The new way of war: How US enemies foster American anger, disunity, and self-doubt

   2024-04-19 01:04

Let’s say you’re the leader of a rising power determined to secure international economic and political dominance. But first, you have to subjugate an adversary that possesses a very powerful military. You could fight that adversary in a direct military conflict, perhaps winning, but only at a high cost. Or you could pick apart your adversary’s social fabric and corrode his national confidence, depleting both his will to resist you and regard his own interests as worth defending. 

That latter strategy might take more time but also offers the possibility of victory at a very low cost. And it is that latter strategy that underpins the new way of war of the 21st century, which Russia, Iran, and particularly China are now waging against America. 

(Dean MacAdamn for the Washington Examiner)

China stands apart in the scale, diversity, and ambition of its efforts. That should be no surprise, for although the military theorist Sun Tzu died more than 2,500 years ago, his teachings heavily influence today’s Chinese Communist Party. Sun Tzu’s central thesis was that good strategists seek to damage an enemy at minimal cost. China and Russia fund disruptive American activist groups such as Code Pink that advance anti-American interests. They do so because such groups are perceived as being entirely homegrown and therefore marginally credible when they act in service of pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing foreign policy agendas.

Top Republican strategist Karl Rove has recognized the danger.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rove observed how “Meta took down at least five Chinese fake account networks last year. One had 4,800 Facebook accounts impersonating real people — including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D. Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R. Ohio) — with content on politics and U.S.-China relations. … One newly discovered Moscow operation — called ‘Doppelganger’ — copies content from regular media companies, then alters them slightly to undermine Western democracies.”

In much the same way, Russian intelligence services have invested heavily in Western green environmental advocacy groups that oppose fracking-based energy extraction. This serves Vladimir Putin by reducing energy export competition from America. The opportunities to use witting or unwitting useful idiot Americans as political tools abound. Beijing takes note and advantage of the divisions between Americans fomented by Black Lives Matter protesters, for example, or between commuters and anti-Israel protesters blocking highways. By fueling public disagreements between Americans, China fosters American anger, disunity, and self-doubt. These are good for China in a general way, in that they work against American thriving, and could also be useful in a more specific way if, for example, China decides to invade Taiwan. So it pours money into sowing division but does so at a sufficient remove to be able to deny it. 

The Grayzone is an alternative media outlet with pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow narratives. Like other far-left activist organizations, it directs readers to make donations via Patreon or other online payment sites. In 2020, I twice asked Patreon whether it had protocols to monitor Russian government funding via its service. It did not provide any answers, so one can safely assume it does not. American adversaries can secretly pay for favorable coverage in Western media outlets that seem independent, and it is more effective to do this than to fund overt state media outlets such as Russia’s RT or China’s CCTV. 

(Examiner illustration; Getty Images)

America’s enemies also influence viewpoints and emotions on social media. Russian troll farms sought to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They were just the start. China’s TikTok social media giant is now facing congressional action to force its sale by ByteDance, which is closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party. It is finally being recognized by members of Congress that TikTok’s most important customers are not its users but its Chinese Communist Party masters. This truth is barely hidden in TikTok’s algorithms. TikTok users are being fed anti-Israel, pro-Hamas propaganda. TikTok is also stoking far-left and far-right narratives on sexual identity issues. And, of course, it inundates users with pro-China narratives on all areas that Beijing thinks important, such as Taiwan. 

This campaign to spread acrimony and unhappiness in the United States is the flip side of Beijing’s draconian censorship at home in China. The CCP knows the power of controlling information and manipulating viewpoints, and it is clearly doing so wherever it can. By dividing Americans, China hopes to dilute our nation’s traditional core strength — a population of many different views but with a shared national identity. But it’s not just China. 

Russian influence efforts abound on X, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Moscow uses these campaigns in an effort to deter U.S. action with which it disagrees. It stokes the idea that more U.S. support for Ukraine could lead to nuclear war. Whether our foes are successful in persuading Americans on specific points is ultimately less important than if they are in stoking demoralizing division. As the November 2024 presidential election approaches, we should expect further foreign fostering of division on hot-button policies such as abortion, gun control, and immigration. 

The U.S. intelligence community recently noted that “TikTok accounts run by a [Chinese government] propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022. Beijing is intensifying efforts to mold U.S. public discourse — particularly on core sovereignty issues, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. … The [Chinese government] may attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 at some level because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions.” 

Beijing’s furious efforts to keep TikTok under ByteDance ownership are also due to its fervent desire to collect user data. TikTok users supply a mass of priceless data to Chinese intelligence every day, allowing hostile “targeting.” Contemplate the benefits to Chinese intelligence officials of learning, for example, that a TikTok user with political ambitions has a secret interest in a fringe sexual preference. China could wait for the candidate to run for office and, at the right moment, tell the candidate it knows his or her secret and could leak it unless he or she agrees to cooperate with China when in office. China is collecting such information in the U.S. military, the intelligence community, business, academia, the tech industry, Hollywood, and biomedical research. Put simply, TikTok gives China a data pathway to widespread strategic exploitation. 

This use of “big data” will grow exponentially as artificial intelligence revolutionizes society. It’s why, for example, China aggressively hacked the Office of Personnel Management in 2014, gathering information on 22 million citizens who had applied for jobs or been hired by the federal government, and the Equifax credit agency in 2017, probably gathering information on more than half the U.S. population. China wants to know about each American’s vulnerabilities, whether they be financial, professional, personal, or otherwise. It wants to use them to manipulate or blackmail Americans into Beijing’s service. It’s a battle for control fought in the shadows against American minds. The weapons are computers and smartphones, not tanks and submarines. As Sun Tzu taught, “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” 

The Chinese match their online manipulation with less subtle action to undermine America. Beijing is flooding the U.S. with fentanyl even while Xi Jinping claims to be willing to work with Washington to stanch the inundation. This, of course, is a lie. Fentanyl is wreaking havoc on American lives and communities, driving up American healthcare costs, and pumping dollars into China’s economy. A more secure U.S.-Mexico border would also make it harder for Chinese intelligence operatives to steal into America. A large number of Chinese nationals are already crossing the border. Only a fool would assume Chinese spies are not among them. The same is almost certainly true of Iranian operatives, perhaps here to execute their known plans for attacks on U.S. soil. 

It’s hard to overestimate the variety of threats that this new shadow war entails. China intends, for example, to use its electric vehicle exports both to bolster its struggling export economy and spy on Americans. In late February, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo explained that Chinese electric “vehicles are connected to the internet. They collect huge amounts of sensitive data on the drivers — personal information, biometric information, where the car goes.” The risk is not merely that China might remotely shut down thousands or millions of vehicles in a war. It could also use the cars to collect personal information about where a driver lives, where he travels, where he shops, eats, drinks, etc. Self-driving vehicles also collect data from their surroundings. Internet-connected cars driven onto U.S. military bases or intelligence facilities could gain access to sensitive U.S. networks and plant malware in them. 

We can ban imports of Chinese technology, but we have much less control over China’s cyber espionage. At the Munich Security Conference in February, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that “China’s hacking program is larger than that of every other major nation combined. And that size advantage is only magnified because [China] uses AI, built in large part on stolen innovation and stolen data, to improve its hacking operations, including to steal yet more AI tech and data.” Wray then addressed China’s preparation for offensive cyber warfare. He described an approaching “fever pitch” of “China’s increasing buildout of offensive weapons within our critical infrastructure, poised to attack whenever Beijing decides the time is right.” This Chinese effort, he said, is focused on U.S. “telecommunications, energy, water, and other infrastructure.”


How would all this work in unison? Perhaps a Chinese anti-ship missile strikes a U.S. aircraft carrier in the opening days of hostilities between the two superpowers in the Western Pacific. American military men and women are killed, and a great symbol of American power is shattered. Then TikTok stokes doubt about U.S. involvement in a war on the other side of the world. Social media algorithms and bots churn out escalating threats of a coming nuclear exchange. China then selectively disrupts clean water supplies, energy networks, and cellphone services with its malware. Simultaneously, China’s spies blackmail politicians and influencers into pushing for a ceasefire favorable to China. If China doesn’t get its ceasefire, then electric vehicles will start malfunctioning and crashing and TikTok will be flooded with pro-suicide videos targeted at vulnerable teenagers. 

Would America hold firm? Or would years of carefully cultivated social division and AI-enabled targeting of Americans make many of us see resistance as futile? If you don’t believe China would do all these things, look at how the CCP treats its own citizens. Among the Uyghur minority, it is running a genocide campaign veiled as a social service.

Tom Rogan is an online editor and foreign policy writer for the Washington Examiner.

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