Russian Interference: Act of War? By Austen D. Givens

Russian Interference: Act of War? By Austen D. Givens

Some Congressional Democrats and at least one prominent Republican claim that Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election should be understood as an act of war. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) of the House Foreign Relations Committee recently described Moscow’s actions as a “political Pearl Harbor.”  In December 2016, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) wondered aloud whether we should consider the Kremlin’s interference to be an act of war. Even Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has weighed in. In an interview with a Ukrainian TV station, transcribed by Reuters and reported on by CNN, McCain argued that “When you attack a country, it's an act of war.”

But these Congressional leaders are mistaken.

To be sure, Russian meddling is deeply troubling. It is an affront to the notion of free and fair elections. However, it is not war. And even if Moscow’s actions were properly to be called war, it would not matter much, anyway.

To understand why the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election is not war, one could do worse than to look at the works of arguably the three most famous war theorists/historians: Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE), Thucydides (460-400 BCE), and Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831 CE).

Sun Tzu held that the art of war is “a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” Meddling in elections surely is inconvenient, but to call it directly a matter of life and death is, by this standard, a stretch.

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the greatest accounts of large-scale conflict ever written. But what it depicts pales in comparison to charges of election interference.

Consider this excerpt from a speech given by Astymachus and Lacon who, following their capture by the Peloponnesians, were asked by their fellow Plataeans to plead for mercy before a panel of Lacedaemonian judges: “…if you kill us and make the Plataean territory Theban, [you] will leave your fathers and kinsmen in a hostile soil and among their murderers, deprived of the honours which they now enjoy. What is more, you will enslave the land in which the freedom of the Hellenes was won, make desolate the temples of the gods to whom they prayed before they overcame the Medes, and take away your ancestral sacrifices from those who founded and instituted them.”

Murdering prisoners? Enslaving an entire people? Committing sacrilegious acts—even inadvertently—in captured temples? These are properly called acts of war, and barbaric ones, at that.

Clausewitz famously wrote that war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” (emphasis mine) and compared it to a scaled-up duel. So, what is the “force” to which Clausewitz refers? Violence—actual, physical violence. Not political pressure.

If we accept that Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and Clausewitz are correct about the essence of war, then it is clear that Russia’s actions in in the 2016 Presidential election are not acts of war.

That still leaves open the question of whether labeling something an act of war holds any weight, legal or otherwise, in Congress.And the answer to that question is no.

The truth is that members of Congress who call the Kremlin’s actions “war” are using inflammatory rhetoric to stoke political outrage. They are likely doing this as part of a larger effort to mount support for a formal, independent investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. In this respect, the term “war” is helpful, and their efforts should be encouraged.

Yet there is an unfortunate truth here, as well. In Congress, using the word “war” does not matter anymore. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution clearly casts Congress as the lead branch of the federal government in matters of armed conflict, giving the legislature power over budgets, governance, and discipline in the U.S. military, as well as the exclusive power to declare war.

By contrast, Article II, Section 2 tightly limits the President’s role to that of “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”

But Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last U.S. President to seek a formal declaration of war from Congress—in 1942. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations have captured growing political leverage to make war without formally consulting Congress. Since World War II, the United States has fought wars in, among other places, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq again, all without formal Congressional declarations of war. U.S. military personnel are engaged in conflicts that could be called war in Syria and Yemen today, too.

The trend lines are clear. Today’s legislators occasionally pass a politically useful authorization for the use of military force. Defense budgets continue to grow, regardless of who occupies the White House. The notion of Congress having a meaningful check on the President’s ability to make war has de facto ceased to exist.


Austen D. Givens is Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at Utica College.

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