Combating 21st Century Authoritarian States: The Perspective of Ross Babbage


By Robbin Laird

During my current visit to Australia, I had a chance to continue my discussions with Ross Babbage about the challenges of dealing with 21st advanced authoritarian states.

Recently, he co-authored a study entitled “ Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare,” and with that as the predicate we discussed the nature of the challenge posed by 21stcentury advanced authoritarian states and how to deal with that challenge.

Question: Your new report lays out the nature of the challenge.Where is your project now headed in terms of working both the challenge and response to what I would call 21stcentury advanced authoritarian states?

Babbage: This is a starting point but we need to dig more deeply into their own thinking, their own literature, their own doctrine, and their own practices in political warfare.

We are proceeding by generating a series of case studies to highlight what those methods and approaches are so that we can assess them more concretely.

There is a lot of history.

Both the Chinese and Russian approaches are rooted in their history but using modern methods to execute their templates of political warfare.

Question: How would contrast the authoritarian approach to our basic liberal democratic mindsets?

Babbage: For the liberal democracies, there is a pretty clear break between what we would consider war and peace.

For the Chinese and the Russians, there is not quite the same distinction.

They perceive a broad  range of gray areas within which political warfare is the norm and it is a question of how effective it is; not how legitimate it is.

They are employing various tools, such as political and economic coercion, cyber intrusion, espionage of various types, active intelligence operations and so forth.

For example, in Australia, certain Chinese entities have bought up Chinese newspapers here so that there’s very little Chinese language media in Australia, which is not pro-Beijing.

And they are leveraging their business people, students and visitors to work for broader political means within Australia as well.

In contrast, the West is employing very traditional means such as diplomacy and military tools.

Our tool set is clearly constrained compared to the innovative and wide ranging tool set with which the Russians and Chinese are working and they are learning to use their presence in our societies to expand their influence on our policies.

Aaron Friedberg at Princeton really got it right when he said words to the effect that “a primary driver of Beijing’s international policies is to make the world safe for all authoritarianism.”

And that’s what we’re seeing.

What we’re confronting is a new version of a long-standing theme in Chinese strategic thought which emphasizes the importance of shaping the strategic environment in your favor by reaching a long way into the enemy’s camp, and putting him off balance, and getting him focused on internal problems and exacerbating those internal problems.

The goals are to distract and weaken the enemy and get him to not focus on things other than the main game.

The political warfare approach is one of interfering, disturbing, distracting, confusing, disrupting the institutions and the normal operations of democratic states.

The head of the Australian  Security and Intelligence Agency (ASIO) has stated that the scale and pace of foreign intelligence and  espionage activities in Australia is now higher than they were at the peak ofthe Cold War.

Question: What can be done?

Babbage: A key aspect of meeting the challenge is to recognize it exists and encourage the public focus on its existence and operations.

Regardless of domestic political persuasion, our people do not like to see this kind of authoritarian coercion operating in our society.

When they realize what is happening, they’re upset , they’re angry about what a foreign country could be trying to do, these sort of things, and they want to galvanize action.

And many pose the question of “What can we do to actually stop this and fix it?”

At present we are not telling the story of foreign political warfare broadly enough within our political and economic sectors.

We’ve got to improve our information operations. We need to throw sunlight on what these guys are doing and do so in a comprehensive and sustained manner.

Beyond that effort, I would identify a number of potential components  of what one might call an effective counter strategy.

First is a denial strategy.

Here the objective is to deny, not just the operations and make them ineffective, but also to deny the political benefits that authoritarian states seek to win by conducting their operations.

Second is a cost imposition strategy.

We need to find ways to correlate their behavior with an imposed cost.  We need to make clear that if they are going to behave like this, it will cost them in specific ways.

Third is focused on defeating their strategy, or making their strategy counterproductive.

We can turn their strategy on its  head and make it counter-productive even within their own societies.

Their own societies are fair game given the behavior of the of our combined assets Russians and Chinese.

Fourth is to make it damaging, and even dangerous, for authoritarian regimes  to sustain their political warfare strategy.

Authoritarian regimes have their own vulnerabilities and we need to focus on the seams in their systems to make their political warfare strategies very costly and risky.

And we need to do this comprehensively as democratic allies. 

There’s no reason why we can’t coordinate and cooperate and make the most of our combined resources, as we did in the Cold War..

But do we have the right tools and coordination mechanisms for an all-of-alliance strategy to work well?

In my view, the Western allies have a great deal of work to do.

The featured photo comes from Alan Porritt/AAP

For past discussions with Dr. Babbage, see the following:

The Changing of the Threat Envelope for Australia: The Perspective of Ross Babbage

The Chinese Challenge WITHIN Australia

Dealing with Reality Shock: Refocusing on the World We Have Rather than the World We Wish We Would Have