Reliable Security Information

Defending America: Meeting the Threats & Challenges Facing the Nation

The core objective of National Strategy is to insure the survival and prosperity of the nation -- "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the words of the Declaration of Independence. For a number of years, Soviet missiles actually threatened our national survival, and this threat obviously had a natural priority - prosperity and the institutions behind it are meaningless if the nation fails to survive. This strategic situation has been transformed. The threat of nuclear devastation has receded dramatically, though some lesser nuclear threats maintain a high salience. Now the most significant threats of violence to the nation are no longer from hostile nation states, but from a loose collaboration of transnational criminals and terrorist elements, many motivated by radical Islamic beliefs, that threatens to disrupt the critical networks which underpin modern life. At the same time, the nation faces a whole new range of threats of economic and environmental disruption. Nothing illustrates this blurring of the boundary between violence and environment better than the twin threats of bioterror and bird flu -- essentially the same threat, but one intended as a violent attack and the other a purely natural phenomenon.

Historically, the most significant threats to life have been wars. In World War II, about 60 million people died, some 26 million from the Soviet Union alone - in a country of less than 200 million. The ongoing war in the Congo has already killed over five million people. It is hard to envision deaths on that scale. More recently, some natural disasters have resulted in large losses of live, perhaps a half million in the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone, over 200,000 in the 2004 Pacific tsunami and in the recent Haiti earthquake - figures lower than wartime, but staggering nonetheless. Against this background, the United States faces only minimal threats to life. The most immediate perceived threats to life are from terrorists, blowing up a plane and killing perhaps 200 people, or even some more spectacular event like the World Trade Center, killing several thousand. These threats pale in comparison to routine, ongoing, actual losses of life, such as traffic accidents (3000 people a month) or medical mistakes (1000 people a week or more). The only significant catastrophic threats, killing a hundred million Americans, are from a natural pandemic or a major nuclear exchange, both of which have only a negligible probability of occurrence. Pandemics also remain at the top of the list for extreme threats which could kill millions of Americans; bioterror attacks or a nuclear strike by a lesser nuclear power or terrorists also are at this level.

The most significant threats to life are medical. Terror risks are far below this level; only bioterror and some improvised nuclear device are really significant. Ordinary terror threats are down in the weeds, lost among more significant everyday risks. Nuclear strikes against the United States pose a very low risk. There is no military defense against a major strike. Existing US nuclear forces and the potential of a global nuclear winter deter the only nation (Russia) currently even capable of such a strike; ongoing arms negotiations may lead to significantly reduced force levels. Strikes by a lesser nuclear power or a rogue operator can be countered to some extent by anti-missile defenses, though these address only one potential delivery option. Most important, efforts to energize nonproliferation are imperative.

Overall, there is no threat to American lives that is significant at a strategic level - an event that could cost many thousands of lives and has more than a minimal chance of occurrence. Few of these can even be addressed militarily. Presently the nation has a very unbalanced distribution of protective and defensive assets. Driven by irrational fears, the nation focuses protection on high visibility but low risk threats (like nuclear strikes) rather than low visibility but much higher risk threats (like hospital infections). On the overall national report card for protection of life -- the average life expectancy -- the United States has perhaps a B grade, ranking only 45th globally.

Threats to liberty are not so easy to quantify. Thanks to the protection of oceans, it has been two centuries since the United States faced any threat of foreign invasion or domination.

Internally, threats to liberty entail government intrusion into the private lives of citizens. This has never been an easy area to judge, as there have always been criminals taking advantage of civil rights (no self incrimination, severe restrictions on searches, etc.) to undermine the public good. It has been accepted that the relatively minor damage suffered was the cost paid for domestic freedom. Now it is a much more complex world and there is a whole new range of adversaries who seek to systematically exploit American freedoms for damaging attacks on the nation. This has prompted a wave of new intrusions on individual rights and freedoms, and a corresponding debate on what is an appropriate level of legal protections.

Externally, the United States has always championed liberty and taken the basic view that freedom is not divisible. Yet, freedom of movement in a globalized world is problematical. Within sovereign states, Americans are of course subject to local laws and the US government can provide only limited protection, especially for Americans within hostile states. Protection is even more difficult in war torn areas like the Congo or Somalia. Captive or hostage Americans have often been the object of intense efforts to secure their release, but force has rarely been useful.1 The more despotic regimes, unsettled areas, and conflict zones there are in the world, the greater this challenge becomes.

Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the de facto policeman of the world. Although many states expressed unease or displeasure at US dominance, there was generally a grudging acceptance of the situation. The United States clearly took this role with leading the NATO operations against Serbia and the the coalition operations against Iraq in the First Gulf War. Unfortunately, the nation overreached with Iraq and is now bogged down in Afghanistan and facing potential conflicts in Yemen and Somalia. It has also become clear that many of the traditional elements of Army and Air Force power are ill suited to present confrontations, including the ongoing war in the Congo, rebellion in Sudan, sovereignty disputes in the Arctic, and a potential India-Pakistan confrontation. The spread of autocratic regimes in Latin America adds to this troubling list. Iran threatens Israel, China threatens Taiwan, Russia threatens Georgia, tribal groups threaten Pakistan, drug lords threaten neighboring Mexico, and Bosnia threatens itself. This has initiated a widespread debate on just what elements of military power are necessary or even useful in the contemporary world. In this unipolar world, Richard Haass sees the need for "building and maintaining a larger military, one with greater capacity to deal with the sort of threats faced in Afghanistan and Iraq." Yet he also acknowledges the need for "a civilian counterpart to the military reserves that would provide a pool of human talent to assist with basic nation-building tasks." But every day we see how ill suited the military is for this task and how urgent the civilian capacity is. More recently, addressing Yemen, Thomas Friedman reverses this dichotomy, stresses the need for schools and education to dampen the potential for open conflict, but acknowledging that military power can still be helpful. There is no better illustration than Afghanistan, where we are now spending something like nine billion dollars and a hundred or more lives a month to make up for our reluctance to spend a few billion dollarsof targeted development funds six years ago.

The Navy has been in a somewhat different position. It has had unchallenged dominance of the world ocean, and this has traditionally been the foundation of global strategic strength. But more recently, the development of highly lethal anti-ship weapons, including missiles and ultra-quiet submarines, have threatened the primacy of surface ships. A specific worrisome development has been the significant expansion of Chinese naval capabilities. While China is in no position to challenge the global dominance of the US Navy, its growing regional capabilities have called into question the ability of the US Navy to operate freely in Asian seas. Indeed, policing the common ocean areas is an international responsibility and the US Navy, with a relatively modest several hundred ships, down significantly from earlier years, recognizes this with the concept of The Thousand-Ship Navy, a metaphorical term for combining efforts on an international scale to halt or divert the movement of threats on the high seas. Even now, a swarm of brazen pirates is fairly successfully challenging a multinational naval force off the Somalia coast.

The XXI Century is also seeing new arenas of threats to the global commons. Two are particularly troublesome:

  • Space. When a Chinese rocket destroyed one of its own satellites in January 2007 there was an immediate international debate on satellite vulnerabilities and space weaponization. China proposed a new space treaty to augment the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but no action was taken. Since then, there has been a creeping militarization of space, foreshadowing a potentially confrontational and expensive arms race.

  • Cyberspace. In April 2007, after Estonian authorities moved a bronze statue of a World War II-era Soviet soldier, a month-long cyber campaign came close to shutting down the country’s digital infrastructure. Estonians asserted that the attack was tied to Russia, but the Russian government denied any involvement. Similarly, when armed conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, the Georgian government's computer networks were systematically degraded in an attack that was also attributed to Russia. More recently, China has been implicated with a wide range of cyber attacks against US targets, including systematic attacks against government systems. In addition, thousands of hackers worldwide, for their own varied motives, are challenging the entire community. Just in the last few days, China claimed to have shut down a hacker convention of hundreds, but such conventions are common worldwide.

So already, the XXI Century has seen a significant shift in threats to liberty. Traditional military forces are proving not only very costly, but of questionable utility against current challenges. The new threats are even more challenging. Any arms race in space could be both very expensive and have an uncertain outcome. Cyber warfare, a quintessentially XXI Century challenge, is a struggle in the shadows, smoke and mirrors cloaking perpetrators, defenders, and vulnerabilities. What is clear is the the United States can not use force to defend global liberty.

Pursuit of happiness is a wonderfully vague objective. Global surveys have well demonstrated that happiness correlates only weakly with material prosperity. Nevertheless, unhappiness does correlate with poverty, unemployment, and a lack of opportunity. Societal happiness requires a basic level of prosperity and equality. The United States faces some formidable challenges here. Partly due to the current recession, unemployment is high, and it is uncertain where new jobs will come from, particularly in an economy in which growth will be increasingly problematical. Even before the current crisis, the nation faced a worsening challenge of inequality, now exacerbated with a large immigrant population which is slowly being turned into an economic underclass. On top of this, the nation already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and faces a major drug challenge, both of which will only be worsened by unemployment making people increasingly desperate. America is in danger of being split into two classes with very different outlooks on life. Whatever external challenges we face, fixing America first is the clear priority.

Nevertheless, we cannot simply defer external tasks until we have a more solid base at home. In the nonpolar world described by Richard Haass, no one is in charge. Nations work at cross purposes, while transnational corporations work at their own purposes. Yet the XXI Century is bringing a whole new set of challenges, including radical Islamacists who systematically promote disorder. Global food shortages, postponed for decades by a green revolution, are once again looming. At the same time a water crisis is brewing; by 2030 one-third of the world's population could have access to only half the water it needs. Added to this is the projected population increase of over two billion by mid-century, concentrated in the poorest areas of the world and in burgeoning megacities, with the industrialized world aging rather than growing. On top of all this are the uncertain impacts of global warming; even modest rises in sea level and changes in rainfall and agricultural patterns will add significant stresses, as will the inevitable natural disasters: tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and fires. Coupled with ongoing conflicts and existing international tensions, it is easy to envision a world of turmoil in the decades ahead.

For the West in general and the United States in particular, this does not mean standing by and watching the rest of the world crumble. With our newly interconnected world, we are all in this together. If the developing world crumbles, so does everyone else. There is simply no way that America can maintain its prosperity in a world of turmoil. The United States is the only nation in a position to provide the leadership to fix the world and this is the core strategic challenge of the XXI Century, promoting Global Good Governance.

The XXI Century is different from everything that has preceded it. Defending America takes on a whole new meaning and cannot be done with weapons. The nation faces a whole range of amorphous challenges which are difficult to define and even more difficult to address. So it is perfectly understandable that leaders focus on specific threats which can be neatly described and for which specific countermeasures can be designed. But a focus on force and weapons detracts from our ability to address the major challenges. Weapons drain resources into nonproductive uses and promote confrontation rather than cooperation. Globally, the more resources which are put into weapons, the less the world will be able to promote prosperity. And prosperity, like liberty, is no longer divisible.

This means developing a whole new concept of national security, where military power is no longer the base, but rather a necessary adjunct which has to be minimized where ever possible so that the critical tasks of building capacity domestically and globally can proceed vigorously. It is not just that preventing wars is more important than winning wars. Now even a war that's won will be lost, a Pyrrhic victory that undermines the core objective. We simply can no longer afford waging wars, or even preparing for them. Nor can the world, which has to devote maximum resources to building capacity, improving resilience, and creating prosperity.

A central problem with the world today is the prevalence of poor governance, and that has to be a focal point of efforts to promote global prosperity. There needs to be a whole new approach to foreign aid. Helping often hurts; two trillion dollars have failed to make any significant difference in Africa, while at least indirectly supporting a range of repressive and incompetent governments. Both China and India have demonstrated impressive growth with minimal foreign assistance. Good governance is more important than money. One promising program has been the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by Congress in January 2004 and charged with delivering smart US foreign aid by focusing on good policies, governance, and results. Obviously, the United States is in a poor position to promote good governance if its own domestic situation is degenerating. So, despite the urgency of the global challenges, the domestic challenge still retains priority.

Overall, the United States does a poor job of addressing the threats and challenges facing the nation.

  • At the national level, there is no office specifically responsible for developing a national strategy and no such document exists. The closest approach is the National Security Strategy, but this focuses on military challenges and responses.

  • Congress is often paralyzed by partisan debates, but more importantly, it only addresses issues in a badly fragmented fashion. Proposals are set into a very narrow context which is moreover heavily influenced by lobbies vigorously promoting their own narrow interests. There is no one to vigorously promote the national interest. Indeed reform of Congress may be the most pressing task the nation faces.

  • The public policy community is also badly fragmented with many elements addressing their own specific issues, often in a strongly partisan approach. There is minimal attention to any comprehensive approach to overall national strategy.

In this situation, it is incumbent on national leaders to assess the overall spectrum of threats and challenges, to evaluate the totality of risks facing the nation, and then to distribute resources for maximum effect. The leadership has to resist strident calls for priorities to highly visible distractions and make a case for putting significant assets on low visibility programs and long term efforts. Addressing long term challenges requires both vision and consistency.


1.Dominic Tierney, "Prisoner Dilemmas," Orbis Winter 2010, 130-145

Leave a comment

Subscribe to SitRep: SitRep RSS Feed SitRep ATOM Feed