholars, it is axiomatic that the consequences of violating this norm act as a brake on subversion. But as realists point out, what really matters is the capacity of states to enforce their sovereignty, not the norm itself. After all, states resented their rivals’ hostile activities on their territory long before rules against such behavior were established at Westphalia. And there has been plenty of subversion since, even by states that claim to revere the norm of sovereignty. Norms are a malleable constraint.
At some point, of course, the costs of subversion outweigh the benefits, and a state decides to hold back. The trick for potential subverters is to correctly calculate the costs, especially the potential for retaliation. After all, one state’s minor irritation could be another state’s redline.
When a great power is facing off against a weaker one, the cost-benefit calculation routinely skews in favor of the great power, so the stronger state can be expected to use subversion if the disagreement is deep enough. There are plenty of examples of subversion flourishing when such a power imbalance exists, from the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to the United States in Iran and Chile. The political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke have counted over 100 instances since 1816 in which one country tried to impose regime change on another. Not surprisingly, none occurred between great-power peers in peacetime. After all, regime change is serious business. If a great power initiates actions to try to bring about regime change in a peer country, the two states are almost by definition already at war—or will be soon.
In wartime, however, the calculus changes, because most of the costs are inoperative. Retaliation and escalation are less relevant concerns when a war has already started; fears that a reputation for subversion might impede cooperation fall by the wayside. And so great powers tend to go at one another with gusto in the heat of battle. France and the United Kingdom undertook frenetic efforts to subvert each other during the Napoleonic Wars, when they empowered sympathetic political forces in each other’s territory. During World War I, Germany had an extensive program of subversion against tsarist Russia, which culminated in the train trip it arranged to bring Vladimir Lenin to Petrograd’s Finland Station, sparking the revolution that took Russia out of the war. In World War II, Germany cultivated fifth columns—foreign citizens whose loyalties lay with their government’s enemies—to undermine France and the Soviet Union.
But among great-power rivals not at war, subversion is normally kept to a simmer—useful and ubiquitous, but not a game-changer. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Austrian, German, and Russian empires worried that France or the United Kingdom might threaten their territorial integrity by supporting Polish independence. But their fears never materialized, because leaders in Paris and London knew that the empires would likely go to war to prevent the creation of an independent Poland. Over the same period, the United Kingdom worried that Russia would weaken the British position in India, with the goal of adding it to its growing empire, but Russia declined to do so. In all these cases, states had daggers at the hearts of their great-power rivals, but they decided not to use them. In a time of peace, the costs were simply too large: the destruction of trust and the very real possibility of retaliation and escalation. Great powers are hard targets.
This is the pattern, but there are variations. A great power will often take a shot if its rival is weakened. In 464 BC, when a devastating earthquake in Sparta led to a revolt, Sparta asked other Greek cities for help subduing the rebellion but rejected a contingent of 4,000 Athenians for fear that they would switch sides and aid the rebels. (Thucydides noted that the Athenians’ “enterprising and revolutionary character” posed a particular threat.) In 1875, France was reeling from defeat and occupation in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War when Bismarck decided to manipulate its domestic politics. Communist China was still recovering from revolution and war in the 1950s when the CIA armed and advised a Nationalist army in Burma that staged repeated incursions into China’s Yunnan Province.
Another source of variation is the degree to which a target is able to be subverted—namely, the prevalence of sympathetic agents that enjoy legitimacy and political sway in the target country. During the Cold War, a worldwide network of communist parties stoked hope in Moscow and fear in Western capitals. The French Communist Party, for example, enjoyed widespread popularity and made the support of Soviet interests a key part of its identity. The party stood ready to act on Stalin’s orders, as it did when it organized mass strikes in opposition to the Marshall Plan. France, its power diminished by World War II, could not credibly deter Moscow from influencing the party, so it was left playing defense against this domestic threat, which often meant violently repressing French Communists. But soon, the subversion subsided. Under Charles de Gaulle, the French government presented itself to the Kremlin as a far more valuable diplomatic prize than anything the French Communists could offer, relegating the party to a sideshow for the rest of the Cold War.
Among great-power rivals not at war, subversion is normally kept to a simmer—useful and ubiquitous, but not a game-changer.
Subversion also rises and falls with the state of relations between two great powers. The more intense a rivalry is, the less a would-be subverter worries about destroying its reputation for trustworthiness; the prospect of cooperation is already low. This was precisely the way the American diplomat George Kennan viewed the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. Kennan saw subversion as having few downsides—it was certainly cheaper and less risky than preventive war or permanent European alliances—which is why he argued for making subversion a centerpiece of U.S. strategy. And so in a top-secret memo to the president in 1948, he advised Washington to “encourage the development among the Russian peoples of attitudes which may help to modify current Soviet behavior and permit a revival of the national life of groups evidencing the ability and determination to achieve and maintain national independence”—in other words, fan the flames of nationalism, and thus secessionism, in the Soviet Union in an effort to cause Moscow to stand down in the Cold War.
Ultimately, however, the Soviet Union under Stalin proved too hard a target, and one whose threat to escalate in response was too credible. Kennan had overestimated the popularity of Stalin’s opponents and underestimated the dictator’s ability to crush them. In time, American diplomats came to believe that Level 3 subversion would make it impossible to carry on necessary diplomacy with Moscow, and so Washington focused on Level 1 and 2 subversion for the rest of the Cold War. (Never again, for example, did it attempt to infiltrate armed insurgents into Soviet territory. A dalliance with Pakistan during the 1980s to dispatch CIA-backed Afghan mujahideen into Soviet Tajikistan was cut short for precisely these reasons.) China, by contrast, was a much more enticing target. It was far weaker than the Soviet Union, and there was less diplomatic interaction to worry about preserving. Accordingly, the CIA aided Tibetan insurgents from the late 1950s through the 1960s. The operation was shelved only when President Richard Nixon made his diplomatic overture to Beijing in 1972.
Variation in great powers’ use of subversion also depends on their comparative advantage: states choose subversion to the degree that it seems attractive in relation to the other tools at their disposal. If influence can be gained overtly and cheaply, subversion loses some of its luster. In the early Cold War, the United States felt it had very few options to influence the Soviet Union, so subversion loomed large in the minds of U.S. statesmen of that day. Later, as the diplomatic and trade agenda expanded, Washington had more tools to exert pressure on Moscow. And in the unipolar era, with democracy on the march, the United States saw even less need for subversion. Far better, policy-makers thought, to fund nongovernmental organizations to spread democracy than put that task on the CIA. As Allen Weinstein, co-founder of the National Endowment for Democracy, admitted in 1991, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
Finally, the emergence of new technologies can temporarily upset the cost-benefit calculation by offering a novel opportunity to give subversion a try. Johannes Gutenberg’s perfection of his printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century set off a revolution in the mass distribution of information and ideas, including an event that was profoundly subversive to the Catholic authorities and unleashed the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. A few decades later, the invention of increasingly powerful gunpowder and the wheel-lock pistol allowed an assassin with a handgun unique and deadly access to his target. William I of the Netherlands met this fate in 1584, prompting Queen Elizabeth I to ban mechanical firearms within 500 yards of a royal palace.
But with time, newly soft targets were hardened. The printed pamphlet begot censorship and counterpropaganda; the pistol, armor and bodyguards. This cycle has repeated itself throughout history. There was a time when U.S. officials thought that radio broadcasts would be a potent tool to undermine the Soviet Union. Then it was Xerox machines, followed by personal computers. But each time, Moscow was able to respond, jamming radio broadcasts and controlling access to copying machines and other technology. The pendulum always swings back.
Viewed in the context of this long history, the events of 2016 don’t seem so abnormal. The United States, lulled into a sense of security by its post–Cold War dominance, let down its guard and ignored warnings to boost critical infrastructure ahead of the election. A new technology—the Internet—created a temporary imbalance by offering a novel, cheap, and powerful weapon of subversion for a fellow great power to try out. In the aftermath, the target state now finds itself scrambling to strengthen its defenses and devise new ways to retaliate and raise the costs of subversion. History suggests that it would take a severe weakening of one of the great powers of today to make it truly vulnerable to subversion. Barring war, revolution, or state breakdown, none of the great powers—not the United States or China or Russia—is likely to reach the low that, say, France did after its war with Prussia, when Bismarck was able to meddle so effectively. Great powers must become extraordinarily weak for subversion against them to become a game-changer.
Still, lesser degrees of influence and meddling will be more prevalent in the future than in the past quarter century, purely because the world has returned to normality after an anomalous period of extraordinary U.S. dominance. Subversion, in other words, has reclaimed its rightful place among the various tools of statecraft. But it is also being aided by other recent trends. One is the increasingly ideological color that current rivalries are taking on, with the issues at stake not merely the national interests of the opposing powers but also their very systems of government. As in the religious wars of the sixteenth century or the Cold War of the twentieth, when rivals view one another as illegitimate, they will more readily embrace subversion. Another trend is the rise of centrifugal forces in the United States. New areas of dissensus around political and economic equality will multiply the number of aggrieved groups and open up new areas of vulnerability. With the American public unreconciled and the wounds of the Trump era still raw, the country’s foes will have new opportunities for subversion.
But again, ’twas ever thus. States will always suffer from internal vulnerabilities that can be exploited by outside actors. Russian President Vladimir Putin is happy to benefit from the fact that in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, although a deeply rooted indigenous movement, happens to share Russia’s interest in weakening the European project. In the 1980s, the Soviets saw an opportunity in bolstering authentic Western peace activists who opposed new missile deployments in Europe and advocated a nuclear freeze. Similarly, U.S. officials did not hesitate to take advantage of a confluence of interests with uncompromising liberal reformers in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. The convergence mindset of the post–Cold War era—the idea that history is on the side of democracy and American power—must give way to a frank appreciation of the reality of competition.
The history of subversion should also offer reason to relax about new technologies. Someday, no doubt, a subverter will wield a new technology that yet again sets alarm bells ringing. From the printing press to radio, from the mimeograph machine to the Internet, technological change has invariably opened up new avenues for manipulation and subversion—and set off renewed handwringing and teeth gnashing. In recent years, deepfakes—fake video clips that look real—have raised the prospect of frighteningly convincing disinformation. But states will find a way to push back, perhaps harnessing the very artificial intelligence used to create deepfakes as a tool for their destruction.
States will always suffer from internal vulnerabilities that can be exploited by outside actors.
Those worried about subversion should also remember that politics and statecraft can still keep it under control. Subversion is the continuation of great-power rivalry by other means, and the nature of the emerging rivalries between the United States and both China and Russia shows a reassuring need for a great deal of cooperation. On climate change, arms control, and nuclear proliferation, the great powers will be forced to work together. Much of what China and Russia want to achieve on the world stage will require bargaining with the United States and its allies. And both Beijing and Moscow surely realize that if they rely on subversion to the point where their trustworthiness is destroyed, the possibility of dealmaking will disappear. The old rules of cost-benefit calculation will still apply, preventing subversion from running rampant.
Moreover, as authoritarian states, China and Russia have unique vulnerabilities in the subversion game. The openness of democratic societies does make them softer targets, but repressive regimes are more brittle. Witness Beijing’s and Moscow’s desperate attempts to curtail Internet freedoms. Or consider their extreme sensitivity to Western governments’ efforts to support human rights, promote democracy, and combat corruption around the world. While most democracies would consider those endeavors relatively mild stuff, from the perspective of Beijing or Moscow, they look deeply subversive and threatening. This is to be expected, because authoritarian regimes almost always have a legitimacy problem. They know that grassroots opposition to their system of government is more prevalent than grassroots opposition to democracy.
History can only interpret the past and help explain the present; it cannot predict what comes next. But to the extent that it is possible to divine the future of subversion, one thing above all seems clear: it will always be with us. Some level of meddling will forever accompany rivalry, because states, whether they admit it or not, find it useful. As with espionage, governments will remain reluctant to disarm themselves of a valuable tool of statecraft, no matter how much lip service they pay to norms and niceties. The world has not entered a new age of subversion. It never left the old one.