Two muffins are sitting in an oven, baking. One muffin turns to the other and says: “Is it just me, or is it getting really hot in here?”  The second muffin turns to the first and says: “Holy cow, a talking muffin!”

This joke is funny, the blogger Aaron M. Brown explains, because it commits a logical fallacy “and then immediately turns around and calls itself on it.” Ascribing qualities to an object that can’t possibly possess them is known as a “category error”—in this case the quality of talking belongs to the category of humans, not to the category of food. Conflating things from different categories can lead sometimes to witty wordplay, but also to sloppy analysis and confusion.

So it is when commentators assert that Russian meddling in U.S. elections is ultimately not different from what the U.S. has long been doing abroad. “As for Russian trolling in our election,” the right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan wrote recently, “do we really have clean hands when it comes to meddling in elections and the internal politics of regimes we dislike?” The Carnegie Mellon University researcher Dov Levin has more dispassionately compiled a database of 117 known instances between 1946 and 2000 when either Moscow or Washington intervened overtly or covertly to affect the outcome of elections in other countries—and finds that more often in that period it was the Americans who did the meddling. (Such meddling could take a wide range of forms, from releasing false rumors or fake emails to damage on one side; to public statements of U.S. support for an incumbent or challenger; to the provision of money or technicians to help one side in the campaign.)

Yes, history tells us the CIA manipulated elections in 1940s Italy and 1950s Germany—and beyond electoral shenanigans, it also secretly helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. And American diplomats strive mightily to cajole, persuade, and pressure foreign leaders and sometimes voters to do what seems to those diplomats like the right thing—these days in places ranging from Ukraine and Georgia to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Tunisia. Scott Shane of The New York Times recently also placed in this big basket the multifaceted campaign waged by the U.S. for the electoral ouster in 2000 of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” along with a reported (and unsuccessful) 2009 U.S. scheme to sideline the obdurate Afghan president Hamid Karzai. I would argue that the campaign against Milosevic was justified due to the fact that he was an implacable foe of democracy in Serbia, as well as the author of several rounds of genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia—and that his departure was a necessary precursor to the democracy-building that flourished in Serbia after he was voted out of office.

Still, in all of these historical cases, the U.S. was engaged in purposeful efforts to secure a very specific political outcome—the ouster or the installation of a particular leader, depending on which one was thought to be conducive to American interests and the country’s stability. But where America’s domestic and foreign critics alike commit a serious category error is in placing present-day U.S. democracy-promotion efforts in the same basket. Shane, for example, writes that “in recent decades, the most visible American presence in foreign politics has been the taxpayer-funded groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which do not support candidates but teach basic campaign skills and build democratic institutions and train election monitors.”

There are two important distinctions to clarify. First, and most important, is the difference between programs to strengthen democratic processes in another country (without regard to specific electoral outcomes), versus efforts to manipulate another country’s election in order to sow chaos, undermine public confidence in the political system, and diminish a country’s social stability.

Having played several roles in the American democracy bureaucracy, in and out of government—as a diplomat and then aid official during the Obama administration, and earlier on the front lines of non-governmental organizations including NDI and Freedom House—I have seen this play out from diverse perspectives. As a U.S. official, I was called upon to engage foreign governments on their democratic deficits and to persuade them to improve, citing their own national stability, enhanced prosperity, and the ways in which it would improve our bilateral amity. As an NGO implementer, I traveled with less fanfare and mostly engaged with people outside governments, listening and assessing capabilities and opportunities, providing technical information, connecting newly experienced civic activists and politicians from recent transitions to those in the throes of change. In addition to practical advice, my colleagues and I sought to convey to those trying to improve the quality of governance and justice in their own countries that there is a global band of brothers and sisters prepared to help across borders—as part of a broader assistance effort to advance stability, economic development, and modernization.

This approach is embodied in the work of the National Endowment for Democracy and affiliated implementing institutes (of which NDI is one), as set forth by President Ronald Reagan in his speech to the British Parliament in June 1982. There, he highlighted the salience of what Bill Clinton would later describe as “democratic enlargement” as part of long-term U.S. strategy, when he said:

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections.

The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.

While this is certainly not the only thing the U.S. has done in the world since then, it has been a point of bipartisan consensus that U.S. interests and global order are enhanced to the extent that the world is democratic. There are, to be sure, outliers in both parties who either disagree with the premise or believe the U.S. ought not or cannot do anything to help decision-makers and activists in other countries.

In pursuit of this large strategic vision, over more than a quarter century, a mostly informal division of labor has emerged. Some things only the government can do as official foreign policy (high-level engagement with other countries’ leaders and sometimes security agencies), or contract for (deploying specific governing expertise in various realms, such as law enforcement or municipal management).  There are other specific tasks that are better left to non-governmental actors with their very different skill sets (like organizing political parties and election campaigns, or training watchdog organizations to fact-check and mount advocacy campaigns). While some advice or training is discrete and tailored, the overall effort is generally quite visible and transparent.

Yet while the U.S. and like-minded governments implementing democracy support programs have evolved this new kind of international engagement that is benign and neighborly, the Russian government remains, one might say, un-evolved.

Consider, for instance, the multi-year effort by the National Democratic Institute, with funding from the National Endowment of Democracy (an independent enterprise funded directly by Congress) and more recently from the U.S. Agency for International Development (the official foreign aid arm of the executive branch), to support GOLOS (“vote” or “voice” in Russian), the volunteer Russian election-monitoring network. The purpose is to identify problems in the administration of elections so that they may be remedied in subsequent elections. It is also an exercise in participatory citizenship to empower civic-minded Russians who don’t want to engage in party politics. That’s it. An analogous effort from the Russian government would be if they were supporting the work of the League of Women Voters to educate American voters, or voter registration drives in the U.S. to help increase minority participation in elections to overcome structural impediments in the American system. Spreading disinformation and aggravating discord is not strengthening American democracy.

Vladimir Putin perceives that a Russian citizen effort that documents systematic ballot-box stuffing and the exclusion of rival candidates is an oppositional enterprise intent only on besmirching the legitimacy of his election. Thus, following previous discredited elections—when thousands of volunteer videographers uploaded to YouTube footage of ballot-box stuffing and other fraud—it was the election monitors who were prosecuted, not the election riggers. If Putin can only win a rigged election, then any effort to make Russian elections honest and transparent is, he reasons, ipso facto an anti-Putin effort. But that doesn’t make a transparent U.S. effort to improve the quality of elections in Russia something other than what it is. Spreading accurate information about ballot-box stuffing is not the same as spreading disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s imaginary involvement in a child-molesting ring at a pizza parlor, or ginning up emotions on both sides of the fatal white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, with Russian bots masquerading as concerned Americans.  

It may be worth mentioning another election-related category confusion that arises when we consider the non-profit work of the democracy-support organizations versus paid U.S. political consultants doing offshore work abroad between America’s election seasons. While the former’s motivations are to strengthen democratic systems abroad in the public interest, the latter are animated mainly by the profit motive—as in Paul Manafort’s work in Ukraine for a pro-Russian president. Sometimes this work is done with a bit of idealism thrown in, as portrayed in the 2005 documentary Our Brand is Crisis about U.S. consultants helping elect a pro-American president of Bolivia. Whatever the motive or the relative virtue of the client, these are strictly private services offered for fees, and neither encouraged or discouraged by Uncle Sam.

Avoiding half-baked comparisons and category errors may help clarify the present Russian intervention debate. Malign interference in American elections must be thwarted, and Americans deserve a clear and precise discussion about what to do about it. Meanwhile, supporting genuine democracy in other lands is and will remain an honorable and appropriate part of U.S. engagement in the world.

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