Western military leaders have been operating “in the blind” because they never thought their liberal democratic societies with their firm legal basEs could be turned against themselves.
While Western leaders were worried about hybrid warfare on their flanks, they have been blindsided at home. Civil society is under assault.
The military characterizes hybrid warfare as a “blend of military, economic, diplomatic, criminal, and informational means to achieve desired political goals.” Practitioners of violence had not considered that hybrid warfare targets would be civilians and the way citizens legally organize themselves in civil society. It was assumed – incorrectly, in hindsight – that citizens in democratic societies would not fall prey to information warfare or be duped by propaganda, because the liberal legal frameworks of norms and traditions would make such foreign intrusions unappealing. However, there is increasing evidence that “hybrid warriors” working for Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals, are waging a hybrid war via the internet against civil society in the West, sowing divisions and promoting hyper-polarized politics.
Civil society is the sum total of non-state societal organizations that represent citizens’ interests. It plays an important role in checking state power, upholding public interests, and shaping public discourse. Its groups can be registered lobbyists, unions, churches, political parties, and hobby organizations, each with its own self-interests. In a society with overlapping societal cleavages along economic, ethnic, religious, racial and political lines, civil society organizations harness social interests and redress grievances through non-violent means, all by relying on the existing political system. This type of system is known as an open-access order, where policy debates and power sharing problems are solved “through open access and competition,” forming organizations and engaging in non-violent competition. The open-access order is the basis of Western economic and political strength, but now hybrid warriors have turned that strength against liberal Western political systems.
No one expected that “subversive instruments” would be used in such a way as to create intra-societal tensions through exploitation of civil society organizations. Nor did Western political and military leaders believe that adversaries would be able to manipulate the fundamental elements of the system: the integration of markets in a globalized era, traditions of open borders, liberal citizenship rules, and the inalienable rights to free speech and the association of peoples. These principles defined the strength of the West, and now hybrid warrior adversaries can exploit them in an unexpected cruel twist of fate.
This makes it imperative for the U.S. and her allies to identify hostile attempts to undermine civil society. Current hybrid warfare efforts from Russia, China, and to a lesser degree by increasingly rogue states such as Turkey and Iran, are a formidable threat to civil order in Europe. Each of these actors is hostile towards a Western-built world order and they are now trying to undermine voters’ confidence in democratic institutions, challenging basic assumptions about the linkage between the will of the people and electoral outcomes, and of constituent interest representation by lawmakers. Western military leaders have been operating “in the blind” because they never thought their liberal democratic societies with their firm legal bases could be turned against themselves.
This Western blindness arises in part from outdated conceptions of the uses of propaganda, collusion, and complicity with foreign powers. These ideas are rooted in Cold War memories of Soviet efforts to construct counter-narratives against Western economic and political progress, and to advance communist interests globally, such as through Soviet support of Western labor unions and left-wing newspapers. In retrospect, these hybrid actions look tacky, cheap, and obvious.
Now Russian hybrid warrior trolls can push believable California and Texas secessionist agendas that look like grassroots movements, as a way of creating divisive politics that look genuinely American, but have ulterior motives of weakening the unity of the United States.
Expanding Hybrid Warfare Conceptually
Hybrid warfare, as defined by the U.S., falsely assumes that potential adversaries will rely on explicit uses of battlefield tactics (i.e. irregular warfare) and high-end asymmetric threats (e.g. denying the U.S. and her allies access to regions). The U.S. needs to redefine its concept of hybrid warfare to include penetration of civil society, exploiting market forces, and citizenship regimes beyond former EUCOM Commander Philip Breedlove’s concern for a “false narrative…to try to separate a nation from its support mechanisms.”
Hybrid warfare must capture how adversarial states can exploit the strength of another state by undermining its legal and social institutional structure. For example, in authoritarian countries, the state and its security apparatus are the defining strengths in that they bind the political power and society into a peaceful whole, which is why attacking either one usually results in political collapse. However, if we accept the notion that America (and her Western allies) are strong, precisely because of their vibrant civil societies, then we should also accept that this makes the government and military strong.
It is only logical that an adversary would pursue hybrid actions (e.g. propaganda, information warfare, etc.) as a way of fragmenting the civil society pillar in ways that were very difficult in a pre-globalization and pre-internet age. The threats are manifold, some obvious and some less so.
Technological advances have played an obvious and fundamental role in new forms of hybrid attacks against the West, now much in the news. The rise of “troll farms” contribute to hyper-polarized debates, leading many citizens with access to social media to subconsciously choose one side of a false-choice debate without realizing there could be a moderate choice and policy. It is also more than just a “weaponized narrative,” because propaganda-like efforts are no longer meant to shape the information terrain in favor of the aggressor. Instead, hybrid attacks on civil society are meant to weaken the system from within, by weaponizing grievances and social divisions, and even highlighting hallmarks of a liberal democracy (i.e. pluralist interest representation) as vulnerabilities. This is accomplished with an intent on making existing problems appear intractable and creating imaginary problems that fragment and polarize as many group identities as possible.
Much less promiscuous are the means of adversarial states using “sharp power” to silence critics as a way of shifting focus and commentary away from their own corrupt governments and authoritarian societies. Liberal market access means that foreign multinationals affiliated with adversarial states can play a direct role in shaping policies in America. Already, a Chinese corporation was identified as helping ghostwrite various U.S. laws in an attempt to influence domestic politics towards its preferences. In an interconnected world with intensifying local-global connections, American civil society has turned into an active battlespace, generating threats from within, in hopes of reducing American power globally. Part of this threat is derived from the problem of nation-less capitalism in the West, in which loyalty moves away from one’s own government and towards the highest bidder (or lowest taxes), regardless of its potential to weaken one’s own state and society.
Infiltrating Western Civil Society
The idea that civil society organizations are a purely benevolent force is a historical misreading. Civil society organizations are societal power organizations that represent and/or propagate varied forms of ideational, economic, and political power in terms of societal interests. Since they are societal power organizations, they can be manipulated and can work toward purposes that either strengthen or undermine the democratic-liberal ethos.
Before Hitler came to power, Germany was dense with civil society organizations of all sorts, from elite literary salons to unions engaging in brass-knuckle politics. Unfortunately, Hitler tapped into these organizations to foment a new movement (i.e. Nazism) that suited his narrow interests of seizing power at the expense of easily scapegoated groups.
Hybrid warriors exploit Western domestic movements primarily through social media that appear American and genuine. They create and foster conspiratorial grievances.
Take the most divisive issues that animate people high and low: second amendment gun rights, freedom of speech, privacy, LGBTQ issues, race, positive and negative discrimination, and many more. They are divisive because of where they fall between conservative and progressive views on the political spectrum. What is becoming increasingly clear is that adversarial states are relying on their hybrid warriors to deepen and polarize those divisions, and turn what are fundamentally political issues, into seemingly existential threats.
Hybrid warriors exploit Western domestic groups’ movements primarily through social media that appear American and genuine. They create and foster conspiratorial grievances, gaining citizens in their movements, along with implanted hybrid warriors to cheer on the citizens taking on this imagined cause. This compels politically-engaged citizens to believe they must fight to the death with imaginary opponents because of something generated by a hybrid warrior working for Moscow and Beijing. Furthermore, the very strengths that guarantee those rights (e.g. privacy, freedom of speech, etc.) also prevent the state from identifying the sources creating the perception of an existential concern. For example, though there are many internal threats of foreign origin in the U.S., most security and intelligence agencies are prevented from even conducting a plausibility probe, let alone investigate them. It highlights a difficult puzzle: identifying what is true intellectual debate between citizens, and what are divisive discussions driven by the machinations of hybrid warriors funded by China and Russia in the U.S., and by Iranian and Turkish actions in Europe. Evidence indicates that Russia pushed for Brexit with its troll farms, “hacked” the 2017 French elections, and “meddled” in the 2016 American presidential elections. The U.S. military – by law – cannot respond to such internal problems of debates driven by foreign subversion.
It is up to national security intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement to deal with these problems, but only if they are given the authority by the executive or legislative branches of government.
Adversarial governments and their intelligence agencies have found the “gray zone” within civic society in the West, which also happens to be the foundational fiber of a vibrant democracy. Even in southeastern Ukraine, Russia subverted soccer fan clubs – composed primarily of young men – to mobilize them into “pro-Russian militias.” Western policymakers and strategists have not even defined the contours of the threat or properly explained its challenge. Consequently, the West remains far behind in developing coherent countermeasures, and this problem will likely only get worse for the foreseeable future.
The Paradox of a Strong Civic Society that is Weak
It is ironic that the the losing side of the Cold War is slowly capturing and exploiting the same Western culture and civic society institutions that made America and the West strong, and that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Authoritarian regimes and governments with authoritarian tendencies have discovered how easy it is to penetrate open-access orders to propagate political disunity, because the system is supposed to be open to debate.
Authoritarian governments have every reason to infiltrate Western civil society and to undermine democratic institutions. It helps them inject their ideas of polarity, divisiveness, and fragmentation into free speech debates. Sowing political confusion in the West gives their authoritarian regimes more breathing space domestically and internationally.
Besides social media troll-bots, Russian-backed Sputnik News and Murica Today are just two of their most prominent outlets that create doubt in the West, by presenting counter-narratives and whispers of dark conspiracies being organized by gluttonous capitalists and by shadowy leaders in Western capitals. It of course does not help when Western writers foolishly contend that America is better off “with Russian troll bots feeding us nonsense than with authoritarian senators dictating how we consume news.” (The author forgets that the U.S. used to have an institution, known as the Information Agency, that dealt with information warfare and propaganda efforts.)
Russian meddling in American politics may even extend to the contentious debate over the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms is a cherished American value to oppose tyranny. Yet there is credible evidence of dark Russian money being funneled through the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA is a very powerful civil society organization that is designed to uphold the rights of citizens, then one should also assume that America’s adversaries believe that idea too. This problematically suggests that China and Russia might find it in their national interests to fund and support a group like the NRA and the Black Lives Matter movement simultaneously for the purposes of creating societal tension and violence.
The politically agnostic sowing of discord is by far the most defining and dangerous aspect of the hybrid attack on civil society in the West. Disruptive actors like Russia are no longer trying to support political parties and groups that they identify with. Instead, they support civil society groups on both sides of the political spectrum, knowing that the citizenry will revert to tribalist politics that are espoused around supposed primordial cleavages. The rise of cryptocurrencies will make it easier for anti-Western governments to financially support, without detection, extremist civil society groups and illiberal political movements in the West. How can the U.S. government stop an individual from contributing money to the NRA or to Black Lives Matter, especially when that individual might be a hybrid warrior channeling Bitcoin funds from Moscow or Beijing?
Democratic principles and constitutional limitations prevent Western governments’ abilities to respond to covert-hybrid warfare tactics aimed at civil society coming from China and Russia. Such attacks undermine the values, norms, and institutions of the West. Deterring hybrid attacks on Western civil society might only be possible through “strategic patience” and a proper reevaluation of necessary countermeasures that would deter and compel adversaries to change their behavior but without compromising the principles that define western democracies.
The West does not have a robust response mechanism for two reasons. First, we are not properly focusing on the threat and are myopically seeing the threat in terms of criminality, not in terms of transnational warfare. As a consequence, we have not conceptualized the threat appropriately and defined the necessary security space. The direct result of this blind spot, as experienced by a fellow American academic who faced web-based threats initiated by hybrid actors with foreign origins, is that victims have no place to turn to for protection. The local police are incapable, and it is beyond their jurisdiction. The FBI would not know whether to fit it into a counter-espionage investigation or to treat it as cyberbullying. In sum, faced with externally-funded and well-coordinated hybrid warriors who seek to undermine civil society, Western states are failing to protect their citizens. This puzzle is compounded by necessary constitutional limitations that prevent intelligence and security agencies from even looking at civil society actors through a security lens.
If there is no democratically feasible way of defeating hybrid warriors from infiltrating Western civil society, then it would be logical that the U.S. and her allies could wage a hybrid war against civic society in China and Russia. This is difficult, but not impossible. It is difficult because in authoritarian societies civil society is already tightly-controlled by the regimes. But precisely because of that, Western values and traditions of civil society are idealized; therefore, a mix of soft and sharp power tools will need to be developed and deployed by the West. However, the first step requires the political and security establishments in the West to acknowledge the nature and character of this hybrid threat to civil society.
Buddhika Jayamaha is a Ph.D. candidate at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Northwestern University. Jahara “Franky” Matisek is a major in the U.S. Air Force and a Ph.D. candidate at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Northwestern University. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo: Pro-choice demonstration in front of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, June 2016.
Photo Credit: Jordanuhl7 via Wikicommons