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Russian 2016 Electoral Interference Was Just Proof of Concept

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In yesterday’s post about Trump-Russia, I suggested that Americans, in general, need to update their baseline assumption “that international affairs happen ‘externally’ and affect campaigns largely by setting context and providing” exogenous shocks in the form of “surprises.” Such an assumption reflects a general tendency to see “international” and “domestic” politics as largely separate, but interacting, arenas. Many international-relations scholars now reject this model of world politics, arguing that world politics is a domain of complex hierarchies or that globalizing and transnational processes have made it much more difficult to treat political dynamics as delimited by the borders of states.

This is a key assumption of my current work on hegemony, power politics, and international order. International order is not just an object of contestation, but also a means: it provides instruments—such as international institutions, pathways of trade interdependence, international norms, alliance networks—that actors use as they jockey for power and position. Once we move away from the idea that international order exists somewhere entirely beyond the borders of states, we start to recognize how the domestic politics of even powerful countries—such as the United States—are profoundly embedded within, structured by, and otherwise hooked into international order and its contestation.

None of this is, of course, news to readers of Erik Loomis’ work on global trade. But I don’t think that, outside of handwaving about globalization and a ‘globalized world’, it has been fully internalized by the news media, let alone integrated into the thinking of a lot of American ideological, political, and social movements. I’ve argued here before that a major split in progressive thought has roots in the failure to “update” priors with respect to how international processes—the trans-nationalization of the anti-liberal right, the rise of globalized oligarchy, and so on—require embracing a progressive variant of liberal internationalism.

More broadly, political, ideological, and social movements need to take international context much more seriously when thinking about how their basket of policy preferences interact. This is a point I made some time ago at a workshop on possibilities of libertarian-progressive alliances on specific foreign-policy goals, such as rightsizing defense budgets, reducing the militarization of American foreign policy, and even specific concerns such as American involvement in Yemen.

The example I stressed was campaign finance: it might seem consistent with libertarian goals to ‘maximize freedom’ by reducing regulations on political spending, but in a world with capitalist authoritarian powers this is likely to be self-defeating, because it’s extremely easy for them to flood the United States with political donations, laundered through shell corporations, and capture aspects of American policy. And if you think that China or Russia is going to nudge American political economy towards libertopia, then you’re spending too much money at the local dispensary.

Indeed, 2016 was only a preview of where we’re headed.

Even without the Executive Branch doing its part for foreign electoral influence, the sardonic comments might as well write themselves:

So, just keep in mind that the Supreme Court isn’t just making it possible for Republicans to create illiberal democracy via voter suppression. It’s also facilitating the efforts of foreign powers—including authoritarian ones—to shape international order by hijacking the American political process. Why merely lobby when you can help throw elections?

But, you know, Obama was so out of line when he pointed this out.

Just days after the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision allowing unlimited outside spending in elections, President Obama, in his first State of the Union address, warned that the decision “will open a floodgate for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

According to the Washington Post, Justice Samuel Alito, who was sitting in the chamber alongside his fellow Supreme Court jurists as Obama spoke, “winced at the accusation and muttered ‘not true.’”

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