Foreign Policy

Bolton's 'Coup' Boast Undermines Election Interference Complaints

Objections to foreign election meddling lose credibility when you overthrow governments.


After years of hyperventilation about foreign interference in U.S. elections, it's remarkable when a former high-ranking U.S. government official casually references his expertise at overthrowing governments in other countries. Few people want foreign powers meddling in political processes; creating domestic chaos is usually considered a local privilege. But complaints about such interference lose credibility when it turns out that fiddling with overseas governance is a hobby of your own.

"As somebody who has helped plan coups d'etat, not here, but other places, it takes a lot of work," John Bolton, whose most recent government post was as national security advisor under former President Donald Trump, told CNN's Jake Tapper earlier this week. Bolton spoke to rebut charges that Trump's actions after he lost the 2020 presidential election represented an effort to overthrow the government.

"It's not an attack on our democracy," Bolton added. "It's Donald Trump looking out for Donald Trump."

Bolton's characterization of the former president as a survival-minded narcissist lacking the competence for nefarious scheming rings true. But his boast that he knows what it takes to stage a coup and Trump isn't up to it rightfully draws attention after years of very public fretting that other countries, and especially Russia, have violated the alleged sanctity of the American political process.

"Specified harmful foreign activities of the Government of the Russian Federation — in particular, efforts to undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections and democratic institutions in the United States and its allies and partners…continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," President Joe Biden wrote in April in a letter extending a then-year-old "national emergency with respect to specified harmful foreign activities of the Government of the Russian Federation."

Biden's letter was only the latest complaint about foreigners tainting American politics. A 2019 federal report concluded that "the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." And it's not all about Russians: the British government backed candidates and planted fake news stories as part of its efforts to recruit the U.S. to the Allied cause before World War II.

"As long as there have been American elections, foreign powers have sought to influence them," Reason's Eric Boehm noted in 2021.

The U.S. hasn't been shy about playing that game itself, and Bolton isn't the first American to openly admit that fact. In 2018, when asked whether the U.S. ever interfered in foreign elections, former CIA chief James Woolsey answered, "oh, probably. But it was for the good of the system in order to avoid the communists taking over. For example, in Europe in '47, '48, '49, the Greeks and the Italians." When asked if such shenanigans continue, he replied, "only for a very good cause."

Interference in Italy's 1948 general election was especially momentous against the backdrop of Soviet dominance of eastern Europe and is still discussed today. But it was hardly an isolated incident.

"Great powers frequently deploy partisan electoral interventions as a major foreign policy tool," Dov Levin, then of UCLA and now at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in 2016. "For example, the U.S. and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections between 1946 and 2000."

Levin subsequently expanded his point in Meddling in the Ballot Box, published in 2020.

"I was alarmed in 2016 by how policymakers and commentators frequently described Russian interference in our election as unprecedented," agrees the Wilson Center's David Shimer, who wrote Rigged, also published in 2020. "Many former CIA officers told me in interviews that they viewed the '48 operation in Italy as the agency at its best. And in the aftermath of that operation, as the CIA's chief internal historian put it to me, the agency and the KGB went toe to toe in elections all over the world."

Shimer maintains that Russia continues to interfere in elections while the U.S. has backed off the tactic. But American actions are sufficiently recent that both John Bolton and James Woolsey can draw on their memories of efforts to influence the outcome of elections or to outright overthrow governments.

That said, foreign intervention in an election isn't necessarily bad. Everybody has a right to debate ideas and policies across borders.

"In sum, there is nothing inherently wrong with people trying to influence electoral outcomes in nations other than their own," argued George Mason University's Ilya Somin in 2019. He offered the example of foreign powers openly backing a hypothetical anti-slavery campaign. He added that "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."

That means funding anti-communist political parties in the 1948 Italian election when Soviet-backed totalitarians were seizing power across eastern Europe is perfectly defensible; that's not far from an anti-slavery campaign, after all. But coups d'etat, which are forcible, extra-legal replacements of other countries' governments, are a lot sketchier in the absence of important justifying context.

That's awkward in terms of complaints about foreign interference in American elections. It's difficult to credibly complain about Russians hacking email accounts, planting stories on social media, and favoring one candidate over another when political players like Bolton casually discuss even more aggressive interventions elsewhere. The outrage comes across as wildly hypocritical.

Ultimately, the U.S. has weathered foreign interference in its elections in the past, both overt and covert, just as it has interfered in other countries' political processes. If this country is now more sensitive and vulnerable to such meddling than before, that's because its people are more deeply divided and its institutions more brittle than in earlier years. Nobody made Americans hate one another or contemplate violence to achieve their goals; those are self-inflicted wounds and in their absence foreign dirty tricks would count for little. 

And if our political class wants to be taken seriously when it complains about foreign governments messing with our domestic disputes, it needs to get over its own habit of meddling overseas. Otherwise, such political interference is just a taste of our own medicine.