On the Election—IV

Jessica T. Mathews

Judging from the lack of attention to foreign policy in this campaign, one might conclude that few security challenges loom. Other than immigration policy (more a domestic than an international issue), trade, and, occasionally, the Iran nuclear deal, the rest of the world has been largely invisible.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, October 9, 2016
Yin Bogu/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, October 9, 2016

Yet overwhelmingly, the Republican leaders most distraught by Donald Trump’s candidacy are foreign policy and international security experts. In March, 121 of them stated their “united…opposition” to someone “so utterly unfitted” to the job. A second group signed another such letter in August. Others, including former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have independently announced their opposition. On a list compiled by The New York Times of the 110 most senior Republican leaders who have said they won’t vote for Trump, no fewer than seventy are foreign policy experts.

The reason for this unprecedented public opposition (notably not shared by economists and domestic policy experts) is that foreign policy practitioners believe the next president will confront perhaps the most dangerous international environment and the broadest and most intimidating set of challenges to US foreign policy since at least the end of the cold war, and arguably longer. Topping the list is a toxic relationship with Russia that neither side expects to improve anytime soon. Russian nationalism, stoked by wars in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria and by pervasive domestic propaganda, continues to strengthen. At the same time, Russians are experiencing the insecurity that comes with a shrinking economy caused by low oil prices and failed economic reform. Nationalism and insecurity are a dangerous mixture.

Putin is unlikely to purposefully start a war with NATO. But he is likely to challenge the US in ways that could easily escalate. Most dangerous are the Baltics: three tiny NATO-member states on Russia’s border, each with a sizable Russian-speaking population. A manufactured incident (such as Russia created in Ukraine) could provide the pretext Putin needs to take some military action, presenting the alliance, whose core commitment is that “an attack on one is an attack on all,” with a moment of truth.

Ukraine simmers. Any number of possible sequences of events could result in resumed warfare. And Russia will continue to deploy highly effective disinformation campaigns, intelligence operations, and cyberwar to weaken Europe and, in unprecedented attacks, the United States. Some of these things have been done before (including by the US), but today’s technology greatly enlarges their reach and impact.

Putin has ruled Russia for nearly twenty years. He is bold, shrewd, highly…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.