Interference in foreign elections is rapidly becoming a weapon of choice for affecting change in democratic nations. The US, with its not always illustrious record of engineering regime change, faces perhaps its greatest national security challenge from what is being termed Hybrid War, campaigns of propaganda and misinformation that seek to manipulate the will of the electorate. The only defences democracy has are greater vigilance and cybersecurity.
To preserve human rights, or uphold the rule of law, countries can legitimately intervene in the internal affairs of other states. There have been numerous instances of UN-mandated foreign interventions to overthrow oppressive dictators or end civil war. In 1991, the brutalisation of Kuwaiti civilians at the hands of invading Iraqi forces compelled the international community to challenge Saddam Hussein, a confrontation that culminated in the First Gulf War. However, when foreign powers unilaterally intervene in the electoral process of a sovereign state, they are mostly driven by self-interest rather than the greater good of the nation’s people.
In 2016, a study by the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University analysed 938 elections between the years 1946 to 2000 and found that 117 had been influenced by outside elements.
A world leader in interfering in foreign elections
The US alone has attempted 81 regime changes since the 1940s – with varying degrees of success – in countries including Iran, Cuba and Vietnam. Pax Americana, the golden era of America’s global ascendancy, was facilitated, in no small measure, by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert and overt interventions in other countries. American citizens were told that these actions were necessary to counter the spread of communism, or to preempt threats to US national security. In 1971, Henry Kissinger famously quipped, “I don’t see why we have to let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
America’s turn to be manipulated
In the last two decades, however, the tables have turned dramatically. With the US pursuing a more isolationist foreign affairs policy under President Trump, authoritarian regimes are now striking back with a vengeance. From the perspective of rivals like Russia and China, targeting elections through propaganda is a legitimate tool for tempering the global dominance of the US which enjoys considerable military superiority.
These covert operations have been variously branded ‘fifth-generation warfare’ and ‘hybrid warfare’ by strategic experts. The 2016 US elections witnessed the first use of misinformation and social engineering when Russian intelligence agencies partly scuppered Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming the 45th President of the United States.
Investigations show that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was systematically targeted by Russian hackers who accessed sensitive campaign data, including Hillary’s personal email server. A probe by the US Senate, conducted later that year, concluded that Russian agents were “in a position to – at a minimum – alter or delete voter registration data.”
From hiring lobby firms to leveraging state-run news channels, there are other complementary tools being employed to systematically impede the conduct of free and fair elections.
Blurred battle lines in the information age
Domestic politics eventually affects the foreign policy of a nation. In the 2020s, national priorities will quickly change, as the coronavirus crisis reshapes the world order. Nations like China are scrambling to take advantage of the situation while the rest of the world is bogged down in the COVID 19 health crisis. Having fought terrorists for 20 years, great power competition is now regaining currency in the strategic calculus of the P5 (US, Russia, China, UK, France)
As trade is increasingly weaponised, each side will be looking for alternative partners who can provide the industrialised nations with raw materials, cheap labour and easy access to new markets. In such a complex global scenario, foreign interventions in elections are as much about dominance as they are about dependence on other nations.
Russian interference in the 2016 US elections may have already worked in its favour. After 18 years of fighting, the Trump administration is pulling US troops out of Aghanistan and even Syria. This will give Russia greater scope to reshape the Middle-Eastern political environment and help it replace the US as a net security provider in the region. Iran may well be emboldened to intervene more forcefully in Syria and Iraq with Russian support.
By manipulating the will of the electorate, Russia has, in a fraction of the time, succeeded in damaging the diplomatic capital painstakingly built by previous US administrations.
Is foreign election interference a breach of international law?
As the Global War On Terrorism has shown, the cost of a full-blown military invasion is prohibitive for even the richest nations. Since the 9/11 attacks, the US has spent over $5.4 trillion on military operations in the Middle East, not inclusive of disability and support costs that could cost an extra $1 trillion by 2059. These lessons have been learned and internalised by America’s adversaries just as they learned from the way the US military dominated Saddam Hussein’s forces almost three decades ago. By discreetly buying online ads and spreading misinformation via servers based in third countries, America’s adversaries are striking at the very heart of its democracy.
However, political experts are divided as to whether foreign interference in elections is a crime that warrants tit-for-tat cyber-attacks or even sanctions against aggressor countries. While it is by no means ethical, some say that mere propaganda or misinformation, like those employed by Russia, cannot be construed as a crime. One reason for this is that even if it were possible to link an attack to a certain foreign government, there is no way to conclusively prove that it had any significant impact on voters.
With President Trump himself accused of soliciting help from the Ukraine government to smear his domestic political opponents in the run-up to the 2020 elections, foreign manipulation of the election system can hardly be called a crime. All that democratic nations can hope to do, to preserve the ideal of free and unfettered elections, is study the problem, boost cyber-surveillance and boost public awareness about the menace.