It’s official: The president of the United States, the most powerful individual on the planet, has contracted Covid-19. Donald Trump is now at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is receiving experimental treatments and steroids to battle episodes of drops in oxygen, fever and fatigue. More than 200,000 Americans have already lost their lives from the coronavirus.
Multiple contingencies — some downright apocalyptic — are taken into account to ensure the country is safe and the people’s business continues under any circumstance.
The president’s hospital stay has produced a swirl of commentary about the potential national security implications of Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Some have suggested that the U.S. government is in the midst of the most dangerous period in its history. But as significant as this news is, we would be well served by taking a step back from the threat-inflation now seeping into the national conversation. The world is not falling apart. And the United States will not lose a step just because the president has caught the virus.
Listening to some of the analysis over the last several days, you can be forgiven for believing otherwise. Former U.S. intelligence officials have suggested Tehran may take additional potshots at U.S. troops in Iraq now that the White House is dealing with its own Covid-19 crisis. Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, warned that the United States "should not discount the possibility that China will step up pressure on Taiwan or Russia seek to take advantage in Eastern Europe.” Jim Sciutto, CNN’s national security correspondent, tweeted that U.S. adversaries could be emboldened. Even The New York Times, considered America’s paper of record, contributed to the speculation.
As exciting as this analysis is, it is based on little more than sensationalism. The reality is far more boring: World dynamics won’t change very much, if at all.
For one, the U.S. military and government don’t magically disintegrate or demobilize if the president of the United States is sick and out of commission for a little while. These systems are built on robust chains of command where multiple contingencies — some downright apocalyptic — are taken into account to ensure the country is safe and the people’s business continues under any circumstance.
Those contingencies include the incapacitation of the commander in chief. Thus far, of course, there is no evidence that the sitting president is unable to handle the duties of the office — he’s been tweeting, making comments from an office set up for him at the hospital and even took a ride around the neighborhood Sunday night to wave at well-wishers from his car. But even if he weren’t, the job of government would go on courtesy of the line of succession.
The U.S. military’s posture will also remain the same. While a deterioration in the commander in chief’s health is always a big news item, given the gravity and weighty responsibilities of the office, it has little bearing on how the U.S. military operates on a daily basis. America’s missile defense system is still up and running. The U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise remains functional. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain deployed in Europe, and tens of thousands more stationed in Japan and South Korea. Regular military exercises and training missions with allies and security partners will go on. Alliances are still intact. And the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community continue to clock into work every morning and churn out assessments for senior policymakers.
So if you are concerned about U.S. adversaries exploiting Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis to scoop up territory, don’t be. Foreign policy isn’t a one-dimensional game of checkers, where a player makes a potentially consequential move based on a single variable. Rather, foreign policy mimics three-dimensional chess, where both sides at the table scan the entire board, game-out future scenarios and try to anticipate what the other player may be thinking.
If the costs of a Russian invasion of the Baltics or a Chinese amphibious assault against Taiwan remain higher than the perceived benefits, the U.S. president’s health will hardly make a difference in the minds of Russian and Chinese decision-makers. And those strategic calculations and threat perceptions in Moscow and Beijing don’t change just because the U.S. president is suffering from a serious illness and is now in isolation.
This is hardly the first time a torrent of worry has clouded out reality. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, U.S. officials were concerned that the Soviet Union not only planned the operation but was preparing to follow it up with a gut-wrenching attack upon the U.S. itself. As the CIA would later report about a month later, however, the Soviets were as dismayed about Kennedy’s assassination as everyone else.
As it happened, the next few months of U.S.-Soviet relations consisted not of military muscle-flexing or nuclear escalation, but of exploratory trade talks, a secret dialogue between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the signing of the first consular agreement between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Coicidently, Kennedy’s assassination may have accelerated all of these positive developments; the CIA would report in 1966 that Moscow viewed Kennedy’s killing and the possible rise of “ultra-right” sentiment as a direct threat to Soviet interests.
A similar series of events occurred after the attempted assissination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. The Reagan administration, particularly Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, was on high alert in the ensuing days about a number of possible Soviet actions from ballistic missile attacks against the capital to a Soviet invasion of Poland. Fortunately, none of this fear resulted in anything concrete.
The state of the world is far more likely to remain constant than enter into a new era of high-risk behavior. The American people should take some comfort in this basic fact.
None of this is to suggest that Trump’s contraction of Covid-19 is a nonevent. It most certainly is not. The disease has demonstrated its lethality over the last nine months. Taking into account Trump's age and weight, both of which are correlated with a more extreme coronavirus course, White House chief of staff Mark Meadow’s comment Saturday that “we’re still not on a path yet to a full recovery” is a sobering statement of the road ahead.
But the state of the world is far more likely to remain constant than enter into a new era of high-risk behavior. The American people should take some comfort in this basic fact as they ingest more dramatic commentary in the days and weeks to come.