Ringing the alarm on America's national security preparedness

Ringing the alarm on America's national security preparedness
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A long held maxim in Washington says that our national security apparatus can handle only two big foreign policy crises at once. The policy community just doesn’t have the human bandwidth or resources to cope with more than two at the same time, and even two full blown crises would be stretching it. Having served in senior government positions across several administrations, I can attest to the accuracy of this maxim. That’s why I’m worried.

Just look at what is knocking on the door of the White House Situation Room and demanding the attention of policymakers inside all at once. The standoff with Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear programs constitutes a major challenge requiring intense focus. It’s also clear that if this conflict escalates to an actual shooting war, it will dominate the U.S. security agenda and crowd out any other issue for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, the counter-ISIS campaign in both Iraq and Syria, as well as the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda nodes in places such as Libya, the Philippines, Yemen and the Sinai is a significant security challenge that will require major investments by both the Department of Defense and the intelligence community for the next several years.

But that’s hardly the extent of today’s threats. A reasonable such list would include our looming standoff with Iran both in terms of Tehran’s regional meddling and the now uncertain future of the international nuclear deal, the war in Afghanistan, Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its election meddling and public influence campaigns throughout the West, China’s growing global influence and particularly its activities in the South China Sea, and Venezuela’s rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation.

If that’s not enough, the United States also faces several emerging transnational threats, including a spike in international drug production and the deadly opioid crisis which is raving cities across the country, a global human displacement and refugee crisis which has left 66 million displaced (a population on the move the size of the United Kingdom and the highest amount of displaced since World War II), the effects of climate change, which is contributing to the refugee crisis, and a faltering global trade agenda.

Perhaps most worrisome, these challenges are occurring against a backdrop of profound technological and economic change, leaving U.S. policymakers insufficient time to think deeply about evolutionary matters such as the advent of autonomous weapons, the effect of automation on the U.S. economy and national security, the steady erosion of our information dominance, new challenges in the cyber domain,the manipulation by foreign actors of our social media platforms, and the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons.

And lest we think we have time to grapple with all of these evolutionary challenges, the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons is already posing a threat to deployed U.S. forces. In Yemen, for example, U.S. ships operating in the Bab al Mandeb Strait are threatened by advanced missiles fired not by a central government, but by Houthi rebels equipped with Iranian technology and enabled by commercially available radars. In other words, this is not your father’s list of ordinary security challenges.

So, what can U.S. policymakers do? First, this isn’t a situation that any one administration can fix or fairly be accused of creating, so any viable solution will require sustained cooperation between various branches of government, and on many issues, serious engagement between the federal government and the private sector.

Congress, in particular, could play a major role in mapping out and explaining to the public our new security environment, and in identifying creative ways to improve local, state and federal cooperation, especially on the sharing of domestic threat information and infrastructure protection. Congress could also work across its various committees and the agencies of government to formulate a new and innovative national security strategy. Indeed, in my opinion, it might be time for another post-9/11 type commission to examine the full range of national security threats and possible solutions.

Meanwhile, the current disarray in the global system means this is probably a good time for the U.S. government to strengthen the existing international institutions which have buttressed U.S. influence for decades, especially NATO, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and regional organizations such as the Organization of American States and African Union Mission in Somalia. Far from constraining our options or undermining U.S. sovereignty, these institutions have helped burden share and resolve global crises for decades, as well as magnify U.S. values and interests, and we need them now more than ever.

It’s clear that the United States today faces the most complex and fluid international security environment since perhaps the middle of the 20th century. The threats we face are daunting, with some already evident and others looming just on the horizon. But the United States is certainly capable of responding effectively if we recognize the new security dynamic, cast aside a business as usual approach, and admit that we can’t safeguard our security and global influence simply by increasing defense spending. As British physicist Ernest Rutherford once remarked, “We have run out of money, so it’s time to start thinking.”

America spent more than 70 years creating order from the chaos of World War II. We should prepare now to spend the next several decades working just as diligently to preserve that order.

Michael Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence, after serving as deputy director for three years during the Obama administration. He also previously served as director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council and on the Joint Staff. The opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government.