The president and his likely successor are campaigning almost exclusively about domestic matters, including the scarcity of domestic tranquility.
Although voters usually wish that foreign policy would not intrude upon their attention, they should notice that the president who will be inaugurated in three months will confront an increasingly disorderly world.
Vladimir Putin has annexed a portion (Crimea) of Europe’s geographically largest nation, Ukraine, and continues to subvert the remainder of it. It once was said that czarist Russia was “absolutism tempered by assassination.” Putin almost certainly continues using murder, or attempted murder, as an instrument of governance: He or his henchmen poisoned his foremost domestic critic, Alexei Navalny, who survived. This has not resulted, and might not result, in serious consequences, such as Germany’s canceling the almost-completed $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is supposed to deliver Russian gas to Western Europe. In a world awash with cheap energy, the pipeline’s primary purpose is to increase European dependence on Russia and to deprive Ukraine of transit fees it collects from an existing pipeline. A sense of impunity might tempt Putin to wage — on behalf of ethnic Russians in one or more of the three Baltic states, all NATO members — the sort of “hybrid warfare” waged against Ukraine. This might unravel NATO by revealing a reluctance to act on its guarantee of collective security.
The European Union now includes two autocracies (the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary). Until recently, Cyprus had blocked (the European Union requires unanimity) E.U. sanctions against the Belarus thugocracy of Alexander Lukashenko, who has crushed protests against the rigged election in which he won an 80% landslide. Two NATO nations, Greece and an increasingly authoritarian and belligerent Turkey (which also has disputes with Cyprus), might go to war in the eastern Mediterranean over territorial claims, including underwater gas reserves. Another reason that Josep Borrell, the European Union’s minister for foreign affairs, says the bloc’s neighborhood is “in flames” is that he thinks the Balkans (which Winston Churchill said produce more history than they can consume) are “a powder keg,” partly because of tensions between Serbia and its former province Kosovo.
For the first time in 45 years, there has been lethal gunfire on the Himalayan border between two nuclear powers, the world’s two most populous nations, India and China. China, where a senior official pointedly dropped the word “peaceful” from a statement about the inevitability of bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s control, has lately conducted air and naval operations within Taiwan’s defense buffer zone. Taiwan termed this “severe provocation” the gravest threat since Beijing missiles splashed into Taiwan’s waters in 1996.
Now, the world is never without violence or the potential for it. Today there is, however, evidence of a rising level of risk-taking and of disregard for restraints on behavior. Even in Britain, where the rule of law was nurtured, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government contemplates unilaterally revising an agreement it negotiated with the European Union in January.
Two years ago, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution published “The Jungle Grows Back,” making this argument: The post-World War II years of “relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations,” years in which 4 billion people rose from subsistence poverty, “have been a great historical aberration.” We have lived so long with the largely American-made and -maintained world that enabled this, that it, and we, are jeopardized by what Francis Fukuyama calls “generational forgetting.” Forgetting that history is not a steadily rising path to sunlit uplands. History is, Kagan says, “a jagged line with no discernible slope.” There is a dark “subterranean stream of Western history” (Hannah Arendt’s phrase), some of the worst horrors of which “occurred in the lifetimes of our grandparents.” The post-1945 world is, Kagan says, like a garden “ever under siege from the natural forces of history, the jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm it.”
So, American voters should ask: Which candidate can be trusted to cope with foreign dangers calmly, assisted by a well-functioning national security apparatus? Is it the candidate who has had two secretaries of defense and state, and four national security advisers, who considers Xi Jinping a “friend,” who sided with Putin against the U.S. intelligence agencies concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election and who tweeted “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” because he spent a few hours with Kim Jong Un, with whom he had an epistolary romance (“We fell in love”)? Or is it the other candidate?