We have heard numerous pronouncements from the news media, our political leaders and National Security Agency officials about Russian interference in our elections. What is missing is background information on how the United States has a history of involvement in elections around the world, in several cases overthrowing governments when the populace of the country voted in the “wrong” candidate – for example, in Guatemala in the 1950s and Chile in the 1970s.
During the early post-World War II era, this was principally the purview of the Central Intelligence Agency in its media disinformation campaigns, assassinations and covert funding of political candidates. Beginning in the 1980s, the United States became more transparent in its actions, although apparently U.S. media don't think it's relevant to the grand narrative of Russian influence of our elections and how we ended up with Donald Trump as president.
During the 1980s, under the Reagan administration (and under every administration since), our actions to influence elections in other countries increased and became more visibly institutionalized as part of our democracy-promotion efforts. The National Endowment for Democracy, a quasi-private, congressionally funded instrument, was created in 1983 to channel money, equipment, and political consultants and other expertise to certain countries to influence their newly institutionalized electoral processes. Allen Weinstein, who helped establish the NED, noted in 1991: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
The NED provides about half of its funding to non-governmental organizations created by the two political parties, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, along with funding for a labor institute (the American Center for International Labor Solidarity), and a business institute to promote private ownership, the Center for International Private Enterprise. The majority of the funding comes from allocations from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The activities of the NED are coordinated through the State Department and USAID and are often directed by Congress to focus on particular countries to influence their political systems.
The board of directors for each of the party NGOs consists primarily of U.S party officials. For example, the current chairperson of the International Republican Institute is Arizona Sen. John McCain. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte of Maine are also on the board. Chairperson of the National Democratic Institute is former Secretary of State in the Clinton administration Madeleine Albright. Former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota is also on the board. One of the congressional leaders behind the creation of the NED, Dante Fascell, a Florida Democrat who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said this institutional design was intended to give each group “a piece of the pie.”
The NED dramatically increased its activities and funding after the relatively peaceful revolutions that brought about the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of the governments of Warsaw Pact nations. As Gerald Sussman wrote in 2006 in his article, “The Myths of 'Democracy Promotion,'” Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and Belarus were among the countries in the region where American consultants, foreign service personnel, NED and its member organizations, and other public and private agencies intervened to influence national elections. During the 1990s, both the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute opened an office in Moscow. More recently, the focus has been in the Mideast, East Asia (China in particular) and countries in South America with left-wing governments, such as Venezuela. Ecuador and Bolivia. Currently, the NED funds more than 1,000 projects in more than 100 countries. Oftentimes, the NED funds government opposition groups that promote US values and interests where they may be threatened and pro-government groups where the government is in line with U.S. interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a report published in RT.com claimed U.S. influence in Russian elections in 2000 and 2012 (and other countries in the region). His claim was largely dismissed in U.S. media but is likely true. Sussman's 2006 article describes the role of U.S. political and media consultants in the 1993 Russian parliamentary and its 1996 presidential elections. These were the first elections in Russia in which the mass media played a large and important role, and U.S. political advisers had much to teach about spin-doctoring and creating a media personality to enhance electability.
In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin became particularly unpopular in Russia after he had essentially led the way for dissolution of the Soviet Union and then followed the script written by economic advisers from the International Monetary Fund and Harvard Institute for International Development (sponsored by USAID) to turn the Russian economy into one based on capitalism.
What followed was the rapid sell-off of 225,000 state-owned companies for a fraction of their value to Russian capitalists (now referred to as oligarchs) and foreign investors.
The standard of living for the average Russian dropped precipitously; he consumed 40 percent less in 1992 compared to 1991.
The NED along with USAID played a significant role in influencing elections during this early period of capitalist transition in Russia.
A Time magazine report on U.S. efforts and their influence on the Yeltsin election came with the cover headline, “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win.” There was also a Showtime film about the U.S. efforts, “Spinning Boris,” that starred Jeff Goldblum and focused on how American political consultants “saved Russia from communism.”
In 2003, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, referred to the NED as “nothing more than a costly program that takes U.S. taxpayer funds to promote favored politicians and political parties abroad.”
Today, the NED receives more than $100 million from the government to influence the political process in countries around the world. Of course, if these efforts fail, there are always the CIA strategies we relied upon previously and regime change through covert or overt military interventions.
In the media spin and especially our political leaders' efforts to make this a story about the Russian influence in our elections and how we ended up with Trump, isn't it important to know the larger context of the U.S. influence in elections around the world, including those in Russia?
Peter Iadicola, a Fort Wayne resident, is Indiana University professor emeritus of sociology.