Recently, New York magazine set the Internet on fire with a piece speculating that hacked voting machines may have tipped November’s presidential election.
This is dangerous, and not just because there’s no evidence that Russia “stole the election.” Talking about these voting machines distracts us from what such speculation represents: the success of a broader Russian strategy to weaken Americans’ trust in democracy. (Trump’s suggestion that “millions” of people voted illegally, which he stated with no evidence, could have the same effect.)
This election cycle, that strategy manifested itself in the Russians’ strongly alleged involvement in promoting “fake news” and disseminating hacked emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. These emails hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and weakened Americans’ trust in the Democratic primary.
Why would Russian agencies want to undermine U.S. elections in the first place? The answer begins with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s survival instinct. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, Putin has tried to weaken democracy and civil society around the world to make Russian authoritarianism more appealing in comparison.
That’s why funds have supported European far-right parties. As scholar Alina Polyakova argues, such strategies present a win-win for Russia. If Russia’s favored candidates triumph, then its influence grows. (That is why great powers intervene in other countries’ elections in the first place.) If they lose, then the targeted country’s institutions have nevertheless been weakened, reducing opposition to Russia.
A similar logic could explain Russia’s calculations in the U.S. elections. As someone who expressed admiration for Putin, Donald Trump probably seemed better disposed to Russia than Clinton did. If Trump had lost, Clinton’s administration would have been weakened by doubts about her victory’s legitimacy, just as her campaign was dogged by false charges that it had stolen the Democratic nomination.
The big question is what effects such meddling could have. There are two reasons to think that Putin’s gambit might backfire.
First, as political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke argue in a new study, installing friendly regimes in other countries often backfires. They write that “once in power, the new leader is focused on ensuring his or her own political survival, a task that is often undermined by implementing the intervener’s agenda.” Given the difficulties U.S. officials faced in exerting leverage over Afghan and Iraqi leaders after establishing those governments, this should not be surprising to Americans.
Russian interference in the U.S. campaign is hardly tantamount to “foreign-imposed regime change,” but a similar logic still applies. As president, Trump’s reputation will depend on promoting U.S. interests, which will remain opposed to Russia’s in many areas. Furthermore, Trump will have many reasons to demonstrate that he can stand up to someone he has described as a tough leader. And nothing in Trump’s past suggests that loyalty or gratitude will temper his pursuit of his private interest.
The second risk of blowback comes from the long-term risks of eroding Americans’ and foreigners’ trust in U.S. institutions. As Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov writes, Trump himself represents a wild card. Other countries will find it hard to predict Trump’s actions or to distinguish between genuine policy statements and off-the-cuff exaggerations. That’s bad enough: As political scientist Phil Arena explains, uncertainty can itself be a cause of war.
More profoundly, as international relations scholar Daniel Nexon writes, the global political order requires a U.S. government accepted as legitimate at home and abroad to maintain peace and prosperity. If Washington lacks the legitimacy to act, the entire international order may be undermined.
That might work to Moscow’s advantage in the very short term in such areas as Syria or Crimea. But if ending U.S. hegemony results in a prolonged period of global disorder, Russia too would soon find itself impoverished and endangered.
Ironically, Americans have a direct example of how intervention in a great power’s politics can backfire. During the 1990s, U.S. policymakers and experts tried to build a democratic and capitalist Russia from the rubble of the Soviet Union. This entailed far greater U.S. intervention in Russian domestic affairs than even the most paranoid have alleged regarding the 2016 campaign. But U.S. interventions failed, and the resulting disarray undermined U.S. influence in Russia while discrediting democratic institutions and leaders such as President Boris Yeltsin. Ruined and dejected, Yeltsin turned over the presidency to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin.