Get Ready for a November Foreign-Policy Surprise

History suggests that post-election crisis is coming for Americans—both at home and abroad.

By , the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Although the international system is filled with threats and uncertainties, there is a strange public quiet in the days before the U.S. elections. Hackers and propagandists from various countries are burying deep into foreign systems, military forces continue to clash in numerous conflict zones, and competition for resources and markets has intensified, particularly between China and the United States. Nonetheless, the focus of national security in early November is internal for the U.S. government: securing a peaceful and legitimate election.

Regardless of what happens on Nov. 3 and the days after, foreign crises will almost certainly rise in importance for U.S. national security. The historical record reminds us that foreign adversaries pay close attention to American domestic weaknesses.

First, conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, the South China Sea, the Indo-China border, and other regions are escalating. With the world distracted by electoral instability in the United States, local actors who believe they have the upper hand (and external support) will be tempted to expand their attacks, widening the violence.

Although the international system is filled with threats and uncertainties, there is a strange public quiet in the days before the U.S. elections. Hackers and propagandists from various countries are burying deep into foreign systems, military forces continue to clash in numerous conflict zones, and competition for resources and markets has intensified, particularly between China and the United States. Nonetheless, the focus of national security in early November is internal for the U.S. government: securing a peaceful and legitimate election.

Regardless of what happens on Nov. 3 and the days after, foreign crises will almost certainly rise in importance for U.S. national security. The historical record reminds us that foreign adversaries pay close attention to American domestic weaknesses.

First, conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, the South China Sea, the Indo-China border, and other regions are escalating. With the world distracted by electoral instability in the United States, local actors who believe they have the upper hand (and external support) will be tempted to expand their attacks, widening the violence.

Second, our near-peer competitors will surely recognize that the messy presidential transition will weaken the ability of the United States to act abroad with decisiveness and coherence. They might also perceive a defeated President Trump as a potential collaborator against American national interests, in return for payments and other personal benefits. Trump’s undermining of long-standing American commitments to Ukrainian security, in return for investigations of his domestic rival, are a tempting model for President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and others eager to exploit America’s leadership vacuum for their own purposes.

Third, and perhaps most concerning, smaller actors, especially North Korea, will surely see the post-election instability in the United States as an opportunity for more aggressive behavior aimed at strategic goals and their own domestic audiences. We should expect more North Korean missile tests at the end of the year, and perhaps other forms of aggression around the demilitarized zone. Why wouldn’t Kim want to show his strength, and highlight America’s limited will to respond?

More than ever, we need a bipartisan group of current and former national security officials to assemble and prepare for the likely international crises of the next few months. Speaker Nancy Pelosi should convene this group, perhaps under the auspices of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and she should reach out to Republican members of the House and Senate to join. At the very least, this initiative will encourage a substantive and productive public discussion of foreign policy, which might temper the actions of foreign adversaries, encourage some sound judgment in the current administration, and lay out a path for the next president and his team.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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