"Grave Threats": American Security and the Next U.S. President

Strategic View

From Syria, to climate change, North Korea, and the largest global refugee flows in history, the next President will face a uniquely challenging set of national security threats when she or he takes office. The Cipher Brief spoke with former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and current CEO of New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter, to discuss these threats and what can be done to counter them. 

The Cipher Brief: As we enter the last month of the American election cycle, what are some of the greatest national security threats facing the United States today?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The single biggest threat is the ongoing cataclysm in the Middle East, which has many different pieces, but taken together, is a threat to the United States and our allies on multiple fronts.

Before I even address that, I have to say that Syria is, as much as anything else, a massive human tragedy, which has left 500,000 people dead. For a sense of scale, the Bosnian war, after three years, left roughly 100,000 dead. The end in Syria is not in sight, and the country has been shattered such that, when we finally get into Aleppo, it will look like Dresden. If your job is peace and security in the world, that conflict, just on its own terms, is an enormous problem, and one that we should be doing everything to stop. Of course, another aspect of this human tragedy is that it is causing massive refugee flows, which are destabilizing Europe and the region itself; Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.

The next threat is ISIL (also known as ISIS) and the ungoverned spaces in which it operates. The huge problem there is that, even if you overturn the Caliphate and drive out ISIL, who’s going to govern those spaces? We’re not. So then back they come. Geopolitically, this leads to other threats. For instance, this conflict has catapulted Russia back onto the global stage. It has certainly allowed Russia to play the role it wants to. So you’re seeing a geopolitical realignment there, which is not to the benefit of the United States.

Beyond that, I think the biggest medium term threat is climate change – and here I include the whole bundle of food and water security issues, all of which are made worse by climate change. I say climate change not just because of what we know will happen, but because the current evidence of climate change – the drought, the floods, the catastrophic weather – all of those factors are destabilizing, and they feed into conflicts and human misery in various places, which then lead to further conflicts. It’s not just that in a few decades we could be under water, it’s that right now the current manifestation of climate change is already a massive threat.

Another major threat is North Korea’s nuclear weapons. They really could develop missiles that are capable of reaching the U.S., and there is no telling what that government will do. There’s the danger of more proliferation, but there’s also the danger of real destabilization in the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and China, amongst others. That is a major threat.

Next is Russia as a determined and destabilizing counterforce in the world. In Ukraine, of course, but also in Moldova, and across Europe funding rightwing parties, and hacking into our own electoral system. Russia is again a player on the world stage, and not in a way that we would like.

Finally, we have the question of whether China is going to be able to manage its domestic politics in such a way that it either doesn’t have an economic crisis, which could be very bad for the global economy and politics of the region, but also that it doesn’t feel the need to push the nationalism button in a way that creates a conflict in the East and Southeast China Seas, which can’t be deescalated.

We’ve left out pandemics and a whole number of other issues here, but I think these are some of the key areas in which the U.S. will face national security threats.

TCB: Focusing on Syria, we’ve seen the Aleppo ceasefire go down in flames and the Syrian government continue what looks like its final assault on the rebel-held areas of the city. In your mind, what went wrong with that ceasefire, and is there a path forward for American diplomacy?

AMS: The first thing to say is that there are only bad choices. We are way past the point where there is a good alternative versus a bad alternative; no options are ideal at this point. I do continue to think that the ceasefire collapsed for the same reason that we, and the Syrian forces we support, have been steadily pushed back, which is that we are not using any sticks. We are negotiating with carrots but no sticks, and you can’t negotiate that way. The other side will take your carrots and then use their sticks, that’s what they do. John Kerry is out there trying to get a deal, but – and he’s even said this himself – he just doesn’t have any leverage, and I think that we have to be prepared to use force, not just against ISIL, but against Syrian President Bashar Assad as well to at least make clear that there are limits to how he can prosecute this war. That he cannot just pulverize a city, that he cannot drop barrel bombs, that he cannot use chemical weapons.

If he can win in a fair fight, ok.  It’s clear now that we are not going to try to solve this conflict militarily. But right now Assad, Iran, and Russia think that fighting is a better alternative to peace because they’re winning. Because we won’t push them back, even a little bit, just to say, “this is how you’ve got to fight the war.” And Assad would clearly rather destroy his country than relinquish his hold on power, no question.

TCB: How would set those limits?

AMS: People keep saying that the Libyan intervention was the death knell of the “Responsibility to Protect” (RTP) doctrine but that’s not true. RTP has been cited myriad times since, and it is not supposed to license intervention in other people’s civil conflicts so that you go in, pick a side, and try to make them win. That is what went wrong in Libya in many ways. Instead, RTP says only that there are limits to what you can do.

What I would do is to get as many nations as I possibly could to support me in the United Nations or in regional institutions to authorize a limited use of force focused on ending the fighting and protecting the Syrian people. I would not go in and oust Assad, that’s not what this is about. This is about creating the conditions under which the multiple sides decide that peace is better than war for pursuing their political aims.

TCB: You would just set the boundaries for diplomacy?

AMS: Yes, exactly. No one thinks there’s a military solution here except possibly Russia, Iran, and Assad. Our job is to convince them that the military solution won’t work. Whatever peace is hammered together is going to be fragile, and I don’t think the parts of Syria are going to be put back together again, certainly not like before. It will be a very loose federal state. Lebanon’s civil war went on for 16 years, and nobody thinks it’s a particularly integrated state now. The Balkans are also still deeply divided, but people aren’t killing each other. There aren’t 500,000 dead there or somewhere between 10 and 12 million displaced.

TCB: To focus on the refugee crisis – and I mean this globally, not just Syrian refugees – how do you see that reshaping the world we live in? Obviously we’ve seen effects from the rise of rightwing populism across the world to the more immediate border control issues. How does this change the world we live in?

AMS: There are some 60 million displaced people, more than the world has ever seen. The large majority of those are internally displaced, so they’re not refugees, but still, you have over ten million refugees, which is bigger than many small countries. It’s bigger than Hungary, it’s bigger than the Nordic countries. The first thing to say is that the world has seen this before, but the scale is unprecedented. And the other thing is, I don’t think people fully realize how guided many of these flows are. I’ve written about how there are Facebook pages where people can get updated information on which areas are the most welcoming to immigration.

Similarly, there are any number of smuggling rings who take money to get people out of countries.

 There’s this whole infrastructure that comes with immigration flows; these are not people who just head out their door and walk in whatever direction seems best. In that sense, we should think about it as partly criminal, because some of this is very similar to human trafficking in the sense of people taking advantage of other people, and partly a function of the digital age, where people have contacts in other countries, and they know that if they can get to those countries, the laws will favor them, and they have digital help getting there.

The easy thing to say is that we should all take in more refugees, and if we all take in x number, we could certainly absorb this. But of course, it’s not all countries, it’s the countries that refugees want to go to, and that’s a much smaller number of countries. And coordinated acceptance is not going to work, because the United States itself will only take in 10,000 due to our domestic politics, so it won’t do for us to say, “well our domestic politics say we can only take 10,000 but you should take five million.”

It seems to me that there are two alternatives. Right now, we have to rethink the concept of a refugee camp, and think of it as a place where you build infrastructure, provide education, and provide as much economic activity as you can for the host country. You’re effectively almost building small cities along the borders, with the understanding that when the conflict ends, some number of those people will stay, but they will become Jordanians, or Turks, or others, and then a fair number of people will come back to their home country. With this system, at least the host country gets something of value from hosting displaced people.

Looking forward, this is why we should have created a safe zone early on. If you had created a safe zone along the Turkish and Jordanian borders in Syria, that’s where the refugees would have gone. And it’s a lot easier to help them in their country, than in somebody else’s. This is still not ideal, but that’s really the only sort of big solutions that you can come up with, other than putting pressure on people to end the conflict and let people come home.

TCB: To change tack a bit, you were the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department from 2009-2011. How do you think the role of the State Department has changed since your time there? I’m thinking specifically of the State Department’s role in conflict zones like Syria or Iraq.

AMS: Some of it’s the same. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she set the table on the Iran deal and John Kerry concluded it, so we were kind of doing the same thing. I would say the same on Syria, we wanted to do more, and John Kerry wants to do more than the President does. The biggest difference I see is that Secretary Kerry has focused much more on what I would call traditional state-to-state diplomacy, whereas Secretary Clinton really did have a vision of what she called “21st Century Statecraft,” and that was much more about government-to-people diplomacy and people-to-people diplomacy.

She had a raft of special assistants and ambassadors, a global ambassador to women, a special representative to civil society and democracy, a representative to public-private partnerships, somebody who focused on youth. And that was because she really had a sense that diplomacy has to widen its lens and build relationships with people and with constituencies abroad, so that when crises happen, you’re not just engaging with other governments, you’re engaging with entrepreneurs, and young people, and scientists, and women. Building those relationships is not just public diplomacy where we advertise the United States, it’s really diplomacy to a foreign public.

TCB: Say that you were to take your former position or another position in the next administration, what do you say to the new President on their first day?

AMS: In my adult lifetime, I have never seen so many grave threats and problems in the world to be addressed all at once. And I would say that, no matter what you want to do domestically – and there is a lot to do domestically – you cannot ignore the international agenda. Because again, if you don’t try to shape it, then it will try to shape you.

TCB: Any last thoughts?

AMS:  Syria is a massive human tragedy, and my constant rallying cry is that human tragedies are not just humanitarian issues. We don’t just say, “oh no, isn’t that horrible” from a human point of view or a moral point of view. Human tragedies, on this scale, are a strategic issue. 

Strategic View

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