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Elite Capture

Authoritarian states attempt to sway influential Western elites and institutions to support their interests with lucrative deals, jobs, and sponsorships.

February 4, 2024

Many are familiar with stories and allegations of elite Western figures and institutions receiving lucrative deals from companies or organizations of totalitarian states. Some well-known examples include the alleged Hunter Biden influence peddling scandal, former conservative United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron taking a job as head of an investment organization promoting China's imperialistic Belt and Road Initiative, and $19.7 million in funding to Harvard University and Penn State by serial human rights abusers Saudia Arabia and Qatar

These incidents are part of a larger strategy called "elite capture" used by authoritarian states to subvert democratic processes by influencing elite figures and institutions. These tactics are particularly insidious because they pose conflicts of interest. They  attempt to induce elite figures and institutions to act as foreign agents in ways that often harm the public interest of their own country.  "Elite capture" thrives under legal ambiguity and ostensible purposes of cultural exchange or understanding that may differ from its true purposes.  "Captured" elites have very rarely been prosecuted under laws requiring the registration of foreign agents. 

Whereas cancel culture has come for historical thinkers, artists, and others under often flimsy and dubious pretexts, the near-immunity to critique or cancelation of contemporary figures who engage in advocacy for contemporary totalitarian regimes that have engaged in slavery, human trafficking, organ harvesting, apartheid-like policies, and serial human rights abuses.

Authoritarian states use "elite capture" as a strategic tool to extend their influence within Western democracies, aiming to sway policies, public opinion, and international norms in ways that serve their interests. This approach targets influential individuals and institutions, leveraging their positions to indirectly exert influence. The tactics and objectives vary, but the overarching goal is to create a more favorable international environment for the authoritarian state's interests and values. Here's how they typically implement this strategy:

1. Economic Incentives and Investments

  • Business Leaders and Corporations: By offering lucrative business deals, investments, or access to large markets like China's, authoritarian states can influence business elites. These elites, in turn, may lobby their home governments for policies favorable to the authoritarian state to protect their economic interests.

  • Strategic Sectors: Investments in critical infrastructure, technology, and natural resources can give authoritarian states leverage over national security and economic policy decisions.

2. Political and Diplomatic Engagement

  • Politicians and Political Parties: Authoritarian states may offer financial contributions, sponsorships for key projects, or other incentives to gain the favor of politicians. This can lead to more sympathetic stances on foreign policy issues or dampened criticism of the authoritarian state's domestic and international actions.

  • International Organizations: By capturing elite positions within international organizations, authoritarian states can influence global governance norms and standards to align with their interests.

3. Cultural and Academic Influence

  • Educational Institutions: Through funding programs, research grants, and cultural exchanges, authoritarian states can influence academic research and discourse, sometimes leading to self-censorship or biased perspectives favorable to the authoritarian regime.

  • Confucius Institutes and Cultural Programs: These are often presented as opportunities for cultural exchange but have been criticized for serving as instruments of propaganda and influence within academic institutions.

4. Media Manipulation and Disinformation

  • Media Ownership and Partnerships: Buying into or establishing media outlets in foreign countries allows authoritarian states to shape media narratives, suppress critical coverage, and disseminate favorable news and opinions.

  • Social Media and Cyber Operations: Authoritarian regimes use social media to spread disinformation, amplify divisive issues, and undermine trust in democratic institutions.

5. Surveillance and Coercion

  • Diaspora Communities: Authoritarian states may monitor and coerce their diaspora communities abroad to act as informal ambassadors of the regime's interests, sometimes under threat to their families back home.

  • Cyber Espionage: Targeting politicians, activists, and critics abroad with cyber espionage can gather compromising information used for blackmail or to exert political pressure.

Mitigation Efforts

Western democracies have as yet implemented few measures to counteract "elite capture" by totalitarian states.  Potential measures could include enhancing transparency in political donations and lobbying, stricter scrutiny of foreign investments, bolstering cybersecurity defenses, and raising awareness among policymakers and the public about the tactics and risks of foreign authoritarian influence.

The challenge for democracies lies in identifying and countering these strategies without undermining the open and interconnected global system that is a hallmark of democratic values and economic prosperity. 

A serious problem, however, lies in the fact that many influential elite individuals and institutions tasked with defending democracy are compromised by the financial interests bankrolled by foreign organizations.  Even many of those not already in compromising arrangements fear to speak out too loudly, lest they ruin their prospects of lucrative future deals. 

There has been major resistance to common-sense reforms such as tighter oversight and restrictions in even ostensibly blatant cases, reaching as high as the former prime minister of the United Kingdom and the son and brother of the 46th president of the United States, and across both conservative and leftist political parties. Elites retain strong incentives to accommodate authoritarian "sponsors" and little accountability thereto, and have every personal interest in keeping things this way. 

The quid pro quo of lucrative deals, jobs, and sponsorships to Western elites in exchange for supporting the interests of authoritarian states is inherently corrupt and contrary to the public interest.  

Elite capture is typically used to describe the conduct of foreign state actors. A similar scheme is used by domestic groups as well, most prominently by teachers unions, other public sector unions, private unions, and some other special privilege groups which buy politicians' loyalty and subvert the public interest through financial and political support.

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