The question I often put to policymakers with whom I talk is: What are the major threats to our national security today? And I have been impressed, as I’ve kept track of the responses over a period of time, that there is surprising agreement about these threats.
There are some differences in how they are articulated and prioritized, but there is broad consensus on what they are. This column is the first of two that will explore them.
At the outset, it’s important to say that the United States is strong, free and prosperous. We don’t face the kind of existential threat that we did during the Cold War era. But we have plenty to worry about, and this is no time for complacency. Among our key challenges are nuclear proliferation, the world economy, and energy policy.
Nuclear proliferation is not the most likely threat, but it is the most ominous, simply because a nuclear attack would be so devastating. Securing nuclear materials, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and preventing them from falling into the hands of terrorists is arguably the greatest challenge we face.
Nine nations are part of the Nuclear Club, the group of states that possess nuclear weapons, and others hope to join. They have different motives, aims, and leadership. Some nations pose high levels of risk, including North Korea, which is adding to its arsenal, and Iran, which may be getting closer to developing nuclear weapons.
To counter this threat, we need to expand and reinvigorate the international nonproliferation regime. We need to enforce sanctions on nations that threaten to develop and use nuclear weapons. We should strengthen – not walk away from –multinational restraint agreements.
Working with other like-minded countries, we need to support a rigorous and transparent inspection system to enforce compliance with nuclear weapons treaties. And we need safeguards to ensure that civilian nuclear energy programs remain peaceful.
Another fundamental challenge is the health of the world economy. The Great Recession a decade ago was a stark reminder of its fragility. It raised the questions of whether and how we can achieve sustained, widely shared noninflationary growth.
Today we are engaged in a global contest over what economic system will emerge as the best to produce growth and prosperity. Will it be state capitalism, as in China, or market capitalism, as in the United States, or some other system?
Most Americans believe we have been well served by vigorous private enterprise tempered by regulation – by free markets and open trading systems with government ensuring the rule of law, supporting infrastructure to empower growth, and providing a safety net for the most vulnerable.
We see our system as superior with its emphasis on accountability, transparency, and fairness. But many others in the world have watched China’s extraordinary rise and concluded that its government-controlled economic model promises greater prosperity, more quickly and efficiently.
Third, we face difficult choices regarding energy and the environment. How will we power our future, and how will we sustain a livable planet? The way we now produce and use energy is unsustainable. Uncontrolled consumption of fossil fuels is changing the climate and casting a shadow over our children’s future.
The U.S. has struggled for decades to develop an effective energy policy. We have made progress in becoming more energy efficient, diversifying our energy sources and developing alternative fuels. We have expanded domestic oil production, and we rely less on foreign oil and get a smaller share of our imports from the Persian Gulf. Our recent record on developing clean energy is notable. In many respects, the world community is cooperating to fight climate change.
But clearly, we have a long way to go. The Paris Climate Agreement, the primary international instrument for controlling climate change, lacks binding enforcement mechanisms, and the Trump administration is withdrawing the U.S. from the deal but lacks an alternative strategy.
A related environmental issue is the availability of water. It is estimated that over a billion people lack access to reliable water supplies. The scarcity of water — likely to get worse with explosive consumption — will fuel instability and conflict in many regions of the world.
Facing these threats gives our policymakers plenty to do, but that’s only the beginning. The next column explores four more threats.
By Lee H. Hamilton