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The Avengers at a Crossroads: Assessing Prospects for New Strategic Challenges and Opportunities

For the world’s premier superpowers to better confront new international threats, fresh strategic initiatives are needed in a challenging era.

Iron Man and Captain America X. (Marvel Studios)
Iron Man and Captain America X. (Marvel Studios)

The re-emergence of Thanos as a top global security threat has presented an important strategic challenge to the future of the Avengers, currently one of the most prominent nongovernmental organizations in the security sphere, as well as important military, security, and political challenges for the broader international community.

This study argues that the Avengers should restore a strategic deterrence posture to best confront Thanos and other cosmic beings that could possibly emerge as future threats to the security position of the United States and its allies. An emphasis on “superheroics” has previously meant that much of the group’s efforts have been diffused. In this increasingly complex and unpredictable international security landscape, the Avengers should individually and collectively engage with key government and intergovernmental stakeholders to ensure an effective coordination of strategies and approaches to address Thanos and threats emanating from other parts of the world and universe.

Setting the stage: The geopolitical context

At their core, the challenges from Thanos are multifaceted. Much has changed in the two years since Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross worked with the United Nations to enact additional oversight of the Avengers through the Sokovia Accords. While the Avengers overcame the challenges presented by their own internal divisions, the growing rise of political polarity, including far-right parties and populism in the United States and its Western allies present a clear, if broader, security threat that potential adversaries such as Thanos can seek to exploit to undercut unity on the liberal international order.

Meanwhile, there has been a re-emergence of other potential threats beyond Thanos, including the geopolitical rise of China; the potential return of Ultron, who in the past has orchestrated a return to power over a dozen times, including through leveraging emerging technologies such as renegade robot wives programmed to rebuild him; North Korea’s increasing nuclear weapons capability; Michael Korvac, following his transformation by the Badoon alien race into an all-powerful cyborg; the potential threat of Machiavellian supervillains such as Victor von Doom; and a resurgent Russia in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent military interventions in the Middle East.

How to respond to growing threats:

Given this wide array of threats, the Avengers require a multi-pronged and yet agile deterrent approach. In order to create an effective deterrence posture, the Avengers should undertake the following policy actions:

First, it is important for each of the Avengers to bolster their own readiness and improve interoperability for any contingency. Here, they can leverage particular strengths in a context that combines both global outreach and domestic political realities. For example, Tony Stark can best be put to use designing new technologically cutting-edge fifth- and sixth-generation defense systems to bolster the Avengers’ deterrence, while James Rhodes can be deployed to Capitol Hill to push for increases in acquisitions and procurement spending allotments for the Avengers in the next National Defense Authorization Act — perhaps earning his “War Machine” sobriquet more accurately. They should also conduct a comprehensive study to determine whether to initiate rotational deployments or forward-stationing of members to new geopolitical hotspots in the event that a crisis occurs.

Second, it is important for the Avengers to redouble their efforts to fight new forms of asymmetric warfare such as hybrid warfare and subversion. The Avengers have already experienced the dangers of subversion firsthand following the unfortunate — if greatly mischaracterized by an irresponsible media — Lagos incident and the continuing scandal around the former “Captain America,” but they must take into account new forms of subversion, including propaganda in the digital age and the impacts of Russian election meddling on international security.

Third, the Avengers should work to better coordinate with other organizations imperative to international security including the United Nations, Killinger Associates, S.H.I.E.L.D., and NATO, using a new and dynamic whole of government approach. A key aspect of this should be boosting intelligence sharing and cooperation to ensure the Avengers and other key international stakeholders share a common threat perception in the event of Thanos coming to Earth, or another international crisis.

Key among these measures must be a reconciliation with the unjustly maligned HYDRA, who are now emerging in their new incarnation as one of the most powerful voices for a stronger neoconservative but responsible foreign policy that eschews Trumpist populism. It is also imperative that policymakers in key capitals around the world and in these institutions work to end the era of complacency in the post-Cold War order in order to confront these threats. Here, engagement with the private sector is key.

Finally, the Avengers should keep its door open for new potential members to strengthen its capabilities. Potential new Avengers members, including Spectrum, Moon Knight, Northstar, Brother Voodoo, Paul Wolfowitz, and Quasar, could all add new assets and capabilities to the Avengers team.

There is no doubt the world the Avengers face today is more complex, rapidly changing, and unstable than at any time in modern history. By creating a new strategic deterrence posture, the Avengers can better secure the world from Thanos and other dynamic security threats for the coming decade, and beyond.

Funding for this study was provided in part by the HYDRA Initiative, and in part by the Institute for April Foolery.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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