Joe Biden Leads Trump as the Presidential Campaign Enters Summer | US News


It’s just a bit more than four months before the general election, and things are not looking good for President Donald Trump.

Yet another poll was released this week showing former Vice President Joe Biden with a 14-point lead over Trump nationally, suggesting a CNN survey earlier this month – a poll that so enraged the president he demanded a retraction and an apology – is not an outlier. Battleground state polls show Trump losing many states he won in 2016.

His much-ballyhooed return to big-rally campaigning was a bust, with his Tulsa, Oklahoma event bringing 6,200 attendees, according to the fire marshal – a third of the venue’s capacity.

Source: Joe Biden Leads Trump as the Presidential Campaign Enters Summer | America 2020 | US News

The politics and history of the D.C. statehood vote


On Friday, the U.S. House will take the rare step of holding a vote on statehood for Washington, DC. The “Washington, D.C. Admission Act” (H.R. 51) would maintain an existing capital district that encompasses the spread of federal buildings in the city’s core.

The remainder of the current district would gain admission as the nation’s 51st state, offering voting representation in the House and Senate to its more than 700,000 residents.

Understanding the history and impact of this move is important.

Source: The politics and history of the D.C. statehood vote

Can Russia’s Putin Actually Become President for Life?


In theory, the proposed changes—which will, among other things, “reset the clock” on the current constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms—mean Putin could win two more elections and remain in power until 2036. If he does, he would be 84 years old by the time he stepped down and would have outstripped the tenure of the Kremlin’s last iron-fisted leader for life, Joseph Stalin, by about seven years.

In practice, however, there’s no guarantee Putin will be able to last that long politically in the event the vote next week goes his way and he is eventually reelected.

If recent dire predictions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the future of Russia’s economy and scientific forecasts about rapidly accelerating permafrost melt in the Arctic region are even remotely accurate, Putin and the Russian elites who currently back him might end up having second thoughts about the wisdom of the constitutional amendments.

Given how much of Russia’s economy and territory is likely to be literally under water in the coming years due to the COVID-19 crisis and the accelerating climate emergency in the country, it is reasonable to ask whether Putin will still be around or even want the job by then.

Source: Can Russia’s Putin Actually Become President for Life?

U.S. lenders, businesses brace for disclosure on small business pandemic aid | Reuters


The colossal data set for the Paycheck Protection Program, to be released by the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration in the coming days, will provide transparency for a first-come-first-served program that from the outset was plagued by technology, paperwork and fairness issues.

That could make life uncomfortable for borrowers that broke the spirit or letter of the rules, and for banks that shoveled the money out the door. The aim of the $660 billion program was to help cash-strapped companies keep workers employed and make rent.

“There’s a level of anxiety,” said Suzie Saxman, a partner at Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “I’ve said to everybody: Prepare to be disclosed, prepare to be audited.”

Source: U.S. lenders, businesses brace for disclosure on small business pandemic aid – Reuters

Corona Capital: Nike, Microsoft and retail pain | Reuters


MALL FALL. Nike on Thursday reported a whopping 38% decline in revenue from a year earlier to $6.3 billion for the quarter to May 31, one of the first sets of earnings blighted by Covid-19 almost throughout. The sneaker maker’s stores, and other outlets it sells through, were almost all closed for the majority of the period.

Nike needs retail destinations. But Microsoft said on Friday it will leave its 80-plus stores permanently shuttered, save for flagships in New York, London and two other centers. They never caught on like rival Apple’s shimmering palaces. Still, deciding that online sales render mall space unnecessary is another blow for landlords.

Source: Breakingviews – Corona Capital: Nike, Microsoft and retail pain – Reuters

It may be called the ‘Forgotten War,’ but the Korean conflict set the stage for decades of tensions | Stripes


The Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War” in the United States because the 1950-53 conflict was overshadowed between World War II and Vietnam.

However, the legacy of the stalemated Cold War-era war looms large over the divided peninsula, setting the stage for decades of tensions as North Korea builds up its nuclear arsenal while the United States and China vie for influence in the region.

Source: It may be called the ‘Forgotten War,’ but the Korean conflict set the stage for decades of tensions – Stripes

The Retrenchment Syndrome | Foreign Affairs

A Response to “Come Home, America?”


In the decades after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the simplistic but widely held belief that the war had been unjustified and unwinnable gave way to “the Vietnam syndrome”—a conviction that the United States should avoid all military interventions abroad. The mantra of “no more Vietnams” dominated foreign policy, muting more concrete discussions of what should be learned from that experience. Instead, the analogy was applied indiscriminately; U.S. military operations in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East prompted assertions that the use of force would lead to “another Vietnam.” It was not until the United States won a lopsided victory over the military of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the 1990–91 Gulf War that President George H. W. Bush could declare that the United States had finally “kicked the Vietnam syndrome.”

Nearly three decades later, however, a new mantra of “ending endless wars” has emerged from frustrations over indecisive, protracted, and costly military interventions abroad. These frustrations have reproduced the Vietnam syndrome in a new guise: the Afghanistan-Iraq syndrome. Across the political spectrum, many Americans have come to believe that retrenchment would not only avoid the costs of military operations overseas but also improve U.S. security. They have found support for this belief in analyses like those that appeared in this magazine’s lead package for its March/April 2020 issue, titled “Come Home, America?

The authors of the articles in that package offered different variations on the retrenchment theme. But what some of the articles have in common is an appeal that reflects strong emotions rather than an accurate understanding of what went wrong in the wars that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Proponents of a U.S. withdrawal from its military commitments play to visceral feelings of war weariness and argue that the difficulties of those wars were the inevitable consequence of the United States’ misguided pursuit of armed domination. Some retrenchers depict U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War as a fool’s errand, impelled by a naive crusade to remake the world in the United States’ image. And although advocates of retrenchment often identify as realists, they subscribe to the romantic view that restraint abroad is almost always an unmitigated good. In fact, disengagement from competitions overseas would increase dangers to the United States; the paltry savings realized would be dwarfed by the eventual cost of responding to unchecked and undeterred threats to American security, prosperity, and influence.

In their critiques of the post-9/11 wars, retrenchers fail to acknowledge the hidden costs of their recommendations. Although a majority of Americans now agree that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, retrenchment advocates ignore the consequences of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and of the broader disengagement from the Middle East that accompanied it. Those steps ceded space to jihadi terrorists and Iranian proxies, thereby creating an ideal environment for the return of sectarian violence and the establishment of the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State (or ISIS). The Obama administration made similar mistakes in Libya earlier in 2011, after pushing for a NATO air campaign that helped depose the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Although it was determined to avoid the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq, the Obama administration paradoxically exceeded them, failing to shape Libya’s political environment in the wake of Qaddafi’s demise; nearly a decade later, the Libyan civil war rages on, and the country remains a source and a transit point for millions seeking escape from turmoil in northern Africa and the Sahel.

Retrenchers ignore the fact that the risks and costs of inaction are sometimes higher than those of engagement. In August 2013, the Syrian regime used poison gas to kill more than 1,400 innocent civilians, including hundreds of children. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration in 2012 that the use of these heinous weapons to murder civilians would cross a redline, the United States did not respond with military force. U.S. inaction enabled the regime’s brutality, emboldening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian supporters to intensify their mass homicide. In 2017–18, U.S. President Donald Trump finally enforced the Obama administration’s redline, retaliating against the use of chemical weapons by Assad with strikes against the Syrian military. But Trump’s decision in 2019 to withdraw U.S. forces from eastern Syria complicated efforts to eliminate ISIS and bolstered the influence of Assad and his sponsors in an area whose control would give them a significant advantage in the war. Almost nine years since the Syrian civil war began, a humanitarian catastrophe continues in Idlib Province, which, at the end of 2019, generated over a million more refugees, many of whom succumbed to extreme cold or the novel coronavirus.

Despite evidence that U.S. disengagement can make a bad situation worse, retrenchers have pushed for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020 will allow the Taliban, al Qaeda, and various other jihadi terrorists to claim victory, recruit more young people to their cause, gain control of more territory, and inflict suffering through the imposition of draconian sharia. Just as the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS generated a refugee crisis that reached into Europe, the establishment of an Islamic emirate in a large portion of Afghanistan would generate another wave of refugees and further destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of over 220 million people. Terrorist organizations that already enjoy safe haven in the Afghan-Pakistani border region will increase their profits from illicit activities such as the narcotics trade and apply those resources to intensify and expand their murderous campaigns. Retrenchers do not acknowledge that U.S. withdrawal often leaves a vacuum that enemies and adversaries are eager to fill.

Retrenchment advocates are relatively unconcerned about enemies gaining strength overseas because they assume that the United States’ geographic blessings—including its natural resources and the vast oceans that separate it from the rest of the world—will keep Americans safe. But in today’s interconnected world, threats from transnational terrorists (or viruses, for that matter) do not remain confined to particular regions. The humanitarian, security, and political consequences of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have reached well beyond the Middle East and South Asia. Just as China’s concealment of the coronavirus forestalled actions that might have prevented a global catastrophe, the United States’ withdrawal of support for its partners on the frontlines against jihadi terrorists could generate staggering costs if the terrorists succeed in penetrating U.S. borders as they did on September 11, 2001. And a reduction of U.S. support for allies and partners along the frontiers of hostile states, such as Iran and North Korea, or revisionist powers, such as China and Russia, could result in a shift in the balance of power and influence away from the United States. Retrenchment could also result in a failure to deter aggression and prevent a disastrous war.

Retrenchers also overlook the trend that the security associated with the United States’ geographic advantages has been diminishing. In 1960, the historian C. Vann Woodward observed that technologies such as the conventional aircraft, jet propulsion, the ballistic missile, and the atomic-powered submarine marked “the end of the era of free security.” Those technologies overtook “Americans so suddenly and swiftly that they have not brought themselves to face its practical implications.” Retrenchers are out of step with history and way behind the times.

Even the most compelling arguments for sustained engagement overseas are unlikely to convince hardcore retrenchers, because they believe that an overly powerful United States is the principal cause of the world’s problems. Their pleas for disengagement are profoundly narcissistic, as they perceive geopolitical actors only in relation to the United States. In their view, other actors—whether friends or foes—possess no aspirations and no agency, except in reaction to U.S. policies and actions. Retrenchers ignore the fact that sometimes wars choose you rather than the other way around: only after the most devastating terrorist attack in history did the United States invade Afghanistan.

In the “Come Home, America?” package, Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press argue in “Reality Check” that abandoning what they describe as Washington’s pursuit of primacy would quell China and Russia while providing opportunities for cooperation on issues of climate change, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. And in “The Price of Primacy,” Stephen Wertheim asserts that a less threatening United States could “transform globalization into a governable and sustainable force” and bring about a reduction in jihadi terrorism, a less aggressive China, a curtailment of Russian interference, the cessation of Iran’s proxy wars, the termination of North Korea’s threat to U.S. and regional security and human rights, and even progress against the threat from climate change.

If these promises seem too good to be true, it’s because they are. Retrenchment hard-liners are confident in such claims because they assume that the United States has preponderant control over future global security and prosperity. In reality, adversaries have the power to act based on their own aspirations and goals: American behavior did not cause jihadi terrorism, Chinese economic aggression, Russian political subversion, or the hostility of Iran and North Korea. And U.S. disengagement would not attenuate those challenges or make them easier to overcome.

The movement in favor of retrenchment is in part a reaction to the overoptimism that animated U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, some thinkers and policymakers assumed that the process of democratization that was unfolding in eastern Europe would be replicable in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But they failed to give due consideration to local contexts and to political, social, cultural, and religious dynamics that make liberal democracy and the rule of law hard to reach. Similarly, after the United States’ lopsided military victory in the Gulf War, some assumed that future wars could be won quickly and decisively because U.S. technology had produced a “revolution in military affairs.” But this presumption ignored continuities in the nature of war, such as the enemy’s say in a war’s course of events and its political, human, and psychological complexities. Excessive optimism soon grew into hubris, setting the United States up for unanticipated difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The best antidote to such overconfidence, however, is not the excessive pessimism offered by retrenchers. Policymakers should instead adopt what the historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy”: an understanding of the ideology, emotions, and aspirations that drive and constrain other actors. Strategic empathy might help at least some advocates of retrenchment qualify their adamant opposition to democracy promotion and human rights advocacy abroad and might allow them to accept that the United States cannot determine, but can influence, the evolution of a world in which free and open societies flourish. In recent years, protests against authoritarian rule and corruption have flared up all over the world. In Baghdad, Beirut, Caracas, Hong Kong, Khartoum, Moscow, and Tehran, people have made clear that they want a say in how they are governed. Support for those who strive for freedom is in the United States’ interest, because a world in which liberty, democracy, and the rule of law are strengthened will be safer and more prosperous. Disengagement from competitions overseas would cede influence to others, such as the Chinese Communist Party, which is already redoubling efforts to promote its authoritarian model. Retrenchment may hold emotional appeal for Americans tired of protracted military commitments abroad, but blind adherence to an orthodoxy based on emotion rather than reason would make Americans less safe and put the United States further in the red.

Source: The Retrenchment Syndrome | Foreign Affairs

COVID-19 and the Growing White Supremacist Menace | Foreign Affairs

COVID-19 Has Been a Boon for Far-Right Extremists


Late in the evening on April 11, the Texarkana, Texas, Police Department started receiving 911 calls about an imminent attack on one of their own. A man in a black Chevy truck was crisscrossing the area looking for a lone police officer to “ambush and execute” and streaming his search to Facebook Live. Using the video, police were able to quickly locate the truck. After a high-speed chase, 36-year-old Aaron Swenson surrendered to police, a search of his truck turning up several loaded firearms.

The ensuing investigation revealed that Swenson had been deeply immersed in the online culture of the so-called boogaloo bois: heavily armed men, often clad in armored vests and incongruously festive Hawaiian shirts, who in recent months have appeared at protests around the country against both COVID-19 lockdowns and police brutality. Swenson isn’t the only member to have embraced violence: on May 30, in Las Vegas, three boogaloo bois on their way to a Black Lives Matter protest were arrested with numerous firearms and Molotov cocktail ingredients—the trio have military backgrounds, and according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, two had plotted to firebomb a power substation. Last week, two men associated with the movement were charged in the killing of a courthouse guard in Oakland, California.

Part meme, part subculture, the boogaloo is a mash-up of antigovernment apocalyptic screed, Second Amendment evangelism, and dark-humored satire. The term itself refers to a hoped-for civil war that will bring about the collapse of society—and, in some adherents’ vision, its replacement by a white ethnostate. (The origins of the name itself are a bit complicated, but they trace back, through countless message board conversations and in-jokes, to the 1984 break-dancing movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, white supremacist terrorism was a growing menace. Although the specter of jihadism has received more attention, the threat of racially motivated extremism—of which white supremacy is a part—has been rising steadily over the last few years. As recently as 2016, it accounted for only 20 percent of terrorism-related deaths in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. By 2018, that figure had increased to 98 percent. In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that racially and ethnically motivated extremists had been the “primary source of ideologically motivated lethal incidents and violence” over the last two years. Wray also noted that 2019 marked the deadliest year of white supremacist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Just as they have for food delivery services and videoconferencing platforms, lockdowns have proved to be a time of growth and opportunity for white supremacists. Indeed, violent extremists across the ideological spectrum have exploited the pandemic to take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, desperate, and available—relegated to their homes (or their parents’ homes) with little to distract them aside from surfing the Web. The dearth of large public gatherings and crowds moved the terrorism battle space inside and online. But with an antigovernment message designed for online virality, twenty-first-century white supremacists were especially well positioned to profit from this shift. And the evidence so far suggests that they succeeded in doing so, with results that, as the recent arrests show, can all too easily become offline threats.

As with terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS), today’s white supremacist threat is both global and virtual. The war in Ukraine, for example, has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters with ties to the far right who use the battlefield as a networking space. That includes dozens of Americans, some of whom have come home with new contacts and fighting experience. Outside Ukraine, white supremacist training camps exist in Poland, Bulgaria, and even the United Kingdom, and many white supremacist organizations operate transnationally.

But whereas for ISIS the Internet is a tool to create and grow the caliphate, for white supremacists the Internet is the caliphate: a headquarters, a virtual training camp, and a staging ground all in one.

This reliance on the Internet has served the group well during the pandemic. But it may also be its Achilles’ heel.

In the early afternoon of March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant sat parked in his car in Christchurch, New Zealand. Recording himself with his smartphone, he told viewers to “subscribe to PewDiePie,” a popular and deliberately provocative Swedish YouTuber with an ambiguous relationship to the far right. Tarrant then got out of his car and embarked on a shooting spree at two local mosques, killing 51 people. With a helmet-mounted GoPro camera, he livestreamed the mass murder on Facebook. Within a day of the attacks, Facebook had reportedly blocked some 1.5 million attempts to view the video.

Livestreaming crimes in progress, as Tarrant expertly did—and as Swenson, the man arrested in Texarkana, tried to do—is a tactic brought into the mainstream by ISIS. Amedy Coulibaly, the perpetrator of the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris in 2015, tried desperately to upload GoPro footage that he had taken of his assault, commissioning the help of one of his hostages in the failed effort; the next year, in the French city of Magnanville, the ISIS adherent Larossi Aballa posted a 13-minute live video on Facebook after stabbing to death a police officer and slitting the throat of the officer’s girlfriend. The idea was to leverage the viral power of violence, individual foot soldiers becoming content creators and influencers and using social media as a force multiplier. Turning a physical attack into a piece of propaganda in real time lets the perpetrator control the narrative.

At its height, ISIS deployed social media as effectively as it deployed violence. As the group’s flagship magazine, Dabiq, put it, “The information campaign is indistinguishable from the military campaign. . . . Violence is itself a message when you use it correctly.” In addition to the beheading, immolation, and post-attack promotional videos designed to horrify the public and draw headlines, ISIS’s information campaign produced slick biopics lionizing individual fighters. Content was spread across official and unofficial channels to ensure its longevity. And to this day, followers worldwide are instructed to take the initiative and carry out whatever acts of violence they are able to, using whatever weapon is available (a knife, gun, or car)—and attesting, preferably on video, that they are doing it for ISIS.

ISIS’s media strategy was a significant step up from that of previous terrorist groups, but white supremacists have continued to innovate. Formally, much of their propaganda and media strategy resembles that of ISIS: skillfully produced videos; bold graphics that use manipulated imagery from video games and movies to issue crude threats; the deliberate channeling of new followers from open social media platforms—effective for recruitment—to encrypted ones, where bomb-making instructions can be shared, potential targets are discussed, and the real mobilization takes place.

With white supremacists, however, the culture of the Internet suffuses the entire movement. In a 74-page manifesto that Tarrant posted to the extremist online messaging board 8chan before his attack, he writes, “Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto.” The entire document is marbled with sarcasm, and Tarrant at one point jokingly suggests that he was radicalized by the video games Spyro the Dragon and Fortnite. This is unusual manifesto territory. As with most content on the 8chan platform, the tone is not that of a religious zealot but that of a winking online troll—a “shitposter.” The text is emblematic of a subculture that cloaks its extremist ideology in layers of ironic detachment and nihilistic jocularity, mocking mainstream liberal values of inclusivity, equality, and democracy as repressive, traditionalist, and conservative.

This peculiar form of discourse binds the movement together. Unlike al Qaeda and ISIS—organizations with hierarchy, territory, franchises, mission, vision, and values—the white supremacist world is dispersed and highly dynamic. There are plenty of groups, some operating across borders, but they are often small, disorganized, and quick to fragment and reconstitute. Group members may belong to more than one group at once, which can sometimes mean little more than participating in multiple group chats on different online platforms. In this world of shifting, overlapping allegiances, the memes and the irony—who is in on the joke and who is not—are the connective tissue.

Meanwhile, the violence spreads by contagion rather than direction—another reason white supremacists are particularly well suited to take advantage of a global pandemic. Counterterrorism analysts tend to break down global jihadism based on how connected threat actors are to a particular organization—whether they are directed, enabled, or inspired by that organization. The taxonomy of white supremacy, on the other hand, centers on how individual threat actors influence one another. In addition to being a terrorist, Tarrant is a social media influencer, and his manifesto is as much a recruitment speech as an explanation of his worldview. Multiple attackers have cited Tarrant as an influence over the 15 months since his attack—including John Earnest, who livestreamed his attack on a synagogue in Poway, California; Patrick Crusius, who killed 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019; and Philip Manshaus, who attacked the Al-Noor mosque in Oslo, Norway, in August 2019.  Tarrant himself cites Anders Breivik, perpetrator of a horrific attack in Norway in 2011 that killed 77, most of them young people at a summer camp. The most influential figureheads are not organizational or spiritual leaders, such as al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki or ISIS’s Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, but individual attackers, who are often rhetorically sanctified online—“Hail Saint Tarrant,” “Saint Crusius,” or “Saint Breivik,” and so on.

All of this complicates the job of law enforcement. The veil of irony and memes makes it hard to identify who poses an imminent threat and who is simply joking—which, of course, is precisely the point. The remit of law enforcement is to find future Brenton Tarrants before they carry out their attacks, but when it comes to flagging incitement to violence, it is hard to tell signal from noise. And if irony generates static, contagion is often silent. The United States government is well equipped to prevent violence organized by groups or structured networks that communicate, travel, train, and carry out other activities that trip wires. Predicting which lone actor will mobilize and carry out a violent attack is much more difficult.

Ultimately, however, the online nature of white supremacist terrorism may be its weak point. For one, it’s an open question how scalable a movement based on leaderless resistance, influence, and contagion can be. And dependence on the Internet makes it hard to exist without it. Efforts to deplatform and remove white supremacist actors and content lag behind similar measures against jihadist groups, but if applied, they will likely be even more effective. Al Qaeda and ISIS are bigger, more lethal, and more powerful organizations thanks to social media, but they would be able to do much of what they do without it. This is not the case for racist extremists. Shutting down their content, message boards, forums, profiles, and sites can deal them a serious blow. Denying these sites protection from cyberattacks is another powerful tool, already used against Gab, a social media site popular among racially motivated extremists, in the aftermath of Robert Bowers’s attack against the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and against 8chan after the El Paso shooting.

These measures are no catchall solution. Committed extremists will migrate to new, often “dark” or encrypted platforms and groups or simply return under new names after their profiles and sites have been taken down. But making it harder for uninitiated users to engage with extremist content, or for radicalized individuals to find one another online, checks the movement’s spread. Deplatforming can reduce the speed of contagion. It can also deter those who aren’t serious, who are in it for the memes but not the violence—it can shut out the noise so that law enforcement can concentrate on the signal.

Social media companies have dedicated significant resources to removing content associated with groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. They are starting to do the same for white supremacists, with a particular focus on content related to COVID-19, such as disinformation (guidance, for example, purporting to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting sanitizing one’s house with combinations of household-cleaning materials that are toxic or explosive) or tactical and targeting advice (directives to intentionally infect minorities, law enforcement, or health-care workers by coughing, sneezing, or spitting on them). Last week, Facebook removed hundreds of accounts linked to white supremacist groups that had discussed bringing weapons to protests over the killing of George Floyd. Overall, however, these content removal efforts have not kept up with content production. In the fall of 2019, the encrypted messaging app Telegram, with the help of Europol, completed the largest and to date most successful ISIS purge, removing thousands of accounts from its platform. This action was a significant setback for the group, sending the online jihadist community reeling, decentralized, to multiple alternative platforms to try to reconstitute. Social media companies have not taken similar action against racially motivated violent extremist accounts.

Until they do, the onus is on law enforcement to identify the radicalized before they mobilize. The window of opportunity, however, is often short. Right before Robert Bowers attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, he posted on Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Tarrant’s manifesto went up moments before his attack. “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting,” it read, “and time to make a real life effort post.” Law enforcement cannot be all that stands between the virtual and the real, between the optics, the shitposting, and the real-life effort.

Source: COVID-19 and the Growing White Supremacist Menace | Foreign Affairs

When the CIA Interferes in Foreign Elections | Foreign Affairs

A Modern-Day History of American Covert Action


Russian President Vladimir Putin tends to respond to questions about his government’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with a mix of denials and countercharges. It is the United States, he alleged in June 2017, that “all over the world is actively interfering in electoral campaigns in other countries.” The purpose of this claim is to excuse and distract from Russia’s actions, and in many places overseas, it’s working. From Kyiv to Brussels to London, government officials told me that they assume the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) frequently interferes in elections abroad.

This perception is understandable: for decades, it was true. The CIA’s first-ever covert action program was an operation to manipulate Italy’s 1948 election. American intelligence officers spread incendiary propaganda, bankrolled their preferred candidate, and orchestrated grassroots initiatives—all to advantage Italy’s centrist forces over their leftist competitors. After the Italian Communist Party lost, the 1948 operation became “a template,” David Robarge, the CIA’s chief internal historian, told me, for what the agency then did in “many, many countries” in competition with its Soviet counterpart, the KGB. From Chile and Guyana to El Salvador and Japan, the CIA and the KGB targeted democratic elections across the globe. Some of those operations manipulated ballots directly; others manipulated public opinion; all were designed to influence election outcomes.

Then, the Cold War ended, and the opposing objectives of Moscow’s and Washington’s electoral operations—to spread or to contain communism—became obsolete. Since then, Russian intelligence has interfered in many foreign elections, not to advance an ideology but to promote divisive and authoritarian-minded candidates, sow chaos and confusion, and delegitimize the democratic model. But what of the CIA?

Over the past two years, I interviewed more than 130 officials about the century-long history of covert electoral interference, or concealed foreign efforts to manipulate democratic votes of succession. My interviewees included eight former CIA directors and many more CIA officers, as well as directors of national intelligence, secretaries of state, national security advisers, a KGB general, and a former U.S. president. I learned that in the twenty-first century, Washington’s senior-most national security officials have considered using the CIA to interfere in foreign elections at least twice. In one instance—in Serbia in 2000—debate turned into action, as the CIA spent millions of dollars working against the tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. In the other—in Iraq in 2005—the CIA stood down. In both instances, U.S. policymakers weighed the potential benefits of covert action against the perceived risks. These behind-the-scenes stories reveal why, contrary to Putin’s claims, Washington, unlike Moscow, has moved away from the practice of covert electoral interference.

The first case arrived in 2000, when Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, was competing for reelection in Serbia. Milosevic was many things: a Moscow-aligned Communist, a Serbian nationalist, and a grave abuser of human rights. In the mid-1990s, he had enabled a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few years later, he did the same in Kosovo, as his soldiers systemically terrorized, murdered, and expelled ethnic Albanians. The severity of these atrocities prompted NATO, in 1999, to launch an air campaign against Milosevic’s forces and an international court to indict him as a war criminal. Leon Panetta, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, told me, “Milosevic was viewed as a bad guy and influence and somebody that was going to turn that part of the world upside down if there weren’t steps taken to go after him.”

The 2000 election presented such an opportunity. “I don’t know that we publicly said that our goal was regime change,” said James O’Brien, then Clinton’s special envoy for the Balkans, but “we did not see Milosevic being able to lead a normal country.” From mid-1999 to late 2000, public and private U.S. organizations spent roughly $40 million on Serbian programs, supporting not just Milosevic’s opposition but also the independent media, civic organizations, and get-out-the-vote initiatives. Through this overt engagement, O’Brien explained, the United States aimed to level the playing field in an election that Milosevic was poised to manipulate.

As the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) influenced the Serbian election in the light, the CIA did the same in secret. John Sipher told me that between 1991 and 2014, when he was serving as a CIA operations officer, he knew of just one “successful” operation to interfere in an election: in Serbia in 2000. “There was a covert effort to try to support the opposition to Milosevic,” Sipher said, recalling that after Clinton notified select members of Congress, the CIA went to work “supporting and funding and providing help to specific opposition candidates—that was the main thing.”

Sipher, who became the CIA’s station chief in Serbia just after the election, explained that the agency funneled “certainly millions of dollars” into the anti-Milosevic campaign, mostly by meeting with key aides to Serbian opposition leaders outside their country’s borders and “providing them with cash” on the spot.

In an interview, Clinton confirmed that he authorized the CIA to interfere in the 2000 election in favor of Milosevic’s opponents. “I didn’t have a problem with it,” he told me of the CIA’s covert action program, because Milosevic “was a stone-cold killer and had caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” Just as Cold War–era U.S. presidents believed they could strengthen foreign democracies by undermining communist candidates, Clinton believed he could strengthen Serbian democracy by working against Milosevic. “The guy was a war criminal,” Clinton told me. “I didn’t consider Milosevic to be a democracy candidate; I thought he was trying to get rid of democracy.”

In Serbia, the CIA’s focus was on influencing minds rather than altering ballots. “We did not rig the vote nor knowingly lie to the voters to get them to support the people we hoped to win,” Clinton explained. Instead, the CIA provided money and other types of assistance to the opposition campaign.

Congressional leaders knew about and backed this secret plan. Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, recalled that when he was briefed on the CIA’s operation, he supported it wholeheartedly. “[Milosevic] was totally out of control,” Lott told me. “We weren’t gonna invade, but it was a mess, and we had to do something.” CIA officers, unlike other U.S. government officials, could operate undercover. “Because of the nature of the way we do business,” explained Douglas Wise, then a CIA operations officer based in the Balkans, “Serbia was a lot more penetrable than it was for people who were much more overt, shall we say.” The U.S. intelligence community’s involvement in the election was “substantial,” Wise continued, as Washington used “all the instruments of our national power to create an outcome that was pleasing for the United States.”

But would it be enough? As the election approached, Clinton worried that Milosevic would cheat his way to victory. “These elections are going to be important, but they probably won’t be fair,” he told Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new president, two and a half weeks before the vote, according to a recently declassified transcript of their conversation. “Milosevic is running behind in the polls, so he’ll probably steal it. It would be preferable for him to lose, but he’ll probably arrange not to.” (Putin, in response, complained about NATO’s intervention the previous year. “We weren’t consulted in the decision to bomb Yugoslavia,” he said. “That’s not fair.”)

U.S. democracy promotion organizations, sharing Clinton’s concerns, sought to ensure that Milosevic could not falsify the vote count. One U.S.-funded NGO trained more than 15,000 activists to monitor polling places. The day of the election, opposition members tallied ballots alongside government officials. The state’s vote count suggested that Milosevic had a narrow lead. The parallel count, however, revealed the truth: he had lost overwhelmingly. Major protests erupted. Milosevic, unable to quell a popular revolution, was forced to resign.

The CIA’s hand remained hidden. Two decades later, now retired American intelligence officers expressed unexplained confidence that their work proved pivotal in defeating Milosevic. Sipher commented on the “success” of the CIA’s operation. Wise said that the United States made “a big difference” and that “a combination” of covert and overt tactics had produced “a positive outcome.” As with all covert operations to influence voters, though, the CIA could not assess its precise impact. “Measuring it is hard,” Sipher recognized. But he noted that Serbian government officials did credit the CIA for their victory behind closed doors. “Many of the key players who became senior figures in the follow-on government continued to meet with us and continued to tell us that it was our efforts that led to their success,” Sipher said, “in terms of helping them with everything, from advertising to financing to how they did things” during the campaign.

In interviews, more senior government officials grew uncomfortable at any mention of the CIA and Milosevic’s defeat. “I know stuff about that, but I’m not able to talk about it,” said John McLaughlin, who was the CIA’s deputy director in 2000. This discomfort made sense: CIA interference in the 2000 election was not representative of the agency’s post–Cold War operations. How often, after all, can a war criminal be ousted by ballot? “There seemed to be a higher comfort level not just in the intelligence part of the world but really just policy writ large that something had to be done in the Balkans,” said Steven Hall, a former CIA operations officer who was stationed in the region in 2000. For Washington, “electoral manipulation” had become “a tool of last resort,” Wise added, and the Serbian case was “the complete exception,” in part because of Milosevic’s atrocities and in part because of the “receptive,” “credible,” and “attractive” nature of the opposition. For such cases, Wise argued generally, “the ends justify the means . . . the risk is you maybe do something that is un-American in the eyes of some.” But the result is “the genocidal maniac is no longer in power.”

When I asked Clinton why covert action was merited in Serbia, he said simply, “There’s a death threshold, and Milosevic crossed it.”

In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush was on the verge of authorizing another such operation. The story unfolded in the White House Situation Room, where, in the summer and fall, national security officials weighed a familiar proposal: for the CIA to engage in covert electoral interference. This time, the target would be Iraq.

In March 2003, the United States had invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, the country’s longtime dictator, and seize weapons of mass destruction that he allegedly possessed. Hussein’s government fell within weeks, but no such weapons were found. Struggling to justify the war, Bush renewed his promise to transform Iraq’s political system. In late 2003, he declared that “Iraqi democracy will succeed” and that its citizens would enjoy popular representation. “For [the U.S. government] at that time it was extremely important to have free and fair elections because that’s actually justifying the invasion,” said Arturo Muñoz, then a senior CIA operations officer. “As long as we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, we were kind of desperate by then to justify ourselves, so at least we can create democracy in this place.” American democracy promotion organizations poured resources into Iraq. The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, in particular, launched substantial programs there, helping to produce voter-education materials, train party officials, and facilitate political debates and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The purpose of elections, though, is for voters to determine the direction of their state. In this sense, Bush had a problem: intelligence reports indicated that his preferred candidate, Ayad Allawi, would lose in Iraq’s first-ever parliamentary election, scheduled for January 2005.

The U.S. intelligence community believed that Iran was manipulating the election in favor of Allawi’s opposition. “Of course, Iran was involved,” said McLaughlin, then the CIA’s deputy director. “Why wouldn’t they be? They’re right next door, they have the capability, and they were close to some of the leadership.” Wise was based in Iraq ahead of the election and a few years later, became the CIA’s station chief there. He described Iranian interference in the Iraqi election as wide-ranging: “We’re talking money, activists, threats, extortion, a paramilitary presence.”

Bush and his advisers debated whether to respond with covert action. John Negroponte, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, regularly participated in interagency teleconferences from Baghdad with a sole agenda item: CIA-led electoral interference. “We really thought about it hard,” said Negroponte, who told me that he had been “open to the possibility” in discussions with other senior administration officials.

Deliberations reached a serious enough stage that the White House briefed the congressional leadership on its planning. “[The] top line was that there’s an opportunity here to engage in a way that could provide much more of a guaranteed outcome,” recounted Tom Daschle, then the Senate minority leader. The officials I interviewed could not recall, or were unwilling to share, the operational details of the CIA’s plan, although Daschle told me that it included “a lot of activities that we thought were just untoward and inadvisable.”

For the CIA, interfering in Iraq’s election would be the latest rendition of an age-old operation, and by the fall of 2004, the agency was moving toward action. Allawi had come to expect covert help. “The initial attitude of the U.S. was to support moderate forces, financially and in the media,” he said in 2007. Then, unexpectedly, this assistance “was brought to a halt,” Allawi said, “under the pretext that the U.S. does not want to interfere.”

Within the CIA, Congress, and the White House, an unlikely alliance of officials had united against covert electoral interference. The CIA’s representatives, Negroponte recalled, “least wanted to be involved” with this operation, since it could expose the agency to criticism if detected. McLaughlin, laughing, said that he “wouldn’t disagree” with Negroponte’s recollection. “We had, after all, invaded a country to make it democratic,” he said. “How hypocritical would it be then to subvert their election?” Speaking generally, Muñoz said, “If you’re going to ruin the elections, and it becomes known, and things frequently leak,” then once “word gets out that so-and-so won because the CIA did X, Y, and Z, then you’ve just wrecked the whole foreign policy adventure that you’ve embarked on.”

Congressional leaders also objected to the plan. For Daschle, the arguments against covert action were twofold. The first was a matter of optics: how “terrible it would look” if exposed. The second was normative. “It was no longer the Cold War,” he said. “Doing what we had been doing even twenty years earlier was just not appropriate; it wasn’t keeping with what our country should be all about.” Daschle recalled that Nancy Pelosi, his counterpart in the House of Representatives, was “very vocal” in opposing the plan. Pelosi reportedly found an ally in Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. “As I heard the debate go on,” Negroponte said, “I realized, ‘It is just not worth it, and people do not want to do it,’ and we rejected it.”

Bush, in attempting to build a democracy, was unwilling to intervene covertly in that democracy’s elections. “You wanted to be pretty much clean and free when it came to interference in their electoral processes,” McLaughlin said. “I was involved in a lot of covert action planning and decisions, and you always have to ask yourself, ‘What are the unintended consequences of what we are proposing to do or thinking about doing?’”

The CIA’s plan was shelved. And come January 2005, Allawi’s coalition lost resoundingly in a contest marred by instability and terrorist attacks. A governing coalition with close ties to Tehran then took power.

How, then, has the role of the CIA changed in the post–Cold War period? As Russian intelligence again manipulates elections around the world, the CIA has charted the opposite course. The Serbian operation, according to various U.S. officials, was an “extraordinary” measure that reflected extraordinary circumstances. For the Iraqi election, which did not involve a ruler like Milošević, U.S. policymakers judged that the risks of covert action were too high. In the years since, based on my interviews with the seven directors of the CIA from July 2004 to January 2017, as well as former directors of national intelligence and deputy CIA directors, the logic behind the Iraqi decision has become the norm. Contrary to Putin’s claims, Washington has all but abandoned the use of covert electoral interference.

In interviews about the CIA’s modern covert action programs, the United States’ former spy chiefs fall into two groups. The first insists that the agency no longer engages in covert electoral interference. David Petraeus, who led the CIA in 2011 and 2012, said he is “not aware . . . in more recent times” of such operations. John Brennan, the CIA’s director from 2013 to 2017, offered a more blanket assurance: “With President Obama and President Bush 43, there was never an effort to try to influence the outcome of a democratic election. We believed it was antithetical to the democratic process to do that.” The CIA once targeted foreign elections, he continued, “but over the course of the last 18 years or so, that has not been the case.”

The second group of officials does not speak in absolutes, suggesting instead that the CIA has moved away from, but not necessarily stopped, influencing elections overseas. “There wasn’t much of it. This is not something that intelligence does with anything like the sense of flexibility and freedom that it might have had in the early Cold War,” said McLaughlin, who, as the CIA’s number two in 2000, would have been involved with the Milosevic case. Since then, such operations have, at the very least, been raised at the highest levels. The Bush administration debated the Iraq scheme; the Obama administration weighed similar proposals. “It’s not like these ideas don’t resurface, but at least in [the Obama] administration they would get rejected,” said Tony Blinken, who served in senior national security positions for the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Of this second group, Leon Panetta, the CIA’s director from 2009 to 2011, was the most forthcoming. He said he never “got into” altering votes directly or spreading disinformation. But on rare occasions, his CIA did influence foreign media outlets ahead of elections in order to “change attitudes within the country.” The CIA’s method, Panetta went on, was to “acquire media within a country or within a region that could very well be used for being able to deliver” a specific message or work to “influence those that may own elements of the media to be able to cooperate, work with you in delivering that message.” As in Italy in 1948 or Serbia in 2000, the programs that Panetta described complemented overt propaganda campaigns. “Even though we were operating on a covert basis,” he said, “you had to make sure that the overt methods that were being used at least delivered the same message.” Even this type of operation presented risks. “There is no question it’s a gamble,” Panetta continued, which is why it was an option of last resort and why more aggressive tactics had been sidelined.

Every interview pointed to the same conclusion: for the CIA, covert electoral interference has become the exception rather than the rule. Either the agency no longer seeks to influence election outcomes, as Brennan and Petraeus asserted, or it does so in rare cases when, as with Milosevic, a tyrant can be ousted by ballot. The exact truth is unknown. But this general shift marks a dramatic departure from the Cold War, when the CIA was interfering in the elections of “many, many” countries. Of this evolution, Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence, said, “Frankly, political action of that kind is really part of the past. Iraq convinced me of that. It was just zero appetite for [electoral] intervention.”

Skeptics will insist that the United States’ intelligence chiefs are lying. But considering present-day realities, the skeptics may be the ones defying logic. It would be self-defeating for the CIA to manipulate foreign elections in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. One reason why concerns the end of the Cold War, which robbed the CIA of its long-running purpose: to counter the Soviet Union. Milosevic, for one, was a relic of a previous era. In September 2001, the CIA found a new focus in counterterrorism, which called for drone strikes and paramilitary operations, not electoral interference.

The United States’ post–Cold War leaders declared an era of liberal democracy defined by free and fair elections. This transition, from containing communism to promoting democracy, made covert electoral interference a riskier proposition. As Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, explained, “Meddling in an electoral process cuts across the grain of our own fundamental beliefs. You might want to do it to level the playing field, you might want to do it because of just the demands of national security, but it doesn’t feel right.” McLaughlin elaborated upon Washington’s evolving outlook. “If you are interfering in an election and are exposed as doing so,” he said, “you are a lot more hypocritical than you would have appeared in the Cold War, when that sort of thing tended to be excused as part of the cost of doing business.”

Hypocrisy, however, had not stopped the CIA before. And in recent years, as great-power competition has reemerged, the United States has had a stake in many foreign elections. Changes in high politics, then, only partly explain this shift in CIA activity. The rest of this story has to do with the spread of the Internet, which has exposed American elections to outside interference. Officials in Washington are reluctant to execute the type of operation to which their country has become so vulnerable. “If you’re in a glass house, don’t throw stones,” Petraeus said. “And we’re the biggest glass house when it comes to Internet connectivity.”

The digital age has also made it harder to maintain the secrecy of covert operations to manipulate foreign electorates. “It’s very difficult to keep that kind of activity from ultimately getting out,” Petraeus continued. And for Washington, getting caught matters. “If the United States were identified as having promoted disinformation or tampering with votes in an election, it would undermine our credibility and our policy efforts, given how inconsistent such actions would be with the values we promote, which are at the heart of our soft power,” said Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director. “The same is not true for Russia.

Source: When the CIA Interferes in Foreign Elections | Foreign Affairs

How American Hegemony Ends

The Unraveling of American Power


Multiple signs point to a crisis in global order. The uncoordinated international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturns, the resurgence of nationalist politics, and the hardening of state borders all seem to herald the emergence of a less cooperative and more fragile international system. According to many observers, these developments underscore the dangers of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies and his retreat from global leadership.

Even before the pandemic, Trump routinely criticized the value of alliances and institutions such as NATO, supported the breakup of the European Union, withdrew from a host of international agreements and organizations, and pandered to autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He has questioned the merits of placing liberal values such as democracy and human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Trump’s clear preference for zero-sum, transactional politics further supports the notion that the United States is abandoning its commitment to promoting a liberal international order.

Some analysts believe that the United States can still turn this around, by restoring the strategies by which it, from the end of World War II to the aftermath of the Cold War, built and sustained a successful international order. If a post-Trump United States could reclaim the responsibilities of global power, then this era—including the pandemic that will define it—could stand as a temporary aberration rather than a step on the way to permanent disarray.

After all, predictions of American decline and a shift in international order are far from new—and they have been consistently wrong. In the middle of the 1980s, many analysts believed that U.S. leadership was on the way out. The Bretton Woods system had collapsed in the 1970s; the United States faced increasing competition from European and East Asian economies, notably West Germany and Japan; and the Soviet Union looked like an enduring feature of world politics. By the end of 1991, however, the Soviet Union had formally dissolved, Japan was entering its “lost decade” of economic stagnation, and the expensive task of integration consumed a reunified Germany. The United States experienced a decade of booming technological innovation and unexpectedly high economic growth. The result was what many hailed as a “unipolar moment” of American hegemony.

But this time really is different. The very forces that made U.S. hegemony so durable before are today driving its dissolution. Three developments enabled the post–Cold War U.S.-led order. First, with the defeat of communism, the United States faced no major global ideological project that could rival its own. Second, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its accompanying infrastructure of institutions and partnerships, weaker states lacked significant alternatives to the United States and its Western allies when it came to securing military, economic, and political support. And third, transnational activists and movements were spreading liberal values and norms that bolstered the liberal order.

Today, those same dynamics have turned against the United States: a vicious cycle that erodes U.S. power has replaced the virtuous cycles that once reinforced it. With the rise of great powers such as China and Russia, autocratic and illiberal projects rival the U.S.-led liberal international system. Developing countries—and even many developed ones—can seek alternative patrons rather than remain dependent on Western largess and support. And illiberal, often right-wing transnational networks are pressing against the norms and pieties of the liberal international order that once seemed so implacable. In short, U.S. global leadership is not simply in retreat; it is unraveling. And the decline is not cyclical but permanent.

It may seem strange to talk of permanent decline when the United States spends more on its military than its next seven rivals combined and maintains an unparalleled network of overseas military bases. Military power played an important role in creating and maintaining U.S. preeminence in the 1990s and early years of this century; no other country could extend credible security guarantees across the entire international system. But U.S. military dominance was less a function of defense budgets—in real terms, U.S. military spending decreased during the 1990s and only ballooned after the September 11 attacks—than of several other factors: the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a competitor, the growing technological advantage enjoyed by the U.S. military, and the willingness of most of the world’s second-tier powers to rely on the United States rather than build up their own military forces. If the emergence of the United States as a unipolar power was mostly contingent on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, then the continuation of that unipolarity through the subsequent decade stemmed from the fact that Asian and European allies were content to subscribe to U.S. hegemony.

Talk of the unipolar moment obscures crucial features of world politics that formed the basis of U.S. dominance. The breakup of the Soviet Union finally closed the door on the only project of global ordering that could rival capitalism. Marxism-Leninism (and its offshoots) mostly disappeared as a source of ideological competition. Its associated transnational infrastructure—its institutions, practices, and networks, including the Warsaw Pact, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, and the Soviet Union itself—all imploded. Without Soviet support, most Moscow-affiliated countries, insurgent groups, and political movements decided it was better to either throw in the towel or get on the U.S. bandwagon. By the middle of the 1990s, there existed only one dominant framework for international norms and rules: the liberal international system of alliances and institutions anchored in Washington.

The United States and its allies—referred to in breezy shorthand as “the West”—together enjoyed a de facto patronage monopoly during the period of unipolarity. With some limited exceptions, they offered the only significant source of security, economic goods, and political support and legitimacy. Developing countries could no longer exert leverage over Washington by threatening to turn to Moscow or point to the risk of a communist takeover to shield themselves from having to make domestic reforms. The sweep of Western power and influence was so untrammeled that many policymakers came to believe in the permanent triumph of liberalism. Most governments saw no viable alternative.

With no other source of support, countries were more likely to adhere to the conditions of the Western aid they received. Autocrats faced severe international criticism and heavy demands from Western-controlled international organizations. Yes, democratic powers continued to protect certain autocratic states (such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia) from such demands for strategic and economic reasons. And leading democracies, including the United States, themselves violated international norms concerning human, civil, and political rights, most dramatically in the form of torture and extraordinary renditions during the so-called war on terror. But even these hypocritical exceptions reinforced the hegemony of the liberal order, because they sparked widespread condemnation that reaffirmed liberal principles and because U.S. officials continued to voice commitment to liberal norms.

Meanwhile, an expanding number of transnational networks—often dubbed “international civil society”—propped up the emerging architecture of the post–Cold War international order. These groups and individuals served as the foot soldiers of U.S. hegemony by spreading broadly liberal norms and practices. The collapse of centrally planned economies in the postcommunist world invited waves of Western consultants and contractors to help usher in market reforms—sometimes with disastrous consequences, as in Russia and Ukraine, where Western-backed shock therapy impoverished tens of millions while creating a class of wealthy oligarchs who turned former state assets into personal empires. International financial institutions, government regulators, central bankers, and economists worked to build an elite consensus in favor of free trade and the movement of capital across borders.

Civil society groups also sought to steer postcommunist and developing countries toward Western models of liberal democracy. Teams of Western experts advised governments on the design of new constitutions, legal reforms, and multiparty systems. International observers, most of them from Western democracies, monitored elections in far-flung countries. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocating the expansion of human rights, gender equality, and environmental protections forged alliances with sympathetic states and media outlets. The work of transnational activists, scholarly communities, and social movements helped build an overarching liberal project of economic and political integration. Throughout the 1990s, these forces helped produce an illusion of an unassailable liberal order resting on durable U.S. global hegemony. That illusion is now in tatters.

Today, other great powers offer rival conceptions of global order, often autocratic ones that appeal to many leaders of weaker states. The West no longer presides over a monopoly of patronage. New regional organizations and illiberal transnational networks contest U.S. influence. Long-term shifts in the global economy, particularly the rise of China, account for many of these developments. These changes have transformed the geopolitical landscape.

In April 1997, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged “to promote the multipolarization of the world and the establishment of a new international order.” For years, many Western scholars and policymakers downplayed or dismissed such challenges as wishful rhetoric. Beijing remained committed to the rules and norms of the U.S.-led order, they argued, pointing out that China continued to benefit from the current system. Even as Russia grew increasingly assertive in its condemnation of the United States in the first decade of this century and called for a more multipolar world, observers didn’t think that Moscow could muster support from any significant allies. Analysts in the West specifically doubted that Beijing and Moscow could overcome decades of mistrust and rivalry to cooperate against U.S. efforts to maintain and shape the international order.

Such skepticism made sense at the height of U.S. global hegemony in the 1990s and even remained plausible through much of the following decade. But the 1997 declaration now looks like a blueprint for how Beijing and Moscow have tried to reorder international politics in the last 20 years. China and Russia now directly contest liberal aspects of the international order from within that order’s institutions and forums; at the same time, they are building an alternative order through new institutions and venues in which they wield greater influence and can de-emphasize human rights and civil liberties.

At the United Nations, for example, the two countries routinely consult on votes and initiatives. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, they have coordinated their opposition to criticize Western interventions and calls for regime change; they have vetoed Western-sponsored proposals on Syria and efforts to impose sanctions on Venezuela and Yemen. In the UN General Assembly, between 2006 and 2018, China and Russia voted the same way 86 percent of the time, more frequently than during the 78 percent voting accord the two shared between 1991 and 2005. By contrast, since 2005, China and the United States have agreed only 21 percent of the time. Beijing and Moscow have also led UN initiatives to promote new norms, most notably in the arena of cyberspace, that privilege national sovereignty over individual rights, limit the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, and curtail the power of Western-sponsored human rights resolutions.

China and Russia have also been at the forefront of creating new international institutions and regional forums that exclude the United States and the West more broadly. Perhaps the most well known of these is the BRICS grouping, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Since 2006, the group has presented itself as a dynamic setting for the discussion of matters of international order and global leadership, including building alternatives to Western-controlled institutions in the areas of Internet governance, international payment systems, and development assistance. In 2016, the BRICS countries created the New Development Bank, which is dedicated to financing infrastructure projects in the developing world.

China and Russia have each also pushed a plethora of new regional security organizations—including the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism—and economic institutions, including the Chinese-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a security organization that promotes cooperation among security services and oversees biennial military exercises—was founded in 2001 at the initiative of both Beijing and Moscow. It added India and Pakistan as full members in 2017. The net result is the emergence of parallel structures of global governance that are dominated by authoritarian states and that compete with older, more liberal structures.

Critics often dismiss the BRICS, the EAEU, and the SCO as “talk shops” in which member states do little to actually resolve problems or otherwise engage in meaningful cooperation. But most other international institutions are no different. Even when they prove unable to solve collective problems, regional organizations allow their members to affirm common values and boost the stature of the powers that convene these forums. They generate denser diplomatic ties among their members, which, in turn, make it easier for those members to build military and political coalitions. In short, these organizations constitute a critical part of the infrastructure of international order, an infrastructure that was dominated by Western democracies after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, this new array of non-Western organizations has brought transnational governance mechanisms into regions such as Central Asia, which were previously disconnected from many institutions of global governance. Since 2001, most Central Asian states have joined the SCO, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, the EAEU, the AIIB, and the Chinese infrastructure investment project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China and Russia are also now pushing into areas traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies; for example, China convenes the 17+1 group with states in central and eastern Europe and the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum in Latin America. These groupings provide states in these regions with new arenas for partnership and support while also challenging the cohesion of traditional Western blocs; just days before the 16+1 group expanded to include the EU member Greece in April 2020, the European Commission moved to designate China a “systemic rival” amid concerns that BRI deals in Europe were undercutting EU regulations and standards.

Beijing and Moscow appear to be successfully managing their alliance of convenience, defying predictions that they would be unable to tolerate each other’s international projects. This has even been the case in areas in which their divergent interests could lead to significant tensions. Russia vocally supports China’s BRI, despite its inroads into Central Asia, which Moscow still considers its backyard. In fact, since 2017, the Kremlin’s rhetoric has shifted from talking about a clearly demarcated Russian “sphere of influence” in Eurasia to embracing a “Greater Eurasia” in which Chinese-led investment and integration dovetails with Russian efforts to shut out Western influence. Moscow followed a similar pattern when Beijing first proposed the formation of the AIIB in 2015. The Russian Ministry of Finance initially refused to back the bank, but the Kremlin changed course after seeing which way the wind was blowing; Russia formally joined the bank at the end of the year.

China has also proved willing to accommodate Russian concerns and sensitivities. China joined the other BRICS countries in abstaining from condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, even though doing so clearly contravened China’s long-standing opposition to separatism and violations of territorial integrity. Moreover, the Trump administration’s trade war with China has given Beijing additional incentives to support Russian efforts to develop alternatives to the Western-controlled SWIFT international payment system and dollar-denominated trade so as to undermine the global reach of U.S. sanctions regimes.

China and Russia are not the only states seeking to make world politics more favorable to nondemocratic regimes and less amenable to U.S. hegemony. As early as 2007, lending by “rogue donors” such as then oil-rich Venezuela raised the possibility that such no-strings-attached assistance might undermine Western aid initiatives designed to encourage governments to embrace liberal reforms.

Since then, Chinese state-affiliated lenders, such as the China Development Bank, have opened substantial lines of credit across Africa and the developing world. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China became an important source of loans and emergency funding for countries that could not access, or were excluded from, Western financial institutions. During the financial crisis, China extended over $75 billion in loans for energy deals to countries in Latin America—Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—and to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan in Eurasia.

China is not the only alternative patron. After the Arab Spring, Gulf states such as Qatar lent money to Egypt, allowing Cairo to avoid turning to the International Monetary Fund during a turbulent time. But China has been by far the most ambitious country in this regard. An AidData study found that total Chinese foreign aid assistance between 2000 and 2014 reached $354 billion, nearing the U.S. total of $395 billion. China has since surpassed annual U.S. aid disbursals. Moreover, Chinese aid undermines Western efforts to spread liberal norms. Several studies suggest that although Chinese funds have fueled development in many countries, they also have stoked blatant corruption and habits of regime patronage. In countries emerging from war, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and South Sudan, Chinese development and reconstruction aid flowed to victorious governments, insulating them from international pressure to accommodate their domestic foes and adopt more liberal models of peacemaking and reconciliation.

The end of the West’s monopoly on patronage has seen the concurrent rise of fiery populist nationalists even in countries that were firmly embedded in the United States’ economic and security orbit. The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have painted themselves as guardians of domestic sovereignty against liberal subversion. They dismiss Western concerns about democratic backsliding in their countries and emphasize the growing importance of their economic and security relationships with China and Russia. In the case of the Philippines, Duterte recently terminated a two-decade-old military treaty with the United States after Washington canceled the visa of the former national chief of police, who is accused of human rights violations in the Philippines’ bloody and controversial war on drugs.

Of course, some of these specific challenges to U.S. leadership will wax and wane since they stem from shifting political circumstances and the dispositions of individual leaders. But the expansion of “exit options”—of alternative patrons, institutions, and political models—now seems a permanent feature of international politics. Governments have much more room to maneuver. Even when states do not actively switch patrons, the possibility that they could provides them with greater leverage. As a result, China and Russia have the latitude to contest U.S. hegemony and construct alternative orders.

Another important shift marks a break from the post–Cold War unipolar moment. The transnational civil society networks that stitched together the liberal international order no longer enjoy the power and influence they once had. Illiberal competitors now challenge them in many areas, including gender rights, multiculturalism, and the principles of liberal democratic governance. Some of these centrifugal forces have originated in the United States and western European countries themselves. For instance, the U.S. lobbying group the National Rifle Association worked transnationally to successfully defeat a proposed antigun referendum in Brazil in 2005, where it built an alliance with domestic right-wing political movements; over a decade later, the Brazilian political firebrand Jair Bolsonaro tapped into this same network to help propel himself to the presidency. The World Congress of Families, initially founded by U.S.-based Christian organizations in 1997, is now a transnational network, supported by Eurasian oligarchs, that convenes prominent social conservatives from dozens of countries to build global opposition to LGBTQ and reproductive rights.

Autocratic regimes have found ways to limit—or even eliminate—the influence of liberal transnational advocacy networks and reform-minded NGOs. The so-called color revolutions in the post-Soviet world in the first decade of this century and the 2010–11 Arab Spring in the Middle East played a key role in this process. They alarmed authoritarian and illiberal governments, which increasingly saw the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy as threats to their survival. In response, such regimes curtailed the influence of NGOs with foreign connections. They imposed tight restrictions on receiving foreign funds, proscribed various political activities, and labeled certain activists “foreign agents.”

Some governments now sponsor their own NGOs both to suppress liberalizing pressures at home and to contest the liberal order abroad. For example, in response to Western support of young activists during the color revolutions, the Kremlin founded the youth group Nashi to mobilize young people in support of the state. The Red Cross Society of China, China’s oldest government-organized NGO, has delivered medical supplies to European countries in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign. These regimes also use digital platforms and social media to disrupt antigovernment mobilization and advocacy. Russia has likewise deployed such tools abroad in its information operations and electoral meddling in democratic states.

Two developments helped accelerate the illiberal turn in the West: the Great Recession of 2008 and the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. Over the last decade, illiberal networks—generally but not exclusively on the right—have challenged the establishment consensus within the West. Some groups and figures question the merits of continued membership in major institutions of the liberal order, such as the European Union and NATO. Many right-wing movements in the West receive both financial and moral support from Moscow, which backs “dark money” operations that promote narrow oligarchic interests in the United States and far-right political parties in Europe with the hope of weakening democratic governments and cultivating future allies. In Italy, the anti-immigrant party Lega is currently the most popular party despite revelations of its attempt to win illegal financial support from Moscow. In France, the National Rally, which also has a history of Russian backing, remains a powerful force in domestic politics.

These developments echo the ways in which “counter-order” movements have helped precipitate the decline of hegemonic powers in the past. Transnational networks played crucial roles in both upholding and challenging prior international orders. For example, Protestant networks helped erode Spanish power in early modern Europe, most notably by supporting the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century. Liberal and republican movements, especially in the context of the revolutions across Europe in 1848, played a part in undermining the Concert of Europe, which tried to manage international order on the continent in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rise of fascist and communist transnational networks helped produce the global power struggle of World War II. Counter-order movements achieved political power in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan, leading those nations to break from or try to assail existing structures of international order. But even less successful counter-order movements can still undermine the cohesion of hegemonic powers and their allies.

Not every illiberal or right-wing movement that opposes the U.S.-led order seeks to challenge U.S. leadership or turns to Russia as an exemplar of strong cultural conservatism. Nonetheless, such movements are helping polarize politics in advanced industrial democracies and weaken support for the order’s institutions. One of them has even captured the White House: Trumpism, which is best understood as a counter-order movement with a transnational reach that targets the alliances and partnerships central to U.S. hegemony.

Great-power contestation, the end of the West’s monopoly on patronage, and the emergence of movements that oppose the liberal international system have all altered the global order over which Washington has presided since the end of the Cold War. In many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be further accelerating the erosion of U.S. hegemony. China has increased its influence in the World Health Organization and other global institutions in the wake of the Trump administration’s attempts to defund and scapegoat the public health body. Beijing and Moscow are portraying themselves as providers of emergency goods and medical supplies, including to European countries such as Italy, Serbia, and Spain, and even to the United States. Illiberal governments worldwide are using the pandemic as cover for restricting media freedom and cracking down on political opposition and civil society. Although the United States still enjoys military supremacy, that dimension of U.S. dominance is especially ill suited to deal with this global crisis and its ripple effects.

Even if the core of the U.S. hegemonic system—which consists mostly of long-standing Asian and European allies and rests on norms and institutions developed during the Cold War—remains robust, and even if, as many champions of the liberal order suggest will happen, the United States and the European Union can leverage their combined economic and military might to their advantage, the fact is that Washington will have to get used to an increasingly contested and complex international order. There is no easy fix for this. No amount of military spending can reverse the processes driving the unraveling of U.S. hegemony. Even if Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, knocks out Trump in the presidential election later this year, or if the Republican Party repudiates Trumpism, the disintegration will continue.

The key questions now concern how far the unraveling will spread. Will core allies decouple from the U.S. hegemonic system? How long, and to what extent, can the United States maintain financial and monetary dominance? The most favorable outcome will require a clear repudiation of Trumpism in the United States and a commitment to rebuild liberal democratic institutions in the core. At both the domestic and the international level, such efforts will necessitate alliances among center-right, center-left, and progressive political parties and networks.

What U.S. policymakers can do is plan for the world after global hegemony. If they help preserve the core of the American system, U.S. officials can ensure that the United States leads the strongest military and economic coalition in a world of multiple centers of power, rather than finding itself on the losing side of most contests over the shape of the new international order. To this end, the United States should reinvigorate the beleaguered and understaffed State Department, rebuilding and more effectively using its diplomatic resources. Smart statecraft will allow a great power to navigate a world defined by competing interests and shifting alliances.

The United States lacks both the will and the resources to consistently outbid China and other emerging powers for the allegiance of governments. It will be impossible to secure the commitment of some countries to U.S. visions of international order. Many of those governments have come to view the U.S.-led order as a threat to their autonomy, if not their survival. And some governments that still welcome a U.S.-led liberal order now contend with populist and other illiberal movements that oppose it.

Even at the peak of the unipolar moment, Washington did not always get its way. Now, for the U.S. political and economic model to retain considerable appeal, the United States has to first get its own house in order. China will face its own obstacles in producing an alternative system; Beijing may irk partners and clients with its pressure tactics and its opaque and often corrupt deals. A reinvigorated U.S. foreign policy apparatus should be able to exercise significant influence on international order even in the absence of global hegemony. But to succeed, Washington must recognize that the world no longer resembles the historically anomalous period of the 1990s and the first decade of this century.

The unipolar moment has passed, and it isn’t coming back.

Source: How American Hegemony Ends