Major Powers, Back on Top

July 24, 2015

The United States military has spent the past 15 years concentrating on primarily low-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past year, much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the threat from the ISIS international terror organization.

At the national level, threats from major powers such as Russia and China were frequently afterthoughts. ISIS is almost certainly not the greatest threat to the United States, however.

Yes, ISIS must be watched, guarded against, and attacked militarily as appropriate. But the organization does not and has not represented the No. 1 danger to the United States. More dangerous are major powers that behave aggressively, intimidate or attack their neighbors, violate international norms, and in one case has the ability to destroy the United States.

Thankfully, America’s recent fixation on “today’s wars” is coming to an end and some long-held assumptions are being discarded as policy-makers come to terms with the facts. Russia is not a peaceful democracy, China’s prosperity is not leading to responsible international relations, violent Islamic fundamentalism has enduring appeal in Iran, and North Korea shores up its regime by creating conflict.

Russia in particular is back at the top of the threat list.

In late June, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at the Paris Air Show that Russia’s recent actions are a “big part of why I’m here in Europe.”

The “biggest threat on my mind is what’s happening with Russia and the activities of Russia,” she said, describing the situation in Ukraine as “extremely worrisome.” Russia illegally seized Crimea and has subsequently waged a surreptitious war in an attempt to split the country to Russia’s advantage.

The Pentagon subsequently released a new National Military Strategy July 2. It brought great-power conflict back to the front and center of US military planning.

Russia “has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and it is willing to use force to achieve its goals,” reads the new National Military Strategy. “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”

It went to war against neighboring Georgia, is believed to have orchestrated major cyber assaults against NATO member Estonia, and continues its conflict in Ukraine.

And it is not just Russia behaving badly.

Communist China has aggressively violated numerous international norms in recent years. It is North Korea’s sole significant benefactor. It has thousands of missiles aimed at Taiwan. In 2013 it unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone in international airspace, where it expects other nations to submit flight plans and follow Chinese instructions.

China also continues to seek international territory. “Its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea are inconsistent with international law,” the strategy states. China continues “with aggressive land reclamation efforts” that will allow it to build air bases and shipyards in contested or international waters.

Iran creates its own set of problems. “It is pursuing nuclear and missile delivery technologies,” the strategy reads, and “is a state sponsor of terrorism that has undermined stability in many nations.” Iran exports terrorism to Iraq and Syria, seeks the destruction of Israel, and is believed to be seeking nuclear weapons.

And don’t forget North Korea, where “pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies … directly threaten[s] its neighbors, especially the Republic of Korea and Japan. In time, they will threaten the US homeland,” the strategy reads. “North Korea also has conducted cyber attacks, including causing major damage to a US corporation.”

Despite these nations’ enormous capability to harm the United States, many in Washington still view ISIS as the greater threat, either out of habit, because the media keeps it front and center, or because the US is currently engaged in a shooting war with the group.

The notion that Russia is actually a greater threat to the United States than ISIS is still not universally accepted. It was therefore asserted at the confirmation hearings for the nation’s top two military posts.

It is in this context that Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., at his nomination hearing to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made news when he called Russia the greatest threat to the United States. ISIS ranked fourth, also behind China and North Korea.

Dunford noted Russia is a nuclear power with the ability to destroy the US. It has attacked its neighbors, and “if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” he said July 9.

Less than a week later, Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva had his turn before the Senate Armed Services Committee, seeking confirmation as the next Joint Chiefs vice chairman.

Selva struck a similar note. Terrorist groups are “a threat we must deal with,” he said, but they do not threaten the US homeland to the same degree as nation-states. “Russia possesses the conventional and nuclear capability to be an existential threat to this nation, should they choose to do so,” he noted.

ISIS, on the other hand, “does not present a clear and present threat to our homeland and to the existence of our nation.”

Selva’s list of threats to the US was similar but not identical to Dunford’s— and ran from Russia to China, Iran, and North Korea.

This seemed to surprise lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who must not have been paying attention to the new National Military Strategy or during Dunford’s hearing.

If a threat is defined simply as potential devastation multiplied by its likelihood, then it is hard to quibble with these rankings. Russia is not just a proven aggressor, it has the means to destroy its enemies.

Of course ISIS must be taken seriously and dealt with, but it is time for the US to refocus attention on the larger problem actors. Recent steps to bolster the US military presence and readiness in Eastern Europe and throughout the Pacific are steps in the right direction.