It's Debatable

Is an Undecided U.S. Presidential Election a National Security Threat?

As U.S. states count votes, are foreign states seeking to undermine American interests from East Asia to East Africa?

Counterprotesters debate a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump
Counterprotesters debate a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump during demonstrations outside of the TCF Center in downtown Detroit on Nov. 5. SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! How long do you think it’s possible for humans to go without sleep? It’s been a couple of days of doom-scrolling and waiting for an election result at this point.

Matthew Kroenig: You are stronger than me. I was determined to stay up Tuesday night, but I ended up crashing at 11 p.m.

The race was much closer than almost anyone predicted. Foreign Policy should start a series on the American Midwest so Washington-based wonks can better understand their own country.

EA: I suspect some in D.C. would benefit from some time studying abroad in the Midwest, but I think almost everyone was surprised at how close this election has become. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The election isn’t close at all; Joe Biden is currently ahead by almost 4 million votes. But the strange structure of the U.S. Electoral College means that we’re waiting to see if a handful of votes in a tiny percentage of counties in five states go in the same direction as the popular vote or not. It’s a reminder of how unrepresentative American democracy can be sometimes.

MK: Thank goodness for the U.S. Constitution. The founders didn’t trust a democratic mob to choose the president and delegated the power to states to send representatives to vote in an electoral college. My loved ones in Missouri and Ohio are grateful that they are less vulnerable to the tyranny of coastal majorities in New York and Los Angeles who don’t understand or share their political preferences.

But this is a column on international affairs. How is the rest of the world viewing the U.S. election results?

EA: Well, they’re watching closely. The election has been the top story on the BBC website for days now—a reminder of how important U.S. elections are for foreign policy. We’ve got ambassadors hedging their bets and governments refusing to say anything that might offend either potential victor in the vote.

What I found particularly sad were the comments from European allies like the German foreign minister, calling for trust in the U.S. electoral system. It sounded exactly like the sort of statement that the State Department would make about disputed elections in some far-off, semi-democratic country. U.S. elections have never been the paragon of virtue that some suggest—Jim Crow, anyone?—but these statements from other countries are a reminder of how much the United States’ image has suffered in the last few years.

MK: But, so far, the election has been mostly a good news story for American democracy. It has been free and fair, and we are patiently waiting for the process to play out. To be sure, the president has made unfortunate and unfounded claims about the integrity of the process, and adversaries, like Iran’s supreme leader, are poking fun at the U.S. system. (I guess he prefers bloody repression to the messiness of democracy.) But the worst fears have not materialized. There has been none of the feared violence. The stores around my house in Georgetown have been boarded up for nothing.

But I do think people are at risk of misinterpreting the results. I have heard many in the Beltway bubble and abroad say that the large vote share for Donald Trump shows that America is more racist, sexist, and isolationist than many understood. But that’s not the right way to view it. Believe it or not, most people in red states don’t spend most of their time thinking about race, gender, and foreign policy. They simply liked Trump more than Joe Biden.

EA: So does it show support for some of Trump’s more unorthodox foreign-policy ideas? After all, in the campaign, he returned to his 2016 promises to end the war in Afghanistan. Even if Biden ends up winning, it seems as if Trump thought that this was a popular foreign-policy view—and that some of the electorate agreed with him.

MK: Maybe for some. But most Americans don’t vote on foreign policy. My friends and family who voted for Trump did so because they think of themselves as Republicans and they are supporting the team, even if they don’t love the coach. Others thought Trump would be good for the economy and worry about a Biden tax hike. They fear the far-left more than the far-right. Most do not closely follow what is going on in Afghanistan or know Trump’s or Biden’s position on the matter.

EA: Really? I agree with you that voters rarely vote on foreign policy, but polling shows that two-thirds of Trump supporters think he was right to negotiate with the Taliban. Trump himself clearly thought it important enough in the campaign to try to cover up the fact that he failed to follow through on that promise during his first term.

MK: If pollsters ask for an opinion, they will get one, even if it is not what is driving the respondents’ political behavior. And this poll says that Trump’s supporters back something the pollster tells them Trump is trying to do? That is not surprising. I suspect two-thirds of Trump supporters would tell a pollster they back Trump’s efforts to negotiate peace with the lost city of Atlantis.

EA: OK, that’s probably true. I’m reminded of the time pollsters managed to get 30 percent of Republicans to agree that the United States should bomb Agrabah, the fictional country from Disney’s Aladdin.

But my broader point is that even if voters don’t vote on specific foreign-policy issues, the substantive level of support for Trump indicates that they certainly don’t repudiate his foreign-policy approach. Trumpism in foreign policy—a kind of belligerent unilateral nationalism—may well be here to stay.

MK: That sounds terrible. Belligerent unilateral internationalism would be a much better fit for a globalized world.

I just don’t think Trumpism exists apart from Trump. He is sui generis. We saw at the vice presidential debate that Mike Pence’s articulation of America’s role in the world was a return to standard Republican rhetoric.

EA: Yes, but is “standard Republican” going to look different after Trump? After all, he pretty strongly repudiated nation-building and all the rest of the George W. Bush-era freedom agenda.

MK: We will see for sure in just about two years when we will have non-Trump Republicans campaigning for the 2024 election. I suspect the likely candidates (Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and others) will have foreign policies that look more like Ronald Reagan’s than Trump’s.

An adversary might try to take advantage of the United States’ internal fixation on the election and the possible uncertainties of a transition to a new administration. This would be a good time for China to move on Taiwan, for example.

There is another international dimension to the elections that worries me. Maybe it is my background in the Pentagon, but I do fear that an adversary might try to take advantage of the United States’ internal fixation on the election and the possible uncertainties of a transition to a new administration. This would be a good time for China to move on Taiwan, for example. The probability is low, but the cost of World War III is significant enough that I would be watching this closely if I were still in government.

EA: I think the fear of a fait accompli on Taiwan—or elsewhere—during the election aftermath or a transition period is seriously overblown. As Michael Kofman described in an excellent essay the other day, faits accomplis are harder to, well, accomplish and rarer than commonly assumed. Yes, it’s possible that China could use this period of uncertainty to move on Taiwan, but it would still be incredibly difficult and costly to overcome the island’s defenses.

As Kofman points out, seizing Taiwan isn’t a simple land grab; it would be the invasion and seizure of a whole country, something that hasn’t happened in 70 years. Or to put it another way, the United States isn’t the only deterrent to Chinese actions against Taiwan. So despite the growing talk about it, I’m seriously skeptical that China or other states will try to use the electoral uncertainty for large-scale nefarious purposes.

MK: I’m not so sure. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made no secret about its desire to incorporate Taiwan eventually and through force if necessary. Chinese warplanes have been increasing incursions into Taiwan’s airspace this fall. And it wouldn’t have to be a D-Day-style assault. The People’s Liberation Army could use 21st-century tactics, including cyberattacks, precision conventional strikes, and other gray-zone tactics in a bid to coerce Taipei into submission.

At a minimum, I think there is value for the United States to clarify its commitment to Taiwan to help the CCP avoid miscalculation. And it would be great if it could be joined in that pledge by treaty allies around the world. World War III in the Taiwan Strait would be a problem for everyone, including allies in Europe. Germany, for example, might not send troops, but it could make a political declaration backed up with the threat of sanctions. The free world standing united on this issue would give the CCP pause.

EA: Not to be the cynical realist here, but it would only become World War III if the United States gets involved. That’s exactly why so many people argue against making a concrete security commitment to Taiwan; the risk of conflict between China and the United States is not worth it.

MK: So we should stand by as a rising revisionist great power uses force to gobble up its neighbors that happen to be U.S. allies? I would think that is something a cynical realist would want to deter.

EA: It depends. Taiwan is a fairly unique case in its historical ties and proximity to China. It’s certainly not the same as deterring Chinese aggression toward Japan, South Korea, or other U.S. allies in the region. And let’s be honest, Taiwan could relatively easily defend itself if it invested in the right military capabilities. Taiwan has chosen to rely on the United States instead, even though Washington has never made a concrete security guarantee. That comes with a substantive escalation risk for the United States.

But we’re off topic here. I think your second point is more relevant to the news of the day. The United States can’t make decisions about how it wants to engage with the world until it has a confirmed new leader. I don’t think it’s dangerous that it’s taking this long to figure out the next president, but it doesn’t reflect well on the United States that the electoral system is this disorganized and that the current president is making profoundly undemocratic statements. I mean, just a few hours ago Trump tweeted that any vote received after Election Day shouldn’t be counted, which violates the law in a number of states. And he’s calling for all vote counts to be stopped—except where he trails and still has a shot of winning.

MK: I hope we can address the question of how the U.S. government will engage with the world over the next four years in our next column in mid-November. What would a Biden or second-term Trump administration mean for America’s role in the world? Who are the winners and losers internationally?

But we should probably turn to the civil war brewing in East Africa. Have you been following events in Ethiopia?

EA: Do they have an electoral college, too?

MK: That would certainly be less messy than the current situation.

EA: So it looks as if the Ethiopian government, having finally ended its external conflicts, could be heading into a civil war, launching military action in the Tigray region—after an alleged raid on federal troops—and in response to the region’s ruling TPLF party (which used to dominate the federal government until Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018) seeking more political independence. What’s your take?

MK: It is disappointing to see the country fragmenting. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, and he was putting in place some much-needed economic and political reforms. I hate to be a broken record, but this action may have been timed to take place when the United States—an important partner for Ethiopia—was distracted by domestic issues.

EA: Yeah, there’s probably more to that. I still think it’s unlikely that China will attack Taiwan, but there’s definitely an element of “when the cat’s away” to what’s happening in Ethiopia. Tensions have been building for months, but timing the government’s assault to coincide with the U.S. election was almost certainly intended to avoid as much notice and criticism.

And it’s a serious step backward for Ethiopia. It’s not out of the question for this to spiral into civil war or even into partition; after all, one of Ethiopia’s other neighbors, Sudan, just fought a lengthy civil war over independence for South Sudan. That said, I’m not sure I see a U.S. role here other than mediation.

MK: Africa is not a priority region for U.S. foreign policy. But Ethiopia has been an important partner for advancing U.S. interests in the region, including on counterterrorism and development. This will certainly complicate the relationship. The conflict runs along ethnic lines, and I hope this doesn’t become a new Yugoslav-style war that leads to the breakup of a multiethnic country. We will have to watch this closely.

But, for now, we better rest up in preparation for our second debate of the day. Apparently, our scribblings here have a growing audience. We have been invited to debate U.S. foreign policy (virtually) on a college campus tonight. I hope you are up to the challenge.

EA: Matt, the sooner you accept that you’re wrong about foreign policy, the sooner I can stop following you around to remind you!

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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