Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

The US Presidential Election of 2016 and the Fate of Democracy

Return to Home

Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election of 2016 and other elections in the past few years have brought to the fore issues of legitimacy in the foreign policies of international powers and questions about their consequences in the countries to which those policies are directed. Even though a number of relevant US actors, including President Donald Trump, have denied or downplayed the very existence of a Russian attempt at intervention in the last presidential election, the fact is that, for the first time in its history, the United States saw a successful intervention in its electoral process carried out by a foreign power. Naturally, most voices in the United States condemned the Russian operation of intervention in the 2016 presidential election, seeing it as an attempt to subvert the mechanisms and processes of US democracy.  

What is the difference, someone may ask, between Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election of 2016 and the numerous interventions of the United States in the political processes of other countries, especially in Latin America, during the 20th and 21st centuries? A priori, they look very similar: a great power trying to help allies in their own national political confrontations by intervening in the institutional political processes of their countries. Did the United State not intervene, in different ways, in the democratic processes of countries such as Iran, Guatemala, and Chile during the Cold War? A rough comparison of US and Russian foreign policies aimed at intervening in the politics of other countries apparently leads to the inevitable conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the US election of 2016 is not substantially different from the US interventions in foreign countries during the Cold War.

A rough comparison of US and Russian foreign policies aimed at intervening in the politics of other countries apparently leads to the inevitable conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the US election of 2016 is not substantially different from the US interventions in foreign countries during the Cold War.

My book, which explores the US involvement in Chilean politics between 1964 and 1970, a crucial period in the history of the country, offers a somewhat different view of the ways and means whereby a foreign policy of intervention was carried out during the Cold War. While I do not discuss at length the ethical issues around the legitimacy of foreign intervention in the domestic politics a foreign country, in The Gathering Storm I argue that not all forms of intervention are qualitatively equal, even if they all are foreign in origin and, as such, promote above all the interests of the intervening power.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the involvement of the United States in Chilean politics worked better toward its national interest and did not inflict significant damage on Chile’s institutional democracy, when it consisted fundamentally in supporting political actors who pursued their interests through the institutional and legal framework of Chilean democracy. On the contrary, when US intervention sought to subvert the processes of Chilean democracy, as it did in 1970 under the direction of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, failed in accomplishing its purpose and, what is worse, inflicted significant damage to Chilean politics.

Presidents Eduardo Frei and Lyndon B. Johnson in Punta del Este in 1967. (Courtesy of Casa Museo Eduardo Frei Montalva)

In Chile, foreign support for political parties contributed to deepen and widen a polarization that had its roots in the social and political issues that beset less-developed countries in their search for modernization during the Cold War. Nevertheless, involvement inflicted real damage on Chile’s political system and society when, as Russia did in the 2016 US presidential election, it went around the mechanisms and processes of Chilean democracy and tried to subvert them.

In different ways, to different ends, but similarly pursuing national interests defined narrowly, the United States in 1970 and Russia in 2016 tried to sow chaos in the target countries of their interventions. In 1970, Nixon’s orders to destabilize the process that would eventually lead to the election of Salvador Allende produced, with the complicity of local actors, the death of the chief of the Chilean army, a shocking event that left an indelible mark in Chilean politics.

The still-unfolding results of Russia’s attempts to sabotage the process of US democracy are harder to discern clearly, but precedents like the one represented by US intervention in Chile in 1970—as opposed to US involvement in Chilean politics in the previous years—do not bode well for countries at the target end of foreign intervention.


Sebastián Hurtado-Torres is Assistant Professor, Instituto de Historia, at Universidad San Sebastián. Follow him on Twitter @delaestacion.

See all books by this author.

Book Finder