Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump clash with police at the west entrance of the Capitol during a "Stop the Steal" protest outside of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. U.S. January 2021
Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Two years ago, the United States’ democratic system of government faced an unprecedented test when supporters of President Donald Trump sought to overturn his election defeat—some through extralegal schemes, others through a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Since that historic low point, American democracy has begun to function better, and its prospects have begun to improve. The 2022 elections were conducted successfully and extreme election deniers lost in key swing states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol authoritatively documented the riots that attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election and former U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s role in fomenting them. In Brazil and France, candidates with dubious commitments to democracy were defeated in presidential elections, and peaceful elections were held in Colombia.

Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes are struggling. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calamitously conceived and executed war in Ukraine shattered the myth of a resurgent Moscow. China’s bid to become the world’s largest economy and most influential power has foundered on the shoals of President Xi Jinping’s disastrous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s real estate bubble, a 20 percent youth unemployment rate, a politically motivated crackdown on the private sector, and ballooning local government debt have further undermined Xi’s domestic appeal.

That said, although Beijing and Moscow are weakened, they still pose a serious threat to democracy. The more desperate their domestic problems become, the more they will need to discredit alternative systems of government and denigrate their democratic adversaries. It is for this reason that Beijing and Moscow are waging a global disinformation war that both exploits and heightens the fragility of American democracy. Within China and Russia, this disinformation war aims to suppress demands for democratic reforms by discrediting Western-style democracy. Globally, it seeks to install and support friendly governments, counter a growing sense that engagement with Beijing and Moscow has adverse consequences for local citizens, and ultimately create a new, fragmented international order that privileges “national sovereignty” over human rights.

Beijing and Moscow are helped in this task by the weakness of Western democracies. Trump continues to challenge the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and he could soon face criminal charges. The next two years on Capitol Hill could well be dominated by gridlock, purely partisan investigations and impeachment bids, and cynical new efforts to undermine, rather than restore, faith in the American electoral process. Social media remains a sewer of disinformation and conspiracy theorizing, and corporate efforts to moderate content have been inadequate. The assault on truth is about to get exponentially worse with the rapid advance of generative AI software, capable of producing deepfakes, in which public figures will be seen to be saying and doing things they never said or did. All of this is a godsend for the world’s two disinformation superpowers, China and Russia. The more credible the content, the more persuasive the propaganda.

Democratic erosion in the United States helps Beijing and Moscow discredit the idea of democracy. If American democracy is to serve, once again, as an example capable of inspiring others, it must be strengthened at home. Only then can Washington win the battle for global soft power.

SMEARING DEMOCRACY

“There are certain rules of any dictatorship,” the exiled Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, now chair of the Human Rights Foundation, once observed. Among the most important is “never save money on police or propaganda.” This rule serves as a lodestar for Chinese and Russian leaders. Beijing is pioneering pervasive digital surveillance, and Moscow has intensified its repression to contain opposition to the war in Ukraine. But all dictatorships require at least some degree of either popular support or acquiescence. When citizens evaluate their government’s performance, they compare it to that of other countries. That is why Beijing and Moscow devote roughly a fifth of domestic propaganda to foreign governments. They trash Western-style democracy as corrupt, unresponsive, and unworthy of sacrifice and claim that “real” democracy exists at home.

This is the first reason why democratic erosion in the United States advances the interests of Beijing and Moscow: it provides content for their domestic propaganda. At home, Putin’s narrative of international politics has three broad themes: democratic decay in the West, the failures of Western foreign policy, and the decline of the liberal international order. In 2016 and 2017, Trump featured in 80 percent of all international coverage in Russia. State media delighted in his predictions that the 2016 election would be rigged, reported on the U.S. electorate’s polarization, and suggested that the aftermath could turn violent. Following Trump’s 2016 election victory, it speculated that “the forces behind Hillary Clinton” could change the outcome. American elections, in this telling, are plagued by fraud and can easily be compromised.

European integration is also a target for Putin’s domestic propaganda, which it derides as an elite-driven project. The European Union, Russians are told, forces a “neoliberal ideology” on ordinary Europeans that is incompatible with the “traditional values” of “European civilization.” This elite is in thrall to the United States, not the European people. The desire to please Washington caused the migrant crisis of 2015 and numerous terrorist attacks. In Moscow’s telling, Washington’s dominance also produced the sanctions against Russia that have undermined the European economy. The heroes in this depiction of the struggle for Europe’s soul are its far-right, Euroskeptic parties, which are “challenging the dictatorship of liberal democracy” and saving their “compatriots from Brussels.” The European Union is “a house of cards” that will soon collapse.

The Chinese Communist Party takes a different approach. Although it routinely tells the Chinese people that democracy already exists in China, it refrains from covering international electoral politics in detail, lest it remind citizens of their inability to vote. Instead, it focuses on Washington’s corruption and inability to govern. “Electoral democracy in the United States,” the People’s Daily (the CCP’s official newspaper), observed in 2017, is “a money-burning contest between candidates, each of whom cater to the financial elite.” Since Democrats and Republicans rely on the same financial backers, “campaign platforms are gradually becoming similar.” With no real policy differences, “more time is spent on personal attacks than policy debates,” and “public opinion has little effect on government policy.” Meanwhile, Rome burns. America’s gun violence epidemic figured in five percent of the People’s Daily’s international coverage between 2016 and 2017. Following the spread of COVID-19, the newspaper told readers that “the epidemic went out of control and turned into a human tragedy due to the U.S. government’s reckless response.” On race, the People’s Daily’s warnings are near existential: “Racial discrimination is tearing the United States apart.”

The CCP’s propaganda apparatus emphasizes the flaws of other democracies, as well. Although it seldom covers Taiwan’s politics, since doing so might suggest that democracy could work on the mainland, it often states that “South Korea’s domestic politics is a mess.” In 2016 and 2017, it focused heavily on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye for corruption. But, as in Moscow, the CCP’s primary narrative focus is the failures of American democracy.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

Beijing and Moscow craft propaganda narratives not just for their own citizens but for a global audience, as well. As of 2015, Beijing allocated more than $10 billion annually to its global propaganda operations. In 2011, the Russian government spent at least $380 million on Russia Today (RT). Beijing and Moscow invest heavily in propaganda for foreign audiences because they need friendly governments abroad if they are to buttress their political positions at home, and ultimately to reshape the post–Cold War international order. This is why the disinformation war has gone global: to make the world safe for autocracy.

This desire underpins Russian and Chinese global propaganda. In response to years of sanctions and NATO expansion into eastern Europe, Moscow is committed to electing Western politicians whose dedication to democracy is shallow and who will acquiesce to Russia. Moscow is also keen to secure natural resources, especially Africa’s gold mines, which were used to insulate Putin’s government from sanctions in the run-up to the war in Ukraine. China has similar objectives. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is driven as much by the CCP’s domestic imperatives as by Xi’s geopolitical ambitions. It aims to stimulate foreign demand for domestic industry and to provide an outlet for foreign exchange reserves. Beijing and Moscow both want to fragment the Internet into national spheres of information that are easier to shape and censor and to eviscerate international norms of human rights and the rule of law. Their common goal is to create a new international order that will advance their domestic interests and global ambitions behind specious claims to “national sovereignty.”

In Africa, views of China have grown less favorable as engagement with China has deepened. Moscow’s record in Africa is even worse. Russian agents have helped prop up repressive governments, helped suppress popular protests, and committed atrocities, including a massacre that killed up to 380 people over a four-day period in Mali in March 2022. Such real assaults on national sovereignty are rarely reported in these lower-income countries, where Chinese and Russian propaganda pushes disinformation about Western transgressions. This perverse imbalance urgently needs correcting.

CCP propaganda has been shown to reduce support for democracy.
 

In Western democracies, the Putin government backed politicians including Trump in the United States, the nativist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France, and the xenophobic former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini in Italy. Putin also threw his support behind Brexit in the United Kingdom and the right-wing Alternative for Germany party. These individuals and political movements are skeptical about the post–Cold War international order and are unenthusiastic about promoting democracy abroad—and, in some cases, about democracy at home. Moscow has been even more brazen in its support for partner governments in the “global South,” producing action movies, erecting billboards, providing campaign finance, and waging the same social media campaigns.

Beijing’s global media footprint is larger than Moscow’s. In addition to its social media operations, Beijing operates English-language radio stations, prints a range of propaganda newspapers, provides free content to local newspapers, and has even purchased leading media platforms outright. Beijing’s propaganda promotes the “China Dream,” and declares that the CCP’s most egregious human rights violations—such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the ongoing genocide against ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang—are fictitious allegations spread by Western governments to undermine China.

It’s easy to dismiss the global disinformation war. “If Russia Today is Moscow’s propaganda arm,” The Washington Post claimed in 2017, “it’s not very good at its job.” But the evidence suggests otherwise. In the United States, exposure to RT leads Americans to support withdrawing from a position of global leadership. In Brazil, India, and South Africa, CCP propaganda has been shown to reduce support for democracy. In 19 countries across six continents, CCP messaging has been shown to triple the number of people who regarded the “China model” as superior to American-style liberal democracy.

THE HEALTH OF DEMOCRATIC NATIONS

The health of American democracy is both a domestic and a national security concern. China and Russia—the United States’ principal authoritarian adversaries—have been using (and exacerbating) America’s democratic divisions and travails to gain advantage in the competition for global leadership. To regain the advantage, the United States must both repair its own democracy and reinvigorate its voice for democracy in the global arena. Democracy must go on the offensive.

This will require a large investment in American soft power. Since 1980, U.S. government spending on public diplomacy peaked at $2.5 billion in 1994 (adjusted for inflation), and almost reached that level in 2010 and 2011. But since then, as the challenges have proliferated, American efforts have stagnated, with total spending reaching only $2.23 billion in 2020.

Washington must rejoin the battle for global soft power, in a manner that reflects American values. It must transmit the truth, and in ways that engage and persuade global audiences. The goal must be not only to counter disinformation persuasively with the truth but to promote democratic values, ideas, and movements. In order to counter disinformation and report the truth that autocracies suppress, multiple credible streams of information are needed. Furthermore, they must be independent; while the U.S. government may provide material support, these outlets must operate free of editorial control. That way, they will be seen to be independent because they are.

One possibility would be to transform the Voice of America into something more closely resembling the British Broadcasting Corporation. It should have a mission to model the values of the American democratic experiment by providing fully independent reporting on countries around the world, including the United States. But winning the information war requires more than truth, independence, and professionalism in reporting. It also requires a pluralistic and decentralized web of quality media. Local journalists in autocracies are uniquely well placed to document and disseminate evidence of corruption, human rights abuses, and egregious policy errors. The United States and its democratic allies need to elevate and empower besieged local media that are struggling to report the news and convey critical commentary in the absence of media freedom. This will require billions of dollars in funding for public interest media around the world (including media working in exile), much of which should be channeled through the nongovernmental International Fund for Public Interest Media. The fund is an apolitical consortium of international foundations that can finance local independent media while ensuring their autonomy.

The United States cannot challenge autocracies if it degenerates into a collection of one-party states.

In concert with its democratic partners, Washington should also look for new ways—technologically and geopolitically—to help closed societies transcend Internet censorship and social media surveillance. When citizens in autocracies gain access to independent and truthful information and communicate more securely with one another, the regimes they live under will be on shakier ground. Freedom of information also requires engaged and coordinated diplomacy among democracies to ensure that autocracies do not hijack global standards and protocols for the Internet. Social media companies must also do more to counter malign manipulation of their platforms by foreign governments, at least by identifying and labeling sources whenever possible, and removing the most blatantly false and dangerous content. And the United States and other democracies should reinforce those efforts with stronger regulation of social media. The first step should be banning TikTok from American devices.

The United States must also reinvigorate its democracy, and there are some promising signs that the country has entered an era of democratic reform. Many states have modernized their voting procedures and made it easier to register and to vote. Some have eliminated partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts and taken steps to make campaign finance more transparent. Momentum is gathering behind electoral reforms, particularly ranked-choice voting, or RCV. Under this system, voters rank their preferred candidates and then, if no candidate receives a majority, lower-ranked candidates are eliminated and a more broadly acceptable winner is selected through a series of instant runoffs. RCV rewards moderation and enables independent and third-party candidates to get a serious hearing. After growing use at the municipal level, it was adopted by voters in Maine in 2016 and 2018, in Alaska in 2020, and in Nevada in November 2022 (though the last is a constitutional amendment that must be approved by the voters a second time). Support for RCV is also growing in Oregon and in Minnesota, which may soon become the first in the nation to adopt it by a vote of the state legislature.

But American democracy is not safe. Legislation intended to reduce the influence of money, strengthen and expand voting rights, end gerrymandering, ensure ethical standards for elected officials, and enhance the security of elections failed in the last Congress and has little prospect of passage in the next. Worse, many states have moved to restrict access to the ballot and to make it more difficult for minorities to vote. Most alarming, some Republican-controlled state legislatures, led by North Carolina, are seeking to establish a theory of “independent state legislatures” that would enable these bodies to gerrymander districts and even rig electoral rules for partisan advantage, with no check by the courts, governors, or redistricting commissions. The United States cannot challenge autocracies globally if its politics degenerate into a collection of one-party states domestically. Successfully combating autocratic disinformation will depend upon success at home, and on the renewal of American democracy.

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  • ERIN BAGGOTT CARTER is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California and a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
  • BRETT L. CARTER is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California and a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
  • LARRY DIAMOND is William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
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