David Shullman and Patrick W. Quirk
The new administration has made strengthening democracy abroad a foreign policy priority. President Biden declared at the Munich Security Conference that the United States must ensure democracy “prevails” in this moment of resurgent authoritarianism, fostered by China and Russia. The two countries’ partnership and compounding disinformation and interference campaigns are undermining democracies around the world. To get this right, the United States must not only lead by example to demonstrate the benefits of democracy, but also dedicate reinvigorated effort to helping partner nations inoculate their political systems against the advance of illiberalism. This will require directly addressing the expanding threats to democracy from China and Russia.
Beijing and Moscow present distinct challenges and use unique tactics to pursue their aims; however, both are contesting the primacy of democracy as the preferred model for governance and undermining democratic practice the world over. China is exploiting and exacerbating governance gaps in vulnerable countries, using corruption and the lack of transparency to conclude deals that undermine political accountability. Russia is similarly using strategic corruption to prop up and coopt its allies within countries and undermine democratic actors with ties to the U.S. and European Union.
Both Moscow and Beijing regularly subvert democratic political processes, interfering in elections and providing direct political and financial support to friendly autocrats. Russia is interfering in elections across Europe and exploiting societal fissures in democracies as China injects corrupt funding into political campaigns and makes timely investments to bolster the fortunes of illiberal regimes from Serbia to Sri Lanka.
The United States must act quickly to protect democracy from China and Russia. There are viable options that can be deployed quickly. CCP and Kremlin behavior should be an agenda item for every call Secretary of State Blinken has with bilateral counterparts facing these threats, from Montenegro to Panama. Such messaging should be paired with demonstrations of stepped up U.S. diplomatic and economic engagement with countries at particular risk of democratic backsliding, including offers of alternatives to Chinese investment.
To galvanize additional pressure, the United States can push NATO — an alliance centered on protecting the principles of democracy, after all — to recognize China’s threat to democracy in its strategic doctrine, call out interference, and levy consequences for it. NATO can also enforce minimum standards of cybersecurity for governments and critical infrastructure (including elections) to guard against digital incursions from China and Russia. Protecting the political systems of alliance and partner countries should become more central to the bloc’s mission.
U.S.-funded foreign assistance programming has helped partner countries to detect, expose, and counter CCP interference in their political systems. Democratic activists and independent media, including Chinese language outlets and platforms, are building resilience against authoritarian disinformation and countering China’s mounting sway over struggling media sectors. Doubling the current $200 million Countering Chinese Influence Fund could go a long way to scaling up these effective interventions.
Washington must simultaneously commit to countering mounting Chinese and Russian efforts to shape the global information ecosystem through propaganda and disinformation. Biden’s early moves to restore effective leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia are a good start. These initiatives would have an immediate impact and set the stage for the administration’s promised “summit of democracies,” where similar allied commitments could multiply their effects in bolstering democracy.
Washington must couple these efforts overseas with reinforcing America’s own democratic institutions. President Biden knows this and has therefore committed to “leading by example.” The success of his foreign policy, and the fate of democracy, depend on it.