Foreign Interference in Elections

A law professor asks some interesting questions, but ultimately not the right ones.

“Election” by Alex Diamond is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ilya Somin argues that foreign interference in the elections of other countries is not inherently immoral and is often morally justified. It’s an interesting argument, if one he takes too far.

I agree with the conventional wisdom that Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election was morally reprehensible. But the morality of electoral interference is not as straightforward as most people think. Not all efforts to influence electoral outcomes in countries other than one’s own are morally wrong. And when they are, it is generally for reasons other than the fact that the people attempting to exercise influence are foreigners.

Many discussions of electoral interference implicitly assume that elections should be decided by a nation’s voters without any influence from foreigners and their ideas. But such a position makes little sense. The origin of an idea says nothing about its validity. As the great  libertarian economist F.A. Hayek put it, “The growth of ideas is an international process… It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.” If ideas developed or conveyed by foreigners influence American voters for the better, we should be happy to see that happen. Indeed, the United States was founded on Enlightenment ideals largely developed in Europe by French and British thinkers.

– The Volokh Conspiracy, “The Rights and Wrongs of Electoral Interference

So far, we’re in agreement.

In some cases, attempts to influence foreign elections are not only morally permissible, but even praiseworthy. Imagine that the nation of Ruritania is holding a referendum on whether to institute slavery. The “yes” forces are better organized and have better messaging than the “no” side, and appear likely to win.

The government of neighboring Freedonia finances a public relations campaign aimed at Ruritanian voters in order to persuade them to vote “no.” The Freedonian PR campaign is better managed than the efforts of Ruritania’s indigenous antislavery movement, and it has a decisive impact on the outcome, enabling the antislavery side to prevail. It seems fairly obvious that Freedonia’s actions were laudable. Without them, large numbers of people would have suffered the horrific injustice of being enslaved.

This example is not entirely hypothetical. The abolitionist movement in the 19th century United States was significantly influenced by the antislavery movement in Britain, which worked to turn American (and European) public opinion against slavery.

Again, I agree. But this is all really beside the point. That is, the dispute over Russian interference in the 2016 US election (and in other Western elections since) isn’t about the importation of ideas or attempts at moral suasion but rather nefarious methods. Somin eventually gets there:

Sometimes, the problem with electoral interference is not the intervention as such, but the tactics used. For example, the Russian government was likely behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Hacking private computer servers is a violation of property rights and privacy, and is certainly morally reprehensible. But the nature of the wrong does not depend on the identity of the perpetrator. If American citizens had done the same thing, it would have been equally reprehensible.

Well . . . yes and no. The pure morality of the action would be identical. But the reaction would be different.

Had the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, or their agents done the hacking, they would be implicated under US criminal law. Trump’s very legitimacy as President would be in question. Impeachment would be very much on the table and, indeed, almost mandatory.

But a foreign power taking this action is arguably an act of war. It’s a violation of national sovereignty of the highest order, morally no different from an armed invasion.

The allegation was that both happened. That the Trump campaign coordinated with a hostile foreign power to facilitate the action. The Mueller investigation was unable to corroborate this to a level that would lead to criminal charges but it nonetheless documented substantial untoward activity. The resolution for the US side of this, then, is likely going to be political rather than legal. But the reaction to the Russian side of this should certainly be more aggressive than it has been thus far. That it hasn’t is further evidence of Trump’s putting Russian interests over those of his country.

The Russians also relied heavily on deception and misinformation intended to exploit voter ignorance and bias. This too was wrong. At least as a general rule, there should be a moral presumption against deceiving voters. But, once again, it’s not clear that it’s worse when done by foreigners than by citizens of the country being influenced.

Again, it depends on what we mean by “worse.” They’re simply different issues.

As a practical matter, deception, manipulation, and exploitation of voter ignorance by American politicians and interest groups has a far greater impact on our elections than anything done by foreign powers. President Trump uses deception on an epic scale, including with respect to many of the key themes of his 2016 campaign. More conventional politicians differ from Trump more in degree than kind. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was the proud winner of the 2013 Politifact Lie of the Year Award (Trump won the 2015 award) for his famous statement that, under Obamacare, “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.” That deception (and others like it) were crucial to passage of his most significant legislative initiative. It probably had a greater impact than any single deception of Trump’s—or any spread by Russian agents.
Sadly, lying and manipulation of public ignorance are not the sole province of Russian agents. They are standard political tactics of native politicians in both the US and many other countries. So long as most voters know little about public policy, are susceptible to a variety of biases, and do a poor job of sifting truth from falsehood, politicians will have strong incentives to lie.

That paragraph, frankly, is a hot mess.

“If you like your health care plan you can keep it” wasn’t a lie at all. It was a slogan, implicitly a promise, and one that I believe—as one who voted for Obama’s opponents in both 2008 and 2012 and who opposed the Affordable Care Act for a variety of reasons—was made in earnest. And, indeed, most of us kept our health care plan.

Obama won the dubious “award” for continuing to spout the slogan after many plans that didn’t meet ObamaCare standards vanished. He himself admitted as much and apologized for it, “There is no doubt that the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate,” he said. “It was not because of my intention not to deliver on that commitment and that promise. We put a grandfather clause into the law, but it was insufficient.”

But, again, even as a critic of Obama and his signature law, it’s absurd to call it a lie, much less on par with the Russian influence campaign during the 2016 election.

Somin gets back on track in the next paragraph:

The point of all this is not to excuse Russian deception by  “whataboutist”  invocation of lying by US politicians. Far from it. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that the nature of the wrong here does not depend on the nationality of the perpetrator.

Again, we’re down to a semantic debate—one that I’ll return to at the end of the post.

In some cases, as political philosopher Jason Brennan points out, lying to voters might even be justified. If deception is the only way to prevent Ruritanian voters from backing a referendum instituting slavery, lying is surely a lesser evil than the alternative—if that is truly the only way to prevent the pro-slavery side from winning. Here too, the morality (or lack thereof) of the lies in question does not depend on whether they are spread by Ruritanians or by foreigners. It depends on the magnitude of the injustice they are trying to avert, the likelihood of success in that endeavor, and whether or not there is a more honest way to achieve the same result.

I disagree with this, actually. In terms of pure morality, doing evil things for good reasons is still evil. But nation-states don’t operate under the same rubric. But, again, I’ll get to that at the end.

Somin gets it largely right in his close:

The use of manipulation and deception to influence elections is usefully analogized to espionage. The morality of spying is heavily dependent on the justice of the cause involved. While there should be some presumption against it, that presumption can be overcome if espionage is necessary to help avert a greater evil. Spying on the Nazis for the US was morally justified, while the reverse was very much not. The same goes for the use of deception to influence electoral outcomes.

This gets us to what may be the most reprehensible aspect of the Russian intervention. The hacking, trolling, and lying was in the service of a deeply unjust cause: promoting the interests of a brutal authoritarian regime and furthering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s global campaign against liberty and democracy—an agenda described in detail in this Reason article by Cathy Young. That motive makes the Russian effort particularly reprehensible. But, again, the reason why it deserves condemnation has little to do with the nationality of the people involved. Americans who did similar things in service of a similar agenda would also deserve condemnation.

In sum, there is nothing inherently wrong with people trying to influence electoral outcomes in nations other than their own. Americans can try to persuade Canadians to vote for or against Justin Trudeau’s government. Canadians can try to persuade us to vote for or against Trump. And so on. Right now, many in the United States and Europe are making arguments for or against Britain’s Brexit policies, often with a view to trying to influence British opinion. In the past, both Barack Obama (who opposed Brexit) and Donald Trump (who supports it), have stated their views on the subject in ways obviously calculated to try to affect British attitudes. There is nothing inherently wrong with that either, though it may well have been both ineffective and pragmatically unwise.

Electoral interference is often wrong if it involves activities like hacking and deception. But the reason why such activities are reprehensible has little to do with the nationalities of the people involved. And the moral presumption against deception can be overcome in cases where it is essential to averting a greater evil.

Americans are justified in condemning Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the reasons why are not as straightforward as many might think.

But, of course, the Russians, Chinese, and other authoritarian regimes would reject Somin’s framing. They see the US government as a hostile foreign power seeking to restrain their rightful place as regional hegemons and otherwise thwart their aims. They see their actions as moral because they’re in the service of their national interests. (Or, more accurately, the interests of their regimes, which is indistinguishable in the case of authoritarian states.)

Ultimately, then, “morality” is simply the wrong frame for assessing the actions of state actors in international affairs. Instead, we look to international law and national interest. Russia’s actions are certainly in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN Charter and a whole body of international law.

Alas, in the case of great powers, interest will ultimately trump law or morality if the interest is sufficiently important. Vladimir Putin doesn’t give a damn whether we think his actions were moral. The question is what we’re going to do about them. Alas, the answer appears to be not much, at least so long as they benefit the sitting President.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Russia, Russia Investigation, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    Nation states don’t interfere in the affairs of other nations states as a matter of goodwill or morality, but in order to advance their interests.

    There may be exceptions in cases of natural disasters.

    So, sure, if Russia, or other countries, wants to participate in the elections of other countries, then let them register, act in the open, and follow all applicable laws and regulations for electoral campaigns in said countries. I’d have no problem with that.

    Otherwise stay the hell out.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Your overarching conclusion, that this isn’t really a question of morality, is the proper way to look at it. Russian interference is simply an act of war.

    There is supposedly an underlying and ongoing intelligence investigation into Russian interference. Let’s say they find significant, unacceptable actions. Let’s say they come up with a clever, covert, and credible plan to punish the actions and deter further actions. What’s the cyber equivalent of a horse head in Putin’s bed? Let’s say that per standard procedure they request approval to proceed with their plan by presenting the results of their investigation and their plan to the President* in an intelligence finding. And he doesn’t sign it.

    Now what happens? Is there a path forward? Are the Intel heads required to inform congress? (To date, the Intel committee chairs say they’ve gotten nothing from the investigation)

  3. gVOR08 says:


    In an interview on Friday, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida took it one step further, saying that Russian hackers not only accessed a Florida voting system, but were “in a position” to change voter roll data.

    Having just moved to Florida, I think I’ll write a nice letter to young Master Rubio and ask him just what the hell he intends to do about it.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: Easy-peasy, if the GOP is found to have been the most likely beneficiary of the change, he’ll support letting the Russians off with ‘a stern warning.’

  5. Mike says:

    Doesn’t the US meddle in elections? We have the CIA and others doing things to other countries to influence their election for a long time now. Have we at least stopped directly assisting to overthrow leaders – wait no we do that too.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Mike: Would you blithely wave away concerns about other countries flying drones over America and using them to kill people? Because we do that to other countries too.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  7. Mike says:

    I think we should do all we can to secure our elections. I’m not “shocked” that another country would do this to us and my main point is the US has no high ground on this issue.

  8. Andy says:

    You had me up until here:

    But a foreign power taking this action is arguably an act of war. It’s a violation of national sovereignty of the highest order, morally no different from an armed invasion.

    Morally equivalent to an armed invasion? No, there is a huge difference between influence and violence – the two are not remotely morally the same.

    I don’t even agree it’s necessarily an act of war in all cases.

    And consider your view in light of current and historic US policy and actions, which overtly and covertly interfere with the elections and internal politics of dozens of nations. Actions we are still doing today. The National Endowment for Democracy, to give one example, is a government-funded entity with the specific purpose of interfering in foreign internal politics to advance US interests.

    If this kind of activity really is the same as an armed invasion and really is an act of war, then most of the world have a casus belli against us.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    I think we should do all we can to secure our elections. I’m not “shocked” that another country would do this to us and my main point is the US has no high ground on this issue.

    Surely no one who pays attention to this sort of thing is shocked and no, we don’t have any high ground on this issue…of course, neither of those things is the point…