Democracy in crisis: Cold War(s) in the cyber age

The Cyber Age has raised the potential for destabilizing democracies through dissemination of fake news and disinformation to new levels.


Did the Russians quietly recruit a flamboyant wannabe real estate tycoon starting in the 1980s, plying him with flattery, prospective business deals, and sex? Did Vladimir Putin seek to renew this relationship when Donald Trump became a TV reality show celebrity positioning himself to run for president? Did the Kremlin have a hand in putting Donald Trump in the White House? Is the President guilty of collusion?

These and related questions have dominated the 24-hour news cycle during most of the 45th President’s first year in office for one obvious reason – the looming threat of yet another agonizing and divisive impeachment battle.

In the dawn of the new Age of Cyberwarfare, however, there is another no less compelling reason why Russian meddling in our elections poses a fundamental problem for America and the West. The deeper question goes to the heart of a longstanding systemic problem for the United States in its troubled relationship with Russia, namely the disadvantage open societies face in dealing with a new breed of cyber capable dictatorships.

The Free World is in the fight of its life, the outcome of which is far more vital to the survival of constitutional democracy and the rule of law than the fate of any single individual, including a sitting president.

For our adversaries whatever serves to distract the voters, polarize society, and paralyze the government is good. The same divide-and-conquer logic applies to America’s alliance relationships, most notably in Europe and the Western Pacific.

Vladimir Putin has the means and opportunity to interfere in the political process of any country with competing political parties, independent news organizations and a habit of holding free and fair elections. His motive for giving top priority to targeting the United States – Russia’s decades-long arch rival – is clear.

But because Putin does not play by the same rules, the U.S. does not have an equal opportunity to interfere in Russian politics. Russia’s elections are a farce. Russia has nothing resembling a free press. There is no guarantee of due process or impartial justice in Russia’s courts. The playing field is not level.

The advent of the Nuclear Age created a bipolar world order – shorthand for the military-strategic stalemate that made a third world war “unthinkable” – while doing nothing to remove the sources of conflict. So the rivalry shifted to a different kind of battlefield, one made-to-order for the Kremlin, one that at best was not a good fit for democracies and at worst is the antithesis of everything they stand for.

The totalitarian state Stalin bequeathed his heirs depended heavily on Orwellian instruments of rule: strict control of the mass media, a vast network of spies and informants, and domestic surveillance. The stark contrast with the American Way of Life rooted in a Bill of Rights enshrining free speech, a free press, due process of law, created a systemic imbalance in the political-strategic relationship.

Unlike the two world wars, the Cold War was fought primarily through intelligence agencies, covert operations, and the dark arts – propaganda, infiltration, subversion, and disinformation (дезинформация in Russian) – the very things Lenin first theorized and wrote about and then employed to great effect in the run-up to the October Revolution. These were the basic elements in the political strategy and tactics at which Stalin proved to be the most effective and deadly practitioner in the power struggle after Lenin’s death in 1924.

In the decades after World War II, the Kremlin learned an important lesson in dealing with the American superpower, namely that Republican presidents have more room for maneuver in dealing with Moscow than Democrats. That’s because wide swathes of the electorate perceived Republicans (“conservatives”) as tough on Communism and strong on national defense, while Democrats (“liberals”) were portrayed as soft on socialism and proponents of “welfare” at the expense of military spending. So voters typically gave Republican presidents more latitude to negotiate arms and trade deals with Moscow.

It’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of the Cold War that ended in 1991 because of the desirable outcome for the West. We didn’t win it so much as they lost it thanks to a woefully mismanaged economy and disastrous war in a part of the world where we are now inextricably entangled.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election has shifted into a higher gear and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no limit to the revelations yet to come or the distraction, demoralization, and divisiveness in store.

No one knows what it means for the Trump presidency or what effect the Mueller investigation will have on the 2018 midterm elections. What’s clear, however, is that public anger, general confusion, and political finger-pointing have weakened the country, divided the electorate, and lowered America’s esteem in the eyes of the world.

It’s Vladimir Putin’s dream-come-true.

The Cyber Age has raised the potential for destabilizing democracies through dissemination of fake news and disinformation to new levels and in the process given the Kremlin a made-to-order weapon of mass disruption – the perfect tool for winning the Second Cold War.


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