What are the threats facing the United States? What are the threats to international security and global stability as a whole? Well, Gallup asked over 1,000 Americans to ‘assess the threat of each of seven international issues to the United States’. While I’m sure that most Americans aren’t qualified to answer questions regarding security threats (although a greater number are getting degrees in homeland security from DHS sponsored college programs), it is still interesting to see what the general public perceives as the greatest threat. People’s responses are no doubt skewed by the media, their religious backgrounds and politics. Here are the results:
First, I will give GPP own answer to this question by listing what I believe to be the greatest threats facing the United States national security and interests today. Secondly, I will give my opinion of what I see as the greatest threats to international security and stability overall in a post to follow.
In the poll above, Americans listed their perceived threats as 1. Terrorism 2. Iran 3. North Korea 4. Israel-Palestine 5. China 6. India-Pakistan 7. Russia. Here’s how I would breakdown the question above, starting from least threatening to most to US security and interests:
Threat #7- The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - Putting this one as the least threatening I’m sure with displease many people who see in this conflict the root to many of the world’s and America’s problems. Like all of these seven threats, the longstanding Palestinian-Israel conflict is a major factor for global instability and its continued presence no doubt hurts US national security and interests in the Middle East, with its use as a reason for terror attacks being the most central, but it does not have the impact, or potential consequences, to American security interests as the others.
Threat #6 – The conflict between India and Pakistan - This always cold war, sometimes hot war, conflict has been a threat to US interests for decades, but with the current situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan it has taken on a new level. These states both hold nuclear weapons and have a seemingly intractable issue, Kashmir, keeping them at odds. The fact that this conflict is intertwined to the future of Afghanistan and it becomes even more clear how important the resolution, or at least semi-civil containment, of this Pakistan-India conflict is to US interests. The US has a major stake in the stability of the Pakistan government and state, with which it needs to stamp out Al Qaeda and other international extremists. For the US, India is a natural great power partner that can help it to balance against a rising China in South Asia.
Threat #5 – The military power of North Korea - Here is another assessment that I think might surprise people, including many Americans that answered the poll question. Kim Jung Il’s nuclear armed military state is something to worry about indeed, especially if you are South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s government has continued to give narcissistic dictatorship’s a bad name and has successfully denied international pressure to conform to foreign demands for years now. Kim’s government is not shy in testing nuclear weapons nor in building missiles that some estimate will be able to reach California in just a few years. The city of Seoul, Tokyo, Kyoto, etc. are already well-within reach. So why is North Korea’s military power not higher on the list? They are #5 because I believe that Kim’s government, and its likely successor’s, can be deterred. I just can’t foresee Kim actually launching an attack against Seoul, Japan, US, that would surely lead to his and the state’s destruction. This is a tough one though, as Kim’s government has also been caught red-handed providing weapon technology and know-how to Iran, Pakistan, and Syria.
Threat #4 – The military power of Russia - Commentators on this site have criticized my respect for Russia as still a highly relevant player in European and global politics, and this ranking of fourth show’s that there are several greater threats to US interests than Mother Russia, but not many. One of reasons I feel that Moscow is still a major player in the great power game and a threat to US interests and homeland is its proven willingness to use old school power political tools, specifically military and natural resources, to defend its interests and expand its influence. The Georgian-Russian war of 2008 showcases this capability and the fact that Russia has made a deal to build a military base in Abkhazia and keep it there for 49 years leads one to believe that this event was not a one-off. The US relies on a safe and secure Europe and Russia has to still be considered the number one threat to its existence. Concerning the US homeland, Moscow is still the only state on the planet that could destroy all major population centers through the use of a massive nuclear strike. This fact can never be ignored, no matter how unlikely the possible occurrence.
Now that is threatening!
Threat #3 – The military power of Iran - It was difficult to place this higher than the Russian military forces, but Iran deserves to be here, especially in light of the recent IAEA report which states that the Islamic Republic has been working on weaponizing a nuclear device. Iran’s military does not come close to touching Moscow’s, but the Islamic Republic’s intentions and proximity to Afghanistan, Iraq, oil-filled allies, and Europe makes it a more direct threat to US interests. The Islamic Republic has based part of its legitimacy as a fighter against the ‘Great Satan’ and has fought against US interests in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan (at times), North Korea, Syria, and I could go on. Though I believe an Iranian government in control of nukes will be mostly rational, and therefore deterrable, I am much less confident about this than I am about North Korea. Iran has been given the opportunity by a rather pliant American administration to bring itself back into line with most of the international community, in a sense ‘come out from the cold’, and shown time and time again it is unwilling to do so. Unless the Islamic Republic is overthrown, there aren’t really any good signs that this will end well.
Threat #2 – International Terrorism - The American public’s number #1 is not quite mine, but who could blame them. It seems like everyday one turns on the television, opens their newspaper, or clicks on a website there is yet another story about a terror attack directed at either American interests or homeland. From the panty-bomber, US Army member Hassan, Zazi, David Headley, the Bronx group, to the fact that America’s number intelligence leader says that an attempted attack on the homeland in the next 6 months is a ‘certainty‘, it should come in surprise that 81% of Americans view international terrorism as a major threat. I too believe international terrorism, specifically of the Islamic extremists nature, is the most immediate threat to America’s homeland. Unfortunately, there are just too many fanatics out there that believe the United States is the cause of their or their people’s problems and that the only way for them to rectify the situation is to kill themselves and as many of us as possible. So international terrorism is very serious challenge facing the US, and it will be for a long time, but it’s not the number one threat. That honor goes to….
Threat #1 – The military power of China - The blog’s called Great Power Politics after all, so how could I not put the battle between the world’s two greatest behemoths number one? I can’t! Cold-blooded IR realists see this picture: a superpower in likely decline relative to a rising great power who no doubt has superpower ambitions; both locked in the same playground = conflict. This does not mean violent tank-to-tank, destroyer-to-destroyer, nuke-to-nuke conflict is guaranteed, but that it, along with economic, political, social, cultural, ideological battles are indeed very likely to occur. Just in the past couple months the wounded United States and surging Middle Kingdom have spared over currency, multi-national corporations, North Korea’s nukes, Tibet, global warming, cyber attacks, and I feel that these will get worse and others will arise as time moves forward. American relations with its many allies in East and South Asia (South Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, India) will be shaped by these states’ evolving relations with the burgeoning neighbor. The Chinese government has shown itself to be pragmatic to the core, but its growing resources and influence, are expanding what it sees as its interests further and further abroad. As this occurs, Beijing and Washington’s interests will inevitably collide (case in point). Major conflicts between the US and China are far from preordained, but as of right now I do strongly believe that a rising China is the greatest threat to US interests and homeland.
The current American administration is aware of these challenges facing the country and it would be interesting to see how some of the higher ups (Obama, Clinton, Gates, Mullen, Petraeus) would answer this survey. What do you think they would be? What are your top 7 or more for the US? I will make a new list from the vantage point of threats facing international security very soon.