James Stavridis on global order amid potential election chaos
This guest commentary is part of a series on American election integrity.
AS AMERICA ENTERS the final stage of a highly contested election, some global leaders must be relishing the moment: the country looks utterly distracted, inwardly focused and politically divided. With the prospect of a chaotic post-election period, there may be voices in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang and Caracas wondering: “Could there possibly be a better moment to take advantage of the situation and grab a quick victory before a fractured America has time to marshal a response?”
It is often said that crime is where motive and means meets opportunity. And a few rather unneighbourly countries might be tempted. One can imagine plenty of scenarios.
Perhaps China wants to increase repressive measures in Hong Kong, make a military move on Taiwan or threaten countries in the South China Sea. Russia could try to use this moment to consolidate control over another part of Ukraine, perhaps creating a “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea along the coast of the Black Sea. In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro could decide this is the moment to arrest the opposition leader Juan Guaidó. And that perpetual nuisance of the international system, North Korea, might strike merchant shipping or lash out at South Korea.
But I would advise extreme caution. Put simply: Don’t try it. You may be surprised by just how prepared America is to safeguard its interests in global security.
Although our domestic politics may be roiled and confusing, our military remains deployed and ready to respond anywhere in the world. Our intelligence network, from constellations of satellites in the skies above to nuclear submarines in the seas below, are always listening and watching closely. With a defence budget of over $700bn, America has much more military capability than China and Russia combined. We aim for peace and stability, but train to “fight tonight” if need be.
Our global network of allies and friends, though tested during the Trump administration, remains solid. The president may have hectored Europeans as “free-loaders” but European Union and NATO defence spending is greater than China’s and Russia’s together. When the resources of American allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia are included, it amounts to a formidable global capacity for reach and response. Even smaller allies—from Singapore to New Zealand to Colombia—bring substantial support. It is a strong, solid network.
America’s opponents might think that the issue is not military capacity but political will: American forces can't and won't act without presidential authorisation, and if politicians in Washington are distracted, opponents can claim a geopolitical win. But this dangerously misunderstands the reality. In the waning days of a presidential election, or a tense period after the ballots are in but the outcome uncertain, no president, especially one who claims to know more than his generals, would wish to appear weak in response to international provocation.
America and its partners together have powerful economic and diplomatic leverage too. NATO is an alliance of 30 countries but represents roughly 50% of the global economy. Despite the Trump administration’s misgivings about the international system—be it the United Nations, NATO, the EU or the Organisation of American States—the collective strength exists to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions against those who threaten international stability. Sanctions have placed heavy burdens on Russia, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea over the past decade. Although skirted at times, they can have real bite when the need arises.
The idea of deterrence is correctly categorised as capability plus credibility. “Capability” means that an opponent should believe that a deterring actor is capable of applying real damage diplomatically, economically and militarily. “Credibility” is the assessment of whether or not the deterring actor is willing and able to muster the political will to use its force. By this formulation, all institutions of American power stand ready to defend the country’s interests amid a period of election uncertainty, just as they are at other times.
There are examples of past presidents acting militarily at the end of an administration or during times of domestic distraction. For example, in 1992 in his last weeks in office, President George H. W. Bush sent American troops to Somalia to protect UN aid workers. And in August 1998, even as he was being impeached in the midst of a scandal, President Bill Clinton authorised “Operation Infinite Reach”, a set of cruise-missile strikes on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan in response to attacks on two American embassies in Africa.
When I served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in 2009-13, I was often asked if the United States “would really come to the aid of Estonia?” More recently, the question is framed as “are Americans willing to see their soldiers die to defend tiny Montenegro?” naming a recent member of the alliance.
The answer has always been “yes”. A peaceful and prosperous global order depends on it. History shows that America intervenes on the side of freedom and its national interests—not always perfectly and at times with tactical missteps. But preserving democracy is in our lifeblood as a nation.
America's enemies in the past, from those who attacked Pearl Harbour to the perpetrators of 9/11, have made the mistake of underestimating our resolve. And that resolve extends far beyond direct attacks on the American homeland. No one should assume that just because we are attentively watching a contentious election, we won't come together and respond if someone were so foolish as to provoke us.
The message to any would-be geopolitical destabiliser is that America will respond vigorously. Do not mistake domestic squabbling for an unwillingness to stand firm internationally, from anywhere to anywhere. As the great pageantry of clash and cacophony that typifies American democracy takes place again this year, no one should underestimate the country’s preparedness and resolve. As American citizens focus on the election, American institutions remain focused on maintaining global order.
Retired Admiral James Stavridis was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, and later dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. An independent, he was vetted as a potential vice-presidential running mate by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 and as a possible Secretary of State by President-elect Trump.
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