NO PRESIDENT can anticipate what crisis or sudden disruption will crop up early on. George H.W. Bush certainly didn’t know he’d be tested by the Exxon Valdez oil spill nine weeks after taking the oath, nor that the Berlin Wall would come down, marking the end of the Cold War, before his first year was out. Still, it is possible to foresee crises that may bear down on the new president — and that merit more discussion in this campaign and in the final presidential debate Wednesday.
The new president will inherit a nuclear menace in North Korea that is untamed and for which President Obama has not bequeathed a strategy. The nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is moving — sometimes falteringly, but inexorably — toward a larger arsenal of nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead. Neither sanctions nor imploring China to use its influence has deterred North Korea. The North Korea danger is rising in a larger whirl of uncertainty and jockeying in East Asia, with China ever more assertive in the South China Sea. If domestic U.S. politics doom the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, how will the next president assert leadership in the region?
Meanwhile in much of the world as in China, human rights and democracy are in retreat while illiberal regimes are on the march. Contrary to predictions at the turn of the century, Russia and China have become less tolerant of freedom and dissent; the same is true in Turkey, Egypt, Thailand and many other places. The United States, while not perfect, remains a beacon — truly the most powerful and last best hope — against this trend. Will the new president have a strategy to push back against tyranny and help people who are struggling for freedom?
The new president will discover, rather quickly, that along with land, sea, air and outer space, there is a growing domain of international conflict, cyber, pulsating with danger. Hacking the Democratic National Committee, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Office of Personnel Management was just a taste of possible perils. Cyber-conflict may severely test the next president and the tools available to respond.
Or maybe the next crisis will be between India and Pakistan, or on the Baltic frontier with Russia, or from a virus racing across the planet. The point is that, in the three weeks remaining of this otherwordly campaign, it would be good to hear from these candidates how they would respond to such emergencies. Of course, we don’t mean to omit other big and difficult issues: immigration, entitlements, the economy, climate change, the Supreme Court and a host of other problems abroad, including the war against the Islamic State, the fissures rending Europe and Russia’s bullying behavior. The moderator of Wednesday night’s debate, Chris Wallace, has smartly put six big topics on the table. What the nation deserves is one really serious and substantive interrogation of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about the choices — complex, agonizing, unpredictable — that one of them will face.