For the last three years, the American body politic has been obsessed with foreign election interference. Democrats angry with the results of the 2016 presidential election asserted that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to hack and release emails damaging to the Clinton presidential campaign. Robert Mueller investigated the email hacks as well as a Russian social media troll farm. Republicans, in turn, focused their ire on Clinton’s purchase of a salacious, but factually incorrect, dossier produced by Christopher Steele, a British spy with Russian sources.
This September, news reports surfaced alleging that President Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to open an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Joe Biden’s 2016 threat to withhold U.S. foreign aid if a prosecutor investigating Burisma Holdings, a shady Ukrainian energy company, was not fired. Joe Biden was a sitting board member of the company at the time. House Democratic leadership responded by opening an impeachment inquiry . Once again, Republican lawmakers screamed hypocrisy, pointing out that three Democratic Senators had all threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine in a 2018 letter if the nation did not turn over information it had on Trump relevant to the Mueller investigation .
While both sides have applied double standards, one central assumption has been omnipresent in the political zeitgeist: the idea that foreign interference is reprehensible and should be banned. The discussion has thus centered not on whether election meddling is appropriate, but instead on which party is guilty of it.
This view of the impropriety of foreign interference derives from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia treaty. As part of the treaty, the respective nations agreed to focus their diplomacy on international disputes like war and trade while abstaining from meddling in one another’s domestic affairs .
The Westphalian system was a novel innovation for the seventeenth century. At the time, domestic policy was primarily determined by monarchs. Nascent communications and transportation technology meant that the interaction between citizens of differing nations was highly limited (except for merchants and diplomats). Nations could thus have self-contained politics.
In today’s globalized and politically fractured world system, however, such a cloistered view of politics is increasingly obsolete. Goods, services, pollution, migrants, news, and ideologies all cross borders at breakneck speed. As a result, the decisions of one national government affect governments and individuals all around the world. In an extreme example, the domestic politics of Germany produced catastrophic effects upon European nations and their colonies after the Nazi party took power invaded neighboring nations. The German people may have been the ones to cast the votes, but the 1933 election generated deleterious knock-on effects everywhere. The election of Jair Bolsonaro has resulted in deforestation that affects CO2 levels and the climate worldwide. This raises an important question. Should citizens and governments have a say on the relevant policy decisions and elections of foreign nations even if they cannot vote in those elections?
It is telling that the countries most vociferous about enforcing domestic non-interference tend to be autocracies wishing to hide the oppression of their own people and suppress human rights activism. In the face of the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests and backlash over the Uighur “re-education camps”, the Chinese government warned the international community to stay out of its internal affairs . Similarly, the Saudi Arabian government expelled a Canadian ambassador, accusing the Canadian government of improperly interfering in its domestic politics by criticizing Saudi Arabia for jailing human rights activists .
In the case of Ukraine, the Ukranian and American people ought to know whether the Biden family acted corruptly. The Americans need to know whether Vice President Biden abused his power, and the Ukranian people deserve to know if funds from their country were improperly diverted to an American politician’s son. Any electoral effects are simply a secondary byproduct of such an investigation. Far from hindering democracy, when done appropriately, foreign meddling can educate electorates about malfeasance around the world and hopefully produce more informed political choices.
While complete non-interference is one undesirable pole of the spectrum, an outright coup is the other. In other words, foreign meddling, depending on how it is carried out, can be either helpful or harmful to democracy. For example, Russia’s hacking of the Clinton campaign emails enabled American voters to know that Clinton had sought to rig the 2016 Democratic primary. Such information was highly relevant to the electorate and may have rightly influenced voting decisions. In contrast, the Russian social media disinformation campaign and attempts to hack into voting machines produced only negative effects, threatening the democratic legitimacy of the election. What then should the laws about foreign interference be? Here are a few proposals to start the discussion:
1. Citizens and politicians of any nation should be allowed to speak freely about any candidate, politician, or government policy in any country worldwide
2. Foreign governments should be able to investigate any politician or candidate that has business or other ties to that country at the request of a rival candidate so long as a public record of the investigation or investigation request is kept. Foreign nationals can be paid for opposition research so long as the payments are made public.
3. Foreign nationals cannot vote, donate money, or purchase media advertisements in another country’s election.
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