Thomas Carothers has recently written an article in Foreign Affairs, the prestigious elite journal published by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. The article asks: is the US hypocritical for criticizing Russian election meddling?
Given the place of publication, the unsurprising conclusion is that it is not. The problem is the US is a champion meddler. Consequently, the argument crumbles every time Carothers reaches for substance.
At the end of the day, the defense reduces to the claim that we (the US) are good and they are evil, so that our meddling is a net good and theirs bad: “the trends of US and Russian behavior are divergent, not convergent – with Russia on the negative side of the divide.”
That is a moral superiority defense which is doubly flawed. First, the US can still be a hypocrite. Second, framing great power international relations in terms of moral superiority quickly promotes crusader thinking, which is a grave menace to all.
Meddling since the Cold War
The first line of defense is that the US meddles less now than in the Cold war. But exactly the same can be said of the Russians. Moreover, since the US is far wealthier than Russia, its democracy manipulations now dwarf those of Russia measured in financial terms.
On top of that, the recent history of US meddling is of an order of magnitude worse than that of Russia. In the Ukraine, which is a highly sensitive space on Russia’s border and historically part of the Motherland, the US helped promote a coup in 2014 three months before scheduled elections.
Moreover, this intervention in the Ukraine came on top of 20 years of the US pushing NATO into former Soviet bloc countries. That has put US forces closer and closer to Russia’s borders, and violated the end of Cold War understanding that former Soviet bloc countries would remain outside NATO.
Elsewhere, in 2016, following an illegal and unconstitutional coup in Honduras, the US supported the junta’s consolidation of power.
Going back to the previous decade, there was the internationally illegal invasion of Iraq and the promotion of a coup in Venezuela. And before that, in 1996 there was the mother of all interventions when the US intervened to influence Russia’s election in favor its preferred candidate, Boris Yeltsin. Carothers fesses up to that, but fessing up does not mean acquittal.
In short, not only has there been a lot of US meddling since the end of the Cold War, it exceeds Russian meddling.
The democracy promotion charade
The second line of defense is that the US is different because of its democracy promotion efforts, which are not matched by Russia.
It is absolutely true Russia does not have such programs. But we must be careful to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Forty years ago, the Soviet Union was dedicated to liberating the workers of the world, but no one except a Soviet apparatchik would have counseled taking this at face value. Similar skepticism is warranted regarding US democracy promotion.
The US is for democracy promotion when it suits its interests, and against it when it does not. Strategically important undemocratic allies are given a free ride, while unfriendly undemocratic countries are subjected to subversive meddling in the name of democracy. Seen in that light, US democracy promotion is the twin of democracy meddling. Both are tactics serving US interests.
The hollowness of the US commitment to democracy promotion is evidenced by how quickly it is dropped when real interests come in to play. That is forever etched in the record by the way the Tiananmen Square protests were conveniently forgotten when trade with China was at stake. Similarly, democracy concerns are always excluded from the room in dealings with Saudi Arabia.
That is exactly how a great power with important interests is expected to behave. But it speaks to being done with the democracy promotion charade, which the US elite pumps up to gain rhetorical advantage in international relations and disingenuously enlist the support of common citizens.
The US is a double hypocrite
Any honest assessment of US democracy would compel the admission that the real threats to it lie within the US. These threats include fake corporate-produced news, the political power of money and corporations, gerrymandering of congressional districts, voter suppression, built-in representational biases from the electoral college and Senate, and obstruction of change from the first-past-the post electoral system which blocks emergence of new political parties.
Compared to those problems, Russia’s Facebook interventions are a small time side-show. Moreover, Russia’s actions are par for the course of international relations, as long practiced by both the US and itself.
It is relatively easy to further secure the US voting system, and there is much that can readily be done to make US democracy more competitive and informed. But a high quality democracy is not the real goal. Instead, the US elite’s obsession with Russia’s election meddling is a circus aimed at distracting the public from domestic problems, and at increasing national security paranoia to justify more military spending and more domestic surveillance.
Warning: don’t be conned by the democracy meddling narrative
How we got here, how to address authoritarian Russia’s encirclement fears, and how to restrain the US imperial impulse are huge questions. A good starting place is to strip away US hypocrisy regarding democracy meddling and democracy promotion.
Doing so does not imply moral equivalence, but it has two huge benefits. First, it can help avoid getting locked into conflict on grounds of false principle. Second, it can help surface the real concerns and conflicts of interest that must be managed.
All of this is especially important for Europe, where the damaging backwash of US actions are now so often felt.