20 11 2021

The bad old habit of meddling

Frontcover of Time Magazin, July 16, 1996. Frontcover of Time Magazin, July 16, 1996. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19960715,00.html

The 2016 US election where Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton gave rise to an unprecedented wave of accusations of meddling in the elections. The main culprit was Russia, and the Russian meddling was seen as decisive. If not, how could Hilary lose, despite having almost the whole US establishment and most of the media supporting her? That the US should accuse other countries of meddling in their internal affairs, is quite funny, given that they are the meddlers par excellence, and by the way are proud of it. However, meddling in other countries’ internal affairs is and old, bad habit, and apparently unstoppable. But something should be done to limit it.

In 1996 Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, faced an election. The disasters brought about by the shock-policy carried out by the Yeltsin-team with his foreign, mostly American, advisers, meant it was likely he would lose the election. He therefore received the massive backing from the US, an extraordinary loan from the IMF, and funding and technical support for his campaign. Eventually, he won, even if according to a report in Time Magazine, Dmitri Medvedev, later to become prime-minister for Vladimir Putin, claimed that he “did not actually win re-election in 1996 for his second term”. The second presidential vote in Russia's history, in other words, was rigged. This view is shared by Thomas Graham, Chief Political Analyst at the US Embassy in Moscow from 1994-1997. But, as he says, ‘...this was a classic case of the ends justifying the means, and we did get the result that we wanted. We got the result that our partners, reformers, in Russia wanted, and it's after we got that result that a lot of this began to unravel very visibly for people both in Russia and the West’. This is also the same careless attitude to meddling in elections in other countries that Hillary Clinton expressed when she in 2006 said, referring to the elections in Gaza (where Hamas won, to her regret): “I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.

There are several accounts of how the US has intervened in foreign countries, be it through military coups, misinformation campaigns or meddling in the elections. The reason why meddling in other countries’ election has suddenly become an issue is of course that Hilary Clinton, the favourite of the establishment and almost all the established media lost the presidential election in 2016, and they had to find somebody to blame for the defeat. The Russian meddling probably had some effect, but taking into account the enormous resources poured into the campaign by the two political parties themselves (USD 6.5 billion) it is laughable to claim that a couple of hundred thousand USD in Facebook ads, or even if it were a couple of million USD for “troll-factories” (as it is claimed), should be able to win the election for Trump. If it were true, then the US political parties should sack their campaign staff and hire some of these Russians instead. They seem to be value for money.1)

However, the question of the effectiveness of the Russian meddling is not the point. The point is that meddling in other countries internal affairs is bad, independently of who is doing it. Of course the US point of view is different. They are meddling to promote justice, democracy and human rights, while the Russians (or Chinese, or whoever) are meddling for nefarious purposes. The US meddling is a contribution to a better world, while the meddling by its adversaries is malign. So we have to accept that the US is guided by higher goals, and therefore their actions are legitimate. Everything else is ‘what-aboutism’.

Living in Latin America, the US anger over the meddling in its elections is funny, to put it mildly. When it took the Supreme Court several weeks to decide whether George W. Bush or Al Gore had won the presidential elections in 2000, there was a joke circulating on the internet (in Spanish). “Do you know why it takes so long to decide who won the election in the US? Answer: it is the only country in the world that does not have an American Embassy.” Any centrist- or right-wing presidential candidate in Latin America will be asking for the acceptance from the US Ambassador, and in many countries even for his public or concealed endorsement. The US Embassy will in many small countries call the political parties for a meeting at the Embassy to discuss the candidates, and when deemed necessary the Embassy will ‘facilitate’ an agreement on a common candidate to avoid dividing the vote. They are a very active player in the internal political life of the Latin American countries, and they don’t consider it necessary to hide it. Money is not a problem, it is always available. Including extraordinary loans from the IMF.

The use of misinformation to influence other countries is nothing new either. This was a very important tool during the cold war and was used much more effectively by the US than the Soviet Union. The use of the internet and the social networks to influence the politics of other countries is of course more recent. The argument now is that this gives Russia and China an advantage as they police their internet and social networks, while the West doesn’t. In the case of Russia, it is true that it has its own, very popular social networks (Vkontakte, Odnoklassiki, Telegram, Yandex for search, among others), but e.g. Instagram, Youtube and Facebook still have tens of millions of users in Russia, while the presence of Russian social media outside Russia and the former Soviet Republics is negligible. And by the way, Telegram, which has 550 million monthly active users compared to Whatsapp’s 2 billion, is owned by Pavel Durov, who lives in Switzerland and is not very cooperative with the Russian Government, unlike Facebook and Whatsapp, which have close links to the US Government. So it is difficult to see how Russia should have an advantage.

Be that as it may, meddling is widespread and goes much further than the traditional and the social media. An instrument which has gained increasing popularity in the West is the use of non-governmental organisations to further its interest. The immense fortunes of US moguls, living and dead (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Soros and so on), have during the last centuries been used to set up wealthy Foundations, which fund a diversity of good causes inside and outside the US (Research in cancer and vaccines, Women Rights, Poverty Reduction, etc.). They also finance Think Tanks which operate all over the world, including in most developing countries. And Russia.

Think Tanks invariably have a political agenda in the countries they operate in. To give an example: the US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has a regional branch in Moscow. A Google Search on a social or economic question related to Russia will inevitable throw up their web page, so it must have a privileged relation to Google’s algorithms. It advocates free markets and has no love for State-Owned Enterprises, characterises the annexation of Crimea as a blunder, import-substitution as a failure and presents sombre predictions regarding the country's economic future with current policies. And so on. These are absolutely legitimate opinions. But as the Carnegie Endowment is a foreign actor, financed and led from abroad, it would be difficult to avoid characterising it as ‘meddling’ in the internal policies of Russia. I know of no Russian parallel in the US.

It has become common-place the last couple of years accusing Russia of ‘Hybrid Warfare’. It has even got a name: the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, and now lives its own life in the Foreign Policy discussion clubs (The Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy Magazine and so on). It was invented by Mark Galeotti, a passionate London-based anti-Putin lecturer and consultant, but he now says that it was a mistake. He had read a 2013 speech by the Russian Chief of Staff, General Gerasimov, where he described the Western-promoted Colour Revolutions (Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia etc.): “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.” So when accusing Russia of inventing ‘hybrid warfare’ it is referring to a Russian description of Western Policy. This gives an idea of the prevailing poisonous foreign policy environment.

What can be done to stop this ‘hybrid warfare’? The US revived in 2017 a 1938-law on ‘foreign agents’ to require organisations, institutions or companies that receive foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’. This was immediately after copied by Russia with a similar law, and other countries have followed suit. It can be argued that people of course have a right to know who pays for the publications, media, research etc. that they are exposed to, but it is a dangerous road as it is difficult to see where it will stop.

What else could be done to define some rules of the game? First condition is to recognise that this goes both ways, which in itself will meet a lot of resistance (“we” are the good, “they” are the malign). But even if we succeed in getting so far, with the internet involved it is so complex that it is not obvious how rules can be formulated, let alone enforced.

When evaluating different countries’ capacities for cyber-warfare the US tends to come out as number one, followed by China, the UK, Russia, Netherlands, France and Germany. The US obviously has a privileged position, as the US spying agencies have back-doors to the Windows Operating System, which is installed on 88% of the computers in the world, and CISCO, which dominates the routers and switches that drive the internet. Both China and Russia are in a process of getting rid of this dependence, at least for public institutions, but it is a long and complicated process. We can only guess how deeply the different countries have infiltrated each other’s digital infrastructure and how many sleeping, malicious bots are incrusted in them. The Budapest Convention on Cybercrime from 2001 only covers cyber-crime, not cyber-warfare. There is an obvious need to improve these regulations. But this requires agreements between at least the leading powers.

One thing, which might help, would be to get rid of the anonymity on the internet. No email address without a genuine and identifiable owner behind, no anonymous social network users, no webpages without an identifiable owner. This was how the world functioned before the internet. Of course anonymous letters existed, but they were costly to send, so that limited it to a few addressees. The counterargument is of course: what about whistle-blowers and people living under repressive governments? There are ways to solve this. Newspapers have always had the possibility to say that the author of a letter published is secret, but that they know the person. In a similar way, whistle-blower web-sites could be set up, so nobody is silenced, but the managers of these pages would be responsible for the veracity of the content and that opinions expressed are not filled with hate-speech, defamations etc.

This would at least free us from a lot of hate-speech, phishing mails and email spam. And spam on websites, without having to enforce complicated Captchas or two-way verifications. By the way, we would also get rid of the famous “Russian bots”. Looks attractive, doesn’t it?




 1) One of the most bizarre elements of the “Russia-gate” story was the ‘Steele-dossier’. It was so fanciful that it should be obvious that it belonged to the realm of Conspiracy Theories. You know, the President of the United Stated being an asset of a foreign power’s Secrete Services as they have a video of him doing improprieties with Russian hookers at a hotel in Moscow. Being a Conspiracy Theory does not mean that it necessarily is wrong. Conspiracies do exist. However, it should have alerted adult and serious people that this warranted more than normal evidence, before believing in it. But there was no evidence, only unverified rumours. This conspiracy theory was promoted by almost all the established media in the US and much of the rest of the Western World. It was taken as a fact, proven. People denying it would be accused of peddling fake news and would be sanctioned on social media. Now even the Washington Post, which was one of the media which most actively promoted this narrative, has retracted – at least partially. Igor Danchenko, a key 'researcher' for the Steele-dossier, had worked at Brookings Institution, a liberal Think Tank, as a Russia analyst from 2005 to 2010 and was introduced to Christopher Steele, a former British Spy, when working there. Danchenko has been arrested for lying to the FBI regarding his sources. One of Danchenko’s key sources turned out to be Charles Dolan Jr. who worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign, which by the way paid for the dossier. Full circle. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, defended his long-time promotion of the now-discredited Steele dossier by claiming that his team "couldn't have known" that Igor Danchenko, had allegedly lied.

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