Dissertation – Subverting Expectations: The US and UK in the War of Wills
Great powers have always sought to gain advantages by influencing sub-state actors in other states. Recently, subversion has taken on newfound importance in the present day. It also shows no signs of waning in prominence, as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s admission about Russian interference, made one day prior to the 2022 US midterms, indicates: “we have interfered, we are interfering, and we will continue to interfere.”
While subversion is an important tool for states, we have a poor understanding of how democracies in particular employ it. Despite conflicting normative impulses, democracies are sometimes able to develop and sustain robust subversion policies. In the Interwar years, the US and UK reacted sluggishly to Axis and Soviet subversion and were slow to develop their own propaganda. By contrast, both actively contested the information space during the Cold War, with spikes of activity in the Early and Late stages as the US took a much more aggressive line favoring liberation of Soviet satellites. The US and UK have largely abdicated the information domain since 1991, but it is becoming clear that this was a mistake.
What explains variation in the strength of democratic subversion policies? While some scholars emphasize structural factors, promising means, and clear motives, others have argued that subversion is ineffective and carries too many risks. These accounts tell us little about how states actually decide on subversive policy because elites vary widely in their assessments of these factors: there is no surefire way to evaluate effectiveness, risks, or opportunities, let alone define “success.”
My dissertation seeks to explain variation in how democratic great powers practice subversion and counter-subversion. I ask: why do the US and UK sometimes (de)institutionalize their information capabilities? When do policymakers sometimes prefer more aggressive and covert propaganda operations? How do states define the scope of operations: should they target allies, neutrals, or foes?
In order to understand how policymakers decide to engage in subversion, we have to understand how they justify action in spite of risks of blowback, escalation, or reputational damage, the opacity of effectiveness, and ideological dissonance with liberal norms. On balance, these issues make it hard to justify and sustain subversive statecraft against scrutiny. There are few counterarguments which can resolve concerns about risk, opacity, and dissonance, but I argue that propaganda policies can be more easily justified and maintained when states perceive that they are losing influence vis-à-vis a clear great power threat. How acutely states perceive the loss of influence and the metrics they use to measure influence will determine how aggressive their policies will be.
Casey, Justin S. and Lucas Dolan. 2023. “Ideological Topography in World Politics: A Guide to the End of the Unipolar-Homogeneous Moment.” International Studies Quarterly 67 (1): https://doi.org/10.1093/isq/sqad011.
Casey, Justin and Daniel Nexon. 2023. “The Vexing Rise of the Transnational Right: Lessons from Interwar Europe.” Foreign Affairs. January 19. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/world/vexing-rise-transnational-right.
Works in Progress
Secondary Sanctions, Renminbi Internationalization, and Strategic Hedging, (with Abraham Newman, Niccolo Bonifai, and Woojeong Jang)
With Friends Like These: The Disadvantages of Total Ideology in Alliance Building
Alternative Universalities: The Onset, Conduct, and Outcomes of Intra-bloc Ideological Competition (with Daniel H. Nexon)
Grand Strategy as Grand Challenge: A Pragmatist Roadmap for Achieving Security