Why should we care about this dramatic influence buildup? After all, aren’t China, Iran and Russia simply pursuing their own interests? They are, to be sure. But such interests are animated by authoritarian political preferences, which privilege state control above all else, something that is abundantly clear from the way they treat their own media and civil society.
What we have been slow to recognize is that in an era of globalization, ambitious regimes that play by their own coercive and predatory rules at home are keen to move the goalposts toward authoritarian preferences internationally. And their strategy is working.
A crucial case in point is the competition over the rules that will govern cyberspace, itself a critical field for the battle of ideas. Here, the autocrats are on the same team, arguing that this realm should be controlled by governments, while seeking to exclude private business, civil society and any other nonstate participation in decision-making. This approach on the international level is a natural outgrowth of authoritarians’ domestic suppression of independent voices and institutions of any kind.
More fundamentally, through their media platforms and other influence initiatives, these regimes seek to blur the distinction between autocratic and democratic governance systems and the ideals that underlie them. That creates a strategic vulnerability for the United States and its democratic allies, whose values have long been a source of strength.