Authoritarian Broadcaster’s Influence

Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction without use of force, coercion or a monetary incentive

Joseph Nye

Soft power is important, it provides an alternative to aggression and heightened international tension. This western theory is one that authoritarian states would do well to consider, it can serve to build understanding, respect and acceptance of diverse societies. Something that states like Russia and China desperately need as the west increasingly sees their actions as aggressive. If authoritarian states are to make their mark on the world order, they need to be able to act within it first.

Authoritarian states want to protect themselves from the perceived threat that comes with the spread of western influence. Russia, as an example, sees the advocacy of international human rights to be an attack on the nation’s ideals — a way of punishing outsiders. China also wants to shield itself whilst building up its own potential as an alternative to the western model. This focus on preventing outside influence is what William Callahan calls ‘negative soft power’. This is almost like an internal propaganda campaign to debunk foreign influence rather than the western soft power of international spread.

Here you can see where broadcasters come in. In authoritarian states the broadcasting services are largely, if not wholly, controlled by the state. This provides the opportunity for control of the message going out to the population. They use a narrative that creates an ‘us and them’ perspective that positions the public of the authoritarian states as the rivals of other strong soft power producers. Broadcasters also make a point of reporting of social and moral inequalities in the USA and west. Without this, there would be heightened calls by the public for changes that would align these states more with the west.

RT (Russia Today) and CGTN (formally CCTV of China) are undergoing global expansion. These channels can provide news in other countries that the public may not have been able to see otherwise. RT often reports on occurrences in the USA that western media would have ignored. This means that, as long as they maintain credibility, RT and CGTN could become very influential quite easily. By adopting norms of the current system — 24/7 news cycles, seemingly impartial content, and often hiring reputable reporters in different countries — these broadcasters can maintain and increase credibility. Staying credible mitigates the damage of linkages to an authoritarian government, but this is still a problem.

To become a popular broadcaster in the west you have to be able to emulate the norms of their media and to some extent social norms as well. This hinders a authoritarian broadcaster’s ability to spread a state’s message. It is very difficult to change prevailing norms and to attempt to do so could cause resentment, especially in western states. This means that a balance between adhering to western norms and promoting your own has to be found. Otherwise you risk either having created another western news organisation or lack of interest in the west. An alternative is to focus on regions like Africa to spread influence instead. Although your soft power will be less useful here, it would be much easier to become influential.

Authoritarian broadcasters have the role of propaganda machine both domestically and internationally. Domestically they serve to reduce the impact of western soft power by debunking and pointing out the misgivings in their systems. The international duties are more nuanced as outright propaganda would be ignored and condemned. These broadcasters can produce soft power by positioning themselves are credible news sources that report on things that many other sources don’t. But this can be difficult to do if the channel is labelled as propaganda or seen to be strongly tied to their authoritarian state’s government.

Nuclear Non-Possibility

I recently read the latest debate between Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan over the stability of nuclear weapons and their further proliferation. Their fundamental disagreement is in their faith in states, and their leaders, to realise that the detonation of a nuclear weapon for anything even resembling an attack would be catastrophic. This means that states have to make sure they are in complete control of their arsenals. No accidents; never striking first; and the maintenance of deterrence are the essential requirements for stability of nuclear states.

Waltz believes in states to seek optimal outcomes and respect the national interests. It’s not really in the interests of any state to go off using nuclear weapons when the full force of the international community would bare down on them with little mercy. This could be with a nuclear strike in return – maybe if the initial attack was towards a nuclear capable state – but, if not, it would likely be something just as economically devastating. This is the same for accidental detonation, there is no “oops, my bad”. States and their leaders know this. This is why there hasn’t been mass proliferation, states are scared that they don’t have the organisational and technological know how to maintain an arsenal without it blowing up in their face.

Sagan thinks it is impossible that all nuclear proliferators have the capability to keep to the three requirements. After all, every state is different, with rulers and military officers that may see it necessary to strike first for security; Or organisations given the responsibility of the safety of the arsenal that can’t be trusted. He has little faith, no trust in a leader’s ability to realise the consequences of nuclear use. The stakes are much too high for a state to just ad-hoc their way to an arsenal without the provisions to minimise the costs of misfires. Take North Korea, they may seem unreliable but surely they know what faces them if they point their missile toward the wrong place. Escalation is not an option, the use of nuclear weapons would garner little support and many critics internationally.

Okay, so deterrence prevents states from nuclear strike. But deterrence doesn’t work for terrorists, they have no ‘homelands’. They also don’t have capability. Such small groups don’t have the resources to build enrichment centres, they’d have to rely on a state to hand over the goods. No state would do this. A nuclear attack by terrorists would be traced back to the supplier and so the fury of the international community would fall upon them. Why would a state entrust a product of such time and investment into an unreliable group, only for it to come back to bite them when their investments are used maliciously? They wouldn’t. Terrorists are going to have a very difficult time sourcing such terrible weapons for the foreseeable future. A risk may be if a nuclear state collapses (like the USSR did), unlikely – maybe North Korea?

So if nuclear weapons are no source of stability, as Sagan wants us to believe, then what are our alternatives? Nuclear zero seems the most popular, no nuclear weapons at all sounds good – It also sounds completely unreasonable and impossible. Nuclear states are not about to give up their deterrent, they are there for security and there is no replacement. Once a technology exists there is no hiding it away, especially when it has been around for the best part of a century and the internet exists. Complete disarmament would leave the globe open to a lone nuclear proliferator exerting power above their rank. Deterrence would no longer exist so there is nothing to stop nuclear use. How do you stop this? Preventive war against nuclear proliferators – that is a lot of war! If the aim of nuclear zero is to promote peace it is dumb, it will only incentivise war.

Nuclear weapons provide stability. They exist to deter high stake war, conventional and nuclear. There is no other way of doing this. It is reasonable to believe that leaders are sensible enough to know the damage that would be caused to their own state if they were to use a nuclear weapon aggressively – whether on purpose or not. They will not be used. A world with no nuclear weapons causes more problems than it fixes. Yes, it is odd that we have to rely on the existence of such devastating weapons to prevent devastating war, but we would not survive without them.