Thomas Friedman: Who to elect for a foreign policy crisis at 3 a.m.?

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

As the 2020 campaign gets under way, we've heard about a Green New Deal, Medicare for all, breaking up Amazon and universal basic income — to name but a few of the ideas raised by Democratic presidential hopefuls. But one issue has been largely absent: foreign policy — the potential use of force, great-power competition and the management of alliances that will be more important during the next presidency than it has been in three decades.

Maybe I missed it, but I haven't heard any of the Democrats running on the argument that he or she is the best person to answer the White House crisis line at 3 in the morning. They all seem inclined to let that call go to voicemail. I hope that doesn't last, because that phone will be ringing. This will be an extraordinarily volatile and confusing time for U.S. foreign policy.

We're in the post-post-Cold War era — an era when being secretary of state, let alone president, has become a terrible job. (If anyone asks you to become secretary of state, say you had your heart set on agriculture.) The post-Cold War era had its issues — 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, to be sure — but it was in many ways a unipolar belle epoque, in which an American hegemon stifled any serious great-power conflict.

The post-post-Cold War era, which has been slowly unfolding since the early 2000s, requires a president to manage and juggle three huge geopolitical trends — and the interactions between them — all at once.

The first is the resurgence of three big regional powers: Russia, China and Iran. Each is seeking to dominate its region and is willing to use force for that purpose. This trend is compellingly described in a new book by Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins emeritus professor of U.S. foreign policy, titled "The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth."

As Mandelbaum notes, in Europe, Russia has occupied part of Ukraine. In East Asia, China has claimed most of the Western Pacific as its own territory, contrary to international law; has built artificial islands there; and has placed military installations on them. In the Middle East, Iran has trained and funded proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has pursued nuclear weapons.

"The three have an important motive in common: All are dictatorships trying to generate support among those they rule through aggressive nationalism, at the expense of their neighbors," Mandelbaum (with whom I co-wrote a book in 2011) remarked to me.

"The combination of their insecurities and their ambitions has revived political and military competition among the strongest countries in the world. Indeed, the world of 2019 more closely resembles the world of the Cold War than of the 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall."

If this first trend requires a president who can manage strength — ours and that of Russia, China and Iran — the second trend will require a deft touch at managing weakness. We are going to see more and more weak states — like Venezuela, Libya, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and many in sub-Saharan Africa — either fall apart or hemorrhage lots of their people, because they are unable to manage the stresses from climate change, population explosion, ecosystem breakdowns and the rapid accelerations in globalization and technology.

If you think managing strength is hard, try managing weakness — try attempting to put broken countries back together. It's hell on wheels. But that will be a big challenge for the next president because the mass migrations of people away from these disorderly and failing states to zones of order, which is what is driving the current U.S. and European border crises, are not going away.

Consider this Washington Post report: "The number of people taken into custody along the Mexico border jumped an additional 31 percent last month as an unprecedented mass migration of families from Central America pushes unauthorized crossings to the highest levels in a decade, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures."

The story added that last month, the busiest February at the border since 2007, authorities detained 76,103, up from 58,207 in January, and it quoted Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan as saying: "The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point."

For the third trend, the next president will have to manage not only rival superpowers and disorder but also super-empowered small groups and individuals, because of how technology acceleration is putting incredibly powerful, cheap, small tools — for cyberwarfare, election hacking and financial hacking — into the hands of small units, vastly expanding their attack surfaces.

These cyber tools are all getting fast, cheap and deep. That is, they can go deeper inside your company, your email, your election, your power grid or your bank account — every single day. This makes them easier to be weaponized by small units (like North Korea) and individuals so they can have outsize effects through deep fake, deep surveillance, deep cyber theft.

Which brings us back to the thesis of "The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth." The resurgent competition between us, China, Russia and Iran means that instead of our having their cooperation "to try to manage state failure and the technological tsunami, the three revisionists are making them worse," Mandelbaum told me.

"Russia and Iran took the lead in devastating Syria, producing a flood of refugees that has, among other things, destabilized Europe. And all three have weaponized the new technology, hacking the U.S. and Europe and, in the case of Russia, even interfering with an American election."

This means there will be even more pressure on the next president to find allies and build alliances to maintain order. Only the U.S. has the ability to organize coalitions to deter Russia, China and Iran, Mandelbaum argues. Only the U.S. has the resources and the experience to lead a global effort to try to cope with state failure. "And since much of the new technology was invented and applied here, the U.S. is in the best position to figure out how to cope with it."

Among President Donald Trump's greatest foreign policy weaknesses is his inability to build and maintain alliances. Few other countries want to follow him into battle.

The winner of the 2020 election, whether Trump or someone else, is going to pay for the way Trump has let our traditional alliances to wither and has made the U.S. administration (not people) so unpopular with populations from Canada to Mexico to Europe to Asia to the Middle East that many of their leaders do not feel comfortable standing with our president, even if they are so inclined.

That is not Trump's only poisoned legacy. The other is that he shows no interest in democracy promotion, and that, too, is more important than ever, because democracies are much less prone to war. But we're in a democracy recession now. Leaders from China to Egypt to Uganda to Turkey are all making themselves presidents for life.

"The principal disturbers of the peace — Russia, China, and Iran — are all dictatorships that seek popular support, can no longer get it through economic growth, don't have the option of getting it through democracy, and in fact fear that democratic demands and democratic forces will unseat them," Mandelbaum said. "Their aggressive policies are designed to protect their regimes against, most of all, democracy."

So hold onto your hats: Great-power conflict is in, but U.S. democracy promotion is out. We need allies more than ever, and we have fewer than ever. And some guy in Moldova with a cellphone and a few cyber tools can now shut off the power grid in Montana.

No wonder no one wants to boast being the best person to answer the White House crisis line at 3 a.m. They all prefer to let it ring and hope that it's a wrong number.