This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Jennifer Wilson.
Last week, President Obama announced the unprecedented step of connecting U.S. national security with the threats posed by climate change. Obama’s Presidential Memorandum directs twenty federal agencies to integrate climate change into national security policy and planning—meaning collecting climate science data and identifying how climate change will affect agency missions. Melting ice and rising temperatures are not traditionally considered national security concerns, but the memorandum is the most recent development in a years-long effort to focus on the dangers of global environmental change that has been applauded by security professionals and environmentalists alike.
Tonight, in the first presidential debate of the general election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will argue, among other topics, the best way to “secure America.” With viewership expected to “shatter records,” the debate offers an unprecedented opportunity for the candidates to reframe national security discussions and re-examine what it means for America to be “secure.” For example, the would-be leaders could allay fears of terrorism and remind the public, as President Obama has, that the self-proclaimed Islamic State poses no existential threat to the United States. In fact, they could tell viewers that their chances of being killed by an Islamist terrorist attack are lower than being killed by falling televisions or furniture. Having freed up air time, the candidates could then go on to debate substantive policies that could actually make Americans more secure, like a plan to stem gun violence, or to protect private critical infrastructure from cyber attacks.
However, if the primary debates are any indicator, these topics are likely to get little if any attention.
Should anyone need a reminder, there were twenty-eight Republican and Democratic primary debates held between August 2015 and April 2016. Foreign affairs were hardly discussed, but when the topic was brought up it was almost exclusively in terms of threats emanating from abroad—like when Wolf Blitzer cited a claim that the United States now faces the greatest terror threat since 9/11, or when Gwen Ifill asked Clinton if “we were ready” for the next attack sure to come around the corner. The Islamic State was mentioned over five hundred times in total, and in all but four of the debates. Particularly in Republican forums, the candidates seemed to be in a contest to endorse either categorical war crimes, or a continuation of existing policies but with added “resolve” or “leadership.” All candidates proposed unnamed “countries in the region” to demonstrate heretofore nonexistent political will to defeat the Islamic State.
In contrast, climate change was brought up less than a fifth as many times as the Islamic State. Evidence of climate change is unequivocal, and there is a near-consensus among knowledgeable climate scientists that the world is getting warmer, and will continue to do so. Yet, at the presidential forums, much of the discussion centered around whether climate change was real or not, or, in the Republican debates, whether it deserved any government attention. (Governor John Kasich, for example, said that instead of finalizing an historic universal climate agreement in Paris, the assembled heads of state “should have been talking about destroying ISIS”).
It would require tremendous optimism to hope that the reconception of national security that Obama’s memorandum might have fostered would continue during this debate. Gauging by the tenor of this election season, viewers should instead expect Clinton and Trump to exaggerate the threats facing the United States, and to offer their plans as the only solutions to confront them. We will hear promises to shield Americans from radical Islamists, plans to “beef up” the military, and at least one misrepresentation of the president’s most sacred responsibility (reminder: it’s to protect and defend the Constitution, not to keep Americans safe).
Viewers will be disappointed should they hope to hear how the candidates would ease U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, or whether they will seek updated congressional authority for overseas counterterrorism campaigns, or how they will shift federal resources away from defense and intelligence budgets to address infrastructure and economic development shortfalls within the United States. Even when discussing one policy about which the candidates agree, the establishment of a “big, beautiful” safe zone in Syria, Clinton and Trump both are long on promises of efficacy and short on operational details.
Endless dissection of performance and over-analysis of poll numbers will follow the debate. However, the “winner” will assuredly be the Islamic State, whose capabilities and threat will be inflated by both candidates. The group will receive millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising and a confirmation of its undeserved international status. The “losers” will be those American citizens interested in a substantive discussion of policies, details about how they would be implemented, or a responsible assessment of the role of the United States in the world.