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The Existential Angst of America’s Top Generals
If the Pentagon and the Obama administration can’t even get on the same page about the top existential threats to America, what hope is there for humanity?
Last July, commander of U.S. Southern Command Gen. John Kelly explained, “The near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.” In other words, Kelly was claiming that the continued fragility of state order in Central America and Mexico and illegal trafficking could result in the demise of the United States.
Fortunately, Kelly’s dire prognosis turned out to be inaccurate. For the latest years for which data is available, the volume of illicit drugs smuggled into the United States and number of current drug users in the United States stayed the same — approximately 23 million Americans use 145 metric tons of cocaine, 24 tons of heroin, 5,700 tons of marijuana, and 42 tons of methamphetamine annually — and between 14,500 and 17,500 people were once again trafficked into the United States. These were roughly the same amounts of illicit drugs and trafficked persons that are smuggled into the United States — every year. Meanwhile, the strength and resilience of societies in the Western Hemisphere remained essentially unchanged, according to the latest Fragile States Index. Despite the persistence of these chronic criminal and societal challenges, the United States lived to celebrate its 239th birthday.
As noted previously, U.S. national security officials routinely mischaracterize and inflate threats in order to catalyze public opinion or secure funding from Congress. However, what is new and disturbing about recent claims of “existential” threats, like those made by Kelly, is that they take threat inflation to its highest possible level. But let’s be clear about the definition of this term: Existential threats are not merely acute, severe, or even catastrophic. They do not necessitate a surrender or defeat. They mean the destruction and loss of everything that is the United States to the extent that its reconstitution as a sovereign country would be impossible.
Given that senior military officials have recently touted Russia as an existential threat, and that this is the maximal claim about foreign threats that can be made, the concept deserves scrutiny and clarification.
This all began on July 9 when, during his confirmation hearing to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.” This was followed on July 14 by Gen. Paul Selva, nominated to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, saying, “Russia possesses the conventional and nuclear capability to be an existential threat to this nation should they choose to do so.” On July 23, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, nominated to replace Dunford as commandant of the Marine Corps, said, “As a nation-state, Russia is probably the greatest threat. But I believe that the greatest threat to the American people, because they say they want to kill us, is radical extremism.” Finally, on July 24, the head of Special Operations Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, declared at the Aspen Security Forum, “I’m very concerned about Russia and what that means to us. That is a country that could pose an existential threat to the United States.”
Russian strategic nuclear weapons do indeed pose an absolute threat to the United States (and every other country), but this recent conventional wisdom from America’s military leaders is lacking important historical context. Russia has been an existential threat to the United States since the early 1960s, when it first possessed an estimated 500 strategic nuclear warheads. Russia currently has 1,780 strategic warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles and at long-range bomber bases. (Just one 800 kiloton warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan could kill several million people and anything living within five to seven miles.) If Russia launched them in a preventive surprise attack, and America did nothing to defend against them, the United States would be totally destroyed and cease to exist.
Of course, for the past half-century, U.S. strategic nuclear weapons have posed a similar existential threat to Russia (and every other country). The secure second-strike capability provided by the U.S. Navy’s 14 ballistic missile submarines, four or five of which are always on extended patrol, deters Russia from attempting a preventive nuclear attack. Moreover, U.S. strategic nuclear forces and defenses are actually qualitatively better than those possessed by Russia — for example, Russia has one fully equipped ballistic missile submarine on patrol at any time and no functioning early warning satellites, according to Pavel Podvig, the unmatched public resource for the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the question for the military officials raising concerns about Russian nuclear forces today is: Do they believe Vladimir Putin is more suicidal than his predecessors, or do they doubt the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent?
What makes the claims from these military officials about Russia even more unexpected is that they directly contradict those of their counterparts and civilian bosses. Last July, America’s most senior military official, Gen. Martin Dempsey, proclaimed that the United States does not face an existential threat as it did in the Cold War. (Puzzlingly, Dempsey’s predecessor Adm. Michael Mullen stated in 2011, “The single biggest existential threat that’s out there, I think, is cyber.”) In October 2014, Vice President Joseph Biden said, “We face no existential threat — none — to our way of life or our ultimate security.” (Biden said this again in January of this year.) Finally, in February, when unveiling the latest National Security Strategy, National Security Advisor Susan Rice claimed, “While the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War.” Again, Dempsey, Biden, and Rice are technically incorrect, but (hopefully) they recognize that Russia’s actual existential threat is totally deterred by U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems — as it has been for over a half-century.
If only such confusion was limited to those that are “existential” to the United States. Unfortunately, such disagreements are now found in how officials rank all threats. In February, at the annual “Worldwide Threats” hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listed cyber as the top threat to the United States, followed by counterintelligence, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. In the last month, this has been obliterated. For example, Dunford ranked the top national security threats: “I’d have Russia down as number one. I’d have China down as number two…. Clearly, North Korea with ballistic missile capability and the potential to reach the United States and attack the homeland is high on the list, and then [the Islamic State].”
The intelligence community and military are supposed to work toward the same common objectives, but the most senior leaders of both do not concur. If there is to be a unified and synchronized “whole-of-government” effort to confront threats, there must be an agreed-upon prioritization of them among national security agencies. Without it, there can be no prioritization of effort, which is essential for informing long-term strategies and plans, identifying when adjustments are needed, assuring the unity of effort across agencies, and ultimately achieving strategic objectives. According to President Barack Obama’s very first Presidential Policy Directive, this is what the National Security Council is supposed to be doing: “The NSC shall be my principal means for coordinating executive departments and agencies in the development and implementation of national security policy.”
Apparently, either Obama’s directive is not being implemented faithfully or the White House simply does not care enough to resolve this growing disagreement. In addition, either senior military officers are correct about there being existential threats or the other officials are correct that there are not — or there is no accountability for how each national security leader chooses to describe the world. For there to be such confusion and misunderstanding about what is purportedly the most extreme possible threat to the United States says a lot about the public discourse among government officials. Cold War official and nuclear strategist Paul Nitze famously warned: “One of the most dangerous forms of human error is forgetting what one is trying to achieve.” In national security policymaking, this begins with a shared understanding of what the United States is most threatened by and should therefore be most focused on.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images