A National Security Issue — Not a Partisan One

Laura Rosenberger, Senior Fellow and Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, German Marshall Fund of the United States

Europe is no stranger to Russian government efforts to interfere in and undermine democracy. These operations employ a range of tools, including information operations, cyberattacks, malign financial influence, strategic economic coercion, and subversion of civil society. Russian-linked efforts to interfere in Macedonia’s recent referendum on the name agreement with Greece were just one recent example of how these tools are used together. Moscow exploits these relatively low-cost methods to attempt to gain relative power by weakening others, including NATO and the EU.

Despite Russia’s aggressive use of these tactics across its periphery, the export of these tools to Western Europe and the United States took many by surprise, particularly their use to target elections. While elections provide a particularly ripe opportunity for malign actors to undermine democratic institutions, election interference is one part of ongoing efforts aimed at undermining faith in government, deepening divisions, and in some cases, fomenting violence. Russia is not the only authoritarian power using these tools — the Chinese government has also begun to use social media to manipulate public discussion outside its borders, and has funded information operations and directly supported politicians to influence political debate abroad, including in parts of Europe. Several companies also recently took action against Iranian information operations online. While using similar tools, the strategies employed by different authoritarian actors for their interference efforts will likely differ based on their long-term goals, and these operations are therefore likely to have differences in how they manifest.

Countering foreign interference requires robust action from governments, the private sector, and civil society, and it is critical that any countermeasures are not only consistent with, but also help strengthen, democracy. Transparency and exposure of such foreign interference operations is critical to reducing their effectiveness and deterring them. Many of these issues fall in the seams between bureaucracies — within individual governments, between the EU and NATO, and between the public and private sectors — and it is critical that we develop structures both within and between governments, and with the private sector, to ensure a unified and integrated approach to the whole problem.

In the United States, a robust response has been hindered by partisanship around the issue. It is critical that decisions about whether to expose and respond to foreign interference be removed from a political context and understood as a national security issue.

Governments also need to send deterrent warnings to foreign actors about the consequences of interference. Together with tech companies, they need to close off vulnerabilities that are being exploited, while protecting citizens’ ability to engage freely and robustly in speech. We need to harden our electoral infrastructure against cyberattacks, and both the press and candidates should pledge to handle leaked material appropriately. We also need to identify threats in new technology before they are exploited. And it is essential that democracies work together to share information about threats and collaborate on responses. Finally, civil society needs to play a robust role in both exposing interference and in building societal resilience. Foreign interference operations work because they exploit real vulnerabilities; strengthening ourselves at home will be critical to a strong defence.