Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have to navigate a nightmare: a contested U.S. election in which Donald Trump claims he has been re-elected president, even though former vice-president Joe Biden might have won.

In that dangerous scenario, allies and mischief-makers could struggle to limit or maximize the chaos – with Canada’s future as well as the future of the world order at stake.

The Doomsday Scenario, let’s call it, emerged this week after Mr. Trump’s incendiary debate performance, in which he refused to promise he would accept the result of the Nov. 3 election because “it’s a rigged election,” tainted by what he claimed, without foundation, are corrupted mail-in ballots. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he accused.

Because there are such a large of number mail-in ballots expected this year – the pandemic has many Americans reluctant to wait in long lines to vote – it’s very possible that election night could show no clear winner, with millions of ballots still to be counted.

Nonetheless, in the Doomsday Scenario Mr. Trump declares himself the winner, claiming many votes for Democrats were somehow rigged.

Election observers expect enthusiastic Trump supporters, who are less concerned by COVID-19 and highly motivated to vote, will cast their ballots in person, with Democrats more inclined to mail in their ballots. For that reason, the Trump team may seek court injunctions to freeze the counting of the ballots, claiming officials followed improper procedures.

The overarching question for Canada, for every world leader, then becomes: When do I pick up the phone and congratulate the winner? And which one?

“One of the contingencies I fear is that there is a contested election,” said Thomas Juneau, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. “Trump claims victory, Biden is more likely to be a bit more cautious, but who knows, and then Trump tells Trudeau: If you don’t recognize me, I will whack you, I will penalize you, I will close the border to whatever trade still goes on, or something like that.

“From the Canadian perspective, there’s an extremely delicate balancing act.”

Things could get even more delicate. Russian President Vladimir Putin might not hesitate at all. He might pick up the phone Nov. 4 to congratulate Mr. Trump, declaring that the Russian Federation recognizes him as the duly re-elected president. Other authoritarian leaders – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – could join him.

What would America’s allies do? Mr. Trudeau would not want to act without first consulting the non-U.S. members of the Five Eyes intelligence community: Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, members of NATO, and Pacific allies Japan and South Korea. The goal would be to established a common approach to recognizing the winner.

European Union leaders would struggle to remain united, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and perhaps others in Eastern Europe inclined to join the authoritarians.

The worst of all worlds would involve political and judicial institutions struggling to settle on a duly-elected president, as demonstrators clash with increasing violence in the streets, and the global community splits into factions over which presidential claimant is legitimate.

America as Venezuela. America as Ukraine.

This is a possible scenario, not a likely one. More likely is that, on Nov. 3, or a few days or at worst a few weeks after it, either Mr. Biden will be the clear winner and begin the process of restoring America’s place in the world, or Mr. Trump will be the clear winner, and we will drag ourselves through four more years.

“The really dangerous scenarios still remain at a fairly low probability,” said Prof. Juneau, who notes that the close economic and military partnership between Canada and the United States remains largely intact after four years of Donald Trump. That may well be the case after eight years of Donald Trump as well.

The republic has weathered a lot: civil war, depression, world war, race riots, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, the financial crisis. The odds favour it surviving this election and transition as well.

But it is a very safe bet that in the Prime Minster’s Office and at Global Affairs, people are gaming out scenarios, and some of them aren’t pretty.

The Globe and Mail, October 1, 2020