Much has been written about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – the theft and selective leaking of information, the attempt to tamper with state voting systems, and the weaponization of social media. Every day brings further revelations about Moscow’s still-ongoing information operations in the U.S.
Yet little of this news and commentary explains why we, as Americans, should be concerned about these activities, and why they are a national security threat to the U.S. and to each and every American.
The answer generally is understood by national security specialists, but we have not explained it as well as we should to the rest of America. What is clear to those of us who have been involved in international relations our entire life’s work may not be clear to others.
Such campaigns by any foreign government pose three broad categories of threat. The first and most serious – admittedly at the extreme – is that influencing how we think about who is running for office or by tampering with voting systems could play a role in who we elect as our leaders, thereby potentially giving a foreign government direct influence over our policies.
The second category of threat posed by such campaigns, again somewhat at the extreme, is that a foreign government could affect the way the American people think about key policy issues through their influence operations. As we are a democracy in which public opinion matters, that could influence key decisions regarding those issues, again in a way that could be detrimental to our national security interests. Imagine if Nazi propaganda in Britain in the early days of World War II had convinced the British people that they could live with a Nazi-dominated Europe. The world would likely be a very different place today.
And, the third threat, which is the most important because it is the most likely to be successful, is that a foreign government’s influence operations could erode our national unity and our confidence in our democracy and its key institutions, thereby weakening us as a nation. This is a national security threat because history teaches us that the most important determinant of a country’s national security is the health of its economy and its society, and that a nation divided at home cannot be effective abroad. Our democratic institutions are essential to our ability to project power, advance our prosperity and keep the nation secure.
This – weakening us as a nation – has been and remains the major goal of Russian influence operations in the U.S. Moscow’s logic is that democracy is our core strength and that the more they undermine it and the institutions that support it, the less effective we will be in the world.
In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that the more distracted we are by internal division and debate, the less attention we will pay to Russian activities around the world that are inconsistent with international norms and/or that undermine what we are trying to accomplish globally.
(Excerpted from The Cipher Brief 1/11/18)