The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Over the last three years, many Americans have been angered and distressed at Russia's efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, and concerned about future foreign interference. The assumption underlying much of the discussion of this issue is that foreign influence on electoral outcomes is inherently wrong, and should be avoided as much as possible. For understandable reasons, liberal Democrats have been especially incensed at foreign interference, given that it was used to help bolster their political adversary Donald Trump.
A few days ago, however, former President Barack Obama endorsed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is in the midst of a very tight campaign (election day is tomorrow). The election looks to be very close. Obama is very popular in Canada, and his endorsement could potentially help swing the outcome.
Some of Trudeau's Canadian political opponents denounced Obama's endorsement as reprehensible foreign interference. But negative reaction in the US is noticeable by its near-total absence, particularly among liberal Democrats. Is it hypocritical to denounce Putin's actions in 2016, while giving Obama a pass? Is it all just a matter of whose ox is being gored?
One possible distinction is that Obama was no longer president when he endorsed Trudeau, whereas Putin was and is the ruler of Russia. But, if foreign electoral interference is inherently wrong, why should it matter whether the perpetrators were government officials or not? Few of those who denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election would be mollified if it turned out that it was all the work of Russian private citizens, without direction from the Kremlin.
Moreover, Obama sought to influence foreign political processes when he was president, as well. For example, he publicly urged British voters to reject Brexit in the 2016 referendum on that issue, just as Donald Trump supported the other side in that referendum, and in later political fights over Brexit. Was that morally reprehensible interference in the British political process?
In my view, the answer to these questions lies in recognizing that foreign influence on electoral processes is not inherently wrong. Its justification depends on goals pursued, and the methods used. These factors are what differentiate Obama's actions from Putin's. Moreover, in most cases the justice of attempts to exercise electoral influence does not depend on whether the person attempting to influence the outcome is a foreigner or not.
I expounded on these points in greater detail here:
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….
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, un-British, 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….
In some cases, attempts to influence foreign elections are not only morally permissible, but even praiseworthy [depending on the issues at stake]…
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….
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….
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….
The point… 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….
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…. 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….
When judged from the standpoint of goals and methods, Obama's attempts to influence the Canadian election and the Brexit referendum look very different from Putin's efforts in 2016. I am no great fan of Justin Trudeau and his ideology, and would not endorse him myself. But promoting him for the sake of strengthening progressivism in North America is a far cry from Putin's awful agenda. Similar points apply to the debate over Brexit (an issue on which I actually largely agree with Obama, though there are serious contrary arguments). Obama also did not use such reprehensible tactics as hacking or spreading disinformation in promoting Trudeau and Brexit (though he has not been above using deception in some of his domestic political battles).
It may well be that Obama's attempts to influence British and Canadian politics were unwise. They may fail to achieve their objectives (as clearly happened in the case of Brexit), and may needlessly antagonize key constituencies in two of America's closest allies. There are good pragmatic reasons why political leaders in liberal democracies generally remain neutral in each other's elections. But what Obama did was not intrinsically wrong.
In sum, there are good reasons to differentiate between Obama and Putin. But the price of doing so is recognizing that not all foreign attempts to influence electoral outcomes are wrong. In some situations, information from foreign sources might actually have a beneficial effect on voters. And, when "electoral interference" is morally wrong, it is usually for reasons having little to do with the nationality of the perpetrators.