General Dan Christman | Debates, COVID, and October Surprises - MadMadCovidWorld 2020 NEW copy

Months ago, analysts had speculated about the likelihood and implications of an October election surprise. Now there are two: a presidential debate that left friends and allies shocked and adversaries ecstatic; then, ten days ago, the president’s positive Covid diagnosis. 

In the wake of both the debate and the president’s illness, worries are growing that adversaries might take advantage of a U.S. distraction in the middle of our domestic tumult. But, bottom line, this fear is probably exaggerated. 

Let’s focus first on the international implications of the debate. If there was a winner on the global stage in the wake of this rhetorical nightmare, it is probably China. Reinforced by the chaos of the debate, China’s messaging from official news organs and think-tanks stress the disorder in the United States and a disdain for our form of governance. The conclusion PRC leaders advertise to the world is that their own governance model (authoritarian and repressive, but of course never described by them that way) is decidedly superior to ours. We will hear this patter line intensify in the weeks and months ahead. 

More worrisome post-debate, however, are reports from our friends and allies around the globe. They have long expressed concerns about our inward turn and the dependability of U.S. security guarantees in the middle of profound domestic U.S. divisions; while this is not new, the debate itself magnified the worries. 

How we rebuild essential trust with our partners will be one of the most vital tasks for whoever is president in 2021. Successfully meeting the China challenge will prove impossible unless this task is prioritized and U.S. political divisions bridged. (By the way, it’s another reason why China was overjoyed in watching the breathtaking dysfunction displayed in the debate). 

Second, on the potential for adversaries stealing a march on the U.S. in the months ahead, I think the likelihood of a destabilizing strategic move by any of our nation-state challengers, certainly before the election, is minimal. The list of the usual disruptors – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea – is by now well known: 

  • China, as noted above, is extremely comfortable with the dysfunction in the U.S. political system. They see global trends evolving in their favor, and over the short term, are unlikely to overplay a winning hand. They will continue to press Hong Kong and regional neighbors, of course, but not Washington.
  • Russia will keep swinging for the fences through cyber to try to delegitimize our election cycle; but the bond between Putin and Trump precludes an embarrassing geopolitical move by Moscow.
  • Iran is content to sit back; they favor Vice President Biden and will do nothing to risk undermining his campaign.
  • And on North Korea, love persists in the unusual Trump- Kim personal relationship; even Pyongyang’s rhetoric has modulated. Kim Jong Un may continue to unsettle South Korea but is unlikely to try to embarrass Trump.

One final worry surrounding the President’s Covid diagnosis is a potential disruption in our national security chain of command should the president be temporarily incapacitated.

However, the entire national security system, as one writer highlighted last week in Foreign Policy magazine, is designed to maintain a functioning security apparatus despite an ailing president. What’s fortunate is that post-FDR, the National Security Council system was established because national leaders then were worried about the personal compartmentalization of secrets and decisions by President Roosevelt; these were kept from all put an extremely tight circle of advisers – including the Veep!

Thankfully, that’s changed. And the system put in place in 1947 that complements our constitutional safeguards should ensure that the intelligence reviews, policy debates, and ultimately, orders to military commanders, are all seamlessly conducted. 

October surprises are nothing new in the history of U.S. presidential elections. But in comparison to others that historians have highlighted –  from Lincoln through Reagan to today – the 2020 surprises should prove minimally unsettling to our foreign policy interests. The 22 days until the election, however, are an eternity in U.S. politics, with the potential always to undermine any confident prediction!