By Benny Sun
With Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to win her primary elections and almost attaining the presidency, and with President Donald Trump becoming the first real-estate-baron-turned-reality-television-star-turned-orange to win the presidency, the Presidential Election of 2016 was an event of both groundbreaking progress and curious intrigue. For instance, the use of social media by politicians to directly connect to the millions of political constituencies under the swipe of a keyboard skyrocketed, championed by Donald Trump in his persistent nocturnal toilet tweeting sessions. However, under the surface of technological progress holds a darker sinister secret revolving around foreign intervention and its threat to democracy.
Russia’s disinformation operations on social media have become infamous for their intervention to sway the results of the election in favor of Trump. For example, Russian agencies swarmed Twitter with Twitterbots which promote false information about Hillary Clinton, inaccurate polling results favoring Trump, and even cropped images depicting pro-Trump rallies internationally. However, lesser-known is Russia’s attempts to exploit racial tensions in order to demoralize and divide African Americans, discouraging them from voting; over two-thirds of Russian fake ads during the 2016 campaign season targeted Black Americans with the intention to lower turnout. In a country rife with racial discrimination and a history of suppressing the black vote, Russia is now only another group to disentangle African Americans from the political process. More specifically, reports indicate that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) on social media has depicted false movements such as “Black Matters US” or “Don’t Shoot” where 96% of all Youtube activity focuses on police brutality on black victims in left-leaning areas. In 2016, the unfortunate police shooting of African-American, Keith Lamont Scott, gave rise to numerous protests for ending police brutality across Charlotte, North Carolina. However, Russian internet trolls attempted to manipulate the mood over these protests through its focus on instigating hate and violence over rightful anger. By injecting negativity of lies among social media and by pressuring African-Americans through antagonism, Russia’s spread of misinformation detrimentally dissuaded real political actions in favor of more violent and hateful alternatives.
Through their numerous means to divide Americans, all Russian ads have one common message: to skip out on Voting Day. Unfortunately, in 2016, Russia’s strategy worked. The voter turnout for black Americans was 7% lower in swing states in 2016, and a study by the University of Tennessee quantifiably found that every 25,000 retweets connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency correlated to a 1% increase in Trump polling results. With significant efforts by Russia to destroy the legitimacy of American elections, has the United States shown equal efforts to protect American elections from the foreign intervention? The answer is more nuanced than it seems.
America’s own cybersecurity and election infrastructure are still incredibly vulnerable to malicious manipulation from foreign and domestic threats after 2016. In Georgia’s sixth congressional district’s election in 2017, leading Democrat Jon Ossoff had 50.3% of votes, enough for him to win the vote, but soon after a computer crash saw his vote share drop to 48.1% which allowed the Republicans to win the district. While initially blamed as a technical error that miscounted the number of Democratic votes, many were looking towards Russia as the culprit behind this cyber attack. However, Georgia is not the only state with a vulnerable election infrastructure today. Alex Halderman, a leading cybersecurity expert at the University of Michigan explains that “Many states are making progress, but the progress is patchy and there are major gaps … Forty states are using computer technology that is a decade old or more and often they are not receiving software updates or security patches”. Critically, with consistent cyber tampering looming over America’s elections and with Republican states passing stricter voter ID laws which disproportionately affect minority voters, more and more African Americans are choosing to remain home on election day. However, even if the states completely renovated their online infrastructure with state-of-the-art technology, many would still face issues. The ISC(2) reports that North America will face a cybersecurity shortage of over 800,000 professionals in the field. With over 51% of cybersecurity professionals citing that their organization is at extreme or moderate risk due to staff shortages, the United States is completely unprepared to defend its minority population from the delegitimization of American elections.
Instead in 2018, rather than “defending” America, the United States has adopted an “offensive” position actively hacking Russia’s agencies before they hack America first. Under the newly-adopted US Cyber Command which gained new powers in 2018, the federal government is currently targeting individual Russian operatives to deter them from spreading false information in the next election cycle. Dubbed “Defending Forward”, the US Cyber Command pursues an offensive strategy of disrupting, denying, and shutting down enemy networks as a measure of preventing the hacking election. For example, in the 2018 Midterms, US Cyber Command successfully took out the online capabilities of Russian Troll Farm, the Internet Research Agency, thus severing their abilities to spread online propaganda without the need for the United States to defend their networks. Additionally, the United States also took out numerous agencies funding the IRA and indicted over 13 individuals connected to the IRA who face prosecution in the United States. Senator Mike Rounds corroborates “the fact that the 2018 election process moved forward without successful Russian intervention was not a coincidence.” While taking the operations of the IRA offline may seem temporary, America’s strong cyber capabilities can act as a deterrence factor that discourages other countries from hacking into US elections.
Overall, America’s decision to ignore cybersecurity and instead focus on offensive cyber operations against Russia will play an important role in the upcoming 2020 elections. With the legitimization of America’s elections and the voter turnout of minorities at stake, the success of Russia’s hacking could very much shake the foundation of American democracy.
By Benny Sun
After one month of his presidency, Trump did the unthinkable; with security experts, defense lobbyists, and military contractors joined together in shock around the globe, Trump discovered the ultimate form of warfare surely to shake the international stage: Twitter. With his right hand furiously tapping away and his left comfortably by his side, Trump has no-doubt altered the method of conducting foreign policy in America, cutting off foreign aid to Pakistan via Twitter, sending in troops to Afghanistan via Twitter, and even bickering about North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un… via Twitter. Unsurprisingly, this past summer marks another time Trump has famously used his Twitter weapon, as Trump announced in April of 2019 that the US is now able to “put tariffs on 11 billion dollars of EU products!”, furthering that “the EU has taken advantage of the US on trade for many years. It will soon stop!” With October marking the end of Europe’s and America's failure for productive trade negotiations, the World Trade Organization has finally given the greenlight for America to impose tariffs on the European Union, an outcome which could potentially reorient international supply chains around the world and even shift major geopolitical dynamics, in this duel launched solely from a single tweet.
Since his nomination to presidency, Trump’s tariffs have been a major element behind his economic beliefs. With years of bipartisan support for unrestrained free trade, Trump’s tariffs are another example of how his political views run opposite to the Republican Party. Under the auspices of protectionism, Trump touts restrictions on foreign trade either through tariffs or other government regulation as a strategy to shield domestic industries from foreign competition. In fact, Trump’s support for protectionist policies stems from his populist backing, as the majority of Trump’s political base, who work in the agricultural and industrial sectors, also feel that foreign goods have the potential to seize American jobs and hurt local domestic growth with their cheaper prices. As such, Trump began initiating many trade wars with other countries by placing tariffs on the imports of other countries like Mexico, China, and now the member nations of the European Union.
Tariffs on the European Union are no different and are a result of similar consequences of foreign competition. In April of 2019, Trump tweeted his plans to target $25 billion dollars of European exports with tariffs, as part of a dispute over Europe’s subsidies to Airbus, an aerospace and defense company. These trade policies followed personal complaints and lobbying efforts from America’s largest manufacturing exporter, Boeing. Boeing argued that Europe was unfairly giving substantial financial support to the European airplane manufacturer Airbus, giving Airbus the opportunity to sell their planes at a much cheaper price which undercutted Boeing’s sales. Trump’s decision has not gone ignored. The European Union also has declared retaliatory tariffs against American imports, pushing both parties towards the negotiating table.While the European Union and the United States sought to establish peace through trade negotiations which would take place beginning in May, these talks ended abruptly in October due to bitter rivalry and lack of agreement.
In order to impose tariffs on another country, the United States must first file a complaint to the World Trade Organization, who then rules on the validity of the complaint. As such, on October 2nd of 2019, the World Trade Organization cleared Trump’s ability to impose tariffs over the European Union, which included a 25% duty on a range of products like Italian cheeses, French wines, and Spanish olives, and also a 10% tariff on all Airbus products adding up to 7.5 billion dollars worth of imports (18 billion dollars less than initially threatened). Inadvertently, America’s tariffs could negatively harm some American workers. Many analysts including the Specialty Food Administration predict that these tariffs could adversely raise the price of some European food products by 33% and the United States could lose 14,000 specialty food retailers and 20,000 other food retailers nationwide. Conversely, a European Central Bank study conducted by Dr. Venessa Gunnella and Lucia Quaglietti concludes that current trade-war outcomes have had “mild impact across the Atlantic”.
However, while the trade conflict may seem mild, recent deadlines placed by Trump previously could potentially escalate the EU-US dispute and cause severe consequences. In May of 2019, Trump announced that he would delay his decision of implementing tariffs on Europe’s automobile industry as high as 25% to November, citing that Europe’s sway over American cars is a “national security threat” to the American economy. Europe’s auto industry holds crucial portion of Europe’s economy accounting for 10% of Europe’s global exports, employing 14 million Europeans, and generating 7% of Europe’s total GDP. Thus, America’s auto tariffs could also greatly affect the European economy. Despite Trump’s claims, many are detesting his actions. Industry group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers claims that implementing “auto tariffs” in Europe would be a mistake and could entail significant negative consequences. With his deadline coming up soon, many are questioning whether or not Trump will actually move forward with his threat.
There is little consensus over Trump’s ultimate goal in the trade war. Given the popular perception that Europe is an American ally, many analysts believe that Trump no longer has the political capital to implement auto-tariffs if he wants to win the 2020 elections as both Republicans and Democrats have pushed Trump away from auto tariffs. Instead, David Hauner from Bank of America Merrill Lynch indicated Trump may only be threatening a large sector of Europe’s economy so that he may gain leverage over current trade talks in Europe. More specifically, Trump may be holding the looming threat of auto tariffs over their heads in order to coerce Europe into accepting more agricultural imports such as beef which would appease his political base of farmers for the 2020 elections. Other analysts predict that Trump will actually implement these auto tariffs. Citing Trump’s his desire to slash his trade deficit with Europe, Economist Hans Buchard suspects that the President’s method of receiving votes is through his confrontational approach to foreign countries. Thus, implementing auto tariffs on Europe could serve as an example for other countries. In fact, many politicians believe that Trump won his 2016 election by portraying China as a massive foreign threat, a strategy that got him the support of his blue collar base. Painting Europe in this light could fortify the loyalty of Trump’s Rust Belt supporters as he enters his 2020 campaign season.
Overall, Trump’s trade war with Europe could provoke massive consequences on the global economy. In a worst-case scenario, analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch predict that economic growth could fall from 2.2% to 1.2% as the price of American vehicles, both domestic and imported, could be raised anywhere from 2,000 dollars to 7,000 dollars making the cost of travel much more expensive. Contrary to popular belief, this lesser known trade war may even cause harms even worse than the Chinese-US Trade war. While the total trade between Europe and the United States is worth 1.2 trillion dollars, Chinese-American trade is only worth 737 billion dollars; thus continuing Trump’s tit-for-tat approach with Europe spark an economic catastrophe worse than one with China. Unfortunately, with the last recession of 2008 still burned into the minds of many pushing over 64 million people around the world into poverty, many are worried about the economic consequences of the US-EU trade war. However, there are also greater geopolitical consequences at hand. In contrast to many other nations, China could easily be the greatest winner of the EU-US trade war, as a disruption of the American-European alliance could prompt Europe to shift eastward for a stronger relationship. With China and Europe already working on a free-trade agreement, promises to collaborate on China’s Belt Road Initiative, and greater collaboration on environmental issues (all of which are opposed by the United States), pushing Europe toward China could permanently damage Transatlantic relations.
In conclusion, the EU-US trade war is a conflict that must be monitored in 2019, as just a single tweet can evoke century-lasting changes on the world.