Elections are a messy affair. In a free and democratic society we all value the right to the open expressions of ideas, and this is especially true when it comes to our elections. As described in detail in our previous post about the importance of foreign election interference, other nations can sometimes seek to impact the course of our elections just like the United States has done the same to others in the past. This can quickly start to raise doubts about who is actually in control of the candidate selection process. This month’s guilty plea by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort surrounding foreign lobbying lies at the crossroads of both foreign and domestic political interference. But how does foreign lobbying work, and why should we care if American citizens engage in it? This week, we'll find out.
American citizens are permitted to engage in lobbying efforts with all sorts of entities and individuals. From corporations to congressional officials, private citizens may engage in almost any behavior (short of outright bribery) to convince others of the importance of their cause. The same can be done with elections and elected officials in other countries. In the case of Paul Manafort, his most prominent and controversial actions involved his support for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was working to develop closer ties to neighboring Russia, and Manafort actively worked on behalf of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine by publishing articles in American newspapers and influencing U.S. congressional debate in favor of Yanukovych.
Now none of these activities are strictly-speaking illegal. They may be questionable given the antagonistic position that Russia and Russian-backed governments tend to hold towards the United States, but there does not appear to be any indication at this time that Manafort’s actions included direct foreign espionage for the Russian government. Instead, the problem here is one of disclosure. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was passed in 1938 just as the Second World War was heating up. This act requires anyone working on behalf of a foreign government for political purposes to report this information to the federal government. The intent here is that the government has at least a basic understanding of these activities to determine if they may be working against the national interest. Back in the late 1930s, this was a tool to help discover and prevent the spread of Nazi propaganda in America. Now, enforcement seems to be revived to deal with the increasing problem of foreign interference in American elections.
Manfort’s case is important because it highlights a very serious vulnerability in the electoral process. As the Trump campaign manager during the critical summer months of 2016, Manafort held substantial influence over the rhetoric and policies of the campaign. In one such case, the Republican National Convention changed its July 2016 policy positions in Ukraine to remove a clause regarding the arming of Ukrainian pro-Western soldiers in Ukraine who were fighting pro-Russian forces in the east of the country. To be fair, the extent to which these events are related is not yet fully known. However, the important point here is that of disclosure. The American people have the right to know if prominent individuals tied to political campaigns have spent time working on behalf of a foreign government. This involvement could be benign, or it could indicate that this individual may not have the best interests of the United States in mind while seeking political office. Even worse, it could indicate someone who is compromised by a foreign government or continuing to work on its behalf. In any case, the people must know. This is the importance of disclosure.
Outside of the Manafort case, this type of behavior can be seen in other organizations and institutions. For instance, the Chinese government has sponsored the formation of “Confucius Institutes” throughout universities in the United States and abroad. These promote the study of Chinese culture and language, but have been heavily criticized as foreign influence organizations of the Chinese government. And just recently, two Chinese media organizations received notice from the Justice Department of their foreign agent registration requirements. The Russian propaganda outlet Russia Today (RT) also received a similar designation in 2017. The issue here is that foreign governments are not afforded the same first amendment rights as average citizens. When their interest is shaping public opinion in ways that could benefit hostile nations, this causes a large potential security risk. People could be convinced by other nations to disrupt critical alliances, start trade wars, or alter their nation’s foreign policy in favor of traditional adversaries.
The future of competition among powerful nations seems to be trending away from physical conflicts and toward ideological struggles. In an open society like the United States, we treasure the values of freedom of speech and expression. But this creates a vulnerability when hostile nations can inject ideas into the political discussion that benefit themselves at the expense of Americans. It is critical that we believe that our political opinions are truly our own, and not those of other nations seeking to do harm to the American political process. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of injuring our own global influence or eroding our faith in the democratic process itself. Laws like FARA only go so far. It is the responsibility of all citizens to ensure that we are properly educated about the issues being discussed and the people promoting those issues. It starts and ends with you.