The second panel of the conference on America’s Role in the World® considered the numerous national security challenges we will face in the next ten years, a list that includes not just terrorism but also cybersecurity hacks, the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and Iran, the reach of China’s techno-authoritarian program, resource conflicts, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lara Jakes, a diplomatic correspondent at The New York Times who has covered war and sectarian fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank, and Northern Ireland, started the discussion by asking about the US’s response to COVID-19. Kelly Magsamen, the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, argued that the virus is a global security challenge particularly difficult to handle in the US because “public trust in institutions is at an all-time low.” The “trust gap” that Americans have with institutions, including the press and aspects of the federal government, has a “big impact” on how they respond to crises, she said.
Other panelists brought up complementary concerns. Nicholas Rasmussen, the Acting Executive Director and Senior Director for National Security and Counterterrorism Programs at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, said that the basic decision-making process in this administration has likely been faulty in response to the pandemic. When he was in the National Security Council under Presidents Bush and Obama, relevant expertise was brought to the table and processed through an orderly discussion, experts presented options, and the president made a decision. That is likely not happening right now, he said, as instead there is a “butting of heads between a political agenda and science.”
Other countries do not have this problem, and it raises the issue of how the US is faring in terms of its escalating geopolitical rivalries.
“Is the West winning?” Jakes asked, particularly considering the rise of China and the possibility that the authoritarian model will be tempting to other countries. Magsamen admitted that underway is a “significant test of the liberal democratic model,” as people are wondering if this political arrangement is really delivering the desired results to citizens.
Rasmussen was, in a way, optimistic: “We’re winning, but it doesn’t feel that way,” he said. “Our greatest source of advantage is economic and political freedom, but we risk undermining that with our own inability to solve our own problems,” which include climate change, domestic terrorism, and COVID-19.
The costs of the Chinese authoritarian model are often hidden from view, Rasmussen added, although the widespread protests in Hong Kong are making clear that, for a lot of Chinese people, economic well-being is not good enough; they also want civil rights and democratic freedoms.
One of President Trump’s clearest narratives is the supposed threat from immigration, particularly from Spanish-speaking countries. Rasmussen was clear about this allegation. The administration attempted to find evidence that this kind of immigration posed a national security threat and didn’t find any. The government’s own experts were unable to provide an empirical reason for the border wall or limits to immigration or asylum claims.
Andrew Bell, an assistant professor at the Hamilton Lugar School who studies the effect of the international humanitarian law and norms of restraint on combatant conduct toward civilians during war, drew on his military background to comment on the military response to immigration. He argued that Trump was “using the military as a political tool” in its mobilization at the US’s southern border. The politicization of the military is completely inappropriate in the US, not just because it contradicts the military’s purpose but also because this particular mobilization contributed to anti-Latinx sentiment and violence, he said.
In response to national security threats, the US has several opportunities to make progress. Frank A. Rose, a Senior Fellow for Security and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, said, “We need to work with our allies.” The threats others discussed, in addition to the dangers posed by Iran and North Korea, are best solved through multilateral engagement. China and Russia don’t have a network of powerful allies, but the US does. That is our strength, and we should use it, he said. He added that our history of innovation has put the US in a strong position, but that innovation, particularly in communications and AI, must continue for the US to retain its relative advantages.
After the moderator-led discussion, students in the audience asked about violence against Latinx people and white terrorism as national security threats, access to fossil fuels around the world, and space as a frontier for peace of conflict.
The panel was one of several during the conference that brought in experts from Washington, DC, New York, and other universities in order to engage with students about the most pressing global issues facing the country.