We appear to have entered a new phase in international relations, with likely intervention of the Russian intelligence services in our recent Presidential elections. However, I would argue that this is nothing new. The Russians have been meddling in our politics for decades and similarly, we have been meddling in their politics and the politics of a host of countries for at least 70 years.
I must admit that the approaches to influencing events have changes but the underlying goals are the same; to influence political leaders and their constituencies in order to create environments more favorable to Russian goals. There is overwhelming evidence of efforts during the Soviet era dating back at least to the pre-WWII Stalinist regime. The US government cracked the Soviet encryption of communication in the early 1940's. This was kept secret until the early 1990's but the information was released under the name of Venona papers.
Additional supporting evidence of Russian attempts to influence American politics also came from the Mitrokhin Archives compiled by Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivists who smuggled a vast trove of materials from the KGB archives over the span of decades. There is also substantial evidence of Soviet backing of pacifist movements post-WWII until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. The highest profile organization supported was the World Peace Council but monies were purportedly directed to a host of organizations. How successful their efforts were in terms of influencing events is another story.
The US also has deployed efforts to influence politics and elections in a host of countries, both within and outside of Russian and nations making up the former Soviet Union. This was detailed in a Paul Musgrove commnetary in the Washington Post from last summer (Musgrove):
There is a certain irony in our present circumstances in that the tables have been turned. During the latter part of the 20th century, it was the conservative right which highlighted potential Soviet influence over US and western European politics and it was the left which discounted their concerns. Now it appears to be just the opposite.
The United States also has a long and active history of interventions in other countries’ politics. We have toppled governments by supporting coups, fueling revolutions and sending in our troops. We have employed more subtle tactics, too, to influence the outcome of elections.
In 1948, U.S. policymakers feared that Soviet-backed communists would win power in Italy. In response, as John Lewis Gaddis discusses in “The Cold War: A New History,” the role of the newly created CIA was extended beyond intelligence-gathering to allow the agency to funnel money and organizational support to pro-U.S. parties. American assistance may have included forging documents to discredit the Communist Party.
After Washington’s favored party won the Italian elections, such interventions became a staple of global-power politics. Political scientist Dov Levin estimates in International Studies Quarterly that Washington and Moscow intervened in a third country’s elections 117 times between 1946 and 2000. Sometimes, those interventions were overt, as when U.S. officials went out of their way to show favor to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in West Germany’s 1953 elections. At other times, the interventions were kept secret, as with American support for Thai political parties in 1969.
The United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union) have meddled in elections because it has served their national interests and because the inherent risk has often paid off. Levin estimates that an overt intervention by a superpower yields a tilt toward its desired outcome equal to about 3 percent of the total vote. In a close election (such as West Germany’s in 1972 or Israel’s in 1992), that effect could easily be large enough to tip the balance.
Foreign governments and other non-political entities will always try to influence events in the US to their advantage. To expect otherwise is foolish. Similarly, our government and US corporate entities will also try to use their resources to influence events. I would hope that US entities, both state and non-state, are more constrained in terms of what they will try to do and will draw the line before they cross into political assassinations (although we have gone there before). We simultaneously celebrate our own hackers and are dismayed when we are hacked. The new cyber domains and cyber attacks will likely require development of new diplomatic rules or engagement, which we should expect to be broken when it appears to be in the best interests of parties to do so.