The 2020 presidential contest has already begun, with several Democratic candidates declaring their intention to challenge Donald Trump for the Oval Office and more on the way. Unlike in 2016, we now know what kinds of chaos America’s adversaries are capable of sowing, especially during campaign season. That means it’s time to contend with the threat of foreign intervention in our elections and in our democracy more broadly—before it’s too late.
Many Americans have decried Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election and continuing interference since as unlawful and unacceptable. The two of us have participated in efforts to develop strategies to counter this threat, especially as others, such as China, begin to learn from it. In doing so, we have frequently faced a question from skeptics: how these Russian operations, in America and globally, differ from what the United States has done when it has involved itself in foreign elections and democracy promotion abroad.
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It’s a fair question, but as former senior national security policymakers we’re convinced they are different in key ways. And we’ll explain what those are, in service of a larger objective: to articulate the norms to which all civilized nations should subscribe when it comes to respecting free and fair democratic processes in other countries.
Why do this—what’s the point? Don’t our friends and allies, and our own people, already see the difference? We’re not convinced that all of them do. More important, we believe that systematically defining and then entrenching these norms—at least initially among countries fundamentally committed to democracy itself—would be an important step in sustaining, deepening and expanding the response to each new incarnation of Russia’s and others’ behavior. As Russia matures in its tactics and seeks to make the issue of acceptable and unacceptable forms of intervention grayer and murkier, this exercise will clarify matters for ourselves and our allies—and enlist new friends in the fight—helping us to impose costs for violating these norms and ultimately deter such violations. We further believe it’s worth it for the United States to commit to such norms even if doing so means forswearing involvement in borderline cases going forward.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the voices of skepticism—those who question whether Russia’s behavior of today is really all that out of step with historical norms of great power behavior. Scott Shane raised these doubts last year in the New York Times, contrasting what he portrayed as most Americans’ shock at “what they view as an unprecedented attack on our political system” with the characterizations by a CIA veteran and two intelligence scholars of Moscow’s current campaign as “simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades, whenever American officials were worried about a foreign vote.” Next came Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, who, writing for Lawfare, provocatively asked, “Is there a principled basis on which the United States can object to the Russian interference?” Goldsmith continued, “U.S. interferences abroad raise the question: What is the U.S. objection in principle if others do to us as we do to them?” Echoing Shane and Goldsmith was Peter Beinart in The Atlantic where, in an article entitled “The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling,” he emphasized, “20 years before Russia tried to swing an American presidential election, America tried to swing a presidential election in Russia.” At times, these commentators did acknowledge some difference between American and Russian activity. But, in the end, they don’t see a hard and fast line between us and them.
So let’s draw one.
Those of us eager to forge a domestic political consensus, and ultimately an international coalition, committed to resisting Moscow’s efforts need to respond to what might be called “#USToo”—especially because the Kremlin, with its penchant for whataboutism, is keen to seize on this type of narrative. We have to establish that what Russia is doing is not just harmful to the United States (which even skeptics like Shane, Goldsmith, and Beinart don’t question) but also a violation of norms applicable to all countries. Indeed, it’s surprising that, two years after Moscow’s brazen intervention in the presidential election in the United States, not to mention across Europe, there’s been no set of relevant principles to which even NATO countries have publicly subscribed.
Our starting premise is that what countries did during the Cold War is no longer the right basis for comparison. It is true that geopolitical competition has returned with a vengeance, but that does not erase key developments in international norms over the last quarter-century—or the need for continued maturation of such norms going forward.
It’s important, too, to distinguish between recent Russian activities and U.S. practices since the early 1990s. A core objective of U.S. foreign policy and a core objective of Russian foreign policy have been mirror opposites: Washington seeks to strengthen democracy; Moscow seeks to weaken it. There have been excesses associated with America’s efforts, like putting a heavy thumb on the scale of the 1996 Russian presidential election. But directly supporting a favored candidate or party in a free and fair election was an exception to U.S. policy. For Russia, it has become the rule—Trump in the U.S., Marine Le Pen in France, the right-wing AfD party in Germany, a full-blown coup in Montenegro—all with an eye toward the Kremlin’s broader objectives: undermining liberal democracy and the very notion of truth itself.
These are not semantic or marginal differences—they strike at the heart of the matter. Casting aspersions on democracy—stoking tensions and even violence within a democratic system—helps the Kremlin to stifle democratic yearnings at home by revealing its purported weakness. It also advances Russian foreign policy objectives by reducing American resolve and dividing the Western alliance.
Still, establishing a difference in intentions and objectives does not fully answer the mail. We also need to define which methods are out of bounds—and which remain in bounds. A closer examination reveals five elements of Russia’s campaign that should not just be considered “bad” for the countries facing the onslaught but violations of acceptable standards of conduct.
First, because Moscow’s objective is to cast doubt on whether democracy can sustain itself in a rough-and-tumble world, the Kremlin’s methods are designed to divide and destroy: divisive in that the purpose of the interference is to manufacture and aggravate domestic divisions, thereby inflaming tensions that democracy is designed to channel and resolve; destructive in that Russia’s information warfare is designed to eviscerate the very idea of truth, thereby undermining the ability of citizens to engage in the type of informed public discourse on which democracy relies. Polarizing and corrupting U.S. democratic discourse on high-profile issues such as the release of the “Nunes Memo” and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has become a persistent effort for the Kremlin.
Second, to achieve these purposes, Moscow relies in part on hacking political campaigns. Hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and staff to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and carefully synchronizing their release to inflict maximum damage, flagrantly violated U.S. domestic law and likely violated international law as well.
Third, in addition to deploying tactics designed to weaken democratic systems, Russia has explicitly sought to tip the scales of democratic debates and ultimately of elections toward its preferred winner. In the United States, that was Trump; in France, it was Le Pen. Moscow wasn’t just trying to position itself for influence with whichever American candidate or party might emerge victorious from those elections but to engineer a particular outcome. This is the Russian behavior most similar to even recent American activities abroad—but, as we will explain below, this is meddling that should come to be viewed as simply off limits, for Moscow and Washington alike.
Fourth, Russia does much of this covertly and with the explicit intent to deceive. If Russian President Vladimir Putin had given a speech making his case for authoritarianism over democracy, many of us would have itched to offer the (small “d”) democratic rebuttal; but we wouldn’t have viewed Putin’s rhetoric as crossing a line. That’s not what Putin did. To the contrary, the Kremlin appears to have ordered the targeting of American voters with paid political advertising as well as “organic” social media engagement that led Americans to misunderstand their candidates, their populace—and in some cases even their day to go to the polls and vote. Moscow concealed all of this activity, leading Americans to think that, for example, their own neighbors were organizing protests and counter-protests when in fact it was all manipulation from Moscow. Impersonating, falsifying, inciting—all of these, from the outright unlawful to the dangerously deceptive, were tools in the Kremlin’s information operations toolkit, not just in the lead-up to Election Day 2016 but on a continuing basis since.
Finally, Russia has no credible argument that it was somehow supporting or aiding democracy. But for Moscow’s intervention, America’s elections would generally be free and fair ones (though domestic efforts to restrict voting, such as through voter ID laws, pose their own challenges to American democracy). America’s elections and broader democratic practices aren’t shams being choreographed by a dictator or junta; they’re real, and they hold the promise of continued free and fair elections into the future, whatever the outcome in a particular year. (Indeed, the only U.S. presidential candidate in recent memory who cast doubt on whether he would peacefully accept the results of an election in which he lost was the candidate favored by Russia in 2016: Donald Trump.)
These five elements of what Russia did in 2016 (and did again, according to recent criminal charges, in 2018) add up to an unacceptable intervention in the affairs of a democracy. There are, of course, additional tactics that other countries like China use to influence American democratic discourse that don’t satisfy all of the criteria just outlined—dubious but widespread practices such as funding academic and think-tank research so as to narrow the space for debate on issues of top concern to Beijing. Tactics like the selective deployment of financial resources as an instrument of statecraft pose a growing challenge for democratic systems and deserve their own hard thinking about where to draw lines. For now, however, the five elements of Russian tradecraft outlined above help illuminate key rules of thumb in this general space, while focusing attention on the urgent threat posed by more aggressive forms of democracy interference. That focus, in turn, yields five elements of the norm we propose for understanding the threat posed by behavior like the Kremlin’s.
First, hacking and releasing campaign materials is out of bounds. It violates the domestic law of the United States and most—perhaps even all—states. And it is not a pure intelligence collection activity, subject to a distinct set of norms. Russia doesn’t learn about the United States by hacking a particular campaign and releasing materials from it; Russia instead manipulates the United States and its democratic processes. That can’t be justified even on the foundations used to justify intelligence collection activities focused on understanding foreign actors.
Second, if a country has a robust democratic system and free and fair elections, then no government should attempt to tip the scales of an election toward a preferred outcome, either by direct involvement in the campaigns leading to an election or by broader involvement in ongoing democratic discourse. America should lead the way in simply ending that practice in all of its forms, from direct intervention in the tallying of votes to indirect intervention through influencing voters’ attitudes about candidates. This is, to be clear, a real change: It would mean, for example, that Washington would stop providing even the sort of overt help previously given to a particular candidate like Boris Yeltsin. If that goes too far for some, then at least eliminating the most insidious form of election interference—the covert kind that the Kremlin favors and that subtly infects democratic dialogue without voters even knowing it—should be accepted as a global norm.
Some will object that premising this non-intervention rule on a country’s elections being deemed free and fair, and its democratic system robust, is an invitation to subjective assessments of when this rule actually applies. But all norms have components whose application to particular facts are ultimately debatable. Assessing how this applies in practice and whether countries are making that judgment in a manner meriting others’ respect and adherence will be an ongoing project. The start is to set the terms of the debate by articulating and cultivating the norms themselves; and that crucial first step—long overdue—is what we are proposing here.
Third, if a democracy’s elections do not appear free and fair in the first place or weaknesses in the democratic system put them at risk of not remaining so, then countries may support a process that would contribute to freer and fairer democratic discourse and elections, but not particular candidates. NDI and IRI are our leading, government-funded mechanisms for doing so; they offer training and support to all foreign parties that want it, not just particular candidates; and their activities are transparent at the programmatic level (even if particular individuals require certain protections for their safety), in part to defang those like Putin who falsely (if relentlessly) make them out to be bogeymen manipulating the Russian people. What’s more, those entities don’t simply show up for election season; instead, they work to situate elections in the context of healthy, functioning democracies with strong foundations in the rule of law, free expression, anticorruption efforts, and more.
Moscow and other capitals will, undoubtedly, still denounce those entities as mere cover for American policy antagonistic to particular leadership in Russia and elsewhere. But clarifying the norm—support not for particular candidates but for a process yielding free and fair elections—will illuminate the difference between genuine arguments and debating points.
Fourth, if a country is fully undemocratic, with no elections or entirely sham elections, then governments may support, both overtly and covertly, efforts to open the political space and to expose the corruption and brutality of the leaders, even if that requires—as it often does—singling out particular leaders, rather than just speaking to issues of process. Efforts to provide information to dissidents in North Korea, for example, would fall in this category.
Fifth, separate from support for particular candidates or characterizations of specific elections or other political issues, governments may use overt information operations to advertise the appeal of democratic principles and values. Think here of Radio Free Europe, a government-funded independent nonprofit that operates with a firewall from the government itself and that speaks to the benefits of democracy itself—not of voting for particular candidates. That is in stark contrast to Russia Today, now obliged to register under U.S. law as the agent of a foreign power partly because RT aided the Kremlin’s interference in America’s 2016 election. While we see a world of difference between RFE and RT— in governance and commitment to basic journalistic practices and norms—we worry that those distinctions will not be as obvious to the global public. Over time, what may prove more effective in exposing RT than requiring its registration as a foreign agent is relentlessly exposing its inaccurate, propagandistic portrayals.
As we look ahead, we urge our government to become crystal-clear at home and abroad that Russia’s continuing assault on democracy itself is unacceptable. Work with fellow democracies to refine the norms we’ve proposed above, then proclaim them—ideally jointly, with an ever-growing community of nations subscribing. Doing so won’t change the behavior of authoritarian regimes overnight; but it will galvanize and synchronize democracies’ response to those regimes and, over time, that response can change even authoritarian behavior. Once firmly established, the set of norms we propose would offer a vital underpinning for the defense of democracy itself that America and its democratic partners so urgently need to wage.