More than a month after the U.S. presidential election, the tumult shows no sign of dying down. In fact, the noise around the roles of hacking and cyber intrusions in the vote rose several decibels Monday, following a weekend of charges that Russia put its thumb on the scales in November’s election. But the resulting political debate, fueled by accusations that President-elect Donald Trump’s supporters and potential Cabinet members were complicit in the hacks or, alternatively, that the Democrats are sore losers trying to undermine the incoming administration, is obscuring the larger geopolitical issues at play. What’s more, it overlooks the fact that cyber intrusions are only the latest tool in a time-honored tradition of electoral meddling.
At issue in the current maelstrom is not the sanctity of the voting process itself, but rather the manipulation of voter sentiment by foreign powers. America’s voting method varies from state to state, or even county to county, and uses hundreds of systems to track millions of paper and digital ballots cast by different means at different times. By inadvertent virtue of this arcane system, U.S. ballot boxes are more resistant to direct hacking than perhaps any other voting platform in the world. But the American electorate is not tamper proof.
The U.S. electoral process, flawed though some claim it is, remains the backbone of the country’s political system. The system is designed to be resilient in its complexity, to avoid (or at least deter) the over-concentration of power, and to enable each to express his or her opinion. At the same time, it is also designed to ensure a level of continuity and stability. Trust in the political process, even when the results are dissatisfactory, is essential to preserving national unity and preempting extra-constitutional attempts to alter the political landscape. If the process is seen as faulty or manipulated, national cohesion and the perceived legitimacy of political power will suffer. Consequently, foreign manipulation of U.S. elections is a serious issue.
It is not unprecedented, however. Foreign powers have long used information campaigns, propaganda and political messaging to try to create doubt around one candidate or another and to shape the narrative ahead of elections. The Iranians may well have delayed the release of hostages in part to create an environment conducive to President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, hoping for a better deal. In 1996, Chinese fundraising scandals surrounded the re-election of President Bill Clinton (who later paved the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization) and Democratic congressional candidates. In fact, there may even be precedent for a president’s complicity in electoral manipulation; Richard Nixon’s campaign tried to influence the collapse of Vietnamese peace talks to facilitate his own election. Russian disinformation campaigns have also been around for years, from rumors of U.S. chemical and biological weapons during the Korean War to stories, allegedly planted by Moscow, of the FBI’s role in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. One could even argue that European leaders, or at least media and interest groups, fetted Barack Obama during his first run for the presidency, highlighting his differences with his predecessor, with the clear intention of reshaping U.S. policy direction.
Furthermore, the United States is not always the victim of these tactics. Washington has frequently been accused of interfering, more and less overtly, in other countries’ elections, most recently after the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines made critical remarks about Rodrigo Duterte during his bid for office. From Radio Free Europe to the National Endowment for Democracy, America has an array of “soft power” tools at its disposal to shape not just foreign elections, but foreign political systems as well. Attempts to interfere in, or at least influence, elections are the norm in international politics rather than the exception. Though no one wants to admit that his or her victory may have been shaped in part by foreign powers, the world always seems to have its vote, particularly in U.S. elections.
In addition to trying to influence elections directly, foreign powers are always looking for internal information on candidates and parties that they can use to anticipate shifts in U.S. policy or adjust their language and behavior to shape policies. Compared with older techniques such as wiretapping, bugging, breaking into offices or devising ruses to ply information from insiders, cyber tools are far more expedient and less risky. They are also harder to trace, further adding to the confusion.
Despite the outcry over Russia’s hacking activities, we are not on the cusp of a new Cold War. In many ways, however, the world is far more complex than it was during the Cold War — though, on the plus side, the threat of thermonuclear war no longer looms quite as large. The United States and Russia are once again at odds with each other, divided along an array of geopolitical lines, and the former Soviet periphery is once again the scene of heavy competition between the two. But the ideological, political, economic and security dichotomy of the Cold War has since given way to a more diverse global landscape. Today, power is more diffuse, the lines between friend and foe are blurred, and economic integration often coexists with strategic competition. Each nation still has its own interests, but the global framework of “West” and “East” no longer provides an easy rubric.
There is little doubt that Russia, among other countries, tried to craft information campaigns with the intent to shape the U.S. presidential elections. Moscow may even be said to have actively interfered in the race if it did, in fact, selectively release emails. Still, it is hard to argue that its activities were enough to tip the balance, even in a close race. By politicizing the latest instance of foreign electoral meddling to the point where each side of the political spectrum is reduced to solely accusing the other of lying, we risk misplacing the focus on partisan instead of strategic issues.
Perhaps a more productive way to assess the accusations is to ask a few different questions: Is hacking significantly different from a disgruntled staff member’s leak, from loose talk at a bar, or from stolen or misplaced documents? Is a campaign or political party staff member’s email a national security issue or a matter of basic information management? Is U.S. government information better protected than private information? How quickly and effectively is the U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence community adapting to the changing information landscape? How does one balance privacy, freedom and security (a perennial question in the United States)?
And, maybe most important, are U.S. elections at significant risk of true foreign manipulation, or are they simply vulnerable to attempts at information-shaping? The latter we know how to deal with. The former is a fundamental threat that merits dispassionate investigation.