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Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
Enough already. It’s time to find a way ahead.
This article is the introduction of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.
Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
In the past 20 years, America was pulled from superpower heights down into the trenches of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism only to emerge into a murky new arena of great power competition. Along the way, the alliances we built after World War II — the alliances which guard and vanguard our security and prosperity — have evolved, frayed, expanded, been tested in new ways, leaving the West mired in a period of inward-looking churn and upheaval, both good and bad. Autocracy seems ascendant, and the era to come less defined.
Now, the United States faces off with two world-class adversaries, Russia and China, whose leaders draw from a century of experience with central planning and operate with a generational time horizon — something which democratic systems, with elections and factions and transitions of power, rarely get to do. Both adversaries use their significant hard power capabilities to project power and press strategic interests, but both also use their centralized systems to engage in active political warfare campaigns, fielding a full complement of capabilities designed for operations that remain below the threshold of open conflict.
This second category of great power competition — influence operations and grey zone techniques — is escalating competition and confrontation with the United States, and challenging us in new ways. Thus far, our adversaries’ ability to enlist and deploy economic, cyber, intelligence, cultural, information, and diplomatic tools along the same lines of strategic effort, and the method with which they methodically deploy tactics that aim to divide us amongst ourselves — to weaken us from within — have proven particularly effective. This style of unconventional warfare targets the places where we are least defended, most exposed — the seams and fractures that riddle what we are.
The Russian attack on our elections — on our populace — exposed a lot of seams. The irregular presidency of Donald Trump exposed more. So did dealing with the COVID pandemic — or failing to deal with it, really, instead of being just flat out the worst. Holistically, it is a breakdown of resilience, exposing institutional fragility and a total lack of mobilization capacity. There was no framework that oriented American skills, volunteerism, or ingenuity toward solving any of the problems we suddenly faced and simply seemed unable to overcome. It was pathetic to witness and live through, and that helplessness only served to amplify the backlash over each of these events and move us toward this point where everything is madness.
It’s useful to understand that in the past few years, and the most recent one in particular, we Americans have essentially mounted a never-ending, live-action wargame on ourselves, and every one of our adversaries and allies have had a front row seat to see how it unfolded — to see the failures in mobilization, failures in intelligence, failures in decision-making and command and control, failures in security, and failures in leadership that this unintentionally-efficient red-teaming exercise has exposed. We must assume that each of our adversaries now has far greater clarity on how vulnerable we are — on how small attacks or disruptions can cripple vital systems and critical infrastructure; send government decision-making into a closed-loop death spiral of process or polarization; distract us from greater threats; or inject narrative into our information domain that can spark conflict, radicalize targets, or propagate conspiracies that are the most efficient vehicle for subversion we have ever seen. They would even know how easy it is to overcome the defenses of our Capitol, and understand who and what to compromise and mobilize to replicate its breach.
But from all of this fracture emerges a clear framing of a strategic approach for the United States that unifies a foreign and domestic strategy of mobilization towards 21st century resilience and defense.
To get there requires significant reflection: not just our strategy but our mindset has been misaligned. The best case study we have on this — that we can drill down into and examine deep detail — is how we have so completely failed to understand why Russian influence and active measures find such fertile soil in America. By examining this failure, we can lustrate how our thinking must be realigned.
To be clear, it’s not that our own faults and fractures have provenance in any other nation. It’s that the same blindness in how we evaluate these weaknesses — how we interpret threats in the context of those vulnerabilities, and how to offset them — identifies the same failures in mindset at home and abroad.
Both our strategic and systemic weakness is laid bare by the threats we have failed to identify, take seriously, deter, or respond to. This is especially true of these below-threshold threats and grey zone activities, and the capabilities we need to have in these domains. Our security doctrine has assessed that these arenas are essential areas of competition and operation for our great power rivals, as well as a significant leveler in allowing lesser powers and non-state actors to compete with advantage against traditionally stronger opponents — and yet, we are absent from these arenas in more cases than not, or else approaching them in the same way we did 40 years ago. This is an unconscionable squandering of strength, power, and assets in a critical time of global transformation.
We don’t see enough that the battlefield our adversaries sculpt in these grey domains are us versus us instead of us versus them. With strategic injections of cash, information, narratives, and intelligence, government decision-making is compromised, institutions we count on for clarity are corrupted, individuals captured or silenced, and we all moved toward playing parts that subvert our interests — often with alarmingly little understanding of how our behavior has been altered.
We hear so often that we must get our own house in order before we have a right or duty to lead in the world. But abandoning the field to autocrats reinforces a mindset of failure — failing to shape outcomes, and failing to define parameters and possibility. It’s not that we must get our house in order before we can again lead in the world, it’s that how we orient ourselves toward these challenges must necessarily address both sets of weaknesses if we are to achieve lasting outcomes that are meaningful in either domain.
We must also stop being manipulated by fairytales. The fairytale of better relations with Russia; the fairytale that Russia and China can be split from each other; the fairytale that we can get China right without ever having stopped getting Russia wrong; the fairytale that an isolationist America can ever be safe. Trying to make these fairytales real has done lasting damage to America and Americans, and to our alliances and allies — by making us squander time and lose sight of what is important, and by leaving our populations exposed to malign influence and hybrid attack.
Currently, we lack the mindset, vision, organization, or mobilization capacity to overcome these deficits — and we have lacked the leadership and political will to reorient in the right direction. We don’t even really assess them apiece — as a common failure in mobilizing our resources toward the correct set of problems. We need a unified approach to enhance resilience at home and abroad — which means we need to compete in, and have operational and intelligence capabilities in, all the grey spaces where our adversaries attack us, collect on us, infiltrate us, or can count on us being absent or flat-footed.
At home and abroad, we are challenged along the seams — and in these grey spaces, attribution can be murky, authority for action unclear, right-sized capabilities hard to determine. Right now, the way we organize and mobilize diminishes rather than unleashes formal and informal American capabilities that would be sharp in these domains. Transforming our mindset on this entire conception of strength and power is a necessary first step toward creating the resilience that will begin to alter this terrible math where the West is strong — economically, militarily — but seems to be fractious and declining while autocracies that are systemically fragile seem to be cohesive and ascending.
When we stop fighting for our ideals abroad, we stop fighting for them at home. And now, we need to fight on both fronts.
Power looks different than it used to — at home and abroad. And how we cultivate and exercise that power must also evolve. There is just so much disruption coming in these next decades. And we must meet it with enhanced resilience to compete, solve problems, incur costs.
If we can understand how our adversaries weaken us — if we can understand how the world outside has changed us — in greater relief, then maybe we will be less inclined to use the same tactics on each other, or else face greater consequences if we do.
If we truly want a world that is safe for democracy, the transformation of this mindset toward grey zone superiority becomes the architecture of American renewal.
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Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:
Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
Part 5: THE WAY AHEAD. Civil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad.
A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.
An EXTRA MEGA THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM