Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence

More than ever, foreign authoritarian actors from China and Russia, are taking an increasingly aggressive approach to exerting influence in democracies around the world. IRI’s Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence (CFAI) programming equips democracies to push back through cutting-edge research, global convening, and equipping on-the-ground actors with the resources to creatively demand accountability and transparency from their governments.

closing session of the 19th Communist Party Congress

Amid a global democratic backslide and an unprecedented pandemic, authoritarian actors like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Putin’s regime in Russia are seizing the initiative to exert influence in established and emerging democracies. To help bolster democracies against the corrosive effects of this rising authoritarian tide, IRI’s CFAI programming equips civil society, the media, government officials, political parties, and the private sector with the knowledge and tools to expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence.

Twenty-first century authoritarians have twenty-first century toolkits, using economic leverage, information operations, digital disinformation, and the sale of repressive technologies to prop up other repressive states and place pressure on democratic actors. But these tools are often poorly understood, as are the ways by which democratic governments and civil societies can work together to fight back. That’s why IRI’s three-step approach to combating authoritarian influence begins with commissioning world-class research on the ways that China and Russia engage democratic countries: 1) Researching malign People’s Republic of China (PRC) influence and its impact on vulnerable democracies; 2) Sharing that research through tailored engagements with IRI’s global network of partners on the ground; and 3) Equipping these stakeholders with tools and resources to bolster democratic resilience and counter foreign authoritarian influence.

To date CFAI has partnered with researchers in more than 45 countries to demonstrate their vulnerabilities and the tactics used to exploit them. CFAI also partners with IRI’s regional divisions to foster comparative understanding of authoritarian actors to inform regional-specific programming. In Latin America, IRI is conducting public opinion research on PRC influence to develop tailored advocacy and public awareness initiatives on PRC engagement that resonate with the broader populace. Through such research, IRI is building a knowledge base about China’s on the ground impact around the world and the elements of effective democratic resilience, as well as a cohort of researchers equipped to knowledgably tackle the subject in their own countries going forward.

Research is only valuable if it equips the right people with the tools to make the right decisions. Accordingly, the second step in IRI’s CFAI process involves convening events to share IRI research and cutting-edge insights from outside experts with IRI’s global network of on-the-ground partners to push back against China, Russia, and others. Through these events, IRI also fosters networks of people concerned about the influence of authoritarian actors and ready to “go on offense” against authoritarian influence. In Central and Eastern Europe, for example, IRI convenes political actors to strengthen policy responses to PRC coercion of European nations.

The third step in IRI’s CFAI process involves equipping actors with the resources to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence. IRI provides material and technical support to grassroots activists in every region of the world to develop and execute evidence-based, context-specific initiatives that draw attention to foreign meddling and the resultant impact on democracy and demand action and accountability from their governments to counter it.

Examples include partnering with an art activist in Ghana raising awareness about PRC economic coercion and political influence through satire; an investigative journalist in Kenya exposing instances of PRC information manipulation tactics in the Kenyan press; and an Indigenous rights group in the Amazon region highlighting the environmental impact of projects funded and implemented by China National Petroleum Corporation on Peru’s Amazon and Indigenous peoples. By engaging stakeholders across sectors, IRI’s work promotes broad awareness of authoritarian tactics and the keys to shoring up vulnerable democratic institutions.

CCP

The CCP undermines democratic processes in vulnerable countries by exploiting governance gaps and ensuring a lack of local awareness of the risks of engagement with Beijing. While Chinese entities conclude infrastructure investment deals that bring financial leverage and corrupt benefits to elites, the PRC uses various means to simultaneously shape the information space and influence domestic political decision-making in its favor. China employs these “sharp power” tools more aggressively as democracies begin to push back against its malign behavior.

IRI has developed and implemented a framework to build resiliency against growing PRC interference through its flagship Building Resiliency for Interconnected Democracies in Global Environments (BRIDGE) initiative, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Through BRIDGE, IRI has developed and refined the three-step approach described above, working with partners in more than 35 countries to identify channels for PRC authoritarian influence, as well as opportunities for resilience.

However, the broad range of tools used by the PRC to pressure democracies demands equally broad responses. That is why IRI has expanded its work into the information sphere, working in partnership with the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to examine the PRC’s impact on the information environment in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, respectively.

Through these initiatives, IRI and its partners throughout the globe are working together to develop and implement effective policy responses to PRC interference, translating key lessons into actionable steps that CSOs, media, and policymakers can use to expose and counter PRC influence and interference.

Kremlin

The Kremlin’s malign influence is more opportunistic than the PRC’s but has the same destructive impact on democratic institutions. The Kremlin’s main objective is to keep Russia’s political elite in power indefinitely and without accountability for decades of criminality, including for widespread kleptocracy it has used to fund corrupt proxies at home and abroad. Suppressing dissent within Russia is a key component of keeping the elite in power; so too is undermining democracy in other countries. Moscow fears being surrounded by a larger number of successful democracies where Russian-speaking population votes in free and fair elections and where Russian-language media offer unbiased coverage of events in the post-Soviet space.

If exposed to this, the people of Russia would inevitably increase their demands for significant changes to the oppressive political and economic systems at home. The lack of opposition and the presence of state-sponsored multi-language propaganda outlets allows Russia to portray its illiberal governance model as highly successful to domestic and foreign audiences. This, in turn, drives these audiences away from supporting a democratic model of governance and turns them into proponents of the views and agenda of Moscow.

To exert its malign influence in other countries, the Kremlin employs a variety of tactics with the overarching goal of undermining democracy and backing client governments. Among other approaches, the Kremlin actively seeks to destroy values-based alliances—preferring, instead, to deal bilaterally with weak or weakened states. It also employs a range of tactics—from sharing surveillance technology to training police in violent riot suppression tactics—to eliminate all domestic opposition (politically active citizens, free media, and religious minorities) who might otherwise challenge its ally governments.

IRI addresses these threats by empowering local politicians, civil society organizations, media, and researchers with data and tools necessary to counter the impact of the Kremlin’s malign influence, building national and transnational alliances, and equipping key implementers with research and data essential to design and implement successful interventions tailored for the local context.

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