By Joel Zamel*
As talk – and animosity – swirls over the recently announced AUSUK alliance and the associated nuclear submarine deal and force projection in the Pacific, one can fairly ask major Western leaders whether they might not be missing the woods for the trees. True, said deal may well redefine military partnerships for the next half century. Yet, as important as such developments are in reshaping the global security environment, it is past time that leaders of the so-called ‘great powers’ pay greater attention to less abstract – and, frankly, less likely – threats, and instead begin to address those that pose a more immediate threat to national security through other means.
In terms of the age-old measurement of bang for one’s buck, allied nations would be better advised to focus on what one might term ‘soft warfare’ – a far cheaper, and certainly more effective, form of combat against the powers and groups that seek to do us harm. Soft power capabilities – the grey zone between diplomacy and kinetic force – offer a realm of solutions that are grossly under-appreciated – and under-deployed – by governments. The toolkit of influence campaigns, civil resistance and non-violent conflict methods, digital governance, and even private military corporations offer the full range of solutions to the most dangerous national security threats of today: tyrannical regimes from Pyongyang to Tehran; disinformation campaigns against democracies by rogue states; and failed states from Lebanon to Afghanistan.
Such methods, in combination with, rather than in place of, traditional ‘hard power’ capabilities, would equip the US and allied nations with a far more relevant and modern toolkit. Gone, largely at least, are the days of territorial annexation and traditional warfare, particularly in Europe; the 21st century involves warfare through a multitude of other means. Ironically, nobody better captured the essence of this argument better than Iran’s former intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, when he said in 2011 that, “We do not have a physical war with the enemy, but we are engaged in heavy information warfare with the enemy”. While our nemeses have adopted technologically advanced and hybrid methods, we are largely stuck with mid-20th century methods. It is past time we got up to speed.
Take, for instance, the now defunct £27bn France-Australia submarine deal, torn up as a result of the new alliance. Australia will now get its submarines from Britain and the US, in the process becoming just the seventh nation to operate nuclear-powered submarines. Yet, operating such vessels is, at best, posturing; after all nations will likely never use them. Australia – and its allies – would be wise to instead focus on addressing more immediate threats through ‘soft warfare’, which would not only be more effective but also considerably cheaper.
Soft warfare does not, by any means, have to come at the expense of its ‘hard’ cousin, but instead would better position allied powers to address substantial challenges in the decades to come. If they cannot definitively defeat smaller threats, they will have neither the credibility nor the resolve to confront larger future threats. Not only that, it will also deter those who wish to do us harm: a stronger, united, and ultimately more savvy grouping of democracies is no doubt a more fearful prospect than the current loose group of allies. For years now, anti-liberalism has been ascendant – in Latin America, China, Russia, and even closer to home in a number of EU states. That is little wonder: liberal democracies have, to put it bluntly, become somewhat of a laughing stock, divided by the very values that should be uniting them. The global reputations of Britain and the US, especially, have taken severe – and at some points seemingly fatal – hits. The ability of democracies to respond has been hampered by an unwillingness to deploy strategic communication methods, even at home, never mind with a foreign audience in mind.
As we stand on the eve of a nuclear Iran, the ever-belligerent North Korea, humiliation in Afghanistan, and many other threats besides, the emergencies of today should be occupying our attention more than the potential great power conflict of the more distant future. Successfully combating such threats requires not just economic and military might, but cuter methods, too, including such measures as non-violent conflict methods and civil resistance, dis-/mis-information, and influence campaigns.
For instance, during the Cold War, Western powers frequently deployed airborne leaflet propaganda to bolster their side of the ideological debate. Similar methods persist today, as in 2015 when the US, as part of psychological operations, dropped leaflets over Raqqa in Syria to deter potential ISIS recruits. On the digital front, excellent examples of ‘soft warfare’ during the Cold War were the establishment of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast to communist states, by arms of the U.S. government. The two stations, which merged in 1976, received CIA funding until 1972. As well as its broadcasts, RFE engaged in leaflet-dropping in Europe: in the early-mid 1950s, more than 350,000 balloons carried more than 300 million leaflets and other subversive material. It was only when East German citizens, who suffered at the hands of the Stasi, a particularly pernicious secret police force, were able to access information on what life was really like in ‘the West’ that they began to realise just how bad their lot was.
In societies that still have low levels of digital connectivity, such methods are a low cost, high-return on investment method to combat tyrannical regimes on a visceral, rather than military, level. These methods are cheap and don’t do much for the defense lobby, but they have proven effective time and again in empowering free peoples everywhere to overthrow tyrannical dictators. In combination with the unrivaled military and – especially – economic pressure at our deployment, such methods will prove supremely effective in combating urgent national security threats. They can undermine the very basis of said regimes, not just destroy assets and buildings. Dictators can, after all, rebuild their palaces and white elephants; rebuilding the foundations of their rule is a far more daunting task. Yet today, we are allowing the exact opposite to happen: hideous dictators, through a variety of means, are successfully undermining the historic success of the ‘Western’ model.
No doubt in part due to the practice they have in deceiving their own citizens, autocracies and rogue states have been especially successful in information operations, particularly on social media. A 2019 report by the Oxford Internet Institute underlined the extent of such measures. It found evidence of 24 authoritarian countries deploying computational propaganda as a tool of information control and seven countries attributed by Facebook and Twitter as having engaged in foreign influence operations. Unsurprisingly, that list of seven included such sworn enemies of the West as Venezuela, China, Iran, and Russia.
Russia and Iran, for instance, have engaged in disinformation and influence campaigns, the former with a focus on elections and the latter more so on ‘traditional’ propaganda dressing up its regional importance and denigrating its enemies. Even if the extent of the impact of such measures cannot, by design, be proved, the fact that questions are asked and doubt is sowed is a success for our nemeses in and of itself. To date, most recommendations on combating such campaigns have focused on defensive measures – including identifying and publicising information about foreign influence campaigns, including an urge by France’s President Macron to create a new agency to protect European democracies and elections from foreign interference. At present, we are doing the jobs of our enemies for them; and, if we were to implement such recommendations, would continue to do so.
Rather than staying on the back foot and allowing them to sow division as they intend, we should take the initiative to the enemy. Those enemies have employed an array of techniques, including cyberattacks, disinformation, and support for alternative political groups in Western democracies. Taking a leaf from their books, one finds the outline of a toolkit that Western powers should be willing to utilise in response to similar efforts by our enemies. Such a toolkit might be applied, in the case of Iran, for instance, to exploiting the frequent protest movements there and the ever-present disgust with the regime through covert on-the-ground and digital support.
There is no reason Western powers led by the US can’t match – and even surpass – the efforts emanating from Tehran and elsewhere. The unwillingness to do so may stem in part from the perceived illegitimacy of said operations. It is past time democracies got with the programme. The moral high ground has proven shaky terrain, more quicksand than solid ground; we must combat those regimes and rogue states that seek to do us harm on their own terms, and better them.
*Joel Zamel is the founder of Wikistrat, the world’s first crowdsourced intelligence platform helping governments and multinational corporations around the world navigate complex issues. Joel also advises governments on applying information operations to counter-extremism programs and the promotion of human rights. Joel is an active investor in crypto, and a believer in the power of decentralized technologies to liberate populations seeking freedom.