Western strategic culture has long recognised the significance of decisive battle. The Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, likened war to a duel between two wrestlers – a contest of wills – with resolution arising when one party is forced to submit to the will of the other through overwhelming force. Western political and military leaders have been students of Clausewitz since his book On War was published posthumously in 1833.
Many students have taken Clausewitz’s emphasis on decisive battle to heart. As he wrote forcefully: “Our conviction that only a great battle can produce a major decision is founded not on an abstract concept of war alone, but also on experience. Since time began, only great victories have paved the way for great results.”
His legacy reveals itself through two centuries of Western military history, where commanders of opposing forces sought decisive victory on the battlefield for political ends. War, as an instrument of policy, served the greater political aim of victory and the reordering of a new peace. Our presupposition has been that war and peace are two sharply distinguished spheres of social activity.
Today, however, this strategic culture has not prepared us to understand the threats that manifest themselves in the middle ground between war and peace in the 21st century. It has diminished our peacetime statecraft, fostering a culture of passivity and wishful thinking as modern great power competition begins to reshape the world order.
As a result, we are surprised to discover that authoritarian regimes like the Russian Federation or the People's Republic of China conduct hybrid and political warfare operations in the pursuit of strategic objectives, exploiting the norms and global peace built by the United States and its allies out of the ruins of the Second World War.
In less than a decade, China has built and militarised artificial islands in the South China Sea, forging unsinkable aircraft carriers from reefs and atolls. Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The international community has struggled to anticipate and reverse this development, as it has with respect to China’s aggressive debt-trap diplomacy and Russia’s general mischief and meddling.
Why is this so? The problem is primarily an intellectual one: we are unfamiliar with the strategic culture of our opponents, which emphasises subversion, and ignorant of our own Western assumptions and traditions.
Russian and Chinese strategic culture has not arisen in a vacuum. Nor have their hybrid and political warfare operations. To understand the objectives and means of such campaigns, it is necessary to appreciate the worldview of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung. These men – all avowed Marxists – saw class conflict as the basic driving force of world politics. The revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against capitalism was both domestic and international – and necessarily involved using all the instruments of state power in a holistic approach.
Although their ideology has been defeated in the West, they are still shaping our world, especially in the East. Xi Jinping has been open about their influence, and it is important we take him at his word. In his 2013 speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s then-newly elected Central Committee, Xi explained: “It is Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought that guided the Chinese people out of the darkness of that long night and established a New China.”
The holistic approach developed by Lenin, and built upon by Stalin and Xi, is being pursued today, albeit it is now facilitated by advances in technology. Western societies are the targets of subversive operations, with state actors weaponising and amplifying the divisions natural to democracy. Domestic and international politics, for the Marxist-Leninist, are different expressions of the same revolutionary policy. The conceptual wall separating war and peace was replaced by the idea of continuous struggle.
The revolutionaries argued that all of life is political, inverting Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. As Mao Tse-Tung put it, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed”. Politics and warfare became interchangeable and all the instruments of the state were refashioned for subversive warfare.
Authoritarian states have weaponised previously benign activities like diplomacy, media, investment flows, infrastructure development, and foreign asset purchases. University campuses have become the modern battlegrounds of covert influence and interference. These activities complement more aggressive forms of subversive warfare such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, cyber-attacks, and espionage. All these activities advance the efforts of authoritarian regimes to undermine the West.
The democratic West has lacked the intellectual framework both to perceive and to respond to these subversive tactics. We have not inhabited the revolutionary mindset or worldview, limiting our capacity to grasp the strategy of our authoritarian adversaries as they probe the boundaries of acceptable peacetime behaviour. Our passivity is dangerous, so that we risk escalating tensions if we attempt to recover ground lost by subversive means.
Nevertheless, as we awaken to the threat posed by these authoritarian campaigns of subversion, we can draw upon our own historical heritage in countering them.
We must take assertive diplomatic, economic and covert measures to push back against authoritarian states that undermine the global order at the very edge of peace. This is for both moral and practical reasons. If we want to preserve peace and avoid war, we must understand our adversaries and become practitioners of hybrid and political warfare ourselves.
The moral necessity of avoiding conflict is clear enough. But the acquisition of such expertise also multiplies the statecraft available to us to protect our geopolitical interests. Political leaders will have more flexibility and policy options at their fingertips. The question is: What needs to be done?
First, we need to recognise, understand, and articulate the challenge facing the West. This requires political leadership, since the great power competition between authoritarian and democratic states is ultimately a contest of ideas.
National leaders must affirm and articulate the values that define Western democracies, especially as we seek to build a coalition of like-minded partners to resist authoritarian political warfare. Over the last century, the West has built a powerful set of alliances and partnerships, and these now need to be mobilised.
This coalition of like-minded partners would share intelligence (at varying levels of security), technical expertise, training, and resources. It would provide an organisational framework for coordinating responses, particularly in the fast-paced cyber and information domains. It would also pay particular focus to smaller states, which are often ill-equipped to resist well-funded political warfare offensives.
Second, we must enlist the full weight of democratic institutions in this effort, including the giving of major speeches, initiating parliamentary inquiries and passing legislative measures, and educating the public. This must happen at the same time that we build resilience against clandestine and overt political warfare campaigns. Australia serves as a helpful case study of a democracy that has taken action to protect itself against such threats.
In 2018, the Espionage and Foreign Interference and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme acts were legislated with bipartisan support to strengthen the Australian political system and civil society against malign foreign interference. The former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, played a critical role by leading the public debate, ensuring the successful passage of the legislation. He also made the tough decision on Australia’s 5G network, preserving our digital sovereignty for future generations by applying rigorous security tests that have excluded some telecommunication companies.
This year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison bolstered Australia’s institutional resilience by establishing the University Foreign Interference Taskforce and a standing interagency Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce, manned by intelligence and law enforcement investigators. These decisions give operational and prosecutorial teeth to the existing legislative framework, aimed at disrupting foreign interference on Australian shores.
Universities remain key terrain for authoritarian powers searching for a strategic advantage because of the high value research and intellectual property held on campuses. It is therefore prudent and necessary that the Australian government works closely with the university sector to articulate guidelines to protect against foreign interference. This includes the protection of cyber networks, safeguarding research that is of national significance, and ensuring transparency in collaborative programs with foreign entities.
Third, democratic leaders must develop a strategy and define victory. For too long, democratic states have been passive and reactive in dealing with authoritarian subversive campaigns. We need to get back to first principles.
Values must be articulated. Core interests must be defined. Sovereignty, where compromised, must be recovered and protected. A powerful narrative, that both supports our own values and pushes back against those of authoritarianism, must be constructed. Democratic partners, of course, need to enliven these elements as part of "whole of government" strategy. None of this will be easy. But the alternative is reduced sovereignty, with democracies tethered to authoritarian, hyper-modern surveillance states.
Fourth, democracies should develop and establish expertise in hybrid and political warfare. This needs to occur across strategic, operational, and tactical levels of leadership in the civil and military wings of government. It will require a shift in educational focus as we reorient relevant institutions to better understand the strategic culture of our authoritarian rivals, as well as ourselves.
There will be a need for increased depth in the range of professional experience across government, given the breadth of skills required for the disruption of rival subversive campaigns, and for the conduct of our own – where necessary. Importantly, this shift must be driven by political leadership – formalised in policy documents, given democratic oversight, and appropriately resourced.
Fifth, we must build an array of political warfare instruments. This would include cyber, diplomatic, information, and media capabilities. These are important for informing domestic public about the nature and scale of the challenge, but also for exposing to international publics the activities of authoritarian regimes. These activities include corruption, espionage, fake news, and human rights abuses.
Civil society has a crucial role to play in this. Think tanks and investigative reporters, particularly, are critical in exposing subversive activities undertaken by foreign authoritarian powers. Again, Australia serves as a helpful case study. Reporters from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Channel Nine protected the Australian national interest by revealing multiple instances of malign foreign interference, setting the political conditions for the passage of EFI and FITS legislation.
Sixth, we should use economic measures to counter authoritarian economic coercion, the theft of Western intellectual property, and their future domination of strategically vital industries and critical national infrastructure. Many democracies find themselves economically co-dependent on authoritarian states and vulnerable to coercion.
Restrictions should be placed on business and other dealings with key individuals and organisations (beyond those that are diplomatic). Technology export controls could be tightened. Awareness campaigns should be launched which highlight the risks of doing business with authoritarian enterprises. Magnitsky legislation should be introduced to stop human rights abusers from using the Western financial system. Heavy tariffs should be introduced on goods known to have been produced using stolen IP or technology.
Finally, democracies need to prepare for the long haul – and to pay a price. Countering and defeating authoritarian political warfare is likely to require sustained effort and spending over several decades – and it will require difficult decisions to be made. As such, democracies need to recalibrate the management of strategic risks and costs associated with this.
We have entered a new era of great power competition between authoritarian and democratic states. Now is the time to recognise the challenge posed by the unique strategic culture of our rivals and adapt our posture accordingly – our sovereignty and democratic way of life depends upon it.
This essay was first published by the Henry Jackson Society and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in their report The Art of Deceit: How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Subvert the West.