Evolving security threats require eternal vigilance

07/05/2017 02:19 pm ET

Even as threats to the national security of the United States and the safety of its people continue to evolve, they remain serious and demand vigilance. Many old, familiar dangers have faded in importance, but new ones replace them.

Going back to the last half of the 20th century, when I became involved in foreign affairs as a member of Congress, America towered over the world. Our economy was the biggest and most vital. We had a military that outclassed the Soviet Union, our principal rival and the only real challenger to our position as global leader. Our clout reached to the furthest corners of the globe.

But it was hardly a perfect world; indeed, it was a scary one, because we lived with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There were other threats -- implacable enemies like Fidel Castro in Cuba, Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam, Kim Il Sung in North Korea and a variety of other dictators and revolutionaries -- but nothing that compared to the peril of Soviet weaponry.

Fast forward to today, and the United States remains the world's mightiest nation, but the gap between the U.S. and everybody else has narrowed quite a bit. The world seems unwilling to acknowledge American power or accede to our plans.

Americans, I think, often wonder why our country, with all of its power, seems so much at risk. They ask why threats to our security are the subject of intense focus for government officials and very much on the minds of thoughtful citizens.

What are these threats like? Unlike the Soviet threat, they are not existential. The Soviet Union had the power to destroy American cities with the push of a button. It represented a threat to the very existence of our nation.

Today, while Russia still has much of the old Soviet arsenal, the threat of a nuclear attack has receded substantially. Russia's power and status have diminished. Its economy has been battered by sanctions and falling oil and gas prices, and its GDP is not in the world's top 10, ranking behind Italy, Brazil and Canada.

But our decadeslong rivalry with Russia has not faded into history. Russia remains our foremost challenger for influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and is often our adversary in the Middle East and North Africa.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has grown more aggressive and provocative with its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and its threats of annexation in the Baltic States. Its brazen cyberattacks on U.S. and European elections amount to a serious attack on our representative democracies.

Most of the pundits would say our most serious immediate threat is not Russia but North Korea. It pursues an ambitious nuclear weapons program and a missile development project that imperils the western United States. Pyongyang gives no indication that it's willing to back off as it moves to intimidate South Korea and dominate the entire Korean peninsula. As a result, tensions remain high between the U.S. and North Korea.

Then there is China. In the eyes of the Chinese government, the U.S. is a large obstacle to its pursuit of influence and domination in East Asia and the South China Sea. China is building a regional order to advance its power and influence. It does not appear to want to go to war, but neither does it want to be pushed around or diverted from its goals. This creates tension between our two states.

We also have the threat of terrorism. It may be at the top of the list for Americans who worry about risks to their personal safety. While there have been relatively few recent attacks on U.S. soil, many Americans fear we could see bombings and other incidents like those in France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. Terrorism has become a powerful tool of marginalized and disadvantaged Muslims living in Western countries who are drawn to acts of violence. They seek to dissuade the West from engagement in the Islamic world.

We also face new nontraditional threats: for example, global climate change. Sources including the Pentagon and environmental organizations say climate change is producing rising sea levels that threaten population centers on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

This survey has included only some of the most serious external threats to our national security, and we also face many internal threats to America's safety and stability. Those will save for another column.

As for the external threats, the good news is that they seem to be less world-shaking, less threatening to our existence as a nation, than they were a generation or two ago. But they are a serious and urgent danger to the safety and well-being of our citizens, and they necessitate a serious and sustained response by means of intelligence-gathering, diplomacy, military deterrence, homeland security and other strategies.

We must stand eternally vigilant. As we've often been reminded, that is the price of liberty.

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