Many Americans are indignant about Russia’s supposed meddling in our presidential election. Such interference, these voices claim, is an act of war and calls for serious retaliation. Thinking through these claims with proper care is useful not only for guiding our conduct in relation to this particular issue, but also for bringing to light the principles of justice and prudence that ought to guide our deliberations about foreign policy generally.
In the first place, we should ask whether we can take seriously the claim that Russia’s alleged conduct amounts to an act of war—and whether the people making the claim really intend it seriously. We are told that the Russians interfered in our election by hacking into the emails of important American political actors and then releasing the information found in order to embarrass one of the campaigns—or at least encouraging others to do so. Is this an act of war?
If it is, then the United States would be justified in declaring war on Russia and commencing the use of military force against it—killing Russians and risking the death of Americans—with a view to punishing Russia for its actions and deterring other nations from similar conduct. It is doubtful that anyone of consequence in American politics truly believes that this would be a prudent or just course of action. It would seem, then, that those complaining about an act of war are exaggerating for effect, trying to rouse a public too complacent about the dangers of foreign interference in American elections.
This tactic is understandable but nevertheless irresponsible and foolish. It is understandable, because foreign interference in American elections is a serious issue. Since it is hard to get ordinary voters to feel a sense of urgency about almost anything, we can see why some who are worried about such interference might resort to exaggeration.
It is also irresponsible and foolish, however, for at least two reasons. First, public figures who traffic in such extreme claims subvert the ability of the sovereign people to reason in sober and precise terms about their own most precious interests. The people learn how to participate in the nation’s public discourse by following the arguments put forward by leading public figures. If those prominent citizens rely on such exaggeration, even in what they regard as a good cause, they ultimately diminish the chances that reason can prevail in our public councils. The dangers of this for the country in the long run are obvious.
Second, there are no less obvious dangers in the short run in trying to convince the public that a nuclear-armed superpower has committed an act of war against the United States. Success in persuading the people of this view can only make it more likely that two nuclear armed superpowers will drift into an actual state of war with each other. That risk, of course, should only be run in the face of the gravest possible threats to the nation.
What Kind of Response is Warranted?
What, then, should we make of the less extreme, but still serious, claim that the most vociferous critics of Russia are trying to get across: namely, that Putin’s government has, by interfering in our election, committed an unfriendly act that warrants a very strong response—a response strong enough perhaps to be itself an “act of war.” This would seem to be the position of Senator Lindsey Graham, who wants the United States to impose “crippling sanctions” on Russia. There are several problems even with this more modest position.
In the first place, the Russians deny that they are responsible for hacking into the email accounts of the Democrats, and the organization responsible for publicizing the emails from those accounts—Wikileaks—likewise denies that it got the information from the Russians. Obviously, they could both be lying. Nevertheless, it is impossible to prove publicly that the Russians are responsible, both because the evidence of such things is always contestable, and because it might not be prudent to publicly produce the evidence, for security reasons. But if the United States pursues a heightened form of retaliation—Senator Graham’s “crippling sanctions”—it can only be done in broad daylight. America would put itself in a delicate position, at least, in taking openly unfriendly and seriously damaging steps against Russia in response to offenses that it denies and that must remain plausibly deniable.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it can be known with sufficient certainty that Russia did in fact hack into the relevant e-mail accounts. The news reports, relying on American intelligence agencies, that assure us that this happened also inform us that all nations do such things all the time. It is routine for governments to engage in espionage against each other—and against the important industries and citizens of other countries. The ordinary response, it seems, is to punish those directly responsible when they can be caught, but not to declare their efforts to be an “act of war,” or an aggression calling for even greater retaliation, on the part of the government for which they work.
International Interference in Elections
Nevertheless, the proponents of getting tough with Russia might reply that the espionage itself is not so much the issue as the use that was made of it. Russia, they will say, acted, at least indirectly, to publicize some of what it learned in order to meddle in our election. This, it will be said, cannot be tolerated.
It certainly should not be tolerated. Steps should be taken to ensure that no foreign nation interferes in American elections. But does such interference amount to the kind of aggressive unfriendliness that can justify a qualitatively harsher form of retaliation, such as the “crippling sanctions” now being sought?
It would be difficult to maintain such a position. After all, it is obvious that many countries tried, in various ways, to influence the outcome of America’s 2016 presidential election. Numerous heads of state from around the world denounced Donald Trump as a risky choice for the presidency, presumably in part with a view to discouraging American voters from supporting him.
Moreover, the United States itself has meddled in other the elections of other countries, sometimes quite openly. Last summer, President Obama traveled to the United Kingdom not only to advise its citizens against voting to leave the European Union, but even to pressure them into not doing so by suggesting that such a step would harm the UK’s economic relationship with the United States. In addition, the Obama administration spent money in Israel in order to try to prevent the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Can we say that all these actions are of a seriously unfriendly character that can justify economic retaliation? If not, then we are going to have a hard time saying it about Russia—at least if our policy is to be, and to appear to be, consistent and principled.
Moral Distaste and Foreign Policy
In view of the rather obvious flimsiness of the justifications being urged for escalating retaliation against Russia, we are led to wonder what else might be motivating those calling for this policy of confrontation. It is reasonable to suppose that they are animated in part by the sense that the government of Russia is a bad one, that Putin is not a democratic leader but a “strong man” who rules Russia in his own interest and the interest of whatever powerful factions he has to placate to maintain his position. This kind of thinking is, again, understandable. It is, after all, perhaps a little embarrassing for a nation like the United States, which prides itself on free and honest government in the interests of the people, to be on friendly terms with a government believed to be oppressive and corrupt.
Nevertheless, this sense of moral distaste for Russia’s regime ought not to dictate a policy of American confrontation with that country. Such a policy is not sustainable and therefore is not reasonable. After all, if America is to seek confrontation with bad governments, it will find itself making numerous national enemies all over the globe, and some of them (such as China) very powerful ones. It is no part of prudent foreign policy to multiply the country’s enemies unnecessarily.
And it would be unnecessary, because there is no realistic good to be achieved by such a policy of confrontation with bad governments. In general, it is reasonable to assume that most countries are presently enjoying a quality of government about as good as they are capable of achieving. If something better were to be easily secured, it would have been secured already. It may seem sad that that Russia’s domestic governance is as it is. But we should ask ourselves whether there is any evidence from Russian history that the country is capable of sustaining something better—something more democratic, lawful, and humane. The answer to this question is obvious and sobering, and ought to limit the aims of our foreign policy.
Carson Holloway, a political scientist, is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.