In the aftermath of a major conflict, an ambassador representing a world power bribes U.S. senators to reject the peace treaty formally ending the war. After the treaty is narrowly approved anyway, the ambassador mobilizes the press to sway the election for president in favor of a candidate more to his nation’s liking. The foreign effort helps flip Pennsylvania’s vote.
This happened in America’s first contested presidential election in 1796, as George Washington declined to run for a third term. In the John Adams, the Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican, France’s Ambassador, Pierre Auguste Adet, openly supported the Democratic-Republicans who were seen as sympathetic to revolutionary France. Adet even suggested that electing the pro-British Federalists might lead to war with revolutionary France. (The Quasi-War did break out at sea between France and the U.S. in July 1798 and lasted just over two years.)
The consensus among historians is that Adet’s efforts largely backfired, leading to Adams’ election over Jefferson.
Foreign efforts to influence the American election so alarmed Washington that in his farewell address, he warned of “…the insidious wiles of foreign influence… …since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.”
When considering foreign attempts to change American election results—and consequently U.S. policy—it’s important to consider that such efforts haven’t led to open warfare, nor, it would seem, much in the way of practical consequences. As a result, attempting to interfere in U.S. elections appears to be both a low-risk and a low-cost operation, resulting in diplomatic consequences at most.
One reason why foreign influence operations typically don’t result in retaliation beyond an attempt to return the favor is that one side in America’s partisan divide is often viewed as the beneficiary, leading to a reluctance to escalate.
A little more than a century after revolutionary France tried its hands at American politics, another revolutionary regime, the Soviet Union, began a 70-year campaign to infiltrate American institutions and influence elections. In 1987, the FBI issued a report titled, “Soviet Active Measures in the United States, 1986-87.” The report is remarkable reading even now, 33 years later.
The FBI report starts with a definition:
“The term active measures is a literal translation of a Russian phrase used to describe overt and covert techniques and intelligence operations designed to advance Soviet foreign policy objectives and to influence events in foreign countries. In the United States, Soviet active measures operations utilized a wide range of techniques which include: forged documents, written and oral disinformation, agents of influence, political influence operations, use of Communist parties, and an international network of Soviet-controlled front groups.”
The specific goals of this hostile effort was to “…attempt to: directly influence the policies and actions of the U.S. Government; undermine public confidence in U.S. leaders and institutions; influence public opinion against certain U.S. military, economic, and political programs; disrupt relations between the United States and its allies; and demonstrate that the policies and goals of the United States are incompatible with the growth of developing nations.”
In the runup to the 1988 presidential elections, the FBI expected “…a new series of active measures operations designed to discredit those candidates who have platforms that are not acceptable to the Soviet Government.” The FBI noted that in the 1984 campaign, the Communist Party USA announced “…that nothing was more important than the defeat of President Reagan.” The Communist Party USA even received millions of dollars in illegal payments from the Soviet Union, boasting in 1986 that it helped the Democrats take back the U.S. Senate with the $2 million it received that year.
In the 2020 election cycle it appears there are at least four hostile efforts aimed at America with China, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally, all vying to disrupt the U.S. election. As with Cold War-era efforts led by the former Soviet Union, one objective is common among all hostile foreign actors, that of undermining public confidence in U.S. leaders and institutions. This, even as the Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned in early August that, “We assess that China prefers that President Trump… does not win reelection.” With China “…expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020…”
One thing is certain—so long as there is an America, there will be foreign powers seeking to influence her.