History & Policy: Foreign Influence and Elections

Written by Veronica Backer-Peral ’22, History, Computer Science, & Applied Mathematics triple-major and Business Administration minor

As a history major and history enthusiast, it has always been difficult to acknowledge the fact that history is taking place as we speak. The idea that history textbooks won’t stop at the year 2000, when I was born, continues to bewilder me.

That is why the news that Russia interfered in the 2016 election was particularly distressing to me. It marked a new and dangerous threat to our national security and the health of our democracy that did not fit into my naïve conception of twenty-first century America as a time and place where such existential threats could not exist.

The Global Policy Institute (GPI) event, Will Foreign Powers Prevail in the U.S. 2020 Elections? Safeguarding the vote from foreign influence, co-sponsored by the History Department amongst several others, did not assuage or mitigate my fears, but it did directly engage with them. Alongside the 100+ students and faculty who attended to hear first-hand from the experts who work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, I found myself no longer shrinking away from the fear of interference but rather all of a sudden inspired to rise up to the unique challenges faced by our generation.

This realization, of course, took place underneath several layers of stress and hairspray, as I mentally prepared to co-moderate my first-ever webinar. I joined GPI as an undergraduate fellow in my sophomore year, seeking a job that would allow me to learn about international policy and diplomacy. It never crossed my mind that this learning would take place across the screen from renowned experts like former assistant to the president Fiona Hill, Pulitzer winner Ellen Nakashima, former Chief Security Officer of Facebook Alex Stamos, and RAND research fellow Bilyana Lilly.

My role was to moderate the second half of the event, alongside former State Department director and LMU History alumnus Wayne Limberg. Rather than spend the first half of the event rereading my part, however, I found myself completely engaged by our keynote speaker, Fiona Hill. The former deputy assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council (and former History major and History Ph.D.!), who recently rose to national prominence for her role as a witness in the impeachment trial of President Trump, spoke in depth about the gravity issue but also shared a bit of her personal experience in reaching the position she has today. She remembered growing up in Cold War Europe, aware of tensions between the Soviet Union and the NATO alliance but unaware of the extent to which the threat of nuclear war was real, something she later discovered during her time at the National Security Council. In terms of policy, her history major shone through. Hill had thorough and contextualized responses to each issue she was asked about, whether that be regarding Putin’s objectives or the United States reaction.

Next came the moderated panel with Nakashima, Stamos, and Lilly. In preparation for this part, I spent the good part of my September reading news articles and scanning LMU’s online library resources to fully understand how and why foreign actors interfered in the 2016 US election and are expected to interfere in our current election. The three panelists had a highly diverse set of experiences, forcing us to contemplate a number of different perspectives for our questions. That is where collaborating with Dr. Limberg, my co-moderator, was particularly useful. He brought the experience and knowledge in the field of national security that I lacked, but still made an effort to include me in the decision process, allowing me to learn and grow throughout the entire process.

In the aftermath of the event, and especially now that the November election is mere days away,* I believe more than ever before in the importance of studying history as a means to understand the present. Like it or not, we are living through a historic age; one that is shaped by the past but that is also currently shaping the future. Understanding these shifts over time, and the underlying factors and motives that drive them, is the only way we can hope to bend the course of history in the direction that progress demands.

*This reflection was written just before the November 3, 2020 elections but only published afterwards.