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5 Democratic Reps: The U.S. Can Turn Putinism Into An Opportunity

16 minute read
Smith, Moulton, Murphy, Gallego and Courtney are, respectively, representatives for Washington, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and Connecticut in the United States Congress.

Our country faces a new crisis, one which endangers the underpinnings of representative democracy and freedom worldwide. The threat emanates from Putinism, a philosophy of dictatorship fused with kleptocratic economics. It views popular participation in government, a free and open capitalist economic system, and transparency in governance as ideological challenges that must be extinguished in order to “make the world safe for autocracy.” Its proponents have been acting aggressively against the United States and others to achieve this objective, and those actions pose a clear and growing threat to our way of life.

We desperately need a forceful and coherent strategy — combined with willpower and perseverance — to overcome this assault on our system of government and adapt to the changing global security environment. Given how increasingly interconnected the world is, it has never been more important to shore up our country’s existing alliances and attempt to expand them in response. We will not be able to turn back this tide of autocratic ideology on our own. We will need partners and new institutions capable of rising to the task.

This is our attempt to lay the groundwork for an updated U.S. national security and foreign policy strategy that can meet the needs of this dire moment.

Our country was established on the principles of representative democracy, individual freedom and promotion of the common good. In the post-World War II era, we upheld, strengthened and promoted those values throughout the world by establishing a system of alliances, partnerships and international organizations that prevented the recurrence of conditions which led to two catastrophic global wars. Despite shortcomings, this system has rendered a 75-year period of stability and growth, in which more people became more free and more prosperous than at any other time in human history. By providing societies with a framework for a better future and enabling widely shared prosperity, these values continue to be the best hope for the future of the United States and the world. But the system upholding those values must adapt.

Following the post–Cold War peace, time and transformative events have worn on the international system that we and our allies built to uphold our values. We face new threats and new questions about how to protect global stability in a changing world. A new authoritarian ideology has taken root, akin to fascism and autocracy in its assemblage of plutocrats, kleptocrats, right-wing nationalists, professional opportunists, state police and other clandestine services at the focal point of state power and international influence.

This plutocratic-kleptocratic authoritarian system seeks to bore into, and disassemble, democratic institutions from the inside out. It is powered by corruption and networks of illegitimate influence and clandestine personal enrichment, and it seeks to subvert the integrity of democratic institutions and their ability to perform public functions. Like many authoritarian ideologies, it acts to crush individual rights, weaken and corrode the structures supporting public and private transparency and accountability, and jettison the idea that state officials must, on behalf of the res publica, maintain a distinction between the public good and the private interests of national leaders. This militancy against democracy and individual freedom also makes it easier for similar ideologies to thrive, from the nihilistic cult of subjugation that ISIS propounds, to the totalitarianism of North Korea, to the more circumspect plutocratic governments of China and Iran.

Putinism is especially threatening because of its expansionist nature. The Russian state has overtly annexed Crimea and parts of the Republic of Georgia, the first such events since the end of World War II. What’s more, the ideology of Putinism is being systematically exported, most notably by the Russian state security services, which constantly probe and exploit discontented facets of democratic polities worldwide in order to diminish their standing and thereby render the world safe for autocracy. Although many of these efforts date back further, the financial crash of 2008 strained representative governments, creating widespread opportunities for Putinism to seep into the cracks in the democratic consensus opened by the Great Recession. As the head of the Russian military’s General Staff, a major theorist of this approach, put it, “Indirect and asymmetric actions… allow you to deprive the opposing side of de facto sovereignty without seizing any territory.” With Moscow’s influential intervention in the 2016 U.S. election and in other elections worldwide, it has become clear that if allowed to continue unchecked, this effort has the power to degrade representative democracy and fracture institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the community that has become the European Union (E.U.), which have kept us free and secure for more than half a century.

Because this Putinist onslaught has demonstrated a capacity to erode our institutions and those of other democratic countries, it deserves a prominent place in our thinking about global security. We are sleepwalking if we do not recognize this danger, or if we purposely avoid it and turn to other matters. We must recognize that we find ourselves in a serious contest between our values of representative democracy, individual freedom, transparency, accountability and promotion of the common good, and the Putinist values of oppression, nihilism and kleptocracy. We must not ignore the Putinist challenge, lest we lose the game entirely.

The good news is that this will happen only if we let it happen. There is still time for us to adapt so that we can fight back, and, in the process, renew our commitment to our values and reshape the global order so that it can squarely address the needs of the 21st century.

We must respond by developing methods that strengthen support for the values of our countries and by updating our institutions so that the spread of Putinism is contained. Our societies and institutions must be strong, united and vital enough to present a superior and enduring alternative to autocratic movements. We must continue to prove the value of our system of government and economic organization, and encourage it to flourish wherever people see its appeal. We must be able and willing to defend our values with overpowering military force. And we must accomplish these tasks at the same time as we continue to act resolutely and unrelentingly to ensure the security of the United States and our allies from terrorists, ballistic missiles and many other dangers that threaten us.

Happily, while the threat we have described poses a fundamental danger to our values, it is not insurmountable. The strengths of Putinism, when confronted appropriately, can be countered. Battered as it may seem from recent shocks and trials, our system of government and economic organization will endure. It will endure because it is both morally superior to the dark vision offered by Putinism and more effective than any other system in providing individual freedom, widely shared prosperity and hope for a better future. So, while we must proactively confront Putinism, renew our societies’ commitment to our values and refresh our institutions, in the long run — as it was in the Cold War — it will be confidence and patience that allow us to succeed.

So how do we combat this challenge?

First, we must be clear that our values are the bedrock of our policy. Our actions must always be guided by our belief in representative democracy, individual freedom, transparency, accountability and promotion of the common good.

That does not mean we cannot be pragmatic and work with partners and allies who do not share all of our values, nor does it mean that we should try to impose our values by force. The world is a complicated place, and compromises are essential to any effort to engage effectively with global politics. We must clearly express our principles, but we must also openly acknowledge when we decide to make pragmatic compromises to achieve essential national security objectives.

Second, it is absolutely crucial that we accomplish our goals by relying on alliances and partnerships and ensuring that our institutions will help sustain freedom and democracy in the 21st century. These institutions have, for the most part, served us very well. But as the world continues to change with the rise of new global powers, and shocks such as the Great Recession create new sources of discontent and contestation, we must recognize that the global order has fundamentally changed and no longer resembles the post–World War II power structure of the 1950s and ‘60s.

While the United States is far stronger today in absolute terms, it no longer possesses the overwhelming preponderance of relative economic and military power that allowed us to impose our foreign policy aims effectively on the world. We are, in many ways, a victim of our own success. The rest of the world is catching up, thanks to the order we put in place in the past century. We must recognize that we now contend with an array of powerful actors, possessing new interests and forming new alignments. It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, for us to continue to act as if we can accomplish our goals alone. Rather than deny a multi-polar world exists, we must embrace it and use it to our advantage.

For that reason, it must be a priority to build, strengthen and act via partnerships and alliances. We have an enormous new opportunity to build international solidarity regarding the maintenance of global stability and to strengthen international support for democratic values. We will have to be steadfast in our commitment to our existing — albeit updated — alliances and partnerships, using them as an essential tool through which we must work to achieve our security goals. We must also look for opportunities to rapidly adapt existing global institutions to this global shift and seek to construct new arrangements designed to help us strengthen democracy and withstand the challenge of Putinism.

While reinforcing NATO and the E.U., for example, we must now take stock of the threats that Putinist influence campaigns pose to those communities and integrate methods of resistance into their collective toolbox. The NATO alliance can be renovated to help its members track and expose Russian influence networks. Strengthening institutions, elevating transparency and prioritizing anti-corruption could become priority measures for the E.U. New agreements between NATO and the E.U. on issues such as cyber warfare could be established to combat Russian influence.

Meanwhile, we should build new partnerships and alliances that can help us meet our objectives in this new era. Crucially, many of these institutions will not look precisely like the institutions that got us through the Cold War because, as analysts of Putinism emphasize, “corruption is the lubricant on which this [Putinist] system operates” and “[u]ltimately it is because of the lack of rigorous oversight and transparency of democratic institutions that they are readily available for exploitation.” Our efforts must be designed to cope with that reality.

As we survey the conditions worldwide, it may be time to consider establishing new alliances — regional and global — to promote the vibrancy of representative democracy, resist cyber and propaganda methods of undermining democratic values, fight corruption, elevate the need for transparency, strengthen free economies, and share knowledge about ways to combat the new dangers afflicting our societies.

Third, as we stare down the ideological threat of Putinism, we must ensure the safety and security of the American people and those of our allies and partners. That is an enormous challenge in itself, encompassing our continued fight against terrorist groups and their ideologies, our efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and our deterrence of North Korea and other actors who may wish to do us harm. We must be relentless and strategic in our efforts with partners to destroy terrorist groups, eliminate their leaders, dismantle their networks and drain them of their popular appeal. And we must make it absolutely clear that those who dare attack us or our allies do so at great peril.

As we confront the spread of Putinism, we need to invest in global security, ensuring that our NATO allies and other partners are able and ready to defend against conventional Russian military aggression. That will require a comprehensive strategy to deter Russia militarily, including more forward positioning of conventional military assets, deeper strategic relationships and more training side-by-side with our European partners, as well as systematic planning to counter Russia’s military cyber, propaganda and hybrid warfare advances. We must be smart about this response, so that our investments strengthen our national security position to deter Russia while continuing to uphold our interest in nuclear stability and bolstering the institutions that undergird global security. For example, it would only weaken our position if we were to withdraw from our global commitments and engage in a fruitless nuclear arms race as a response to Russian provocation.

Fourth, diplomacy and development are a crucial part of this equation. Just as we cannot function without partners, we cannot rely on military force while neglecting diplomacy and development. It is essential to recognize that Putinism will not be overcome by military force alone, and we must design our response accordingly to involve the whole of government. Economic development and the strengthening of civil society will be crucial in this fight, and we will also need to consider ways that our diplomatic and developmental efforts can be designed to counter Putinist tactics.

Through the work of the State Department and other federal agencies, we need to develop new mechanisms to strengthen freedom of the press, disseminate accurate information quickly and support effective ways to combat Putinist propaganda. We must educate the global public about the danger of Russian influence campaigns and how to respond to them, as well as support institution-building and anti-corruption efforts now that they are urgent security issues. Efforts to get money out of politics, secure electoral systems and police opaque financial flows will be important. In addition to supporting robust State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets for governance and democracy, initiatives such as potentially expanding the number of countries in the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s candidate country pool — which by its mandate invests in poverty reduction for those countries that score sufficiently high enough on indicators like rule of law and anti-corruption — may assist these efforts.

Fifth, if we wish to prevent Putinism from succeeding in its efforts to portray representative democracy as a failed governmental system and to prey upon social discontents, one of the first orders of business is to ensure our countries have healthy economies that support broad-based opportunities. Statist crony capitalism is an inherently weak economic model, but if we do not keep the social compact strong and deliver equitable growth in our own countries, as analysts of Putinism note, it offers an opening for Putinism to achieve its goal of “strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the Western democratic and economic system” and “weaken[ing] the European Union and the West’s desirability, credibility, and moral authority.”

Indeed, the imperative to prove that American society had to deliver on its promises played a major role in our Cold War–era strategy to contain and outlast the Soviet Union. As George Kennan, the architect of that containment strategy, explained, the competition with the Soviets was “a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among major ideological currents of the time.” The ultimate lesson, he wrote, was that “[t]o avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions.” Making government and society work for the people is always critical, but in this contest it is even more imperative.

Finally, in addition to economics, we must also recognize that a program to counter Putinism will require new modes of domestic resistance. We must strengthen our societies against Putinist tactics that use the openness of our systems and our commitment to rules and procedural norms against us. “Gray zone” Putinist tactics, by operating below the threshold of open conflict and concrete response, strain our conceptual capacity to recognize and mitigate them before it is too late. Because most representative democracies are not habituated to these methods, and because many of these threats are deliberately ambiguous, we have not yet developed robust norms, concepts and institutions that would help us meet this challenge.

In hindsight, it is clear that the threat of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election merited a more robust response than U.S. officials adopted at the time. We must strive to ensure that the new insights we develop about such threats are translated into new ideas and new policies that provide effective responsive capabilities. As we do this, we must welcome the wealth of experience that our allies and partners are also developing as they confront similar threats worldwide.

For example, even though Russian actors funded multiple candidates vying for the 2017 French presidential election and apparently launched a massive hacking effort to hurt President Emmanuel Macron on the eve of the voting period, French voters understood the threat and they were not caught off-guard by the intervention. There is much to be learned by these and similar experiences in highlighting, naming, shaming and inculcating the populace and the press to the gravity of the threat. Potential approaches run the gamut of activity from sanctions to cyber efforts to public education to coordination with private organizations such as Facebook, Twitter and traditional news organizations. Developing and spreading these antibodies will be one of our most pressing tasks as we seek to combat this new danger.

Over the long run, if we can formulate these policy approaches, we stand a good chance of countering the advantages of our Putinist opponents and winning the ideological competition. As we did in the previous century, we can best this new challenge while renewing our values, and build a better world in the process.

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