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Empire Without War

The Atlantic published an essay on the crisis facing dissidents of conscience in authoritarian countries. The challenges reflect two geopolitical changes. First, autocrats have surrendered territorial ambitions, instead focusing solely on enriching themselves. Secondly, democratic countries have failed to shift their propaganda from traditional to social media.

The Atlantic misses some important side-effects of this shift. Autocrats no longer need armies to wage war – they need only demoralize democracies. So, while China and Russia spend billions on social media and influence campaigns, the US spends billions on aircraft carriers. Which is the better investment? Well, who needs aircraft carriers when you can wage war directly in the bedrooms of the citizens that you wish to control?

Still, the principles of the Cold War apply. Putin and Xi and Maduro and the mullahs may not be unified by their borders, but their attempts to create a state-controlled trading block will face the same end as did the Soviet Union. It was the trappings of capitalism that convinced their citizens that they had a stake in the success of their economies. As the inefficiencies of corruption take hold, that belief will erode. Worker productivity will decline. Conversely, democracies will continue to innovate.

The greatest threat to democracy is that global corporations prefer to do business with autocrats. Negotiating with Western stakeholders is exhausting. This is the reality behind the critique that allows China to acquire extraction rights in developing nations. Western corporations were rapacious in their search for profits. China’s state-owned enterprises are simply offering better terms to the autocrats that were created by their Western predecessors.

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