Marshall PalmerMarshall Palmer, a PhD student in The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), is focusing his dissertation on foreign electoral intervention which became a major news topic after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Palmer wants to shed light on three aspects of electoral intervention.

  • Why do states intervene in foreign elections?
  • Why do some interventions aim to change votes while others only focus on changing minds?
  • Do successful interventions result in post-electoral cooperation between the intervener and the target state?

“The existing research focuses on the intersection of interest and opportunity in answering these questions,” explained Palmer. “But my own hunch is that the health of the target state’s underlying democratic institutions is just as important. States with robust institutions should be less likely to be targeted for intervention and, if they are targeted, less likely to be hit by the most aggressive methods of intervention.”

Palmer became interested in this topic while working as a defence analyst at NATO in 2016.

“I was fascinated by the scale of Russia’s cyber efforts, first against the Clinton campaign, and later in direct support of Donald Trump himself,” said Palmer. “Although Russia’s influence is often overhyped, I believe their actions in that very tight election were just enough to push Trump over the line and change history. I wanted to know more about the use of this tool in international relations.”

Palmer suggests that Canadians need to focus on more than just having a powerful cyber capability or tamper-proof processes of ballot counting.

“It may be the case that our democratic institutions themselves are the best strategic asset we have against foreign interference,” explained Palmer. “We should ensure we swiftly and judiciously prosecute illegal political activity. Our newspapers should be well-funded and we must find ways to reduce the creeping polarization in our society. If we start to care more about our preferred political party winning than having a fair election, then outside powers may find it easier to interfere in our politics.”

Secondly, Palmer suggests Canada should consider ways it can reverse the global democratic decline, including in NATO countries.

“I don’t mean we should start interfering in elections,” said Palmer. “But we should build partnerships with pro-democratic civil society actors and responsible media organizations. Reversing the recent cuts to Radio International Canada is one place to start. And, where feasible, we should unite with like-minded states to stand up against emerging authoritarianism including using sanctions.”

To conduct this research, Palmer is using a mixed-methods approach by adding 17 years of elections and interventions to an existing dataset.

“Statistically, I am interested to see if interventions can be tied to weak institutions and indicators of polarization in society,” shared Palmer. “I will then see how these results comport with three case studies of American intervention in the 1962-63 Canadian elections and in El Salvador throughout the 1980s. I will also examine the fallout of China’s intervention in the 2018-20 elections in Taiwan.”

From his research, Palmer has been struck by how decisively intervention can change history. “Arguably, without John F. Kennedy’s considerable interventions in the Canadian elections of 1962-63, John Diefenbaker would have governed into the late 1960s. Not only would the trajectory of our relationship with the United States have been totally different but we would still be using the Red Ensign as our national flag rather than the Maple Leaf.”

Professor Stephen Saideman from NPSIA has been supervising Palmer throughout this research. “Steve keeps my eye on the ball,” shared Palmer. “His incisive feedback has helped clarify my argument and its underlying assumptions. Often this means more work for me but it comes out better each time. He has been a tremendous source of support throughout, including as I drafted scholarship applications and wrote my prospectus. I look forward to his comments as I start to turn over the first chapters of my dissertation.”

Going forward, Palmer plans on continuing his work at the intersection of democracy and foreign policy.

“My research is taking me to unexpected areas I would like to explore further, including how corruption and polarization impact national security,” said Palmer. “Going forward, I am considering further research work within the Canadian government or NATO. Alternatively, I may change tack somewhat and take on a military career with the Royal Canadian Navy.”

–This story was written by Taia Goguen-Garner

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 in ,
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