Friday, October 2, 2020

Trump and COVID: More or Less Uncertainty

I was asked by a Canadian media outlet to ponder the national security implications of Trump coming down with COVID.  I focused on uncertainty.  That in international relations, uncertainty leads to bad stuff--inadvertent wars, people seeking to take advantage of perceived weakness, etc.  The question really then becomes: if Trump is incapacitated, is the US a less predictable actor?  My take: it is a mix as people will wonder if Trump is still making decisions or not--which means more uncertainty--but since Trump is an Uncertainty Engine, taking him out of the process might increase certainty.

First, don't panic.  Most of the DC apparatus is still operating.  Desks are still staffed, standard operating procedures are still operating.  The US does have contingencies for an impaired President--not just the 25th Amendent but also all of the nuclear planning and such. 

Second, be concerned.  American adversaries may see this as a window of opportunity to act while the US leadership is incapacitated.  But we have to think about which ones.  North Korea, for instance, has been getting pretty much what it has wanted with Trump, so this would not be a moment to do anything to upset that.  China would like Biden to replace Trump, even if  Biden has been stirring up some Sinophobia, as Biden is more predictable and more willing to make credible deals and stop costly trade wars.  Iran, well, Iran would be interested in screwing around with the US since they are still upset about the Suliemani strike which was, yes, this year.  But it is not like Iran has not been thinking about and trying to do stuff already.  So, it might make them a bit more risk prone, but, again, they probably prefer a Biden Administration, so they may not want to upset things. 

Which leaves us with the troll du decade--Putin.  Putin is guessing he is going to lose his puppy, so why not burn things down now?  Russia is already engaged in destabilization efforts in Ukraine and in propping up their pals in Belarus.  I am not sure escalation in either place is in the cards.  But I would worry about Putin since he attacks weakness even if such an attack puts Russia in a worse position (such as 2014). 

I was asked about the implications for Canadian national security.  My answer is: not much. I would worry a bit about the Canadian troops that are near harm's way--trainers in Iraq and Ukraine--but since the American national security system will continue to operate, not much really changes for Canada in the next week or two. 

And, yeah, no one got as concerned about Trudeau's exposure to COVID as Trump because, well, Canada is not quite as central as both guarantor of security and threat to it, depending on what country one happens to be. 

Oh, and perhaps we should all learn to take this disease seriously: stay at home, wear masks when going out, keep at a distance.  We have known what to do for the past six months--it is about time more folks do what they should as this second wave continues to escalate.

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