Disquiet on the Western Front
If things are quiet on the Western front, that is only because the war that modern autocrats are waging is being undertaken covertly, often through former politicians who have sold themselves to the highest bidder. Western democracies need to wake up and smell the grift.
PARIS – The timely release of a new film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front offers a reminder of the close parallels between World War I and the current war between autocracies and democracies. The fighting now is in Ukraine, but, as in WWI, the broader war has several fronts: the energy front, the grain front, and, less well noticed, the Western front. Across Western capitals, autocrat-backed lobbyists, enablers, fellow-travelers, and “understanders” are trying to undermine the democratic world’s unity and weaken its resolve to maintain sanctions against Russia and arms deliveries to Ukraine.
The original German name of Remarque’s novel – Im Westen nichts Neues (“In the West Nothing New”) – is apt. There is nothing new about autocratic governments interfering in Western politics. The most notorious and best-documented episode is Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. But that was merely one of many examples. As we learned last month, China interfered in the US government’s investigation into alleged fraud and racketeering by the Chinese company Huawei, and it has since unleashed social-media bots to spread misinformation in the lead-up to the US midterm elections. Similarly, Italy’s recent election brought to power a coalition that includes Lega, which has advocated a pro-Russian position for many years and allegedly received Russian government support.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly violates international law on the Ukrainian front, his lobbyists in Western capitals operate in covert ways that allow for plausible deniability. As I show in my recent book Spin Dictators, co-authored with Daniel Treisman, this is how the majority of nondemocratic regimes now function. Gone are the military uniforms of twentieth-century tyrants. Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West.