ODNI’s Threat Assessment: Leadership is Missing Element

| Kenneth Dekleva
Kenneth Dekleva
Former Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist, U.S. Embassy in Moscow

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist (including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russian Federation) with the U.S. Dept. of State during 2002-2016, and is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center. The views expressed are his own.

OPINION — The recent release by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of its [unclassified] annual threat assessment is both welcome and fascinating.  It clearly outlines the variety of threats faced by the United States and its allies over the coming years.  These threats range from nation-state adversaries, such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, to threats from pandemics, climate change, migration, and transnational criminal groups and terrorist groups.  In this sense, the report has come to remind us of the annual updates – during the Cold War – as outlined in Jane’s Fighting Ships, cataloging different weapons systems of both allies and adversaries, and the potential threats therein.

But what is missing is the role of leadership, both that of our adversaries in its influence upon the threat matrix, and that of America and its allies as they counter and mitigate those said threats.  The report ignores the intentions, strategy and tactics, let alone any mention of formidable adversaries such as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, or Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini.  And likewise, it ignores the importance of American leadership in mitigating, countering, and yes, leading, as America and its allies confront a myriad of what can only be seen as existential threats to the post-World War II established order, which has kept the peace for 75 years.

Leadership matters.  While China’s long-term strategy surrounding its rise is independent of any individual leader, and instead wedded to the CCP’s ideology, ruthlessness, and determination, can we ignore Xi Jinping’s single-minded drive, psychological strength, resilience, leadership psychology, and embodiment of the Chinese Dream of Rejuvenation of the Chinese people?  Can one really postulate that Xi’s role in the past decade is irrelevant, and that it wouldn’t matter if another leader was at the helm?  Likewise, how can one possibly assume that Vladimir Putin’s singular, fundamental disruption of the post-1991 order in Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East bears no relevance?  As the most formidable leader of Russia since Stalin, can we afford to ignore Putin’s intentions, leadership psychology, impressive intelligence and diplomatic skills, and embodiment of Russia’s long-term strategic interests moving forward?  Similar questions could be raised regarding North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s ailing Grand Ayatollah, and other adversaries.

Perhaps more saliently, not only America, but Europe and post-war Japan had leaders who played a critical role in building a sustainable post-war order.  They faced unbelievable post-war challenges in rebuilding Europe, Asia, and in dealing with the changes of decolonialization.  Where are leaders such as Churchill, De Gaulle, Adenauer, Yoshida, and others of such ilk today?  How can Europe and Asia counter a rising China and disruptive Russia, absent such leaders?  These questions are key, as America and its allies in Europe and Asia face novel challenges (including internal, domestic weaknesses) as outlined in the threat assessment.


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Leadership psychology has a tradition which goes back to the OSS in World War II, when its Director, General William Donovan, commissioned a psychological profile of Germany’s Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.  And later, during the height of the Cold War, the late Dr. Jerrold Post founded and led a unit within the CIA which created profiles of world leaders for the nation al security community and policy-makers, up to the level of the President.  Such entities still exist today, having long proved their value to national security professionals and policy-makers at the highest level.  And given today’s threats, such analyses are more salient than ever.  The intelligence community might in particular take note of the rise of ‘strongmen’ leaders in the past decade – such as Xi, Kim, Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Assad, Trump, Orban, Jokowi, and Maduro – and ask, do today’s threats as outlined in the annual assessment favor such leaders holding onto power?  And more critically, do the conditions which spawn them also favor their emergence among us and our allies, especially given the challenges and structural changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic?

It might appear more appealing to draw upon traditional metrics of risk from political science, economics, and international relations theories in assessing future threats.  This is like using decision analysis or game theory approaches to dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty in international relations.  It’s a shoe that fits, and when combined with the outstanding talents of leading professionals in the national security sphere, is comforting.  But the ODNI in its report, and American and allied leaders risk peril if they ignore the messy, often less-tangible, psychological and human factors of leadership.  From Yalta, to the 1956 Suez Crisis, to the 1973 Yom Kippur war, to the 2003 Iraq war, and to today’s pandemic and its aftermath, decisions are made by human beings, with all of their human desires, strategies, emotions, dreams, and frailties.  Leadership truly matters.  Ignoring it – in the case of adversaries such as Xi, Kim and Putin – can only lead to the conclusion that Xi and Kim are playing Go, Putin is playing chess, and both America and the West are struggling to play Checkers.

America and the West require leadership analysis to up their game, just like General Donovan and FDR did way back in 1943, given their deeper understanding of Hitler thanks to Dr. Langer’s historic psychological profile.  Leadership is the ‘secret sauce’ and the missing link in the annual threat assessment.

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The Author is Kenneth Dekleva

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist (including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russian Federation) with the U.S. Dept. of State during 2002-2016, and is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX. He has recently published political psychology/leadership profiles of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. The views expressed are entirely his own and do not... Read More

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