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Without soft power, there can be no hard power

(By Holger KNAPPENSCHNEIDER, Managing Partner at IDA Group)

The usage of communications and disinformation with a strategic agenda is extraordinarily subtle in nature, and thus much more threatening. It hides behind Facebook, Google, tweets and chats, and appears to the reader primarily as the opinion of supposedly well-known counterparts.  This provides the opportunity for foreign entities and wild card actors to have a considerable amount of influence, and therefore power, within our own societies and on the international arena.

The question of how to adapt to a changing threat situation is not new, but in the world of the Web 3.0 it must be rethought and improved. The internet has developed from a static, all-encompassing pool of knowledge, developing from a one way source to a more involved, interactive method to deliver information and user feedback. Nowadays, users receives information enriched with emotional content disguised as facts, delivered directly to their mobile phones and homes. Even with the superficial questioning and verification processing of information in this way leads to interest-driven and falsified search results on the internet.

Not only has there been no response from the West so far – worse, the West does not even recognise the threat inherent to this development. We largely fail to realise the importance of communication as a tool of soft power, especially when it comes to overcoming the conflicts of a multipolar world order. Russia and China are well prepared for such tactical and powerful measures. But where has this been reflected in the German, European and transatlantic understanding of security policies and defense mechanisms?

There must be a reshuffling in our priorities and understandings of the capacities that are necessary to successfully compete in modern and future conflicts, not only internationally, but more importantly, on home ground.  Where do we currently stand regarding this fundamental paradigm shift? Is it not time that we recognize strategic communication capacities as a pillar of a resilient democracy?

The civilian population is currently networked in a way that has never before been the case in human history. Social media serves not only as an accelerator of information flows, but the information quality is highly perceived as many-to-many or word-to-mouth information channels are. The majority of communications in such cases are attributed to single, well-known and thus trustworthy individuals. But individuals are not democratically checked, often faceless and hold private agendas. The resulting possibility of disinformation campaigns by these unrecognised actors, snowballing “by themselves” without any significant time delay, has already been scientifically investigated and validated on several occasions.

In the past, both the United States and the Soviet Union reacted and acted in a military-strategic manner, incorporating their tools of deterrence and defence against their military counterparts into their socio-political planning in their respective spheres of influence. Currently, real political fronts have crystallized that – even beyond the threat of international terrorism – lead to the realization that forces exist which threaten the stability, security and peace of the Western world and democracy as a whole.

The new approach of digital warfare in the 21st century will need to recognize asymmetric conflicts can dissolve the traditional boundaries between war and peace, that circulating messages and information can stress states to the brink of collapse, and how skillful action in this space can very efficiently replace other military means for an enemy to assert his own interests.

Russia is already making use of such “propaganda 2.0”, designed to wage “non-linear wars”, partly because they expect that they must be prepared to defend themselves against further “constriction” by NATO’s eastward enlargement. Look at the example of the Crimean annexation in 2014: a classic combat mission was largely replaced by a concerted action of weaponized disinformation, aimed primarily at undermining the morale and readiness of the Ukrainian population, and influencing the international community with their pro-Russian narrative that they would not “incorporate” Crimea.

With the help of social media, the Ukrainian government was described in front of its own people as corrupt and illegitimate, while the history of Russian-Western relations was being framed around breaches of trust and betrayed promises. This allowed Russia to convey to international audience that the Kremlin’s actions were a mere cause-and-effect of the West’s broken promises, while simultaneously stoking fears about the future of the historically and militarily important Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Around 40% of Germans supported the integration of the peninsula into the Russian Federation in 2014, and even official political representatives, such as the then Prime Minister of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck, campaigned for understanding the Russian position and for Russian action.

Security is not a mathematical quantity to be put into a system of variables consisting only of tanks and guns – but first and foremost a question of faith: Does Russia only do what the West does? Should we turn a blind eye to foreign influence over our citizens’ and democracies’ right of self-determination and national integrity?

Authority of interpretation is what determines, and is currently blurring, the boundaries between war and peace. As political systems, especially those based on popular sovereignty such as Germany’s, need citizens’ support to act. Therefore, if foreign expansionist and communications policies are not considered as relevant factors in policy-making or threat analysis, no party will provide sufficient assurance to their citizens’ security or taxpayers’ money to combat these scenarios – which are still considered largely fictitious.

The fact that these implications still have not acquired the importance in strategic planning that they should have is disturbing and dangerous. The means of communication available to compete for interpretative authority today are of a radically new quality: social media, real-time peer-to-peer and group-to-group communications mean that any individual can publish highly read material which is through that mechanism regarded as veritable information. The classic gatekeepers – editorial offices, publishers, publishing houses – no longer exist to the same extent, whilst the reach of a single influencer sometimes exceeds the viewers of the daily evening news. Therefore, in order to achieve defensive capabilities in view of a modern threat situations, it is necessary to build up resilience – i.e. resistance in terms of content.

For Germany’s defence policy this means that without a solid basis of “soft power”, there can be no “hard power”. Corresponding factors must be activated and strengthened. Soft power factors also increase the deployability of the armed forces, and not merely in terms of equipment. Russia is not a potentially reliable partner, but quite to the contrary, pursues expansionist policies tailored to the nationally communicated aspiration to become a great power. In addition to Ukraine, Russia has focused its attention on the Baltic states – and thus on both EU territory and NATO partners. This development is clearly demonstrated by the influence in the information sphere that the Kremlin tries to exert on a daily basis.

Various discourses in Germany are at the very centre of the threat. It is essential to understand discourse pathways and constantly reanalyze the sphere of what can be said. It is a matter of recognising threat scenarios that affect the vital levels of discourse at an early stage and counteracting them – with the help of high-impact leverage tools and analytical intelligence. In other words: our own strategic discourse management.

Hostile narratives undermine the credibility of companies, political organisations and, in extreme cases, governments. Latent or offensive, accidental or deliberate – the effect is the same for those who are not resilient, who have nothing to oppose it.

The response to such threats should be a preventive strengthening and shielding from subversive discourse, particularly in social media. This is not only cost-effective compared to potential costs of kinetic conflict, but would also be able to operate effectively even if the exact source of disinformation remains unclear.

Strategic discourse management first needs to answer to the question of “how” to address reliable analysis and clarification capabilities using high-impact leverage tools from which we can then derive indications for security-relevant discourses. On this basis, it’s possible to derive actionable insights that can be developed into an early warning system that identifies these narratives before a counterpart has done so. From here, threshold values, particularly in the security policy framework, have to be defined for which indicators values have to be exceeded, even in combination, in order to be able to speak of an increasingly fragile security situation in the communication and discourse space.

These aspects should be the subject of the debate for policy, but not whether this debate should be conducted at all, or what security-relevant discourses are, nor how economic, political and civil-society topics may mix. Avoiding these already widely recognized and accepted debates will expedite our capacity to respond to the real effects of “soft power” already exercised, as described above.

However, without a mandate and assignment of objectives one’s own well-intentioned communication to build actual resilience and generate added value, evaporates. In order to counteract disintegrating external communication and its real consequences, no more but also no less than communication is needed – one that is aware of its effectiveness, is scrupulous and specifically opposes the interpretative sovereignty of others.

This does not entail muting the opponent. Rather, it means taking seriously the task of promoting one’s own positions more clearly and legitimising them strategically, rather than leaving the resulting effects of communication to chance or to the opponent in any way. This also presupposes the development of a credible and coherent position of one’s own soft power in order to be able to argue and forcefully represent it.

The most effective means of strengthening resistance to propaganda and weaponized disinformation – in Germany and Europe as a whole – is building trust. It is essential that arguments are used to gain acceptance, to be able to connect to the values, convictions and identities of society as a whole.

A more pointed example would be the recognition of the Bundeswehr by society as a whole. Soldiers are not murderers, at least not when they risk life and limb for a just cause and civilian security. We should contribute to the recognition of our soldiers’ achievements in maintaining and enforcing a world order which creates a maximum of security, stability and prosperity.

Proving trustworthy is also acting in the discourse space itself, especially under the basis of a free and open social order. After all, a discourse can only be conducted if others also participate in it. This also applies to vital discourses that are in the interest of the country, because in a world full of imponderables, those who do not communicate and stand up for what they perceive as good and right leave the sovereignty of interpretation to others.

An integration of communication as a security, stabilisation and defence factor has not sufficiently taken place so far. Building on “soft power” as a force multiplier for Germany’s traditional “hard power”, strategic communication capabilities would efficiently and effectively allow politicians to safeguard our citizens and values, and must therefore be integrated without delay in policy-making decisions.