Facing up to the difference between election meddling and advancing democracy


“Donald Trump’s refusal in Helsinki to credit his intelligence agencies’ findings about Russian electoral interference has unleashed a nationalist fury in Washington unseen since September 11,” Peter Beinart writes for The Atlantic (The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling, July 22). He then proceeds to equate the Kremlin’s political aggression with U.S. democracy assistance, insisting that “historically, American meddling has done far more to harm democracy than promote it.”

One might forgive his hyperbole, and perhaps even his ignorance of the historical record, but not his suggestion of equivalence between Russian President Vladimir ­Putin’s political warfare and the work of democracy assistance groups, including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute(IRI).

“There is a moral difference between open interventions and secret ones,” Beinart admits. “It’s also legitimate for governments to fund organizations that promote free elections and human rights,” he adds, even reluctantly conceding that independent experts “may be right that since the Cold War, America’s electoral interventions have become more transparent and less focused on engineering a particular outcome.”

But, citing several instances of what he clearly considers illegitimate electoral interference by certain U.S. government agencies and officials, Beinart – lazily or wittingly – conflates such actions with the activities of nongovernmental, nonpartisan, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations.

Recycling the tired old canard that the National Endowment for Democracy “does openly what the CIA once did in secret,” Beinart seems blithely ignorant of the difference between an intelligence agency’s partisan, government-directed, security-driven covert actions and the entirely nonpartisan, transparent activities of a Congressionally-funded but operationally independent non-governmental group in support of democratic institutions, actors and processes.

“Imagine if Russia gave money to the NAACP to combat voter ID laws that suppress the African American vote,” Beinart writes. “But unless the U.S. government was prepared to shut down NED, it would have little basis upon which to object.”

Does he seriously believe that the Kremlin, which systematically and ruthlessly monopolizes media and curbs political participation at home, has the slightest concern for electoral integrity, voter suppression or racial injustice in the United States, or anywhere else? Either through naivety or indifference, Beinart studiously ignores the moral and political purpose of democracy assistance vis-à-vis political warfare. Democracy assistance groups work in partnership with and at the invitation of indigenous political forces, such as civil society, political parties, labor unions, business and, yes, often host governments, in order to empower local actors and advance democratic institutions. Russia, like other autocratic states, employs hybrid warfare and related ‘active measures’ to undermine social cohesion, exacerbate political tensions, undermine democracy and instrumentalize local actors in pursuit of strategic advantage.

It would be naïve to suggest that the government of the United States – or, for that matter, any other established democracy – has never subordinated democratic concerns and sensibilities to national security, economic interests or other strategic imperatives. Governments are not NGOs and are by necessity both pulled and driven by competing priorities.

But Beinart’s zero-sum perspective can only envisage democracy assistance in terms of raison d’etat – the cynical pursuit of state interest, as Machiavellian as it is Manichean. As a result, he is blind to the fact that advancing democracy helps advance both American values and interests.

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