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. 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.