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By Daniel Twining

The old debates pitting interests against values in American foreign policy fall away in a new era when revisionist authoritarian powers are using sharp power instruments to subvert and weaken democracy in order to build out spheres of influence hostile to American interests. Authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow believe disrupting the democracies—through various combinations of disinformation, misinformation, united-front tactics, corruption, and subversion— is central to their goal of separating America from its allies and undermining the capacity of the United States to project power and influence globally. If our great power competitors understand the contest underway as an ideological one pitting free societies against authoritarian state capitalists, why would we in the United States shy away from describing the challenge in similar terms?

The United States defines our interests with respect to our values as a nation. We seek to promote democracy in the world because we understand that the health of our democracy is predicated on a global balance of power that favors freedom. We support free trade because we believe in the power of markets, not just for our people but in uplifting all people, creating a richer world that is in turn a better market for American businesses. Our most intimate military alliances are with fellow democracies in Europe and Japan, with our mutual security anchored in institutionalized ties between free peoples rather than personalistic ones with strongmen whose whims can change. We define our peer competitors with reference not to their material power—otherwise, Germany and Japan would have been adversaries not allies for the past 70 years, and India would be seen as a rising challenger—but with respect to the nondemocratic values that make us suspicious of their power, as can been seen with China, Russia, and Iran today.

“If our great power competitors understand the contest underway as an ideological one pitting free societies against authoritarian state capitalists, why would we in the United States shy away from describing the challenge in similar terms?”

How should values matter in conservative foreign policy? One answer to the question is to unpack the primary security risks to the American people today. In no case can hard power alone manage the dangers they pose. The greatest dangers to America emanate from the ideologically driven strategies of Russia and China to weaken our democracy and those of allies and partners, from violent extremism that flourishes in ungoverned spaces and among populations that are politically alienated by poor governance, and from mass migrations that threaten to overwhelm our borders and that no wall can contain without addressing the root causes that push desperate people to flee their own nations.

Managing Great Power Competition

In his National Security Strategy, President Trump put the challenge we face from the so-called “return of geopolitics” starkly:

China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.

The National Defense Strategy similarly warns that Russia and China both seek to export their authoritarian models in order to undermine U.S. leadership and the democratic world order the United States built with our allies after the Second World War.

As the National Endowment for Democracy’s report on authoritarian “sharp power” explains:

Over the past decade, China and Russia have spent billions of dollars to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world. This foreign authoritarian influence is not principally about attraction or persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation. These ambitious authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression at home, are increasingly seeking to apply similar principles internationally to secure their interests.

The Chinese government, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), utilizes sophisticated tactics to build and wield political influence around the world, with the aim of challenging, and ultimately supplanting, America’s global dominance. China’s vast economic resources and its efforts to tout rapid economic development under strongman rule as an alternative model to Western democracy allow it to have a deep and often hidden impact in any given country.

The CCP’s authoritarian political model and the role of the state in steering Chinese economic engagement abroad for grand strategic purposes pose grave risks to smaller countries by pulling them into China’s orbit in ways that undermine political pluralism. In addition to authoritarian sharp-power tactics, the Chinese government and government-linked companies use financial leverage and influence operations in other countries to silence critics of China’s authoritarian model and influence domestic political decision making in China’s favor.

Whether through sharp-power tactics or leveraging economic investments, the CCP seeks to build political influence in target countries through such efforts. These activities are often meant to influence local government decisions over time—contributing to societal divisions and political corruption, which in turn lead to state capture by China and an expansive illiberal sphere of influence hostile to the United States.

It is becoming clear that fragile democracies and authoritarian states are most susceptible to such influence. Weak governance structures are further undermined by the influence of large sums of Chinese investment that is linked back to the party-state in Beijing, feeding corruption and derailing non-Chinese leaders from representing the interests of their citizens.

Established and developed democracies may be able to more effectively address such foreign authoritarian influence, but even Australia’s mature democracy was penetrated for years by agents of the CCP before the government in Canberra cracked down on these fifth columns. Chinese influence has also spread perniciously in Europe, undermining transatlantic solidarity on a unified Western response to the Chinese grand strategic challenge.

Yet the problem is worse in many developing countries, where CCP penetration succeeds in part because governments caught in Chinese debt traps have no choice but to work with the Chinese government and government-linked companies and organizations. In most cases, the West has not sought to actively compete with China nor provide alternatives for host governments.

It is well past time for the United States to confront this challenge. Helping countries build political resiliency to corruption and state capture by a hostile authoritarian power is an American national security interest. One important way of doing this is to invest in bolstering democratic institutions so that they can represent the interests of their people and resist this cryptocolonization.

Democracies also need protection from Kremlin-sponsored subversion. In Europe and beyond, the Putin regime is deploying a sophisticated information warfare campaign—including cybersecurity attacks on electoral systems and political parties and coordinated campaigns of disinformation—to undermine democratic institutions, exploit societal divisions, and erode citizens’ confidence in democracy. Moscow’s aim is to create an environment in which the postwar American-led democratic order is diminished and the Putin autocracy is free to continue stealing from its own people, deny the Russian people their basic rights, and extend Russia’s sphere of influence into the heart of Europe—and in the process weaken NATO, America’s most important security alliance.

What makes this form of political warfare particularly insidious is that it uses some of the core features of our democracy against us— exploiting free media to manipulate and spread false information and attempting to undermine confidence in our electoral systems. Our approach to this challenge must be to harness the strengths of democracy to expose these practices and create coordinated policies with our allies to push back against this campaign to subvert our open societies.

Countering Violent Extremism

Eighteen years after 9/11, we have grown accustomed to the ever- present threat of terrorism, and we are all too used to seeing lives destroyed and nations torn apart by this scourge. As the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy points out, violent extremist organizations “thrive under conditions of state weakness and prey on the vulnerable as they accelerate the breakdown of rules to create havens from which to plan and launch attacks on the United States, our allies, and our partners.”

In order to successfully combat extremism, we must look to the source of the problem. Sobering experience has taught us that a kinetic response, while necessary, is not sufficient to address violent extremism. We cannot simply fight our way out of this problem; we must also look to preventive measures grounded in the values of open societies.

The dynamics that enable violent extremists to flourish are not just confined to the Middle East. We see them in Africa’s Sahel, in South and Southeast Asia, and even in Europe, to which many foreign fighters returned from the Syria front chastened but still radicalized and inclined to violence. In many countries, political alienation seeds extremism, with chasms between citizens and government creating feelings of hopelessness and exclusion that drive some toward the illusory promises of violent extremism.

Our approach to this challenge must be multifaceted. Democracy assistance is a vital tool on the preventive side, helping to create the conditions in which populations that might otherwise be vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists have peaceful outlets to express grievances and have a stake in their societies. Support for the development of free markets to create jobs and opportunity would also help, as the statist economies of countries like Egypt reinforce the power of dictators to repress dissent even as they stifle broad- based prosperity.

Mitigating Uncontrolled Mass Migration

We are in the midst of the most significant refugee crisis since the Second World War. More people are fleeing across borders today than at any point since 1945, creating monumental security and societal challenges and destabilizing entire regions, including not just conflict states in the Middle East but also our close allies in Europe. In our own hemisphere, uncontrolled mass migration caused by failures of governance fuels transnational crime, including human trafficking and the drug trade, as increasingly desperate populations flee the breakdown of law and order and governance in places like Venezuela and Central America in search of a decent life elsewhere. The fallout from uncontrolled migration around the world for U.S. interests is enormous. It undermines core security interests, weakens our allies, radicalizes new generations of young people, and costs billions in both direct humanitarian assistance and indirect problems caused by this destabilizing trend.

Any successful approach to this complex problem must address the drivers of mass migration, which are often caused by the failure of government institutions to provide the conditions in which people can live with security and support their families. Corruption, the breakdown of law and order, and citizen insecurity are key drivers of mass migration. If the United States can help foreign governments provide a minimum of citizen security and opportunity to their citizens, people are less likely to want to come to the United States and more likely to invest in their own country’s future.


Democracies must make common cause in an era when they are under new forms of external authoritarian assault as well as pressures from violent extremists and mass migrations. They should also strive to continue providing a powerful counterexample to the new authoritarianism by demonstrating that free societies are the surest guarantors of human liberty and security, whereas tech- empowered dictators are a danger to their own people and to others. An important component of sustaining the free world lies in the digital domain. China’s deployment and export of surveillance technologies is a dictator’s dream and could put at risk the way of life Americans and our democratic allies have taken for granted for generations. As more of life moves online, sustaining an open Internet commons, at least within the free world, becomes a national security imperative, as recent debates over Huawei have demonstrated.

Finally, civic education is essential to help American citizens understand that our democracy risks penetration by hostile foreign actors. Our citizens also need to understand that America has risen to the challenge of ideological, totalitarian great power competitors before, but that our victory in the Cold War required a degree of national cohesion, self-sacrifice, and mobilization that is not fully evident today.


"The Future of Conservative Internationalism," which is a collection of essays from the Reagan Institute Strategy Group, convened in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in July 2019.