RISK 1: Foreign interference
Earlier this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his 448 page report of the Trump-Russia investigation. Although Mueller emphasizes that his report has not established that there was a conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government to interfere with the election, it did provide a detailed account of the interference and influence campaign carried out by Russian operatives during the 2016 election. Also, the evidence in the report is by no means enough to claim “total exoneration”, as U.S. Attorney General William Barr has done. Trump himself has called Mueller’s investigation a “coup” and an “attempted overthrow of the United States government,” and Republicans have said Democrats’ demands for the investigation were unreasonable: “Democrats have yet to prove their demands anything but abusive and illogical”.
The fact that Trump is trying to defend the legitimacy of his presidency is distracting the government from protecting the 2020 elections from renewed election meddling. While the American government has promised to shield the elections from Russian interference, intelligence officials have complained that President Trump has shown little interest in the matter, according to F.B.I. director Christopher Wray. There is a lack of high-level coordination and there has been some dismantlement of voting-protection functions. Meanwhile, the threat of misuse of social media, fake news, propaganda, trolls, etc. persists, undermining faith in democratic voting systems, and potentially further polarizing already divided electorates, Wray adds.
Indeed, it appears as though voters will have to accept the (new) reality of foreign interference in their democratic elections. Even before the Mueller report’s release, a plurality of Americans believed that Trump had “colluded” with Russians, according to Reuters. This coincides with faith in democracy being at an all-time low. In an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll conducted in October 2018, only 51% of Americans reported having faith in the country’s democracy, while 37% said they have lost faith in democracy. This development could be interpreted as favorable to Russia. By deciding to degrade the Mueller investigation in order to defend the President’s legitimacy, the American government has given its people a sign that foreign interference is acceptable.
The 2016 election meddling was merely the “rehearsal for the big show in 2020”, F.B.I. director Wray warns. Meanwhile, democratic governments around the world have been and will be experiencing more cyberattacks. Canadian intelligence, for instance, warns of foreign electoral interference ahead of its October elections. As one of the world’s biggest democracies, the U.S. is not leading by example in fighting such interference, which points to a world in which malign influence operations are considered the new normal by governments and voters, further deteriorating democratic systems. Indeed, it is not only Russia meddling in elections – the U.S. itself is guilty of this practice.
- Other upcoming elections will also see increasing influence from foreign agents.
- Fears over the use of digital tools for foreign influence are likely to lead to increasing techno-nationalism (in public technology tenders, but possibly also among consumers). The concerns around the 5G technology of Huawei already point to these fears.
RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 1: Deteriorating relations Russia and the West