Michael KreponWho Is the Biggest Threat to American National Security?

Quote of the week:

“What’s going on right now is that the crazier analysts have risen to higher positions than is normally the case. They are able to carry their ideas further and higher because the people at the top are simply less well-informed than is normally the case.” — Herbert York

Of all of the individuals capable of doing great harm to the United States and sowing chaos in this troubled world of ours, who deserves top billing? If this question is good enough for presidential debates, it’s good enough for ACW readers.

One measurement of account is the possession of nuclear weapons. The less faith we have in the wisdom of leaders that possess them and the larger the arsenal at their disposal, the more we have to worry about. But even small nuclear arsenals are worrisome if the finger on the proverbial red button belongs to someone who doesn’t think straight. Another measure of demerit is whether a leader disregards the national sovereignty of others. A third is the application of disruptive information technologies to accentuate division and discord in the United States and allied countries.

By these measures, Vladimir Putin certainly deserves a high ranking. But does he belong at the very top of our list? He has a history of carving out estuaries of Russian control in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and reclaiming Russian sovereignty over Crimea, but he has been leery of using military power elsewhere, preferring far more subtle means of disruption. He has interfered in democratic elections, and has just gotten an invitation by Donald Trump to do so again. But he doesn’t seem inclined to carry out aggressive wars. He has probably learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan not to rush headlong into quagmires. In other words, he’s clearly Top Five material, and most definitely worthy of our attention and countermeasures, but he seems to lack the high degree of recklessness needed to be a chart-topper.

Kim Jong Un is also Top-Five material. Any leader that blows away dissent with high-caliber weapons and chemical agents is worthy of notice. He has the Bomb at his disposal and his judgment — insular and fallible — brooks no dissent, especially from family members. His understanding of crisis behavior and use of over-the-top rhetoric could contribute to tragic results. On the other hand, Kim seems to understand that a war with the United States would be fatal to him and to his regime. Purposefully crazy doesn’t get you to the top of this list.

How about Xi Jinping? A most worthy competitor, to be sure. He understands the centrality of economic power to national security and global standing, is investing heavily in global infrastructure, and placing countries with natural resources or in prime locations in Beijing’s debt. As a result, China has become the 21st Century version of the East India Company. He’s smart enough to know that the future of warfare rests on silicone as much as steel, and he’s accumulating usable military power while not going overboard buying nuclear weapons that he dare not use. But for now, Xi seems most cautious when it comes to the use of military force. If recklessness is a prerequisite for chart topping, he, too, falls short.

The Caliphate was an idea whose time has passed (again). Al Qaida has lost its charismatic leader. The Islamic State can never be counted out but is down. Bashar Assad’s war crimes are significant but confined. The Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards in Iran can do serious disruption — and force the out-sized anchoring of the U.S. Navy far distant from first-tier competitors — but their assets are vulnerable to air strikes. Benjamin Netanyahu needs help from Washington to do serious disruption. Narendra Modi has worrisome traits, but his crisis behavior has so far been very restrained. Pakistan is so deeply in debt that its military has had to cut expenditures. So who’s left?

The top two slots in our list of those who can do the most damage to U.S. national security and global standing are owned by Donald Trump and John Bolton. They have already done severe damage and more is in store. U.S. relations with every problematic country except one (North Korea) are in far worse shape than before their arrival. Trump’s pummeling of alliances and strategic partnerships (absent Israel and Saudi Arabia) has been severe and is only partially recoupable. Ditto for America’s international standing. America’s power shrinks without strong alliances.

Trump isn’t a builder, contrary to his resume. He is the Disruptor in Chief. His proudest achievements are tear downs. Because he doesn’t think three steps ahead — witness his exit from the Iran nuclear deal, leading to harsh sanctions, leading to unwanted Iranian actions — he is subject to manipulation by the likes of Netanyahu, John Bolton, and the flag wavers of forever wars in locales far away from major power competition.

Trump’s saving instinct, so far, is a genuine unwillingness to use force, but the more he is tested by the circumstances he has invited through poor judgment and advice, the harder this will become. He acts as if he is beholden to Putin and uses nineteenth and twentieth century techniques to counter Xi’s China. He is a mercantilist in the digital age.

If this weren’t bad enough for U.S. national security, there’s Bolton, unelected and not confirmable by the Senate, sitting in a corner office of the White House, unrepentant after misrepresenting intelligence and cheerleading the second war against Saddam Hussein. Normally, this resume would be disqualifying, but these are not normal times.

At or near the top of Bolton’ presumed list of achievements is killing the ABM Treaty. This also meant killing prospects for far deeper reductions in strategic offensive arms. And yet effective missile defenses remain confined to power point presentations. None of the add-ons to U.S. missile defenses to date — almost twenty years after George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty at Bolton’s urging — would have defeated the Treaty’s objectives and purposes. All could have been accommodated through revisions and understandings. And in return for staying in an updated ABM Treaty, a Republican administration could have demanded deeper cuts. (This model of selling the same deal twice, but for better terms, could also be applied to the Iran nuclear deal.)

The scenario of re-selling the ABM Treaty for far deeper cuts wasn’t in play because the Republican national security establishment doesn’t exist any more. Conservatives that negotiated arms control and reductions — a list that includes Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Paul Nitze, George Herbert Walker Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft — have been succeeded by the likes of Donald Trump and John Bolton.

A true Conservative does not throw away that which serves a useful purpose when there is nothing better available to serve as a replacement. Radical disruptors aren’t bothered by tear downs because they are not in the replacement business. They don’t respect what they have inherited and the sweat equity that went into it. They squander their inheritance while enjoying the ride. In their view, if problems result, don’t expect diplomacy to solve them. It’s a nasty, brutish world out there. That’s why the United States needs freedom of action.

It’s been a busy season for Trump and Bolton. Lots of travel and summitry. A meeting with Putin in which Trump grins and tells his fellow disruptor to be on his best behavior during the upcoming U.S. election. There are treaties to undermine and dispense with. In addition to claiming probable Russian violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s zero yield obligation, Bolton has forecast that New START’s days are numbered because China isn’t included. In Trumpian terms, this is like saying that tariffs must be dispensed with because not enough goods are covered. Or that the penal code needs to be ditched because people still commit felonies. In what other areas of endeavor do we dispense with something that’s useful because it’s not good enough?

Welcome to Trump and Bolton’s world — the two men doing the most damage to U.S. national security.


  1. AEL (History)

    Climate change is the the biggest threat to national security. Individuals and their quirks are puny in comparison.

    All bets are off when famine stalks the globe. Worse, diplomacy will have no impact then. There will be no cavalry coming over the hill.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Fortunately, there is no plausible scenario whereby Bolton urges Trump to push the big red button and Trump (stupidly) complies. Walks with Kim, flirts with Putin, probably drives Bolton up the wall.

    Getting rid of all those arms control treaties, definitely reckless, but seems compatible with a modern-day Republican ideology. Is it Trump alone, or the Republican party, that has gone off the rails?

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