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The US: A Nation at Risk

Guest: John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

Security threats abound. Growing tensions with China, Russian cyberattacks, threats from North Korea and Iran, the Afghanistan fiasco – the list goes on. Add climate change, huge migratory movements, and deep societal polarization into the mix and you get a world permeated with instability. We explore some of the security risks of the next decade.

National security is more complex than ever before as the world’s list of problems continues to grow. This week, John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA, joins Altamar to dissect the expanding number of security challenges the US faces over the next decade. McLaughlin is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence in the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University. He has held multiple top-level posts in the CIA for over thirty years, focusing on multiple regions including Europe, Russia, and Eurasia. McLaughlin is the recipient of several awards from the intelligence community, has been a visiting professor and is a member of multiple advisory groups worldwide.

With all the security threats that the world faces, what is the top security risk that the United States faces in the coming decade? When I think about the most serious problem, I would say it really is getting [the US’s] relationship with China right. Because that ripples across all of these other issues: dealing with Iran, dealing with North Korea, dealing with climate change, dealing with the pandemic. If the two most powerful, wealthiest nations in the world do not have a working partnership of some sort, along with their adversarial dimension, all of these things are just going to fester and continue to be a problem,”answers McLaughlin. 

Clearly the strained relationship between the US and China is a key determinant in what lies in store for the future of world peace. “There have been these articles about this ‘New Cold War’ [between the US and China]. How similar are they to the original Cold War?” asks Altamar’s Peter Schechter. Joe Nye of Harvard just wrote a long and impressive op-ed making that point that the Cold War is the wrong metaphor [when talking about the US and China]. And he’s striking themes that I’ve struck in print as well. Going back to my first point, this was the time when we fought someone to the end. Someone had to win. Someone had to go away. They were the ones who lost. They went away. But it’s not going to happen with China. Plus, it was a declining power. China’s a rising power. Let me just leave it at that on the Cold War metaphor, comments McLaughlin. China will be, if there’s no great discontinuity, the world’s largest economic power within a number of years, maybe already is, in terms of purchasing power. No one really wants a war with China. Maybe someone does, but you know, I don’t think anyone actually wants a war with China,” continues McLaughlin.

It’s clear that China does not fit into the Cold War metaphor. China is not the former Soviet Union, nor will it ever be. But China is the next big adversary that the world needs to prepare for, and countries are already doing it. “You’ve got to have deterrence and deterrence in this case is complicated…Deterrence involves mainly using alliances as force multipliers and messaging. I was encouraged just this week to see that the European Union is now open to the idea of sending messages to China about being careful with Taiwan. In other words, adding to the international pressure to just cool it,” says McLaughlin.

But alongside China, does Russia pose a major threat to the United States? Given the recent electoral fraud issues that stem back to Russian hackers, should we be worried about the US’s cybersecurity front? What is Putin trying to get at? Putin wants three things: he wants control at home, wants to heavily influence his neighbors, wants to weaken the Western Alliance and as a fourth thing, he wants to be seen as a great power on the global stage. Why else is he in Libya, Africa, and Syria,” responds McLaughlin. “Now, what do we want? What’s our desired end point with Russia? I think I’m reading Biden’s meetings with him as saying our desired end point is not a friendship or partnership, but it’s kind of clarity in where we stand and where they stand and cooperation when it’s important…certainly we can cooperate with the Russians on climate change, on terrorism and so forth, but just be aware they know what they want and what they want is not what we want. So again, a difficult relationship,” explains McLaughlin. The relationship that the US and Russia have is clearly filled with nuances and difficulties. Only time will tell what lies in store for US-Russian relations.

Cybersecurity is a whole new front that we need to take into consideration, particularly during these COVID times. “Cyber was already considered a significant risk before COVID. But everyone at home has opened up vulnerabilities in business and government networks that have been used already by adversaries, opening up an entire new threat and an entire new line in this risk that is just being understood,” points out Altamar’s Muni Jensen. With an even more profound emphasis on technology use recently, it’s only fair to become wary of its widespread use around the world. How do we approach such a large issue? “Here’s my thought, when you look at COVID and cyber in particular, and COVID is not the last pandemic we will deal with, and you look at nuclear problems generally, and terrorism—all of these things cry out for a global response,”responds McLaughlin. This is the opportunity for global powers to come together and fight threats that the whole world faces. How does the world respond to these types of threats? “Success comes to those who focus. And here, I think the focus has to be on global cooperation, but it also has to be realistic as someone pointed out the other day with the climate summit how we have these well articulated goals and solutions. But how can [the United States] really expect countries to work together harmoniously and efficiently when we can’t even get our own citizens to wear masks or take vaccinations,” points out McLaughlin.

The global power structure is constantly shifting, and  transnational factors like migration, climate change, and the atomization of terrorism are all at the top of the list as forces of instability. What are the main threats to global peace now? “The world population is increasing exponenntially…we’re heading into a world where like 65% of the world’s population lives in cities, mega cities. So you add all of that up and you get the classic formula of governments growing, those governments that are less qualified to provide services to a growing demanding population that in turn stimulates migration and people migrate to places like Europe and the United States, even Belarus lately tragically. So I think those are the big drivers,” says McLaughlin.

What other threats does the US and the world face in the coming decade? What are major obstacles that the world will need to overcome both on their own and together to ensure world peace? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

Image Source: Leah Millis / Reuters

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Episode 113