According to Freedom House, 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Russia continues to interfere with foreign politics and brashly intimidate Ukraine, China leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten control of its population, and Iran has indicated intentions to increase nuclear activities. Meanwhile, the United States (U.S.) has left a broken Afghanistan after twenty years, Great Britain is reeling from the consequences of Brexit, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is struggling to maintain relevancy and address growing threats at its borders.
Amidst these changing politics and growing murmurs of great power competition is a shift in the nature of modern conflicts. Some experts argue that the conventional total wars of the 20th century will never occur again. Advances in artificial intelligence, space technologies, and cyber capabilities are digitising the battlefield and encouraging the adoption of unconventional and hybrid warfare. Modern conflict is extending beyond set-piece battles to encompass ever broader means of attaining political aims. Rapid advancements in technology mean that cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and proxy militias are replacing conventional troops while being leveraged more cheaply, effectively, and discreetly than ever before. This technology-driven battlefield favours autocracies as it blurs the line between combatants and civilians and confuses the traditional laws of war. Authoritarian regimes are better positioned for this 21st century conflict than democratic states for three key reasons – their suppression of domestic dissent, centralisation of government, and close relationships with industry.
First, a defining characteristic of autocracies is their elimination of opposition and control of information. Authoritarian regimes of the 20th century relied on extensive networks of informants and secret police – 1 in every 6 East Germans provided information to the Stasi after the Second World War. Today’s technology eliminates such cumbersome systems while simultaneously improving a state’s ability to surveil and control its population. Freedom House’s 15-year decline in democracy corresponds closely with the rise of the internet age, while research has found that today’s ‘digital autocracies’ are more durable than both their historic predecessors and their less technologically adept peers. Led by China, the use of digital tools enables autocracies in previously impossible ways. Massive amounts of data are generated on every citizen and used to control the population through social credit scores and arrest. Autocracies leverage technology by using deep fakes, disinformation, and internet outages to discredit political opponents, tamp down protests, or suppress unfavourable news coverage. And technological advancements only promise increasingly sophisticated ways for autocracies to monitor and manipulate their populations.
Digital autocracies are thus advantaged over democratic states in modern conflict because they effectively reduce public pressure on government actions. A 2020 RAND report found that the influence of public opinion restricted the options and tools available to democracies as compared to autocracies in conflicts. While democracies experience immense public pressure that often limits foreign policy decisions, authoritarian regimes enabled by technology face fewer constraints. Democratic leaders must spend nontrivial amounts of time and money during war to reduce civilian casualties, maintain public support, and win re-election. By contrast, authoritarian regimes are less accountable to their populations, making it easier for them to break international law without consequence, such as Russia’s enforced silence regarding soldiers killed in Ukraine. In suppressing domestic dissent more successfully than ever, autocracies are at an asymmetric advantage in modern conflict because of their flexibility of action unchecked by public opinion.
A second common, although not universal, attribute of autocracies is government centralisation. By concentrating power, authoritarian leaders ensure more control over their state’s budget, long-term planning, national security, legal infrastructure, popular culture, and foreign policy. The U.S. and China demonstrate the stark difference between decentralised and centralised government. The U.S. government quarrels annually over a budget and sometimes shuts down, whereas the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) articulates long-term plans spanning decades. Although the legitimacy of these long-term plans are contested, their mere existence demonstrates a governmental unity that democratic states like the U.S. will likely never achieve. Autocratic governments also tend to be more consolidated than democratic ones, with few independent bodies, limited organic growth, and highly integrated systems. China even has surveillance mechanisms in place to ensure CCP employees are dedicated to the party’s vision and motivated to perform.
Such centralisation can be advantageous to authoritarian states in modern conflict, particularly with the rise of hybrid and unconventional warfare. The commonly espoused antidote for Western democracies in the face of hybrid warfare is a ‘whole of government’ response. Because hybrid warfare is so diffuse, targeting everything from power grids to congressional emails, an enormous number of entities outside of the military may be involved. Democracies often scramble to unite disparate entities for a cohesive defence and response to unconventional warfare, such as the U.S. during the recent SolarWinds hack. Conversely, centralised autocracies are inherently well-positioned because they enact ‘whole of government’ responses to conflict by default. Moreover, centralised autocracies may have fewer cyber and human vulnerabilities to exploit. Aggressive control of communications infrastructure and security practices, such as the CCP’s monitoring of all internet traffic, can improve cybersecurity nationwide. Centralised autocracies use methods to control employees and citizens’ loyalty and technology usage, further limiting susceptibilities to information operations and social engineering. Government centralisation thus benefits autocracies in modern conflict by reducing vulnerabilities and structurally ensuring holistic responses to threats.
Finally, autocracies tend to be much more closely integrated with national industry than democracies. China and Russia typify two differing ways these relationships manifest. China’s president Xi Jinping has taken steps to integrate the CCP into all private companies, pushing for CCP board appointees, eliminating powerful or disloyal business leaders, and coercing foreign companies to support the CCP’s ‘United Front’. Furthermore, China’s 2017 national intelligence law requires organisations within China to ‘support, assist, and cooperate with the state intelligence work’. This law effectively mandates all businesses operating in China to provide any or all of their information and services to the government if asked. While the law technically only applies to intelligence, it is an easy stepping stone to more malign uses – and Chinese companies touch everything from Apple to General Electric, from Hollywood to Wall Street. As China has aggressively legislated its control over industry, Russia has embraced opportunities of partnership. Russia is increasingly using private military companies as proxy militias while encouraging or hiring civilians to undertake cyberattacks and information operations. Usage of civilians in these roles provides Russia with plausible deniability and increased capability. It also complicates any response from NATO and the West because of the complexities of international law and combatant designations.
Despite differences in approach, Russia and China’s leverage of national industry in a way unique to autocracies advantages them in modern conflict. Democracies, built on ideas of freedom of expression and freedom of action, cannot force industry to partner with defence.
Burgeoning technology companies, the quickening pace of research, and the evolving role of dual-use technology are forcing western defence departments to rely more heavily on private innovation. Budgetary constraints and public resistance, such as with Project Maven, are antagonising Western democracies’ defence contracts even as peer autocracies forge ahead with industry relationships unfettered by morals or law. Such easy relationships with industry cheapen and quicken defence acquisitions for autocracies. Conversely, democracies are obligated to pursue contracts within a framework heavily restricted by democratic principles, public opinion, and law. Autocracies are thus vastly advantaged in modern conflict by relationships with industry that democracies cannot match.
Rapid technological development is shaping the 21st century, changing the nature of warfare, and cementing the power of autocracies. Modern conflict, defined by hybrid and unconventional warfare, favours some of the unique characteristics of autocracies – suppression of domestic dissent, government centralisation, and close relationships with industry. Autocracies are of course not infallible though, and democracies are not doomed. Democracies are advantaged with a creativity, diversity, and passion rarely found within authoritarian regimes. While quashing of dissent and extreme centralisation can be beneficial, it is also dangerous. There are few mechanisms in place to guide autocratic leaders away from missteps – any one of which may be disastrous given the often deeply integrated nature of the government. And even as technology enables better surveillance, it enables better evasion, too. Populations under repressive rule are rarely silent, and an autocracy’s power is fragile. Western democracies would be prudent to consider the chinks in autocracies’ armour, even as they reckon with the large chinks in their own. Modern conflict favours autocracies, and the democratic West must prepare to face this new reality.
Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the United States Department of Defense or the United States Air Force.
Mary Hood is a graduate student at King’s College London and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. Her interest area is the intersection of technology and conflict.