Welcome to the Era of Dictator Inflation

The geopolitical order is clearly in flux, and democracies are losing ground globally. Yet perceptions may be changing faster than reality. As I argued in a recent essay, Russia, China, and other authoritarian powers have grown increasingly skillful at puffing themselves up to look more economically, politically, and militarily powerful than they are. Of course, inflation as a geopolitical strategy is not new: “Image theory” in political psychology emphasizes that perception—not reality—drives the foreign-policy stances of publics and policymakers alike.

Russian political prisoner and opposition leader Alexei Navalny understands the Kremlin’s calculus very well. In 2019, he quipped to Financial Times, “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and … the whole establishment of a huge Western country will go nuts about interference, even though its real effect is risible. The investments are minimal, but they give you front pages and power.” He argued that the biggest achievement of the Kremlin’s online interference efforts had been making people believe it could manipulate the West—regardless of its actual ability to do so.

Recently, a strange leak appeared in the international press: a Kremlin document that proves Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered Russian authorities to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the one hand, this reveals nothing new. The Mueller report, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report, and U.S. intelligence agencies have already provided ample evidence of this fact. On the other hand, it is extremely rare for such highly classified Kremlin documents to come to light. And while no one can be certain about who created this document, it is certain that the Kremlin can capitalize on everyone discussing—yet again—how audacious Putin was to attempt to influence presidential election results in one of the most developed democracies in the world.

Recently, a strange leak appeared in the international press: a Kremlin document that proves Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered Russian authorities to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the one hand, this reveals nothing new. The Mueller report, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report, and U.S. intelligence agencies have already provided ample evidence of this fact. On the other hand, it is extremely rare for such highly classified Kremlin documents to come to light. And while no one can be certain about who created this document, it is certain that the Kremlin can capitalize on everyone discussing—yet again—how audacious Putin was to attempt to influence presidential election results in one of the most developed democracies in the world.

Russian political prisoner and opposition leader Alexei Navalny understands the Kremlin’s calculus very well. In 2019, he quipped to Financial Times, “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and … the whole establishment of a huge Western country will go nuts about interference, even though its real effect is risible. The investments are minimal, but they give you front pages and power.” He argued that the biggest achievement of the Kremlin’s online interference efforts had been making people believe it could manipulate the West—regardless of its actual ability to do so.

The geopolitical order is clearly in flux, and democracies are losing ground globally. Yet perceptions may be changing faster than reality. As I argued in a recent essay, Russia, China, and other authoritarian powers have grown increasingly skillful at puffing themselves up to look more economically, politically, and militarily powerful than they are. Of course, inflation as a geopolitical strategy is not new: “Image theory” in political psychology emphasizes that perception—not reality—drives the foreign-policy stances of publics and policymakers alike.

But in the last few years authoritarians have been incomparably more successful at exaggerating their roles in other countries’ affairs—efforts that I term “authoritarian inflation”—than their liberal-democratic rivals. This is often a byproduct or component of “sharp power,” which pierces and distorts the information environments of targeted countries, often to trumpet authoritarianism over democracy. These efforts create an impression of authoritarian omnipotence—when in reality such governments are anything but all-knowing.

How has public perception become so distorted? Take the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Global Engagement Center report, the choir of China, Iran, and Russia has been singing a tune contrasting authoritarian China’s allegedly sound pandemic management with catastrophe in the democratic United States. Yet Beijing concealed information to create a misleading impression of success against the virus. Images of a Wuhan super-hospital allegedly built within sixteen hours spread widely online, though factcheckers found this story to be a myth. Similarly, Moscow’s propaganda praised Russia for breakthroughs such as the Sputnik vaccine. While Russia is posing as the world’s savior, its healthcare system is collapsing under increasing mortality rates. Authoritarian information policies are not only about whole-cloth fabrications: China sent masks and respirators to other countries (sometimes for free, more often for a price), and Russian medical professionals did go to Italy. But the impact was grossly exaggerated by the authoritarian powers themselves and in European public perception.

In all nine countries that the European Council on Foreign Relations surveyed, pluralities agreed or strongly agreed that the EU had been “irrelevant during the pandemic.” In Italy, 25 percent named China as their most useful ally in the crisis, while only 4 percent cited the EU. But quantitatively, Beijing and Moscow’s efforts pale in comparison to Brussels’ aid: The EU’s COVID-19 recovery fund provided 27 billion to Italy.

Similarly, with modest (and often corruption-riddled) investments in key sectors, authoritarian countries inflate their economic importance and, as Martin Hála argues, corrode the institutional framework of democracy. In Serbia, a country researchers have warned could become a Chinese client state, 40 percent of survey respondents said Beijing was their country’s biggest source of aid. The actual top donor—the EU—contributed 1.8 billion euros in 2020, while China gave only 6.6 million euros of the 56 million it had promised. Yet the Serbian president called Beijing his country’s “most honest and trustworthy friend.” And Serbian politicians have adopted—at Beijing’s behest—policies that may jeopardize Serbia’s EU membership plans.

Militarily, too, authoritarian states distort views of their power and influence: Russian propaganda spouts improbable claims of victory in a traditional military conflict with NATO. Perceptions of Russian power in Hungary are similarly exaggerated. More than two-thirds of respondents to a Political Capital Institute survey overestimated Russia’s relative military expenditure; many believed it exceeded U.S. military spending (which is in fact 10 times greater), and most thought it was higher than Chinese military expenditures (actually four times greater).

Such messaging finds a receptive audience in many EU countries, due less to any love of China and Russia—polling suggests that both countries are increasingly viewed unfavorably across Europe—than to dissatisfaction with the EU. Antiestablishment and Euroskeptic politicians in democracies have become domestic messengers of authoritarian propaganda, amplifying its inflationary effects. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has greatly exaggerated the costs of EU sanctions on Russia (and of Russia’s countersanctions) to the Hungarian economy, contributing to unrealistic perceptions about Moscow’s economic heft. These overblown perceptions of authoritarian power and influence may pressure politicians to adopt pro-Beijing and Moscow policies in the name of pragmatism and to welcome further authoritarian investment in their countries. These actions further inflate perceptions, creating a vicious cycle. In Hungary, perceived authoritarian ascendance has driven political and economic engagement with China, such as a Budapest-Belgrade railway that Beijing reaps the greatest reward from.

Authoritarian inflation would be less successful if Western democratic models were still as attractive as they once were. But since 2016, global approval of U.S. leadership has decreased more than 15 percentage points; in 2019, it nearly tied with Russia and China at 33 percent, according to a Gallup poll. Developments such as the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol further blemish the appeal of the United States and of democracy in general. Democratic pessimism, amplified by propaganda, exacerbates authoritarian inflation.

Thus, freedom’s supporters must talk about democracy’s basic strengths, which may be too easily forgotten in today’s challenging times. While recognizing the real threats that authoritarian influence poses to democracy is important, commentators should avoid overblown sensationalism. The weaknesses of Beijing and Moscow’s autocratic models also deserve more attention. If the public does not regain confidence in liberal democracy, the appeal of alternate governance models will increase, augmenting the risk of authoritarian shifts or even takeovers. An effective response to authoritarian inflation requires a nuanced and careful message—one that confronts the challenges autocracies present without helping their propagandists paint a demoralizing picture of democratic despondency and authoritarian ascent.

A full version of this essay appears in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy.