The Art of Political Warfare

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The Art of Political Warfare

For years, China and Russia have been using cyberattacks, economic coercion, disinformation, election meddling, and other tactics to disrupt and destabilize the political systems of the United States and other guardians of the international order.  As a result, calls have emerged for the United States to go on the offensive, waging political warfare against China and Russia, just as they wage political warfare against the U.S.  

The possibility of actively waging political warfare against China and Russia is a high-stakes decision, but it’s not something entirely new to the West.  In fact, the United States undertook concerted political warfare campaigns designed to sow instability, division, and weakness in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself, at two key points during the 20th Century Cold War.  One such campaign came between 1947 and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution; the other came during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

During these periods, Washington employed an array of measures including radio broadcasts into the Soviet bloc, covert paramilitary actions, economic denial policies, human rights campaigns, and many other efforts intended to undermine Communist rule and impose competitive costs on the Kremlin and its satellites. Throughout the Cold War, moreover, the United States used political warfare to harass, weaken, and overthrow Soviet-aligned governments in the Third World.  All of this was in addition to U.S. and allied efforts to resist Moscow's offensive political warfare campaigns. 

The history of U.S. political warfare programs during the Cold War illustrates what political warfare is and what forms it can take.  It also points to possibilities for waging political warfare today.

As Professor Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University explained in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, political warfare is not a one-size­fits-all concept.  In fact, political warfare campaigns are defined by at least nine factors or dimensions, which include being:

  1. offensive or defensive,
  2. overt or covert,
  3. hard or soft,
  4. catalytic or corrosive,
  5. direct or indirect,
  6. unilateral or multilateral,
  7. governmental or nongovernmental,
  8. meant to restrain or meant to provoke, and
  9. part of a minimalist or maximalist strategy of competition.

Understanding each of the nine dimensions of political warfare provides greater insight not only into what the United States and its allies could do but into what our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow are likely to do. 

The first and most basic distinction is between offensive and defensive political warfare...

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