Americans charged with securing the country’s elections have rightfully worried about disinformation and direct sabotage by hostile foreign powers, most recently surfacing in reports about nefarious efforts by Russia and Iran.
But another form of interference should also cause urgent concern: Supposedly friendly governments may try to bolster Trump’s performance in the election by giving legitimacy to the president’s unfounded allegations of voter fraud, or by prematurely recognizing a Trump victory before all the votes are counted.
In Politico this week, we argue that America needs to broadly reestablish diplomatic norms with partners and allies that have grown dangerously comfortable inserting themselves into U.S. partisan politics. Here, we want to discuss a related matter of more narrow but immediate concern: foreign meddling in the ongoing presidential election.
Foreign governments should consider themselves on notice. Fair-minded American politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens have their eyes on how supposedly supportive foreign governments comport themselves during a pivotal moment in American democracy. Unfortunately, too many of their peers have opportunistically welcomed a foreign role in our domestic politics.
The current crisis leaves no room for ambiguity; governments that want to preserve even the most basic degree of trust with the United States must keep a distance from the 2020 electoral process.
Americans have already been voting for weeks. After election day, it could take days or weeks for all the ballots to be counted. During what is likely to be a fraught period beginning November 3, foreign governments should respect the integrity of the process and not seek to bolster their preferred candidate. Unfortunately, not only America’s rivals but too many of its partners discovered a short-term advantage with their machinations in 2016, reaping support from the Trump administration after publicly praising the new American president. Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu embraced Trump and the Republican party, and in return persuaded the United States to drop decades of investment in the peace process. Saudi Arabia’s acting ruler endorsed Trump’s chaotic Middle East policy on the president’s first foreign visit, and got a free pass for murdering dissidents, including U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Other serious offenders include the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, but the list goes on.
Many foreign leaders already have voiced a public preference for either Trump’s reelection or for a Biden presidency. It’s one thing for foreign governments to express their policy preferences—but another thing entirely for them to try to influence the U.S. electoral process.
The only suitable position for foreign powers is to support integrity and transparency in the U.S. election process, and to refrain from congratulating a victor until all votes have been counted and a legitimate result has been reached. Furthermore, they must condemn any organized violence, intimidation, or disenfranchisement, and refuse to publicly endorse fraud or illegality, even if they are invited to do so by partisans within the United States.
A Dangerous Moment
In 2016, foreign authoritarians rushed in to reap the expected bonanza of a Trump administration. A Trump reelection is likely to further reinforce these corrosive practices. If 2020 brings another shift in power, foreign governments will have to relearn old manners, and wait until after the inauguration to deal with Trump’s successor. The United States has only one president at a time.
The 2020 elections are unfolding under unique conditions, including more early and absentee mail-in ballots than ever before, with a distinct possibility of a long counting and certification process that stretches beyond election day itself. Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented voter suppression efforts, and a White House that actively encourages conspiracy theories about mail-in voting. Most frightening of all, the sitting president and many of those around him have refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Trump loses the election.
In such circumstances, it is very possible that Trump will seek to short-circuit the vote count if he expects an initial lead in battleground states to fade because of a “blue shift” when mail-in votes are counted. In this scenario, the few days between the election and a complete vote count could create an important time window during which the apparent results might change. It is during this crucial period that silence and patience will be most critical from foreign governments, especially those who wish to be perceived as neutral partners or allies rather than as dangerous competitors and spoilers. They can support the integrity of the process by committing to their institutional relationship with the United States, whether based on shared national interests, values, or both.
Foreign governments absolutely should abstain from prematurely endorsing a winner, or from any perception of interfering in the election process. Trump would no doubt welcome a congratulatory call before all votes are tallied, from his “favorite dictator” (the president’s nickname for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi) or any other international validator, and could leverage such support to undermine the democratic process.
Continuing along the current path will lead conclusively to a more brutish world of favor-trading and authoritarian bargains, with decreasing opportunities for the kind of international collaboration and diplomacy that can end wars and address climate change. If they seek a revival of better norms, foreign governments should be clear now that they have no option other than to support a fair and free American election, and wait for the process to play out. If they try to play fast and loose during the election or during a lame-duck transition period, their long-term prospects should suffer.
Foreign governments, especially those who consider themselves American partners or allies, should prepare for another once-unthinkable scenario. U.S. voters could face widespread disenfranchisement, intimidation, efforts to exclude their ballots from the official count, and potentially even violence. Mass protests might be met by inappropriate force, as happened during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. In such an event, foreign governments should follow international norms and condemn violence and fraud—and should resist any calls to endorse the sitting president’s approach. They should wait until and unless a credible election result has been reached.
The United States needs to reassert proper diplomatic norms (which the Trump administration itself grossly and habitually violates), and separate their practice from questions of policy, on which there will always be room to disagree—respectfully—even with partners and allies. That’s a longer-term problem that transcends the election currently underway and which will take years to correct. So too is the wider problem of disinformation.
In the event of a Biden victory, the international response to the election itself could mark the first step in a restoration of comity. Good manners don’t necessarily make for sound policy, but they certainly abet better diplomacy.
Some of the same Middle Eastern leaders that gained a lot by flattering Trump are now reading the polls and seeing that their preferred strongman might not win a second term. Some might seek to help him in an election dispute, but they would be better served in the long run by staying out of it. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu recently started hedging his bets during a public phone call about the recent deal that normalized Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Trump said in a call with Netanyahu eleven days before the election, all but inviting the Israeli leader to publicly endorse him. Netanyahu, uncharacteristically, demurred, saying Israel would welcome support from anyone in the United States.
Foreign leaders should learn, once again, how to act non-partisan when dealing with the United States. They are, after all, seeking support from a major nation, not from an extreme political action committee of one of its political parties.
Partners of the United States chafe when they perceive Washington to be meddling in their elections or successions. They rightfully want to choose their own governments and then conduct matters of state according to their national interests. It’s time that these American partners accord the United States the same courtesy. And the next month’s election and aftermath are the perfect time to display this renewed commitment.
header photo: Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump walk through the West Wing Colonnade prior to the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images