WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s visit to France with President Emmanuel Macron for Bastille Day celebrations came at a moment when Russian meddling in democratic elections continued to dominate headlines. While much of the media focus has been on Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, we need to start to address this ongoing and urgent problem.
A declining Russia employing asymmetric tactics and disinformation threatens democracies in Europe as well as the United States. Over the past year, Moscow interfered in both the U.S. and French presidential elections, continuing a pattern seen in other recent European elections. The Putin regime used similar tools and tactics in both countries to spread misinformation and undermine people’s trust in the democratic process.
Yet Trump and Macron have responded to this Russian aggression differently. Paris’ approach can provide some useful lessons for Washington as we look to prevent foreign interference in our democratic process, now and in the future.
Before campaigning in its recent Presidential race began, all major parties in France were informed by the authorities of the threat of outside interference and advised on how to make their operations more secure. Disinformation attempts by Kremlin outlets, targeting mainstream candidates and attempting to bolster far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, were publicly identified. When emails from the Macron campaign were hacked and leaked, the French media respected the country’s strict election laws and refrained from reporting on their content. According to press reports, the Macron campaign also went on the offensive, preemptively planting patently false information in the hacked and subsequently leaked documents, tainting the whole release as well as anyone who reported on it.
Since taking office, Macron has confronted Putin directly. Putin was his first guest as head of state and, although their interaction was largely positive, Macron showed resolve in front of his Russian counterpart. To a journalist who asked why Russia Today and Sputnik were barred from the En Marche! headquarters on the night of the election, Macron replied that both organizations behaved as “agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda.” The French president has repeatedly condemned Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and stated in a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko his intent to push for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine under the Minsk agreements. With French support, the EU also extended economic sanctions against Russia for another six months.
Meanwhile, President Trump has continued to cast doubt on his own intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election. Despite the administration’s insistence that Russian interference was raised in Trump’s first meeting with Putin, Trump’s own commentary on Putin’s denials and Secretary Tillerson’s comment about the need to “move forward” undermined any serious message that may have been sent.
On his flight to Paris, President Trump did highlight the importance of preventing similar efforts in the future, “Whether it’s Russia or anybody else,” he stated, “we can’t let there be even a scintilla of doubt when it comes to an election.”
The problem is that continued questions about Russian influence efforts in 2016 are dominating the attention of Congress and the U.S. media, without any serious discussion of how to defend against and deter such activity now and in the future. As former DNI Clapper has warned, Russia has already started to “prep the battlefield [for] 2018.” Indeed, the Russians continue to use social media and overt and covert propaganda outlets to influence the political debate in the United States. The partisan nature of much of the debate about Russia’s interference in 2016 also plays directly into Russian goals.
The U.S. needs to learn from France and other European partners and allies who are and have been dealing with this threat to develop defensive and deterrent strategies to secure our democracies. Sharing experiences, what works and what doesn’t, and joining forces are the first steps to halting the Russian efforts to undermine our democracies and weaken our countries. The German Marshall Fund’s new project, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, is intended to track Russian interference in democracy and serve as a hub for best practices in defending our institutions.
At a joint press conference in Paris last week, President Trump and his French counterpart highlighted the importance of maintaining a working relationship with Russia. Russia cannot be ignored. Both leaders have a responsibility to their citizens and to the rest of the West to denounce assaults on democracy and on the values we hold dear. As we celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution that gave birth to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, let us hope that, like the generations of American and French citizens who have preceded us, our generation is up to the challenge of defending our ideals against authoritarians in Moscow and beyond who seek to undermine our fundamental freedoms.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.