Trump’s Illness Is Not a National Security Crisis

A reality check about the foreign-policy implications of a sick president.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
President Donald Trump speaks at a 'Make America Great Again' rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Aug. 22, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks at a 'Make America Great Again' rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Aug. 22, 2017. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a lot to worry about these days—a pandemic, economic recession, shifting balances of power, resurgent nationalism, a potentially contested election in the United States, and so on—and then President Donald Trump was infected with the virus he once promised would disappear “like magic” and taken to Walter Reed Hospital. To make sure we were maximally worried, the Washington Post offered a click-baity headline: “National Security Experts Describe a Distracted and Potentially Vulnerable Country.”

The implication was that Trump’s illness had created new national security dangers for the United States. Perhaps an adversary (or conceivably, a restless ally like Turkey) might see Trump’s weakened condition as an ideal moment to challenge the status quo in some fundamental way. Would China put the screws on Taiwan, or would President Vladimir Putin throw an elbow in the Baltic? Might the always-unpredictable North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decide that this was the perfect time to test a long-range missile, or would Iran see this as an opportune moment to repay the United States for the assassination of General Suleimani?

One can’t rule these and other gambits out completely, but the fear that the republic is in peril because the president was and is sick strikes me as wildly overblown. I wouldn’t call it good news (although I enjoyed the brief respite from Trump’s obnoxious and factually challenged tweeting), but it hardly meant that the United States had entered a precarious moment of peril.

First, this view implicitly assumes that the world is filled with dangerous renegades who are willing, able, and above all ready to seize any opportunity to make mischief the minute they think our guard is down. It portrays ceaseless U.S. vigilance as the only thing standing between our foes and their various evil schemes, and implies that they are ready to strike at a moment’s notice and are just waiting for the optimal moment. The real world doesn’t work that way, however: Even when contingency plans do exist, it takes time to put them in motion and any antagonist must still weigh the odds of success, the likely reactions of other countries, and the possibility that the United States will respond no matter what shape a president is in.

Second, although the Trump administration is not exactly a model of rational decision-making, competent staffing, or disciplined inter-agency collaboration, responsible officials are still in their jobs and still control powerful military and economic capabilities. We do have a vice president, a notoriously headstrong secretary of state, experienced commanders in the field and on the joint chiefs of staff, and a fair bit of expertise embedded at the National Security Council and other relevant agencies. Trump may have once declared that he was the only one that matters, but that statement was more a reflection of his own narcissism than a statement of fact. Nobody could confidently assume that putting Trump in Walter Reed for a few days would paralyze the entire government. And we should all count our blessings that John Bolton wasn’t around to start another war while Trump was receiving oxygen and steroids.

Third, America’s most serious adversaries may have more to gain from doing nothing than from trying to take advantage of Trump’s distress. Napoleon once advised: “Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake,” and one suspects that leaders from Moscow to Caracas to Beijing have taken considerable satisfaction from watching the United States descend into polarized incompetence on Trump’s watch. Heck, they may even get to watch a full-blown constitutional crisis if Trump loses the election in November but tries to remain in office illegitimately. Given those inviting possibilities, sensible U.S. foes will sit tight and do nothing to disturb current trends.

And it’s not like other countries weren’t taking advantage of the United States before Trump fell sick. The Saudis are still waging war in Yemen, the Chinese are getting their economy restarted and throwing their weight around with India, and Iran has continued to creep closer to the bomb and worked to isolate the U.S. within the Security Council, aided in no small part by the administration’s ham-handed diplomacy. Trump’s pal, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is provoking a crisis in NATO by pressing territorial claims against Greece, and his Brazilian buddy President Jair Bolsonaro is promising to do even more to destroy the Amazon rainforest despite the potential environmental consequences. Trump didn’t have to get sick for others to take the measure of the man and exploit his manifold weaknesses.

Lastly, history offers some reassurance here too. President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack in September 1955, but there’s no evidence that foreign powers saw this as an opportunity to take advantage. Ike also had what was described as a mild stroke in 1957, and it was as much a non-event in global terms as his earlier problem). President Ronald Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin in March 1981, but nobody saw this as the perfect moment to launch a coup, an invasion, or anything else. This pattern isn’t surprising: Earlier IR scholarship suggested that states rarely jump through even big “windows of opportunity,” and the president being under the weather (or even fully incapacitated) just isn’t that large an opening.

To repeat: it’s not a good thing when the nation’s chief executive is laid low, and it’s reasonable to hope for his rapid recovery. But the real crisis is the pandemic itself, which continue to lay waste to lives, economic prospects, America’s reputation for competence, and maybe its long-term power position. That’s the real national security problem, not the health of one particular individual.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.