Opinion

Populism makes countries vulnerable to hybrid wars

Social cohesion is key to promoting trust and creating an inclusive society


Published : 16 Feb 2022 09:04 PM

While the number of interstate wars has gone down, countries fighting civil wars within their territories have become more common. Wherever countries are fighting against each other, the conflicts rarely are fought between two rival armies on a battlefield.

Taking a hybrid form and combining both military and non-military methods, the more emphasis of warring countries is on civilian spaces in the new age wars. Hybrid threats are multifaceted, ranging from hacking to terrorism, from disinformation to migration.

The new wars in their hybrid forms have become diffusive, combining state and non-state actors. It has become almost impossible to differentiate the bilateral interactions, whether peace or conflict. The key attraction for the state actors to engage in a hybrid war against their enemies is hostile actions are largely non-attributable as they fight via proxy non-state actors.

This tactic helps the states to limit the military casualties, and it carries low political risks. On the other hand, proxy groups get financial, political, and military support from state actors to advance their agendas.

Not all hybrid wars are directly violent and engage proxy insurgents. An adversary can also carry out devastating cyberattacks targeting the civilian population, use remotely controlled drones to inflict damages to civilian infrastructures, and apply its financial influence to create liabilities.

Disinformation campaigns

The civilian population is the key focus in the hybrid wars, where disinformation campaigns have become the go-to strategy to exploit the sociopolitical vulnerabilities in the society of the rival country. The adversaries can also use the financial and technological resources to influence the outcome of an election to favour their interests.

The population of rival countries is being targeted and using various types of platforms to exacerbate social dissatisfaction, inequalities, and anger.

Migrants’ and refugees’ issues get highlighted to catalyse ethnocultural polarisation. While the rival countries use hybrid wars in their attempts to divide society, the hybrid techniques of the enemy become successful and influential when the targeted society is already being polarised.

Hybrid threats are often designed to the vulnerabilities of the targeted state. The aim is to exploit the existing polarisation and exacerbate it further. The polarisation process erodes core values of coexistence, social harmony, and trust in democratic institutions. The world has witnessed a surge of right-wing populism in recent years. Populists work towards polarising the society and thrive by excluding the other.

Populists claim to represent the people but use the rhetoric to deepen the societal division and do everything to advance a majority vs. minority binary. The rise of majoritarian populist politics erodes the foundation of many democracies, and it polarises their societies, making these countries the easy target of hybrid warfare from the enemy forces.

Populists delegitimise their competing parties and groups in a democracy by the persistent attack on mainstream media, mocking the academic community, and demeaning the scientific knowledge. They don’t engage in debate and discussion and don’t show any respect for alternative ideas or opinions. Compromise is absent in a populist’s lexicon, critical for democratic institutions to function.

A sense of ownership and togetherness

Social cohesion is key to promoting trust and creating an inclusive society. That provides hope for opportunities for everyone and provides citizens a sense of ownership and togetherness despite their differences.

By stoking tensions between the opposing political and civil society groups and limiting the space for negotiations and compromises, populists weaken the critical institutions for governance in the country. Society gradually overlooks its shared values and societal norms and becomes less trusting of governance structure and processes.

The polarisation politics of right-wing populists make the country vulnerable to propaganda of enemy country’s hybrid warfare techniques. The expanding social distance perceived ethnoreligious superiority and growing political intolerance facilitate the possibilities for manipulation by external forces. A polarised country also provides a fertile setting for subversive intelligence operations, creating and strengthening proxy insurgent groups, and sabotaging and terror activities.

The polarising politics of right-wing populists destroys the social harmony and inclusive democratic fabric. It also creates a national security threat by paving the path for the success of hybrid warfare of its adversaries.

Thus, a country can’t ensure security for itself, even possessing extensive military power, if its society has been polarised by populism as it becomes a soft target for hybrid warfare of its adversaries.

If the state is under the spell of right-wing populism, it will be foolhardy to expect a cohesive society as the secret of a populist’s success is polarisation. So, a country needs to insulate itself from populist politics if it expects to be secured from increasingly used hybrid threats from outside.

Instead of polarisation, the country needs to prioritise rebuilding public trust. Trust-building within and across various ethnoreligious socioeconomic groups is the primary security provider against hybrid warfare and threats. Populism invites hybrid threats by polarising the country, and countries must shun populism for their security.


Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, at Uppsala University, Sweden. Source: Gulf News