How the United States can protect democracy from China and Russia
The administration has made bolstering democracy abroad a key foreign policy priority. President Biden has declared that the United States must ensure democracy prevails in this moment of resurgent authoritarianism fostered by China and Russia. The two countries with disinformation and interference campaigns undermine democracy all around the world. The United States needs to demonstrate the benefits of democracy, but also dedicate revitalized efforts to helping partner countries inoculate those political systems against the advance of illiberalism. This should involve tackling such threats to democracy from China and Russia.
Beijing and Moscow present distinct challenges and use different tactics to pursue their goals. But both contest democracy as the best model for governance and undermine its practice. China exploits and exacerbates governance holes in vulnerable countries, using corruption and a lack of transparency to conduct deals that undermine political trust. Russia has similar strategic corruption tactics to back its allies within countries and undermine actors with ties to the United States and Europe.
Both China and Russia often subvert this political process for democracy with their interference in elections and providing direct financial support to friendly autocrats. Russia interferes in elections across Europe while it exploits societal fissures in countries with democracy, and China injects its dark funding into political campaigns and does timely investments to bolster the fortunes of numerous autocratic regimes all over.
Beijing and Moscow corrode the information integrity that is fundamental to democracy. The Kremlin sows confusion, exploits division, and spreads false stories to polarize public debates. China adopts some of the tactics of Russia, and the countries are working on their global narrative and bad information disseminated with mutual platforms. The rising dominance of China in social media and its surging investments around the world could establish it as a key information monitor with the power to ensure people are informed primarily with news sources allowed by Beijing.
China and Russia also foster digital authoritarianism by sharing with more autocrats the technology and framework to monitor their citizens, silence journalists and civil society, and utilize internet controls. China promotes its own model as superior to democracy in countries from Nepal to Kenya. China uses training for political parties around the global south to create the whitewashed narrative of its domestic response to the coronavirus to foster positive ideas about authoritarianism over democracy.
The United States must act swiftly to protect democracy from China and Russia. There are viable options that can be deployed now. The behavior of these countries needs to be an agenda item for every call Secretary of State Antony Blinken has with bilateral allies facing the same threats. The signaling needs to be combined with demonstrations of more diplomatic and economic engagement with the countries at risk of backsliding from democracy, including alternatives to investments from China.
The United States could also push the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which centers on the principles of democracy, to understand the threats from China and Russia in its strategic doctrine, call out interference, and levy penalties. The alliance could also enforce the minimum standards of cybersecurity for governments and critical infrastructure, including with elections, to guard against digital incursions from China and Russia. The bloc should protect such political systems under its mission.
Moreover, foreign assistance programs funded by the United States have allowed partner countries to detect and counter the interference in their political systems. Democracy activists and independent media including those in China are building resilience against this disinformation and the mounting sway of Beijing on the vulnerable media sectors. Doubling the $200 million in the federal budget to counter such influence from China could go a long way to scaling up such critical interventions.
Washington must commit to counter efforts of China and Russia to form the global information systems through propaganda and disinformation. Biden has made early moves to restore effective leaders with the Agency for Global Media, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia. These initiatives set the stage for the promised summit of the administration when similar efforts of allies can multiply efforts in bolstering democracy.
The United States must focus on such efforts overseas and also reinforce its own institutions for democracy. Biden knows this and tries to establish the country as the model of governance for the world. The success of his foreign policy and the fate of democracy now depends on it.
David Shullman is a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute and adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. He served as deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council. Patrick Quirk is the senior director for the Center for Global Impact for the International Republican Institute and a nonresident fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He served as a member with the planning staff for the secretary of the State Department.