Current National Security Challenges

Current National Security Challenges

What are the national security challenges facing the Trump administration? In the introduction to 2017 Global Forecast from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Dr. John Hamre, CSIS president and a former deputy secretary of defense, tackles this question.

Hamre argues the Trump administration (and the country at large) faces four major challenges. The first is “our domestic situation.” He says deteriorating politics, the bloated government, the stagnant economy, and the divided nation all significantly affect national security. “Think of what our country could do . . . if our country can solve real problems domestically over the next four years. Our international standing and influence will rise dramatically.”

Hamre says the second challenge is “ambivalent allies.” He highlights candidate President Donald Trump's stance on getting tough with allies and essentially calling them “free riders” during his campaign.

“It is unclear how President Trump will deal with allies or how he values them,” Hamre says. “Perhaps he does value allies but simply seeks leverage to exert a greater commitment on their part, something many former U.S. officials have called for publicly and privately.”

But Hamre questions what will happen if allies assess their relationship with the U.S. and find no value. “What happens if countries begin to doubt our nuclear umbrella, or if the absence of an economic strategy in Asia pushes countries closer to Beijing, or if Europe begins to disintegrate as a cohesive whole, or if Gulf partners look for an alternative guarantor of regional security? None of these scenarios would be good for the U.S.,” Hamre says.

He adds President Trump “may conclude … such rhetoric [about getting tough with allies] contributes to allied skepticism about American commitment to shared security burdens, further eroding the foundation of America's strategy to lead a network of countries with shared perceptions of mutual interest.”

He continues that the increased assertiveness of regional competitors - Hamre's third national security challenge - like China, Russia, and Iran are especially worrisome when it comes to the potential of ambivalent allies. “These countries have developed methods for challenging U.S. primacy below a threshold that could trigger an overt U.S. response,” Hamre says. “This has been called ambiguous warfare, hybrid warfare, and gray zone activity.” He characterizes this gray-zone activity as an integration of “cyber espionage, covert operations, psychological operations, promotion of insurgency elements, subtle military maneuvers, and political and economic subversion. … It starts with covert means of corrupting politicians in target countries. … Long-standing redlines are rendered meaningless. We know what to do if one of our allies is invaded, but it is more ambiguous if a mysterious commercial entity buys a dodgy bank and uses the bank to corrupt local politicians of an allied country.”

Adding to this problem, Hamre argues, is the fact that the U.S. government isn't organized to address this because “the threat crosses traditional boundaries between defense, diplomacy, and public diplomacy; between overt activity and espionage; and between security and economics.”

Finally, Hamre says the fourth national security challenge facing the Trump administration is the “the security implications of the communications revolution.” “[There] is a very real danger . . . if adversaries were ever to gain access or exert control over, say, U.S. nuclear command and control, our banking system, or our electrical grid. … Finally, more indirect but no less significant, we see how modern communications tools have allowed individuals around the world to eschew established institutions, channels, and norms. This is at root democratic and liberating, but it also has had the undesired effect of eroding government's ability to respond adequately to events and craft timely credible responses. Governments will never be nimble enough to keep up with the pace of modern communications. This naturally gives nongovernmental adversaries an edge when interests diverge.”

Hamre says these four challenges will shape both the crises and opportunities that arise over the next four years.

“I cannot recall another time when an incoming administration faced more questions at home and abroad,” he says. “The complexity of the challenge is immense.”

Read more details about the policy areas the Trump administration likely will face in the remainder of the publication.