Russian “Influence” On the US Election is Not Important or Interesting

by Benjamin Studebaker

It has become increasingly popular for Hillary Clinton supporters and even the wider media to blame Russia for the result of the US presidential election and to suggest that Donald Trump’s desire to repair relations with Russia must be motivated by some sort of sinister conspiracy. This position is deeply flawed on many levels. Here are just a few of the best ways to undermine this argument.

I’m going to give you five counterarguments to the claim that Russia’s intervention is important or interesting, and this barely scratches the surface of what can be said:

  1. Countries attempt to influence other countries’ domestic politics all the time–this is routine.
  2. If the Russians did influence the election, they were able to do so because they were able to get their hands on Clinton’s e-mails, which means that she really did take very poor care of them–they fell into the hands of the Russians, for pity’s sake.
  3. If someone else leaked the e-mails, they still would have been a story, and given how easily the Russians are alleged to have gotten their hands on them, nearly anyone could have leaked them and made this a story.
  4. Anyone who voted for Donald Trump on the basis of the e-mails showed demonstrable incompetence as a voter and this incompetence is a much bigger problem for us in the long-term.
  5. This election should not have been anywhere near close to begin with.

We’ll say a bit more about each of those, and then we’ll talk about why the United States has good strategic reasons to develop friendlier relations with Russia in any case.

Countries Intervene in the Domestic Politics of Other Countries All the Time

Remember that story from a couple weeks ago about how the US tried to kill Fidel Castro more than 600 times? Each one of those times constitutes a major attempted intervention into Cuban domestic politics. States intervene in other states’ affairs all the time. This is a normal part of international politics. It’s not remarkable or special in any way. The US frequently intervenes in the affairs of countries where it thinks by doing so it can cause a more friendly government to gain or maintain power. We do this by offering financial, military, and logistical support to government opponents and revolutionaries. We also prop up regimes that are friendly to us and attempt to obstruct revolutions that are unfriendly. This takes many forms–we give military aid to Egypt, we orchestrated a coup in Chile, we intervened militarily in Vietnam, we armed rebels in Afghanistan, the list goes on. Recently we have supported the pro-western faction in Ukraine and we have given support to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

It should be unsurprising that the Russians attempt their own interventions in these countries when the government we’re attempting to remove is one that is friendly to them, and it should be unsurprising that the Russians would seek to help elect politicians in western countries who advocate for friendlier US-Russian relations. To expect them to do otherwise is naive in the extreme–countries do everything they can to advance their interests in the world, including intervening in the domestic affairs of foreign states. Given the opportunity we would likely intervene in Russian politics to promote a pro-western liberal democracy. We can hardly be surprised that they would seek to influence our own internal affairs.

Russia Getting Its Hands on the E-Mails Proves the Point the Right was Making

From the beginning, the right was concerned about Clinton’s e-mails because of the possibility that poor security would enable foreign states to gain access to classified information and use that information against the United States. If the Russians leaked the e-mails, then this is precisely what happened–they took advantage of Clinton’s poor handling of classified information to acquire that information and use it to hurt our country. This means blaming Russia doesn’t get you out of blaming Clinton–she is the reason they had this information to begin with, and if the Democratic Party had run any other candidate (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, literally anyone) the Russians would not have been able to damage that candidate by leaking that candidate’s e-mails. The emphasis on this issue just underlines what a poor candidate Hillary Clinton was.

Anyone Else Could Have Done This to Clinton

The whole point of the e-mail scandal was that Clinton’s server was poorly secured, allowing potentially anyone to get their hands on the e-mails and leak them. Choosing to nominate Clinton in such circumstances was asking for trouble. Literally anyone could have gotten their hands on the e-mails and used them to damage the Clinton campaign in October. If the leak came from the Russian state rather than from somewhere else, this is just happenstance–it easily could have been anyone, and it was obvious from the start that it could have been anyone because Clinton secured her e-mails very poorly–this was the problem.

Even So, This is a Poor Reason to Support Trump

Trump was on the record with an array of policy positions that were based on misinformation or disinformation. Clinton’s e-mail screw-up was never on par with these nonsense policies. We must recall that during the campaign, Trump pledged to build a wall to stop immigrants that generate revenue for the state and don’t commit crimes, claimed that climate change was a hoax, and proposed a tax plan that is a massive giveaway to the rich and will blow a massive hole in the deficit to little purpose. Trump was stunningly incompetent, and people voted for him anyway in part because, like Trump, they don’t know much about policy. While it’s certainly true that the Clinton campaign made things much worse by condescending to these voters, calling them deplorable racists, and showing little concern for their interests, it’s not as if these people would have voted for Trump in large numbers if they knew policy. Trump had very few supporters within academic political science for a reason. Our much bigger problem is that we have a lot of voters who found Trump’s message appealing, or at least no less unappealing than Clinton’s message.

Given the Above, This Election Should Not Have Been Close

When Lyndon Johnson squared off against Barry Goldwater in 1964, he won by more than 20 percentage points. Clinton should have had a tremendous cushion such that the leaked e-mails would make little significance. Even if they were worth 10 points, she still should have won by double figures. The fundamental reason this didn’t happen is that voters don’t know or care much about policy and the Clinton campaign ran an extremely poor campaign in which it nakedly insulted large numbers of people and took white working class voters for granted. Trump closed the gap with voters who make less than $50,000 by 10 points. He won 71% of white men with no college degree and 61% of similarly educated white women. Democrats can’t win landslides without the white working class, and the Clinton campaign made sure this election would be close by alienating those people and driving them into the hands of Trump.

Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s say a bit more about Russia…

Why We Need to Improve Relations with Russia

There’s a tendency in the media to present Russia as an exceptionally aggressive, interventionist power. This is a misreading. If you combine NATO and Russia’s military expenditure, NATO will account for 95% of the total. Over the last decade Russia has only intervened in countries which try to exit its sphere of influence (Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria). It has not tried to extend that sphere of influence into countries which have already left it, nor does it have the capability to do so. Its economy is increasingly dependent on oil and gas, and because of fracking the price of these commodities is not as high as it used to be. This diminishes Russian influence in the world. Russia also has extremely static institutions that are overly dependent on Vladimir Putin–he has run the Russian state for almost two decades and no one else in Russia really knows how to manage its complex patronage system. Russian institutions are not dynamic and its long-term trajectory is remarkably poor. However, because Russia still has a large nuclear arsenal and a top 5 military it remains a player, albeit a much less important one than in the old Soviet days. It’s capable of intervening in the much weaker states which immediately border it if and when those states attempt to defect to the west, and when we try to pry them loose Russia is likely to retaliate. Our strategic interests in places like Ukraine and Syria is very limited, but Russia views these countries as crucial buffers against NATO and the west, and it will go to immense lengths to hold onto them, continuing to intervene even in the face of heavy economic sanctions and painful recession. Attempts by us to intervene in these territories could lead to a devastating war, and in any case they will likely lead to even more bloodshed and death. The Russians will not be intimidated into letting them go, and if we underestimate their resolve we risk creating another Cuban Missile Crisis in which the world is pushed to the brink of nuclear war. This is stupid and accomplishes nothing of value.

In the meantime, we need the Russians because China is rising rapidly, and Russia is well-situated to play an important supporting role in a balancing coalition to contain China. If Russia does not end up part of that balancing coalition, it is likely to become a junior partner to China (in much the same way that fascist Italy became a junior partner to Nazi Germany), and that will make things harder for the US and its allies in East Asia. In the long-term, China poses a much greater threat to Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan than Russia does to Europe.

For all these reasons, we ought to be cautiously optimistic about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s expected pick for Secretary of State. Unlike Mitt Romney, Tillerson has significant international experience (negotiating on behalf of a transnational corporation) and he understands that we gain nothing from continuing to escalate tensions with Russia. Tillerson has also expressed support for a carbon tax in spite of the fact that he has worked as the CEO of a major oil company. This suggests a willingness on his part to put the public interest first and shows a level of thoughtfulness that is somewhat unusual for a Trump cabinet pick.

I am not the only person with this sort of view about Russia–you can find it throughout international relations scholarship. One of the most prominent advocates is John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago neorealist:

The left would ordinarily welcome a more conciliatory attitude toward Russia–it’s the left that is always meant to be trying to avoid a major war. The American left now attempts to oppose Trump’s efforts to repair relations purely because they are Trump’s efforts, and it would rather oppose Trump than support policies that advance its own foreign policy objectives. It’s also desperately looking for an excuse for having lost the election, and it’s always easier to blame foreigners than to look at our own approach. Here the left makes precisely the same mistake it has accused the right of making–it is blaming foreigners for its problems instead of thinking seriously about its situation and taking constructive action. This anti-Russian attitude is xenophobic, massively inflates the negligible threat Russia poses, and is fundamentally myopic. It makes us look ridiculous. We need to stop.