The World War III election

In November, a survey found former President Donald Trump was more trusted to handle relations with China and both wars. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Subscribe here | Email Alex | Email Matt

With help from Daniel Lippman

DONALD TRUMP’s remark that he’d allow Russia to attack a NATO nation that didn’t spend enough on defense, and do nothing, is curious for a candidate accusing President JOE BIDEN of courting the next great war.

We are on the brink of World War III,” Trump said in January following an Iran-backed militia killing three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. Biden, in response to Trump’s NATO remark, blasted the Republican frontrunner for abandoning allies, a stance he claimed would make Americans less safe at home.

The exchange underscored the 2024 foreign policy debate’s metanarrative: which candidate is best positioned to avoid the largest global conflict in decades.

“The specter of World War III is becoming the successor to the specter of endless war,” said STEPHEN WERTHEIM, a senior fellow in the American statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After Russian troops entered Ukraine in Feb. 2022, 69 percent of Americans feared those were the opening salvos of World War III. And a Quinnipiac poll from January found that more than 8 in 10 Americans were concerned the U.S. would be drawn into a conflict in the Middle East.

Trump may have the upper hand on addressing those fears. In November, a survey found the former president was more trusted to handle relations with China and both wars.

Meanwhile, concerns about a broadening fight are, well, broadening. Iran and its proxies are attacking Americans and their allies. Russia continues to wage war against Ukraine and may mobilize a half-million troops more. And the prospect of China invading Taiwan looms large.

That all has Republicans and Democrats thinking about the best ways to handle the crises and ensure they don’t grow into bigger problems.

“Most Democrats seem to think that the risk in Europe is doing too little, and the risk in the Middle East is doing too much. Many Republicans believe the opposite,” said JUSTIN LOGAN, who leads defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

No president wants to be the one responsible for a massive fight that leads to tens of thousands of deaths and upends the global economy. But both world wars started in large part by miscalculations and misjudgements about intentions. The worry is more about Biden and Trump stumbling into World War III than anything else.

For example, Iran could continue supporting proxies who attack American forces in the Middle East, leading to escalating tit-for-tat exchanges. Trump’s messaging to Russia could compel VLADIMIR PUTIN to test if the second-time president would commit American forces to Europe’s defense. If he does, then the world’s foremost nuclear powers would be in a direct confrontation.

KORI SCHAKE, who leads the American Enterprise Institute’s foreign and defense work, said avoiding World War III isn’t the right way to look at this political fight: “It’ll be about who can keep us safe.” Americans aren’t reflexively antiwar, Schake added, saying if they were, support for Biden wouldn’t have dropped after he withdrew troops from Afghanistan and there’d be opposition to striking the Houthis in Yemen or standing by Taiwan.

Still, Wertheim argues it’s good for the citizenry to be engaged in the debate about how dangerous things seem, and are, right now. “If this election raises awareness of the risks of World War III, that could be a good thing,” he said.

A message from Lockheed Martin:

PAC-3 MSE: Enabling a Hardened Defense against Maritime Threats

Lockheed Martin is developing advanced IAMD capabilities to give sailors more options using existing capabilities. Integrating PAC-3 MSE into the Aegis Weapon System would deliver an advanced, combat-proven IAMD capability to U.S. Sailors. Learn More.

THE INBOX

NETANYAHU’S AN ‘ASSHOLE’: Biden has grown increasingly frustrated with Israeli Prime minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU in recent weeks, having called him an “asshole” at least three times, NBC News reports.

Netanyahu has been “giving him hell” as Biden pushes for Israel to agree to a cease-fire, five people familiar with the comments told the outlet.

Asked about the comments, a National Security Council spokesperson told NBC News that “the president has been clear where he disagrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but this is a decades-long relationship that is respectful in public and in private.”

(The tough words align with our own JONATHAN MARTIN’s reporting earlier this month that Biden privately has called the prime minister a “bad fucking guy.” A Biden spokesperson denied that the president used those words.)

In public, Biden is stepping up the pressure on Bibi. On Sunday, according to the White House, he told Netanyahu that Israel’s planned ground invasion in the city of Rafah “should not proceed” without a plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million people living there.

Read: EU’s top diplomat slams U.S. for sending arms to Israel as Gaza deaths mount by our own PAULA ANDRÉS

RAFAH RAID: Early today, hours after Biden urged caution, local officials said Israel killed at least 67 Palestinians during a raid in Rafah that resulted in the rescue of two hostages, The Associated Press’ NAJIB JOBAINJOSEF FEDERMAN and SAMY MAGDY report.

FERNANDO SIMON MARMAN, 60, and LOUIS HAR, 70, who were abducted by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, were rescued. They’re among three total hostages rescued in the past five months of fighting, while dozens of others have been released in hostage exchanges.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. DANIEL HAGARI said the raid had been planned for some time and was based on intelligence obtained by the military. Israeli forces conducted airstrikes near the area at the same time, with women and children among the victims.

Now, Israel is proposing the creation of “sprawling tent cities in Gaza as part of an evacuation plan to be funded by the U.S. and its Arab Gulf partners” ahead of an invasion of Rafah, The Wall Street Journal’s SUMMER SAIDRORY JONES and CARRIE KELLER-LYNN report.

AUSTIN’S HOSPITAL STAY: Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN has canceled a planned trip to Brussels for a meeting on Ukraine aid after being admitted to the critical care unit at Walter Reed National National Military Medical Center over the weekend, a DOD official told our own LARA SELIGMAN.

Wednesday’s planned Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, a gathering of international defense leaders to discuss support for Kyiv, will now be held virtually, the official said.

Austin was admitted into the critical care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for “symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue,” his doctors said Sunday night. The update came hours after Austin was brought to the hospital and transferred his official duties to Deputy Secretary of Defense KATHLEEN HICKS.

Austin is unlikely to remain hospitalized for long, his doctors said, and he’s expected to resume normal duties on Tuesday. He’s still expected to make a “full recovery” from prostate cancer, which was diagnosed in December, they added.

IT’S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at award@politico.com and mberg@politico.com, and follow us on X at @alexbward and @mattberg33.

While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi@PhelimKine@laraseligman@connorobrienNH@paulmcleary@leehudson@magmill95@johnnysaks130@ErinBanco@reporterjoe, and @JGedeon1.

YOUR GUIDE TO EMPIRE STATE POLITICS: From the newsroom that doesn’t sleep, POLITICO’s New York Playbook is the ultimate guide for power players navigating the intricate landscape of Empire State politics. Stay ahead of the curve with the latest and most important stories from Albany, New York City and around the state, with in-depth, original reporting to stay ahead of policy trends and political developments. Subscribe now to keep up with the daily hustle and bustle of NY politics.

ELECTION 2024

‘CHILL UP EVERYONE’S SPINE’: GOP presidential candidate NIKKI HALEY piled on Trump for his NATO remarks, telling Playbook that “it’s the kind of comment that makes Joe Biden look clear-headed.”

His comment “should send a chill up everyone’s spine,” Haley said, adding that it is “lacking moral clarity.”

Democrats and some Republicans were quick to condemn Trump over the weekend, though many Republicans weren’t concerned by his remarks.

In Europe, however, leaders reacted with disbelief to Trump’s insistence that Russia should attack neighboring countries. Polish Prime Minister DONALD TUSK argued today that alliance members should never waiver in their support for each other, our own CLEA CAULCUTT reports.

DAVID CAMERON, Britain’s foreign secretary, stressed he was a “very strong supporter of NATO,” and said Trump’s contention Russia could “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members who don’t contribute enough is “not a sensible approach,” our own BETHANY DAWSON reports.

NATO Secretary-General JENS STOLTENBERG holds the same view: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our security. … I expect the U.S. to remain a strong and devoted ally of NATO, whoever wins the presidential election,” he told a Norwegian television outlet on Sunday.

KEYSTROKES

CISA SWEATING: As if NATO concerns weren’t enough, Democratic lawmakers are increasingly worried that Trump will find a way to decimate the nation’s cyber defense agency should he win a second term, our own MAGGIE MILLER and JOHN SAKELLARIADIS report.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency — the main agency in charge of protecting critical infrastructure, like pipelines and hospitals, from hackers — found itself on Trump’s target list in the last days of his first term for debunking his false election fraud claims. And in the past year, Republicans have tried to slash the agency’s budget and called it the “nerve center” of the federal government’s censorship apparatus.

“I’d be very concerned” for CISA if Trump won a second term, said Rep. GLENN IVEY (D-Md.), one of almost a dozen lawmakers Maggie and John spoke with. “There’s a good chance that he’d try to either eliminate it or totally neutralize it.”

Trump cannot unilaterally kill CISA but he could pack it with loyalists who would slash its operations. He could also whip lawmakers to wipe out the agency’s budget. And almost certainly, he would shutter its efforts to combat foreign disinformation.

ICYMI — Russia using Musk’s Starlink, Ukraine army intelligence says by our own VARG FOLKMAN

THE COMPLEX

ISN’T FOR ISRAEL: A Dutch appeals court ruled today that the Netherlands should halt shipments of components for F-35 fighter jets to the Israeli government because of its continued assault on Gaza, our own JOSHUA POSANER and EVA HARTOG report.

The decision, which the court ordered to be enforced within seven days, came as Prime Minister MARK RUTTE is on a trip to Israel. Rutte has faced criticism at home by some for being soft on Israel in order to increase his own chances of replacing JENS STOLTENBERG as secretary-general of NATO.

In a statement on the ruling, the Dutch court said: “There is a clear risk that the F-35 fighter jets are used by Israel to commit serious violations of humanitarian law in the Gaza Strip.”

ON THE HILL

A THIRD TRUMP IMPEACHMENT: Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. VANCE is making a last-ditch effort to combat the $95 billion emergency foreign aid spending bill with a warning: passing it could set up Trump for another impeachment if he wins in November.

As our own BURGESS EVERETT reports, Vance distributed a memo to Senate GOP offices today arguing that the foreign aid measure could tie Trump’s hands if he comes into office next year wanting to pause Ukraine funds as part of negotiations on ending Russia’s war on the U.S. ally. That’s because some of the legislation’s funding expires nine months into the next presidency, effectively — according to Vance — handcuffing a future President Trump from making his own decisions on Ukraine spending.

Vance, one of the most outspoken opponents of Ukraine assistance, made his comment ahead of a critical vote later today to end debate on the foreign aid plan, which needs 60 votes.

Read: House GOP tees up revived surveillance bill by our own JORDAIN CARNEY

BROADSIDES

ORBÁN’S CRYSTAL BALL: Hungarian Prime Minister VIKTOR ORBÁN argued the European Union “will lose” Serbia to China unless it lets the country join the bloc soon, and should do so before admitting Ukraine, our own SEB STARCEVIC reports.

“We have to finish the old enlargement task before we start the new enlargement with Ukraine. If we do not integrate Serbia as soon as possible, we will lose it,” Orbán told European Voices, a magazine published by Die Presse. Serbia applied to join the EU in 2009, but its candidacy stalled amid concerns over its backsliding democracy and close ties with Russia and China.

Orbán also dismissed Kyiv’s prospects of fending off Russia’s invasion and joining the EU, claiming the only way for Ukraine to survive is for the country to be “a buffer zone between Russia and the West.”

“If that doesn’t work, Ukraine will continue losing territory. Russia will destroy Ukraine again and again and again. Russia will never accept having an EU and NATO member like Ukraine on its borders, never,” he said, according to previews of his remarks.

Read: Russia no longer perceived as top threat by Germans by our own SUZANNE LYNCH

YOUR VIP PASS TO THE MUNICH SECURITY CONFERENCE: Dive into the heart of global security with POLITICO’s Global Playbook at the 2024 Munich Security Conference. Gain exclusive insights and in-depth analysis as author Suzanne Lynch navigates the crucial discussions, key players and emerging trends that will shape the international security landscape. Subscribe now to Global Playbook and stay informed.

TRANSITIONS

— JOHN KIRBY is getting an expanded role inside the White House. As the White House national security communications adviser, he will coordinate national security messaging across the whole government. He is now elevated as an assistant to the president. He’ll still occasionally brief from the White House podium.

— ALEXANDRA SEYMOUR is now staff director for the House Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee. She previously was a professional staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee.

— French President EMMANUEL MACRON named GÉRARD MESTRALLET, former head of gas company Engie, as special envoy to a multinational rail project linking the Middle East and South Asia, which is seen as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative, Reuters’ MICHEL ROSE reports.

— PETE McALEER has been promoted to vice president for U.S. government and defense affairs at Bombardier. In his new role, McAleer will also lead the company’s Washington office.

WHAT TO READ

— CHRISTINA LUForeign Policy: The country with nothing left to lose

— GORDON LaFORGE, The New York Times: The world’s third-largest democracy is backsliding

 IVO DAALDER, POLITICO: U.S. and Germany — a reversal of fortunes

TOMORROW TODAY

— The Middle East Institute, 10 a.m.: Negotiations to end the war in Gaza: prospects, challenges and next steps, part II

— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.: Senegal’s suspended elections, coups and jihadi militancy in West Africa

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 a.m.: Is North Korea really ready for war?

— The Association of the United States Army, noon: The Army’s role in the Joint Force and the future operating environment of the next decade, considering the challenges that the Army is facing and what it is doing to meet them, with Gen. MARK MILLEY

— The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute holds a virtual discussion, 1 p.m.: Hostage diplomacy as an international security threat: strengthening our collective action, deterrence and response

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1:30 p.m.: The war in Ukraine two Years on

— The Atlantic Council, 7 p.m.: The risks of simultaneous conflicts in the Indo-Pacific

Thanks to our editor, Heidi Vogt, with whom we go to war every day.

We also thank our producer, Raymond Rapada, who is the prince of keeping the peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *