The dark art of political warfare


Political warfare is the next big thing in US foreign policy. For years, America’s authoritarian rivals have waged aggressive political warfare campaigns against the United States and its allies. China and Russia are using cyberattacks, economic coercion, disinformation, election meddling, and other tactics to disrupt and destabilize the political systems of America and other guardians of the international order.1 As a result, warnings about the need to defend more vigorously against authoritarian political warfare have grown louder. Calls have also 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 US.2

The possibility of actively waging political warfare against China and Russia is a high-stakes issue. It demands as much analytical clarity as the national security community can muster. Yet if political warfare is an idea whose time has come, it is also an idea that remains vague and unspecified. Analysts often use the term without adequately defining it.

Frequently lost in discussions of political warfare is just how many forms it can take and how many crucial dimensions there are along which it can vary. This is problematic because it leads to incomplete or superficial policy debates. Put differently, if the idea of waging political warfare against China and Russia is on the table, American strategists must fully grasp what that entails.

Here history can be useful. During the Cold War, political warfare was a way of life for the United States. At two key moments during the Cold War, the United States undertook concerted political warfare campaigns meant to sow instability, division, and weakness in the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe—and even in the Soviet Union itself. One such campaign came during the first decade of the superpower struggle, between 1947 and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956; the other came in the last decade of that conflict, during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and especially Ronald Reagan.

During these periods, Washington employed an array of measures—radio broadcasts into the Soviet bloc, covert and paramilitary actions, economic denial policies, human rights campaigns, and many others—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 this was in addition to US and allied efforts to resist Moscow’s offensive political warfare campaigns.) The history of US political warfare programs during the Cold War offers illustrations of what political warfare is and what forms it can take; it points to possibilities for waging political warfare today.3

Drawing on this history, this brief report seeks to advance the debate about political warfare in two ways. First, it clears away some conceptual confusion by briefly addressing how political warfare should be defined. Second, it offers a typology that allows us to classify political warfare initiatives according to nine key variables and distinctions. As this typology shows, political warfare is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Political warfare can be offensive or defensive, overt or covert, hard or soft, catalytic or corrosive, direct or indirect, unilateral or multilateral, governmental or nongovernmental, meant to restrain or provoke, and part of minimalist or maximalist strategies of competition.

Understanding the many flavors of political warfare can bring greater clarity to a crucial policy debate. More importantly, it can help policymakers wage political warfare better by showing them how diverse their options are.


Hal Brands is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institue. 


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