Is the U.S. Hypocritical to Criticize Russian Election Meddling?

What "Whataboutism" Gets Wrong

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017.  Carlos Barria / REUTERS

The U.S. response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election has been extraordinarily weak. Not only that, it has been accompanied by an attitude of “whataboutism” on the part of some Americans—the relativistic view that the United States has little ground to complain about Russia’s actions given its own history of meddling in other countries’ political campaigns and elections. It is certainly essential to be honest and realistic about the considerable record of past U.S. electoral meddling, and the contrast between Russia and the United States in this domain is certainly not black and white. Yet neither is it one of indistinguishable shades of gray. The United States is simply not engaging in electoral meddling in a manner comparable to Russia’s approach. 


Two key flaws underlie relativist accounts. First, such a position fails to distinguish adequately between the pattern of U.S. interventionism during the Cold War, on the one hand, and U.S. activity since the end of the Cold War on the other. During the former period, the United States did indeed illegitimately intervene in numerous foreign elections, trying to tilt outcomes in favor of candidates the United States preferred and in a smaller number of cases laboring to oust legitimately elected leaders Washington saw as hostile to its security and economic interests. The record is long and dark, marked by some especially well-known cases in Guatemala and Iran in the early 1950s and in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, such interventionism has decreased significantly because U.S. policymakers no longer view the world as enmeshed in a global ideological struggle in which every country, no matter how small, is a critical piece on a larger strategic chessboard. Washington has thus become much less concerned about the outcomes of most foreign elections and much less engaged in trying to tilt them in any particular direction.

Of course, one

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