Worth defending: elections in Western democracies have become increasingly vulnerable to foreign interference. Image: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy
Disinformation and other non-military aggression by Russia and other countries is dangerously undermining Western democracies. But despite the seriousness of such threats, the UK and its democratic allies are poorly protected against them. The UK and the US should lead the establishment of a Democratic Resilience Centre for NATO member states and likeminded countries.
The illegal invasion of Ukraine has shattered European security and marked a new stage of Russian aggression, which has grown steadily during Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power. But Putin’s aim is not simply to take Ukraine. We are facing a dictator ready to use armed force to redraw the map of Europe. He displays contempt for international institutions, humanitarian law and rules of military conflict. He wants to destroy the unity of the West and trust in our democratic institutions. And 18 months after the invasion, there is no sign that his strategic aims have changed.
Putin and other autocrats pose a long-term threat – and the next US and UK governments will inherit the Ukraine conflict and wider Russian aggression. They will also be confronted with growing assertiveness from China and need to find the right approach in both the Indo-Pacific and Europe to ensure stability and secure their democracies at home.
We must arm ourselves with traditional and new capabilities to fully defend our democratic way of life, which is why the UK is adopting ‘an integrated approach to deterrence and defence’ across all domains and the US Department of Defense is pursuing ‘integrated deterrence’ involving all government agencies.
As part of this defence of the homeland, we propose a new Democratic Resilience Centre jointly established and led by the UK and the US, and open to all NATO countries wishing to opt in, to strengthen defence against existing and future threats below the threshold of armed military violence. The Centre could also act as a forerunner to a fully-fledged NATO body. It would not only collectively monitor threats and share best practices, but also advise on action and develop new strategies, including military operational responses to counter threats.
The Threat Against Western Democracies
Democracy is the foundation that has allowed the UK and its Western allies to thrive, and the way of life democracy enables is cherished by our citizens. Indeed, for five decades after the end of the Second World War, democracy and the market economy advanced, mostly hand in hand, in countries around the world – first in Western Europe and North America, and then in other countries too. But the last two decades have been a more turbulent ride: according to Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World Index, during the past 17 years, each year has seen more countries reduce democracy and freedom than improve it.
And perhaps most alarmingly for us in the UK and the wider Western family, our democracies are under duress too. Many of us may have become too complacent about our democratic systems, taking them for granted and assuming they’ll continue to exist no matter what, simply because we prefer democracy over autocracy. But democracy is not an indestructible construct, and in the past few years it has come under attack in a wide range of Western countries, including the UK and the US.
Some of the most egregious examples are well-known, including Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential campaign through malign-influence campaigns and cyber interference, its suspected interference in UK referendum campaigns, its interference in the 2017 French presidential campaign and its malign-influence campaigns targeting Ukraine. Russia even staged a malign-influence campaign against NATO’s 2023 summit in Vilnius. But attacks on Western democracies take place on a regular – indeed daily – basis. Disinformation (deliberate falsehoods) is disseminated by news sources and social media accounts linked to regimes hostile to the West, and disinformation and misinformation (accidental falsehoods) shared by groups and ordinary citizens in Western countries are amplified by the same outlets and social media accounts. Citizens already struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehoods, and that will become more challenging still as AI-aided images, videos and sound clips continue to make their way more widely into the public domain.
We don’t know whether such malign-influence campaigns can change the outcome of our elections, just as we don’t know whether cyber interference can produce such results. What matters, though, is that these efforts undermine citizens’ trust in our democratic institutions. That trust and belief in our democratic values is worth defending as the foundation for our societies. Already in 2016, before the presidential election that year – and long before the Senate enquiry into Russian meddling – 55% of US citizens believed Russia was meddling in the election campaign.
But the subversion of democracies doesn’t stop at malign-influence campaigns and election interference. Even before these became acute, it already involved a wide range of other practices, ranging from intellectual-property theft from Western universities and the strategic acquisition of cutting-edge technology to weaponisation of migrants. The International Centre for Migration Policy Development found that Russia has increased the number of flights to Belarus from the Middle East and Africa in an attempt to push up the number of migrants trying to get into to the EU in an effort to destabilise the grouping. The race for a Covid-19 vaccine saw China, Russia and North Korea hack Western university labs and pharmaceutical companies to steal their vaccine designs. According to recent media reports, scientists from at least 11 UK universities may have unwittingly contributed to Iran's drone programme through research projects. And the UK Parliament, the heart of our democracy, has been targeted by a string of influence and espionage operations, including one allegedly involving a young parliamentary researcher arrested earlier this year.
Many of us may have become too complacent about our democratic systems, taking them for granted and assuming they’ll continue to exist no matter what
Our adversaries and strategic competitors know that to achieve their goals – putting us on the backfoot, dividing Europe and sidelining multilateral bodies, the EU and international law – they have to outpace us in military capability and, equally importantly, undermine the functioning of our open society and our citizens’ faith in it. They are operating deliberately in the greyzones between war and peace, between international legality and organised crime. This was dramatically illustrated by the Russian nerve agent attack in Salisbury and the disgraceful Russian disinformation campaign that followed it.
On its own, no single act of greyzone aggression poses an existential threat to a Western country, but in combination, these acts chip away at our open societies’ ability to function and thrive. This matters to NATO, even though it is an alliance with a long-standing focus on military threats. As the Alliance notes in its 2022 Strategic Concept:
‘… strategic competitors test our resilience and seek to exploit the openness, interconnectedness and digitalisation of our nations. They interfere in our democratic processes and institutions and target the security of our citizens through hybrid tactics, both directly and through proxies. They conduct malicious activities in cyberspace and space, promote disinformation campaigns, instrumentalise migration, manipulate energy supplies and employ economic coercion. These actors are also at the forefront of a deliberate effort to undermine multilateral norms and institutions and promote authoritarian models of governance.’
Defending our countries against such threats should be NATO’s fourth pillar, alongside deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security. Indeed, the Alliance’s members must build societal resilience into every aspect of government and civil society. That’s why integrated defence and deterrence are indispensable.
In recent years, different NATO member states and partners have launched agencies and initiatives including Finland’s Hybrid Centre of Excellence, Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency, Australia’s University Foreign Interference Taskforce, the UK Research and Innovation Agency’s Trusted Research initiative and the UK government’s Counter Disinformation Unit. In the US, if adopted, the Gray Zone Defense Assessment Act proposed by four Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives will, among other things, require the US Secretary of State and the US Director of National Intelligence to conduct an annual assessment of the greyzone threats posed by regimes hostile to the West. In April last year, the House passed a resolution introduced by Representatives Mike Turner and Gerry Connolly – two former presidents of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly – calling on NATO to establish a centre for democratic resilience at its headquarters. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has also endorsed the proposal.
At the Vilnius Summit this July, NATO’s member states built on Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty – its so-called resilience article – and agreed on a set of ‘Alliance Resilience Objectives’. Resilience, the Allies said in their final communiqué:
‘… [is] an essential basis for credible deterrence and defence and the effective fulfilment of the Alliance’s core tasks, and vital in our efforts to safeguard our societies, our populations and our shared values.’
‘The Resilience Objectives will strengthen NATO and Allied preparedness against strategic shocks and disruptions. They will boost our national and collective ability to ensure continuity of government and of essential services to our populations, and enable civil support to military operations, in peace, crisis and conflict. Allies will use these objectives to guide the development of their national goals and implementation plans, consistent with their respective national risk profile. We will also work towards identifying and mitigating strategic vulnerabilities and dependencies, including with respect to our critical infrastructure, supply chains and health systems.’
Democracies are worth defending – and must be determined to defend themselves. This is embedded at the heart of NATO, with its founding treaty enshrining the values of democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and collective security. It embodies UK and US internationalism at its best.
Our values, institutions and free and fair elections are what sets us apart from non-democratic countries, and they are as important to protect as our territory
Yet NATO still lacks a central site to aid member states’ democratic resilience. (NATO has a Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga and an Energy Security Centre of Excellence in Vilnius, but these are set up to have an academic focus, not an operational one.) Through such a centre, countries could share best practices and threat evaluations, collectively monitor threats, and develop new strategies – including military strategies with operational responses – to counter them.
A Democratic Resilience Centre
We propose a Democratic Resilience Centre jointly established and led by the UK and the US, and open to all NATO member states wishing to opt in. The Centre would help participating countries strengthen their defence against existing and future threats below the threshold of armed military violence. Its mission should be to protect the wider Western alliance’s democratic values, political institutions, elections and open societies, which are the basis of the freedom and opportunities that our citizens prize. The Centre, which could be housed at the National Defense University in Washington or at a UK institution such as RUSI or the UK Defence Academy, would be open to any ally or partner, and its core staff would be drawn from civil servants and military and intelligence officials from participating countries, working there on rotation or secondment from their home institutions. They could be joined by experts from academia, think tanks, NGOs and the private sector.
In practical terms, the Centre would collect and share best practices and other crucial knowledge (including national case studies) among participating countries. Such expertise can come not just from different parts of a country but from countries otherwise considered weak, either because they’re small or have a fragile economy or because they face extremely serious threats. Montenegro, for example, has experiences with Russian systematic subversion that others could learn from.
This body of knowledge would include both the threats themselves and the military strategies and operational responses required to counter them. In addition to assembling and sharing expertise, the Centre would also be able to assist participating countries in identifying greyzone aggression by adversaries and proxies and – if asked – to advise them on suitable response strategies. Such operational responses stand to become a crucial resource that allies can adapt and adopt. The Centre would also be able to monitor operations, document and analyse them in real time, and arm our legislators, armed forces, law enforcement, emergency services, educators and information regulators with tools to improve our societies’ resilience to such activities and to fight back using methods appropriate for democracies. The Centre would not only signal to our rivals and adversaries that we will defend ourselves against all forms of aggression, but also set an example to allies who have so far refused to take this threat seriously.
The Centre would, in other words, focus on threats that are extremely serious but have until now been so hard to quickly identify and classify that they have mostly gone unaddressed. Our countries should be on high alert ahead of the next UK general election and the US presidential election in 2024, and this is the time to launch democratic resilience work together to better protect our democratic values and systems.
The establishment of such a Centre would require broad political consensus within the countries involved, based on a clear focus on external challenges to our democracies. It would only help our adversaries if such a proposal were to become a focus of dispute between the major parties. This means that issues relating to the domestic governance of elections – for example, boundary demarcation and claims of electoral fraud – would be beyond its scope. Nor would the proposed Centre have the authority to comment publicly on specific events. Instead, its primary focus would be to work with governments to help develop their capacity for enhancing resilience against external attacks.
The Centre would be consistent with NATO intent but would allow leading partners to move faster than the 31 NATO countries can move together. At the same time, these countries would be welcome to join at any point, and would add momentum and capability to the Centre’s work. The Centre could act as a forerunner for a fully-fledged NATO body that could also take on Alliance functions within the NATO structure.
If we let hostile regimes’ aggression continue to undermine our societies, we face a reality where our citizens can no longer trust our societies’ institutions, where our companies and research institutions continue to be harmed in ways that also harm the rest of society, and where citizens lose faith in our elections. Our values, institutions and free and fair elections are what sets us apart from non-democratic countries, and they are as important to protect as our territory.
With threats increasing and instability growing, the US and the UK can together defend our democracies and help other countries do so themselves. The Democratic Resilience Centre could be a community of cutting-edge expertise from the military, civil service, emergency response, preparedness, civil society, human rights, business operations and media communities – and its doors would be open to all NATO members wanting to strengthen their capabilities and keep our countries safe.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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The Rt Hon John Healey
Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)