The metastasizing revelations of Russian interference in the United States’ political-electoral process—infecting an ever-widening circle of American institutions—are troubling. But they are also clarifying: In light of its actions in 2016, there should be no question as to whether Vladimir Putin’s Russia is or can be a friend, no illusions that Putin can be mollified by promises of “resets” or post-election “flexibility,” no doubts about Moscow’s motivations, no debate over the threat posed by a revisionist Russia. The challenge now is to fully expose Russia’s reach into our political system, strengthen our institutions in order to protect them from another wave of foreign influence, and defend liberal democracy at home and abroad.
The consequences of Russia’s strategic-influence operations—which apparently penetrated the Clinton and Trump campaigns, then used “weaponized leaks” to undermine confidence in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—are far-reaching. Although Russia did not tamper with ballots, the extent of Russian hacking raised Russia’s profile and capacity to intimidate; undermined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Trump administration; weakened the faith of some Americans in their political system; and, as former CIA official Mark Kelton concludes, helped “advance Putin’s over-arching goals of degrading American power, denigrating American ideals, and driving a wedge between President Trump and the U.S. intelligence community.”
Putin’s methods may be new, but the challenge posed by foreign influence in the U.S. political process is old. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 68 that given “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” the Constitution should erect “every practicable obstacle” to prevent “intrigue and corruption.” Likewise, in his farewell address, President Washington thundered against the “insidious wiles of foreign influence,” “mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and “avenues to foreign influence.” “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” he observed, urging his countrymen “to be constantly awake” to such dangers.
The good news amidst all the troubling news is that key institutions have been awakened to the dangers posed by Russia’s strategic-influence operations. Day by day, these institutions are exploring and exposing Russian intrusion into the U.S. political system.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, House Intelligence Committee, Senate Judiciary Committee, and an army of lawyers led by Robert Mueller are investigating Russia’s reach. News outlets that were once oblivious to Russia’s malign influence and at times openly dismissive of those who dared argue that Putin’s Russia was/is a threat are digging into the Russia story.
That’s progress. After all, prior to the election, reputable media outlets were not just being fed Russian propaganda—laundered through layers of trolls, false-front organizations, fake think tanks, and Potemkin websites—they were lapping it up. (Kristofer Harrison, who worked in the State Department and Defense Department during the administration of President George W. Bush, points to examples at Bloomberg, Reuters and the New York Times.) Today, they are exposing the Kremlin’s many tentacles in Washington.
“Sunlight,” as Justice Brandeis observed, is indeed “the best of disinfectants.”
That brings us to strengthening our institutions against Russian influence. As Bush observed in a recent speech on the state of democracy in America and around the world, “America must harden its own defenses” and “show resolve and resilience in the face of external attacks on our democracy.”
Bush knows there’s more at work here than playful mischief: Putin’s Russia has tried to manipulate the press, influence policymakers through compromising material, sway public opinion by deceptive use of social media, gain access to critical infrastructure, and exacerbate racial tensions. It appears Putin’s Russia made inroads into—and cultivated relations with—associates of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (see here, here, here, here, and here); retained the services of U.S. lobbying firms; and used U.S. banks to move Russian-laundered money. “Normally, free commerce is good,” Harrison observes, “but not if it obscures an effort to undermine us.”
A U.S. intelligence report concludes that Moscow’s goal is to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” That explains why policymakers on both sides of the aisle describe Russia’s behavior as “an act of war.”
In this light, NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 that provided a roadmap for waging the Cold War, seems oddly relevant. NSC-68 noted that Moscow’s “preferred technique is to subvert by infiltration and intimidation,” that “every institution of our society is an instrument which it is sought to stultify and turn against our purposes,” that institutions “that touch most closely our material and moral strength are obviously the prime targets,” that Moscow’s objective is to prevent those institutions “from serving our ends and thus to make them sources of confusion in our economy, our culture and our body politic.”
Yes, NSC-68 was a response to the communist Soviet Union. But it pays to recall that post-Soviet, post-communist Russia is led by a former KGB intelligence officer who was trained in the dark arts of disinformation and influence manipulation. His intelligence agencies and cyber-soldiers have triggered a cascade of scandals that are consuming our government, creating confusion, and undermining public confidence.
“The Russians succeeded, I believe, beyond their wildest expectations,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper concludes. “Their first objective in the election was to sow discontent, discord and disruption in our political life, and they have succeeded…they’ve undermined our democratic system.”
To restore and preserve the integrity of America’s institutions—and guard against their attention deficit disorder—congressional leaders should create a standing joint committee of seasoned members to:
- a) monitor and investigate attempts by Russia and other foreign entities to interfere in the U.S. political-electoral system,
- b) secure funding to help state election agencies shield themselves from foreign intrusion, and
- c) identify individuals and entities that have collaborated with, or been compromised by, hostile governments like Russia.
Revealing such connections and relationships may prove painful. But to borrow a passage from scripture, “The truth will set us free”—and keep us free.
Finally, we come to defending liberal democracy.
“The great democracies face new and serious threats, yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence,” Bush observes.
On the threat side of the ledger, Russian intelligence has conducted similar strategic-influence operations against the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, and Britain, Newsweek reports. A European Union investigation adds that Russia used disinformation operations to influence political outcomes in France.
On the confidence side, a Freedom House report reveals that “67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains…the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.” Equally worrisome: “While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.”
America’s recent phase of retrenchment hasn’t helped. Just 22 percent of Americans say the U.S. should “promote democracy and freedom in other countries”—down from 70 percent in 2005. Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama focused on “nation-building here at home”; mustered only muted reactions when Iran’s democracy movement was smashed; left proto-democracies in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine to fend for themselves; and, with the help of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, shrank the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender—the U.S. military.
In a surprising echo of Obama, President Donald Trump argues, “We have to build our own nation”; endorses an “America First” foreign policy that evokes pre-World War II isolationism; and describes “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he’s talking about dictators in Iraq and Libya—as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.”
“After eight years as president,” Freedom House concludes, “Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.” Trump, Freedom House worries, could prolong democracy’s doldrums by pursuing “a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct.”
Obama and Trump may be in tune with a majority of the country, but it seems much of the country forgets that democracy-promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for many decades.
President Woodrow Wilson challenged Americans to “fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy…the rights and liberties of small nations.” He believed a world teetering between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he talked about making the world “safe for democracy,” he was talking about building a safer world for America.
President Franklin Roosevelt argued, “Freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”
President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples maintain their free institutions.”
President Dwight Eisenhower rallied Americans to “help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”
President John Kennedy promised America would “bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
President Ronald Reagan declared, “It is time that we committed ourselves…to assisting democratic development.”
Bush argued, “America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat” and “more secure when freedom is on the march.”
If Washington now lacks the will to promote democracy, it must at least preserve democracy by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”
That means maintaining the military strength to deter revisionist governments like Russia. Recall that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president—in a time of war—slashed defense spending from 4.6 percent of GDP to 3.1 percent.
“Defense of democratic existence” means reassuring fellow democracies that, in FDR’s words, “We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world.” That translates into permanent NATO bases in democratic Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland (rather than a “rotating presence”), arms for democratic Ukraine (rather than MREs), and technical-economic assistance for democratic allies (rather than angry tweets and public scolding).
“Defense of democratic existence” means re-joining the battle of ideas. NATO commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti urges Washington to “bring the information aspects of our national power more fully to bear on Russia.” He recommends strengthening and unleashing the Russian Information Group (a joint effort of U.S European Command and the State Department) and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (a project charged with countering foreign disinformation). Clapper urges Congress to revive the U.S. Information Agency, which was shut down in 1999.
When faced with similar challenges to free government, Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy.” In a similar way, perhaps the world’s leading democratic groupings—the G-7, European Union, NATO, and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia—should create a pool of resources to rebuild the infrastructure of democracy, expose Moscow’s meddling and help those in the Kremlin’s crosshairs preserve their democratic institutions.
Photo Credit: Moscow Kremlin at night. By Pavel Kazachkov, via Flickr.