Controlling the Narrative: How Political Warfare Can Influence Policy

Political warfare embodies measures used by an actor to target another actor’s political fabric where the end state is to influence the target’s policy. George Kennan wrote a state department memo in 1948 describing political warfare in which he urged both covert and overt nonmilitary actions to either degrade enemy public opinion of its government’s leaders or to support anti-governmental forces. The goal of political warfare is to achieve political dominance over another actor. Political dominance is the successful degradation or influence of a political narrative where the enemy’s public opinion is indecisive or even hostile to the target state’s policy. Throughout this paper, I discuss actors to include both state and non-state actors. Historically, even non-state actors were able to compel state actors to change their policy through means including political warfare. The United States practiced political warfare against countries like Serbia to push for a more pro-U.S. outcome. The Soviet Union tried to destabilize American political institutions during the Vietnam era. In today’s digital age, social media is an emerging tool as well. History and present day political environments suggest that political warfare can degrade and affect a target nation’s ability to execute policy.

George Kennan in 1947 (Wikimedia)

With Russia’s status as a near-peer competitor to the United States, they seek to use political warfare as a means to project influence while minimizing conventional escalation. As one of two nuclear-capable rational actors constrained by traditional escalation parity, they need to find alternate means of exercising and projecting power. While nuclear weapons are arguably off the table, nuclear-capable actors such as Russia use other means such as hybrid warfare. Like hybrid warfare, political warfare can be politically ambiguous and allow a state actor to put pressure on another actor without as seriously risking armed escalation. Political warfare’s appeal rests on exploiting international norms and signaling. It is challenging for victims of political warfare to retaliate in means other than the media and condemnation. Political norms, through both internal and external political pressures, might compel a nation to limit its conduct of war. Thus, political warfare suddenly becomes much more appealing due to political ambiguity and limited plausible deniability.

Political warfare can be just as potent as conventional approaches. A non-nuclear power, or even a non-state actor, could potentially achieve a form of escalation parity, or even dominance, through the application of political warfare. If the goal of an actor is a political end-state, then it is possible for a non-nuclear actor to compel even a nuclear actor to change its policy through political warfare.

In the context of Vietnam during the French colonial period, France’s adversaries were able to achieve political dominance through unorthodox tactics and utilization of political warfare that ultimately forced France to change its policies. To quote Henry Kissinger on U.S. actions in Vietnam, “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion.” In Algeria, France won a military victory but lost the moral high ground and control of the political narrative as evidence of torture and abuse spread throughout the media. Likewise, France lost political dominance in Vietnam, and French public opinion diminished. Decolonization further quickened France’s change in policy. France’s leadership could not justify staying in Vietnam, and therefore was compelled by its public to change its foreign policy. Actions used against France in Vietnam indicate the potency of targeting enemy policy rather than traditional military objectives.

Actors use subversion as part of political warfare to influence the political process. Actors can shift a target’s policy by assisting a candidate who has more amicable policy positions. The United States used political warfare against other nations’ political processes to either create political chaos or to influence a pro-U.S. outcome. The United States’ Department of Defense has a manual on conducting psychological operations, including the use of media as a means to influence populations. Various examples throughout U.S.'s Cold War and post-Cold War history show the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in foreign elections. An American taxpayer-funded group, the “National Endowment for Democracy,” gave a total of 108 grants in support of Navalny and other organizations as a means to foster activists and democratic discourse in Russia. The U.S. intervention in Serbia’s 2000 election is a more aggressive example. The U.S. gave funding and other support to Milosevic’s opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. Likewise, the United States’ successful influence in Serbia played a role in the overthrow of Milosevic and the establishment of a more democratic environment.

Political warfare helps increase internal pressures, which in turn can make it easier for the aggressing actor to undermine or shift policy against its adversary. Through political warfare a state’s leader, and the governmental body face political pressure where the result is an overwhelmingly dissatisfied population. The Soviet Union had two objectives, to spread internal chaos within the United States and to shift American foreign policy away from Vietnam. During the Vietnam and Civil Rights movement eras, the KGB actively targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., and the U. S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Members of the KGB used the media to portray King as an “Uncle Tom” in an effort to tarnish his reputation and replace him with a more radical leader. Vasili Mitrokhin argues the KGB wanted to ignite a race war within the United States. While the KGB targeted King, they also used disinformation against J. Edgar Hoover, attempting  to have him removed from service. The KGB forged letters, documents, and mounted slander campaigns that painted Hoover as a corrupt homosexual to erode his political support. These actions were part of a more significant push to create chaos within the United States without the risk of escalating the conflict. The KGB wanted to remove powerful figureheads and distract lawmakers. By igniting a possible race war within the United States, the Soviets attempted to force the American legislature to refocus its policymaking on domestic affairs and pull away from Vietnam. The Soviet Union hoped to wear down the United States politically because it understood that conventional intervention in Vietnam was impossible.

Evidence suggests continuous and comprehensive involvement on the KGB’s part played a strong role in affecting public opinion. The World Peace Council, a large disarmament advocacy groups, was supported and directly funded by the KGB throughout the Cold War. The council’s members were conflicted over KGB support, and many moved to distance themselves away from communist influence to continue their work apolitically. According to Lawrence S. Wittner, however, Soviet leaders were content with the rift within the World Peace Council, because they could still politically use both groups to pressure “Western belligerence.” Furthermore, as long as the World Peace Council claimed ignorance, it could potentially accept funding. This use of political pawns and the creation of internal political chaos through disinformation is an example of political warfare employed to create pressure on both state and non-state actors in parallel as a means of influencing policy.

Actors can also weaponize the media to achieve political dominance. Media played a more significant role in connecting the public to the realities of the Vietnam war, and the KGB seized the political initiative to exploit events of the war to shift American opinion. Various anti-war movements and peace movements condemned American actions publicly and blamed its political leadership. The United States was fighting a political war as much as a conventional one, and, as such, the Soviet Union was able to launch high-intensity political campaigns while it maintained a state of cold war with the United States. The Soviet Union achieved political dominance in that it helped damage United States’ political narrative and further divide the American population. The KGB’s actions during the Vietnam war left a blueprint that resemblances in today’s use of political warfare, especially during Ukraine’s 2013 crisis.

Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine are examples of successful use of political warfare. Gjorgji Veljovski, Nenad Taneski, and Metodija Dojchinovski are Macedonian army officers and military science and security experts who teach in their respective military academies. They argue Russia conducted an extensive campaign composed of cyber and psychological warfare to soften Ukraine before deploying unmarked Russian forces under a humanitarian pretext. Russia weaponized information and conducted disinformation campaigns to set the stage for Crimean annexation. During the 2013 Ukrainian crisis, Russia played an active role on Ukrainian social media, where it described the Ukrainian government as “corrupt, illegal, and fascist junta. The Ukrainian defense forces and its volunteer units are often compared to Einsatztruppen (executions squads), Nazis, killers, terrorists, bandits, and servants of the Kyiv junta. Ukraine is portrayed as a failed state, or a puppet of NATO and Western countries.” Along with the disinformation campaign, Russia continues to degrade Ukraine’s political will to fight a prolonged conflict as it unofficially supports pro-Russian separatist forces.

One reason Russia was able to achieve political dominance in Eastern Ukraine was through controlling the narrative of the conflict. Ukraine blundered its opportunity to maintain political stability and control the conflict’s narrative. Veljovski noted that anti-Russian actions such as banning Russian as a second official language created a trigger moment that was enough to anger Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population. As a result, Ukraine politically alienated a portion of its population and drove it to support Russian interests. In turn, Russia exploited this situation and was able to weave a narrative that its intervention was out of concerns for the safety of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population. According to a 2015 Pew poll, a median of 39% of those surveyed from the populations of eight NATO countries blame Russia for the Ukrainian crisis. This poll indicates that Russia successfully contested the political narrative. As a result, Russia achieved its objectives in conducting political warfare. Russia sowed political doubt and discouraged international involvement in Ukraine.

A Russian soldier hold his weapon at Belbek airport in the Crimea region March 4, 2014. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Political warfare’s effectiveness varies depending on the target society’s social resilience, which can in turn help predict society’s breaking point. A more politically resilient society is one that resists attrition from political warfare through sustaining unified resolve or diffusion of political credibility. Russia is resilient through its more autocratic society led by an influential political leader, Putin. He maintains an 87% approval rating, with considerable support from both the general population and private interests. Through state media and propaganda, Putin is able to control the flow of information, and influence the political narrative. Even with American influence in Russia through funding democratic groups and supporting Putin's opponents, Putin was able to secure victory with minimum opposition. Where there were groups that demonstrated against this questionable election, the general population rallied behind Putin and were satisfied with his leadership. Autocratic countries tend to follow this method to keep political control.

Diffusion of credibility tends to rely more on non-partisan journalism and gatekeepers. If a society trusts that their journalists will act in the interest of preserving truth, then media can act as a beneficial tool in countering disinformation and other forms of political warfare. Unlike Russia or China, more democratic actors have a more extensive range of media sources available to the public that expose society to a plethora of narratives. Diffusion of credibility overwhelms a hostile actor’s narrative by other sources that are traditionally more fact checked. However, unlike the Vietnam era of political warfare and the dominance of traditional news, the U.S. now has to grapple with social media.

Unlike traditional news sources, that are generally fact checked and more verified, social media is a double-edged sword in the digital age where anyone can be a crude journalist spreading information quickly, or disinformation. According to a 2017 Pew poll, approximately 25% of Americans obtain their news from social media sites, compared to 2013 when it was only 15%. Social media allows information to spread more quickly to a broader base than traditional news sources. In fact, social media is a powerful tool that actors use to conduct political warfare.

Social media has played a more decisive role in destabilizing governments and forcing political change. David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters, notes social media played a crucial role in rapidly mobilizing people into a substantial force during the 2011 Arab Spring. Twitter and Facebook became tools of political warfare, as the hashtag was used to spread graphic images of violence in Egypt. According to Patrikarakos, individuals set up Facebook pages dedicated to showing Egyptian governmental atrocities. He calls this the Homo Digitalis age, an age in which social media’s power plays a central role. In fact, Mubarak faced enough domestic and international political pressure to step down after thirty years of rule. In this case, non-state actors such as the dissatisfied population and internal political parties destabilized a state actor and established political dominance by controlling the narrative of the unrest.

Likewise, social media’s strength is also its Trojan horse, because hostile actors use social media to spread disinformation as part of political warfare. Trust in traditional news dropped to 43%. At the same time, there was a steady increase in social media use and reliance as a primary source of information. Zignal Labs reported in a 2017 study that “of the 74% of Americans who read news articles that friends have shared on social media, 86% say they don’t always fact check the articles that they read.” Furthermore, in the 18-24 age bracket, 68% of individuals rely on social media for the majority of their news. Given this data, hostile actors can overwhelm social media sites that do not have the gatekeepers that traditional news sources have. A hostile actor relies on just one of the many plausible fake news stories to penetrate society before it spreads like cancer.

Even worse, confirmation bias helps spread false information. In an age of rapid dispersion of information, journalism will need to regain its credibility and act as a trusted gatekeeper. Social media’s weakness as a weapon is that once the aggressing actor is exposed, society can become more resilient against this type of threat from that actor. However, resiliency requires reinforcing journalistic integrity as well as encouraging critical analysis and fact checking before sharing information on a societal level.

In conclusion, political warfare and a geopolitical actor’s pursuit of political dominance is not new. The Soviet Union’s success during the Vietnam era showcases the importance of political warfare as the KGB was able to sow distrust and promote anti-war sentiment in the United States. In today’s digital age, social media is a powerful and potentially a dangerous weapon that can erode trust within society and its government. I do not suggest that political warfare acts as the backbone in projecting power or influence abroad. Rather, the goal is to note the dangerous effects of prolonged political attrition on a target population. Looking ahead, it is possible that international norms will have to drastically change to create clear signals that will deter aggressing actors or perhaps reexamine the level of acceptable responsibility beyond present social norms.

Alexander Grinberg is an officer in the U.S. Army. He has a degree in Defense Policy and Strategy. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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