Turkey, Russia and China are just three countries taking advantage of the moment to act aggressively around the world and test American resolve. All three are betting that the United States is too mired in crisis to react powerfully to strategic challenges overseas. All three might be making a miscalculation.
Turkey is threatening its neighbors and claiming new maritime borders; Russia is poisoning its opposition and posturing around Belarus; and China continues to build up its defense forces while cracking down on dissent at home and abroad. It’s all a potently toxic brew of hyper-national ambitions heartily guzzled by Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
They are drunk with the idea that right now is their time to act aggressively because America can’t or won’t seriously engage to stop them. If they’re right and can achieve their goals because the U.S. continues to stand on the sidelines, they win their bet without paying a hefty price.
If they’re wrong, however, and America and its allies stand up to these nations, the result could mean open hostilities and armed conflict.
Just because America is distracted with an election and serious health, economic and societal challenges doesn’t mean that the world stops turning and churning. While the United States is busy dealing with death, division and the dollar at home, other nations see this as the perfect time to make major moves.
What happens during the next two months, however, could lay the foundation for the newest world order.
Foreign nations are always looking around to find opportunities near and far to pursue their national interests —especially during global crises. This was true back when America played global cop. It is even truer now that the world’s policeman has taken a break from the beat.
That break comes as America faces COVID-19, a tough economy and street protests against social injustice. Add to these three harsh challenges the country’s political inability to work effectively on common policies and solutions while racing toward Nov. 3. These challenges at home create a power vacuum abroad.
Enter the opportunists.
Turkey’s Erdoğan is using this distracting moment to assertively confront Greece. Turkish vessels sail precariously trolling contested waters, creating the recent conditions for a Greek Navy frigate to accidentally clip the stern of a Turkish ship in order to avoid a head-on collision.
That crash could easily have turned into a larger conflict. Easily, and even though Turkey and Greece are NATO allies sworn to defend one another. Increasing hostilities have raised the otherwise unimaginable prospect that democratic treaty allies could actually go to war.
Athens continues to pursue diplomacy, seeking to cool tensions through dialogue. The State Department, meanwhile, seems AWOL while the White House made calls to Ankara to ask Erdoğan to turn down his heated and threatening rhetoric. To no avail.
Turkey and other ambitious nations believe the conditions are ripe for making both real and symbolic moves to satisfy domestic constituencies. Freshly aggressive nations believe the United States is unlikely to act to stop their flagrant acts.
And, likely, they are right. Past performance is a pretty good indicator of future behavior. This administration not only has been critical of NATO, it also has said it has no reason to mess in other nations’ business. After all, why would Washington bother shoring up a defense organization it seemingly hates? Foreign nations also look at America’s multiple and simultaneous crises and figure they can get away with anything that doesn’t directly threaten the U.S. homeland.
Unless, of course, they are wrong.
Surprisingly, there is an increasing chance that America’s current crises might not be paralyzing, but could instead lead President Donald Trump toward precipitous actions with unimaginable consequences. All bets are off with this president. His behavior and decisions often are erratic.
Instead of continuing to ignore the world with his trademark indifference, the president could abruptly choose to counter cavalier foreign nations with a muscular U.S. response. After all, his policy decisions rely heavily upon his raw instincts, honed further by an election season that keeps him keenly attuned to popular culture, societal fears and personal humiliation. Crisis can create electoral opportunities, too.
Imagine if the president found it politically valuable to provoke China over Taiwan. What if he suddenly jumped in to help Belarus? Could he decide to deploy forces in the Eastern Mediterranean to confront NATO-ally Turkey? In each scenario, a campaigning president ups the ante to fuel new international crises while boxing in U.S. lawmakers and citizens to rally around America’s huggable flag.
It would be a dangerous game to play, of course. But it would also be a perfectly made-for-TV moment orchestrated by a media-savvy commander in chief aiming to produce an unpredictable last-minute October surprise.
It would be a perfect cliff-hanger ending to Season 1 of Washington’s political reality show.
Markos Kounalakis will mail in his ballot before any October surprise. He is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.