US-Russian Non-Interference Pact: Quod Licet Roosevelt, Non Licet Trump?

April 01, 2020
Simon Saradzhyan

Although attempts by Russian trolls reportedly trying to influence America’s domestic politics this election cycle may have become more subtle, hopes that a combination of sanctions and countering propaganda would end such efforts appear to be proving futile. So if sanctions cannot prevent this kind of interference, what can?

Ironically, perhaps, Russian leaders—who have traditionally put a premium on binding legal agreements—have offered a solution themselves: Russia and the U.S. should sign a deal that would commit them to refrain from interference in each other’s domestic elections and other affairs. In fact, the Kremlin has reportedly made such a proposal to the Trump administration twice, suggesting that it be based on a deal that the U.S. and Soviet Russia struck in the 1930s. According to the U.S. State Department’s account, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in November 1933 worked out a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Soviet Union’s top diplomat in a series of negotiations in Washington, D.C., even as the Bolsheviks were busy killing and imprisoning tens, if not hundreds, of thousands annually. In particular, Roosevelt secured written assurances from the commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, that the Soviet government would refrain from interfering in American domestic affairs in exchange for a pledge of reciprocal behavior on Washington’s part. However, agreements do not last forever: In 1948 Moscow endorsed Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s former vice president and the Progressive Party presidential candidate, who was running on a foreign-policy platform of warming relations with Soviet Russia. (In addition to this instance, there are plenty more examples of U.S. and Soviet/Russian interference in each other’s domestic affairs.) This record of historic non-compliance, exacerbated by Russian actors’ behavior during the 2016 presidential campaign and the general difficulties of attribution when it comes to meddling in the cyber age, may have played a role in the Trump administration’s decision to reject Putin’s offer both times. U.S. diplomats may have also objected to such a deal out of concern that it could invite accusations that the American government was abandoning a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, albeit a relatively recent one: public (if not always substantive) support for democracy and human rights in other countries. Quod licet Roosevelt’s diplomats, non licet Trump’s.

Unlike U.S. diplomats, however, American foreign policy experts not working for the U.S. government feel freer not only to ponder the idea of a non-interference pact, but to also call for some sort of arrangement in that vein. In December 2017, Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith wrote that “the U.S. government should consider seriously the idea of a deal with Russia for mutual forbearance from meddling in domestic politics.” The following year, Yale’s Thomas Graham weighed in on the issue ahead of the Helsinki summit, proposing a bilateral communique in which, “without acknowledging past transgressions, they would commit themselves from this point onward to act with respect for the principles of nonaggression, mutual benefit, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and noninterference in each other's internal affairs.” Just last year, the Carnegie Endowment’s Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky described America’s “refusal to accept Russia for what it is, as evidenced by repeated initiatives to reform and remake its political system” as “unrealistic,” proposing, among other things, that the U.S. “leave Russia’s internal affairs for Russians to untangle.” Also in 2019, Harvard’s Joe Nye proposed that the U.S. and Russia “negotiate limits to their behavior regarding each other’s domestic political processes” and integrate them into bilateral rules of the cyber road. RAND’s Samuel Charap and the Russian International Affairs Council’s Ivan Timofeev in 2019 called for the U.S. and Russia “to exercise self-restraint in order truly to ‘fix’ this problem” of interference, noting that “such mutual self-restraint could be achieved through a negotiation between the two countries.” Most recently, CSIS’s Jeffrey Mankoff teamed up with Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council in March 2020 to state that “Washington and Moscow … need to establish a common understanding of what constitutes interference.”

I think these thoughtful analysts of foreign policy have a point when calling on Washington to consider discussing with Moscow some kind of arrangement for non-interference in each other's internal affairs. Perhaps these discussions could start on the 1.5 track, as Charap and Timofeev suggest, and first focus on agreeing on definitions of interference and other key terms, per Mankoff’s and Kortunov’s suggestion. If they are successful in agreeing on definitions, U.S. and Russian experts can then, perhaps, proceed to exchange non-papers on what should be included into a “non-interference deal.” I would imagine that such a deal could include pledges to avoid direct action by any government agencies that would meddle in electoral campaigns, such as not just theft, but also public dissemination of compromising materials, or hacking meant to rig or disrupt the actual counting of votes. I also think it would be feasible to consider embargoes on government financing of these two kinds of meddling by any other actors, internal or external. It is unrealistic to hope for the U.S. and Russia to stop engaging in cyber-espionage and hacking, but perhaps the two governments could also pledge to swiftly and earnestly assist in the investigation of each other’s evidence-backed complaints about such alleged government-sponsored activities.  

I would, however, propose an important caveat. In my view, the negotiators would have to focus on a narrow agreement that would prevent only governmental/government-funded interference, which would have to be clearly defined, without extending any such pacts to the non-governmental sector, be it media outlets or NGOs—even though in Putin’s unabashedly authoritarian view this sector should ultimately toe the government’s line. Such an expansion must be off limits as that would require the U.S. government to violate not just something it sees as basic democratic principles but basic human rights, like free speech and assembly. 

When deciding on content, the two sides can draw from the language of already existing documents. For instance, while reviving the 1933 deal would be unrealistic,  the two governments may take a cue from U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2131, “Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States.” This 1965 agreement asserted that “no state has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any state.” It also stated that “every  state  has  an  inalienable  right  to  choose  its  political,  economic,  social  and  cultural systems, without interference in any form by another state” and that “all  states  shall  respect  the  right  of  self-determination  and  independence  of  peoples and nations, to be freely expressed without any foreign pressure, and with absolute respect  for  human  rights  and  fundamental  freedoms.” A more recent international document that may be for consideration in such U.S.-Russian discussions is a resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993 on “Respect for the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States in their electoral processes.” Both the U.S. and  Russia voted against this non-binding resolution, but some passages in it could be acceptable not only for the current U.S. and Russian governments, but for the two countries’ citizens as well. These include the passage that “strongly appeals to all States to refrain from financing or providing, directly or indirectly, any other form of overt or covert support for political parties or groups and from taking actions to undermine the electoral processes in any country” or the passage that “[u]rges all States to respect the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States and the sovereign right of peoples to determine their political, economic and social systems.”

Importantly, whatever language the two governments agree upon (if any), I would caution them against putting it into a treaty, if only because it would have to be ratified by both countries’ parliaments and, given views on Russia in the U.S. Congress, I don’t think such a treaty would stand a chance. Instead, a bilateral executive agreement or even a joint declaration could be the first fruit of such discussions. If that agreement offers some respite in government interference, as the 1933 deal arguably did, that could help normalize the relationship between the two nuclear superpowers, the current state of which is fraught with heightened risks of an armed confrontation that could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Perhaps Trump’s national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien can broach the subject when he visits Moscow to attend the Victory Day parade hosted by Vladimir Putin on May 9, 2020 (if the pandemic does not interfere with these plans). Then the two leaders and their aides can advance these discussions when they meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September for the P5 summit (if it takes place).


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters. 

The opinions in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo by U.S. State Department.