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All technology platforms see data as an asset. But Chinese platforms snoop on users more brazenly, and that data could fuel China’s campaign for global technology leadership, Senior Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman told DW News.

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Q&A with Senior Fellow for Malign Finance and Corruption Josh Rudolph

The Securing Democracy Dispatch ends its Q&A series this week by sitting down with Josh Rudolph, senior fellow for malign finance and corruption at ASD at GMF. 

What first made you realize you wanted to prioritize safeguarding democracy in your work? 

I was working at the White House National Security Council when Russia interfered in the 2016 election. We had seen Russia interfering in European elections, but failed to imagine that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have the boldness to do so in the United States. So this was a shock that motivated me to work on protecting our democracy from authoritarian interference. At the time, I was a career staffer responsible for coordinating US interagency work on Russia sanctions, so my job was to stay on through the first nine months of the Trump administration and work with allies on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to hold the Russian sanctions program together in the face of a president who was hostile to it. Soon after that, I wanted to advance the kind of policy work to track Russian interference in elections that I felt the new administration was not sufficiently prioritizing and knew it needed to be done in a robust and bipartisan manner, so I found ASD.

How do you view the importance of securing democracy? 

It’s a matter of life and death for tens of millions. In my view, the greatest point in the past century of political philosophy came in Karl Popper’s critique of Plato: the ability to pick good leaders—philosopher kings—is overrated. Honestly, most leaders are mediocre. What really matters is the people’s ability to remove truly terrible leaders without bloodshed. Popper argued that that requires free and fair elections upheld by institutions that are too robust to be dismantled by autocratic leaders before voters correct their mistake of electing them into office. While democracies make tragic mistakes (think the US wars in Vietnam and Iraq), they never go to war with each other. That’s because, in democracies, leaders are motivated to take into account the views of the whole population, and if they don’t, they get thrown out of office relatively quickly. By contrast, the worst mass atrocities of the past century—Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s Red Famine and Great Purge, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, Putin’s war in Ukraine, Xi’s repression in Xinjiang, and more than a dozen other genocides around the world—were all perpetrated by rulers who were not accountable to voters. Those five dictators all remained in power for at least a decade or two before dying in office—or, for the two living ones, they’re currently on track to do the same. Atrocities on that scale could happen anywhere if we lose our democracy. 

As the head of ASD’s malign finance and corruption team, you direct ASD’s work on safeguarding Ukraine’s reconstruction from corruption. Where do you think ASD can have the biggest impact in this area?

Before Russian interference in democracy came to the United States in 2016, Putin sharpened his toolkit of foreign interference—from information manipulation to strategic corruption—in Ukraine. With Russia’s hybrid warfare against Ukraine having backfired, Ukrainians were motivated to build a democracy that counters corruption and freely pursues a European future. As a result, Putin turned to a brutal full-scale invasion. The kind of Ukraine that emerges from this war—the extent to which it will be a robust democracy under the rule of law that’s ready for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions—depends greatly on the process of rebuilding the country. That’s why GMF—as a living memorial to the original Marshall Plan and a thought leader on transatlantic democracy—has been working hard to recommend ways donors can coordinate a modern Marshall Plan for Ukraine. ASD brings insights into how to secure Ukrainian democracy from foreign and domestic threats. And the malign finance and corruption team is focused on how all stakeholders in the international rules-based order can support Ukraine on its anti-corruption journey, given that success on this front will be just as vital over time as winning on the battlefield. 

What is one trend or statistic that you are watching?

Bipartisan US support for aid to Ukraine. I think US views on foreign policy are generally less deeply seated than views on domestic policy matters, so people take their cues significantly from what political leaders say. It has been helpful that a vast majority of Republicans in Congress support arming Ukraine against Russia as a Reagan-esque foreign policy that defends democracy without sacrificing American lives. But three leading Republican presidential primary candidates are each in their own way skeptical of aid to Ukraine, and that’s likely to only make bipartisan support for Ukraine more difficult between now and the 2024 election. That’s problematic when it comes to appropriating critical wartime assistance and could be devastating.

What is one book you’re reading? 

I just picked up 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. The book covers threats that my colleagues and I work on, from information manipulation to artificial intelligence but with a sweeping context provides fodder for some deep thinking about how securing democracy in the present relates to the past and future of humanity. Harari broadens the aperture way beyond issues that we focus on day to day at ASD by situating the challenges in the meta narrative of his other two books: Sapiens is about the history of evolution that explores what it means to be human, and Homo Deus is about a future in which humans become more like gods by creating and shaping life.   

The Dispatch will return to its regular format next week.

Quote of the Week

“We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount. At the same time, we live among our fellow citizens, underscoring the importance of compassion, tolerance, pluralism, and respect for others.”

  • Thirteen US presidential centers and foundations wrote in a first-of-its-kind joint statement reaffirming commitment to common democratic values on September 7.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.