Posts Tagged ‘Political Warfare’


The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.


Do We Need American Political Warfare in the Middle East?

August 9, 2013

Max Boot and Michael Doran  have posted an essay at the Council for Foreign Relations calling for the United States to reinvigorate a campaign of  political warfare to counter anti-American influences in the Middle East.  Among the challengers they list “Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various Salafist organizations.”

They explicitly cite the inspiration of the early Cold War in the approach and quote from one of George Kennan’s PPS memos from 1948

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

They complain that none of America’s foreign affairs agencies has political warfare as a core mission with the result that (to use two of their examples) if an Iraqi politician or an anti-regime Iranian film-maker wants support who will provide it.  Boot and Doran argue for using the existing Counter Terrorism Strategic Communication set up as a basis for a cross-government coordinated programme, further State, DoD, USAID and CIA should create political warfare career tracks.

Given that America’s various public diplomacy strands tend to take on an unacknowledged tinge of political warfare it’s nice to see the issue being explicitly addressed.  In principle the ability to coordinate all the instruments of national power in pursuit of a ‘national goals’ is a good thing.

But I’m not entirely convinced

At the end of their first paragraph Boot and Doran call for the US to develop a political warfare strategy but their entire piece is about the instruments and methods of political warfare.

This leads to the central question: what is the political strategy and how does it fit with US objectives and policies in the Middle East and globally?

As an approach to statecraft political warfare inverts Clausewitz and treats politics as the continuation of war in that the other is to be defeated or destroyed.  Indeed the most enthusiastic embrace of political warfare has been from regimes that deny the legitimacy of their opponents (for instance the USSR facing the capitalist world) or see themselves dealing with an existential threat that requires the use of any and all means, the situation that Kennan saw in 1948.   The reason that Clausewitz subordinates strategy to policy is because policy is the level at which different objectives and political considerations are integrated, balanced and ranked.  The problem with political warfare is that it tends to pretend that this political complexity can be ignored and that it is possible to simply focus on damaging the opponent.

In contrast diplomacy seeks to manage the relationship with the other and to balance multiple objectives and relationships.  The historical record shows that the targets of peacetime political warfare tend not to collapse and that the country employing PW finds itself  managing the interaction between the two approaches to statecraft with greater or lesser degrees of success.   Fans of political warfare methods (the USSR or Hitler) frequently found their diplomacy torpedoed because their unconventional methods hadn’t managed to overthrow the opponent merely to irritate them.

Hence the number one requirement for political warfare is a political strategy that allows not just the coordination of means but the prioritization of objectives.  So in thinking about a political warfare strategy for the Middle East the US needs to consider what sort of Middle East it would like to see (and what sort of region it can actually produce), and how the methods and consequences of PW (intended and unintended) will feed into outcomes given the reaction of other players.  Just developing a strategy based on countering hostile forces isn’t sufficient.  For instance Boot and Doran’s list of threats suggests an elementary set of political strategies (Sun Tzu 101): promote conflict between extremist Shia and Sunni factions (and provide covert help to both sides) – while this would weaken anti-US factions and distract them it would also escalate the level of violence and instability in the region.

A few lessons from Cold War experience.

  1. One of the basic strategies of US Cold War political warfare was to support anti-communist socialists, what was known as the non-communist left (NCL). This was not to the taste of many congressmen.  If we are looking at the Middle East who is your NCL?  Who can you back that can actually make a difference and is acceptable to congressional oversight?
  2. There are many examples of Cold War groups taking the money and following their own agenda. Just because a politician says that he’s pro-American don’t expect him to follow your agenda.
  3. By the second half of the 1950s it was already clear that covert support for anti-communist groups was a trap in that the support could not be kept hidden indefinitely and that when it came out it would have consequence both for the US and the groups that they had supported. Discussions of some sort of overt funding mechanism that would eventually yield the NED have quite a long history.
  4. One of the basic criticisms of covert methods of statecraft is that they often function as a substitute for policy resulting in a series of opportunistic improvisations that do not lead anywhere in particular.


I would argue that Boot and Doran are right that the US should look hard at coordinating its tools, looking at ways in which it can undermine and block threatening forces.  I would also look at the ability to use covert methods to support friendly forces in particular circumstances (this is a job for the CIA).

But…I’m sceptical about a broad PW push in the absence of a broader political strategy for the region, I don’t just mean some general aspirations but a theory of change that will get you there  – Kennan’s advocacy of PW was in the context of a strategy of containment in a bipolar international order,  the Middle East is a much messier environment.  I’m not convinced that the US can formulate or execute a coordinated programme of political warfare in support of a coherent political strategy.



Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare: Part 3

February 4, 2012

The starting point for this series of posts was the argument that public diplomacy practice seems to combine two distinct approaches.  Firstly, the effort to improve interstate relations or to influence policy positions.  This is quite consistent with seeing public diplomacy as a normal part of diplomacy. Beyond this there is a second strand of thinking that is concerned with influencing the political regime or with ‘defeating’ an adversary.   This second strand of thinking is particularly pronounced in the US because of the historical impact of the Cold War and the War on Terror but also exists elsewhere.  This can usefully be thought of as political warfare.

To borrow from Kuhn and Kissinger you can think of these as two paradigms of public diplomacy ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’. However the point is that they coexist and as the PWE memo points out use many of the same tools.  While political warfare might be expected to  embrace instruments like deception that would not be acceptable within public diplomacy many of the same constraints apply; for instance building and maintaining credibility and relationships.  Even black propaganda needs to be based in truth.

The distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’  modes of external action may or may not be reflected in different organizations.  The arguments (and struggles) for separation and combination are a large part of the history of great power propaganda .

Both in the US and the UK the rise of ‘strategic communications’ can be seen as the reassertion of the political warfare paradigm growing out of the requirements of the War on Terror including countering violent extremism, Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is the source of Matt Armstrong’s lament that US public diplomacy wears combat boots.  But this is not confined to the military the State Department’s ‘ 21st Century Statecraft’ has a radical strand to it.

I think that the important step is to recognize that these paradigms co-exist and need to co-exist.  In criticising the rise of ‘strategic communications’ one of my concerns is that this paradigm fails to recognize the importance of public diplomacy as an element of diplomacy.  At the same time communications in conflict situations needs to be more focused and instrumental in its approach.

I don’t expect William Hague or Hillary Clinton to start talking about ‘political warfare’,  after all it contains two of the most offensive words in foreign affairs, but in my mind it has two major advantages over ‘strategic communications’.   Firstly, as a concept PW focuses attention on ends and the overall approach while SC is about means and secondly, it reminds us that politics matters – it’s not simply a matter of technique.

In what (I hope) will be the final part of this series I’m going to explore what we can learn from Marxist-Leninist versions of political warfare in an era of networks.


Political Warfare and Public Diplomacy: Part 1

January 11, 2012

Over the past few months one piece of terminology that has popped up in conversations around the Institute is ‘political warfare’ .  In this and  the follow up I want to explore the utility of this idea for contemporary studies of public diplomacy.  An awareness of the history not just of the term but the institutional implications help to cast some contemporary issues into clearer focus particularly the rise of ‘strategic communications and Matt Armstrong’s complaint that ‘American public diplomacy wears combat boots’ .

As public diplomacy develops in the academy we are tending to place greater weight on public diplomacy as aspect of diplomacy but I think that this creates a danger of missing the way that the requirements of communications around conflict affect the way that national external communications are conceptualized and practiced.

As a starting point  what is Political Warfare?  From a 1942 memo from the British Political Warfare Executive: The Meaning, Techniques and Methods of Political Warfare.  This is one of more historically informed and nicely written government documents that you are likely to come across.  The PWE was the  Second World War  organization responsible for propaganda to enemy and occupied countries.  It had responsibilities for coordinating white, grey and black propaganda.  Political Warfare is sometimes seen as the equivalent of Psychological Warfare in the American lexicon.  The memo describes he motives of political warfare

In terms of foreign policy, when the normal channels of diplomacy are blocked, political warfare becomes the instrument of appeal to the people within enemy or enemy-occupied countries. It is also the indispensable adjunct of Economic Warfare, since, when the limits of blockade and other direct economic action have been reached, one means (apart from air bombardment) of exacerbating that blockade, is through political warfare action. Political warfare is inseparable from the strategy of the three Fighting Services. Its primary object is to destroy the foundations of the enemy’s war machine as an auxiliary to military action; it is in fact the Fourth Fighting Arm…

Britain’s Political Warfare Executive is concerned only with enemy and enemy-occupied countries as distinct from the Ministry of Information which deals with domestic and Neutral populations and with unoccupied Allied territories (i.e., China, Russia, U.S.A. and South American allies). This dispensation arose from practical experience and expediency, but the distinction is a logical one. The attitude to the enemy and to his subject peoples is belligerent; the attitude to friendly and still independent peoples is persuasive. One is disruptive behind the lines of the enemy; the other is conciliatory in the councils of our friends. One requires the mentality and techniques of subversion; the other, in open relationship, means frankness and information. The one seeks to destroy the confidence of the enemy; the other seeks to win the confidence of friends.

(vii) To clarify this distinction, it is necessary to define (a) Publicity, (b) Propaganda, (c) Political Warfare.


(viii) Publicity is the straightforward projection of a case; it is the build-up of a picture in the mind of the audience which will win their confidence and support. It is information which we want them to have, but also information which they want to have. It seeks to create the right impression and to remove the wrong impression. Its object is mutual goodwill. It is the presentation of the evidence, leaving the judgment to the audience. It is succinctly, as the Americans expressed it in their original information organisation: “Facts” and “Figures.”


(ix) Propaganda, on the other hand, is the deliberate direction, or even manipulation, of information to secure a definite objective. It is an attempt to direct the thinking of the recipient, without his conscious collaboration, into predetermined channels. It is the conditioning of the recipient by devious methods with an ulterior motive. Propaganda emphasises those facts which best serve its purpose. It creates the atmosphere in which the audience is most susceptible to suggestion. By power of suggestion, which in favourable circumstances becomes instruction, it secures positive action.


(x) Political Warfare employs both publicity and propaganda…

There follows a more detailed discussion of Political Warfare that concludes

(xv) Political Warfare could be described as “Propaganda in battledress” in the sense that it has to convert propaganda into a striking force and to ensure that, at the right moment and under proper discipline, ideas and emotions are translated into action. It must, psychologically, disarm the enemy. It must instil into the hidden armies behind the Axis lines not only the spirit of resistance to the enemy, but the will to strike down that enemy. It is this emphasis on its fighting service function which makes it necessary to distinguish Political Warfare from the “propaganda” it employs. It is this characteristic of Political Warfare which is still not clearly understood and which, while it retains an identity distinct from the Fighting Services, makes its close association with these Services of paramount importance. It is its balanced relationship between the three Services, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the other agencies which are operating against the enemy, which is the justification for the separate existence of the Political Warfare Executive.

In a following post I will argue that political warfare as a mode of operation where ‘normal channels of diplomacy are blocked’ is  stil around and in thinking through what public diplomacy means in contemporary international relations this conflictual application of communications needs to be kept in mind.