Foreign subversion is a covert, indirect form of modern statecraft. It involves empowering illicit and armed nonstate groups that act as extensions of a sponsor state. These proxies inflict damage on target states with the aim of deconsolidating them and creating ungoverned space. Their attacks distract the target state and deny it resources, creating bargaining leverage for the sponsor.
Although subversion featured prominently in the Cold War, policymakers have only recently begun to pay attention to the problem of subversion in its updated form. This oversight has been costly to Western interests. Russian subversion deprived Ukraine and Georgia of control over significant swaths of territory. Pakistani subversion has prevented the Afghan state from consolidating any authority beyond Kabul. And Iranian subversion against the Yemeni government and against Saudi Arabia destabilizes the Persian Gulf region.
With the exception of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which Russia annexed directly, Moscow, Islamabad, and Tehran outsourced their dirty work to local proxies that proved to be highly effective extensions of their external sponsors.
The indirect nature of subversion is crucial to its value as an instrument of foreign policy. By outsourcing the imposition of costs to nonstate actors, subversion requires less military capability and fewer financial resources than conventional force. It is also less visible, which reduces the likelihood of detection. And when it is detected, ambiguity permits plausible deniability. These features are highly advantageous in an international environment in which conventional force is costly and legally proscribed.
Two signs indicate that a state is likely to use subversion: a motive and a means. The motive generally arises when a state is locked in a severe, salient, and intractable policy dispute with another state.
The means depends on the existence of proxies on the ground—agents willing to disrupt order and govern in lieu of state authorities. These agents cannot be easily manufactured out of thin air. In virtually all cases of subversion, foreign sponsors empowered existing aggrieved groups with ambitions to defy the political center.
Subversion is especially attractive when states have few other tools in their foreign policy toolkits.
Beijing, for example, has not yet engaged in subversion because China’s economic might endows it with economic instruments of statecraft that are unavailable to Russia, Pakistan, or Iran. China’s importance to global value chains, the size of its market, and the magnitude of its official finances give it sufficient sources of foreign policy leverage (although if its economy were to slow, subversion could become more attractive).
U.S. policymakers have been slow to recognize the growing threat of subversion and remain ill-equipped to counter it.
A quarter century of unipolarity seems to have caused Washington to forget one of the most important lessons of the Cold War. In the meantime, new technology has lowered the costs of subversion while U.S. military superiority has increased its attractiveness.
Source: The Next Great-Power Conflict Will Be Fought Through Subversion