The Global Threats That Could Upend the Race for the White House

The Global Threats That Could Upend the Race for the White House

Why you should care

Because America’s next commander in chief will have to know how to respond to any of these threats — in case one comes to fruition.

As the bombings in Pakistan and Belgium showed, events abroad can quickly affect the course of a U.S. presidential election. In their aftermath, candidates espoused varying viewpoints, with Hillary Clinton calling for an “intelligence surge” and Sen. Ted Cruz, who won yesterday’s Republican primary in Wisconsin, demanding the immediate halt of refugees from countries with significant ties to ISIS — plus the empowerment of “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” As for Donald Trump? He tweeted that “another radical Islamic attack” in Lahore was one “I alone can solve.”

This isn’t the first time international situations have shaped an election cycle. Just flip the history book pages back to 1980, when President Jimmy Carter, in a losing bid to retain office in his contest with Ronald Reagan, came under pressure from the Iranian hostage crisis — “made worse by his failed attempt to rescue the hostages with an aborted special forces operation that spring,” notes OZY senior contributor John McLaughlin, who served as deputy director and then interim director of the CIA, where his main focus was counterterrorism. Or jump to 2004, when President George W. Bush was thought to have gained an advantage over Sen. John Kerry after a video of Osama bin Laden (released that October) attacked Bush, whose poll numbers immediately rose afterward. Which made us wonder …

OZY: What are some of the issues that could be around the corner, ready to potentially disrupt this year’s election?

John McLaughlin: There are plenty, although hard to ever predict.

  • Another ISIS-inspired or -directed attack in the U.S. would take center stage and put pressure on the candidates to say how they would prevent such things.
  • North Korea could finally successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.
  • In the South China or East China Sea, one of the parties — China, the U.S., Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines, for example — could miscalculate and stumble into a shooting incident, or a maritime or air collision.
  • Vladimir Putin could make a new move in Ukraine or a neighboring country that would challenge NATO.
  • The British, in June, could vote in their referendum to leave the European Union, raising questions about the durability of European integration, something the U.S. has supported since the end of World War II.

None of these are far-fetched, although typically what happens is not something we would necessarily be able to predict.

It’s hard to know whether ISIS is capable of inspiring or directing such an attack, but it’s prudent to assume it is.

OZY: Different kinds of threats have already emerged from around the world of late, whether it’s the Islamic State taking responsibility for the bombing in Brussels or North Korea escalating its threat of nuclear attacks. What’s the one major global issue that you think will truly shape this year’s battle for the White House?

J.M.: The tenor of the race so far points to domestic issues — the economy, jobs and such — having more of a shaping role. Insofar as those seem dominant, international issues like trade and immigration are most likely to resonate only if in the form of slogans. There will be lots of China-bashing; there typically is, although it has always been the case that the elected president flips to wanting a stable relationship with Beijing.

But another dramatic foreign issue could push these into the background, and a major terrorist attack would be most likely to have that effect. A terrorist attack almost anywhere could be influential in the campaign; the important thing is the magnitude of it. The worst outcome, and the most dramatic splash in the campaign, would come from an attack in the United States that was either like the San Bernardino attack or greater. It’s hard to know whether ISIS is capable of inspiring or directing such an attack, but it’s prudent to assume it is. I’m sure someone in the government is giving this intense focus, but I also know it’s very difficult to monitor, particularly among those who are inspired versus directed.

OZY: How might a response from either Clinton or Trump — if we go with the leading candidates right now — play out differently among the electorate, and does one stand a better chance at really harnessing the support they might need?

J.M.: With their respective bases, they would do well. The hard part for each of them, I think, comes in reaching beyond those bases for support. In Trump’s case, it doesn’t seem like he needs to do much more than show toughness in his rhetoric to convince his supporters that he’s the one to deal with terrorists.

Clinton has made a number of more specific proposals, which, in the event of a terrorist attack, she would probably reiterate. And she would be under greater pressure to elaborate on her ideas, for example, of creating a safe zone somewhere in Syria, increasing the number of special forces operators on the ground and giving them more leeway to operate directly against ISIS. The trick for both of them would be to reach beyond their bases to convince people who are independent or undecided about which is the better candidate.

OZY: We’ve asked you what it might be like to help brief Clinton or Trump on global security concerns if either became president. How might a conversation with the next commander in chief handle a personality such as Putin, and some of the steps Russia has taken in recent years to flex power beyond its borders?

J.M.: A briefer would have to walk a new president through a number of things: what Putin has done to modernize and resource the Russian military; the status of Russia’s nuclear weapons, including past attempts with Moscow to mutually reduce our nuclear arsenals; Russia’s diplomatic efforts to build influence in the Middle East and Europe; and the impact Western sanctions have had on Russia’s economy.

One of the key questions would center on Moscow’s use in recent years of “hybrid warfare” — the blending of conventional and special ops forces, cyber, psychological operations, propaganda, covert action, deception and diplomacy. It’s a mixture that Moscow has used to achieve its aims in Crimea and Ukraine more broadly. This is not the kind of threat NATO was created to thwart, and any presidential candidate should be trying to gauge how well the alliance is prepared to deal with it.

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.