Economics, Electrons and Existential Threats to America

Commentary | August 29, 2011

It is crystal clear: the United States does not believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program. This is unambiguously visible in statements by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), General James Clapper, to the Congress in February and March 2011. He said that the intelligence community believes that Iran is “keeping open the option” for building nuclear weapons while developing some component technologies, like uranium enrichment, needed for making weapons “should it choose to do so”.

North Korea does have nuclear devices, but perhaps not weapons. Clapper says that North Korea would only consider using nuclear weapons in a narrow set of circumstances. He talked of the steady deterioration of North Korea’s conventional military capability over 15 years.

So what are the imminent threats to the United States?  Terrorist attack is the number one threat for the moment, according to Clapper. Here the picture is alarming: “A small but growing number of Americans have become involved in the global jihadist movement”. While Americans would remain a small part of that global movement, they would be disproportionately dangerous, the intelligence chief said. There is, in the United States, a “collective subculture and a common cause that rallies independent extremists to want to attack the Homeland”, Clapper reported.

On China, the mood is in some respects relaxed. There is authoritative evidence, according to the DNI, that China is looking for cooperative behavior not military confrontation. The main American concern with China is unintended conflict and a gradual intensification of the sense of power that it is now feeling.  On Taiwan, the picture looks good, with the main risk factor being a breakdown of the currently good political and economic relations across the strait.

The more existential threats to the United States, in Clapper’s view, now are economic imbalances and electronic intrusions. These have current manifestations and medium to longer term implications. They are regionally or nationally manifested, including in social unrest in the Middle East, economic weakness in Europe, and in electronic spying from China. But they are also global threats.

The characteristics of some of these new threats as characterized by Clapper include high degrees of complexity and relatively recent emergence. There are high degrees of uncertainty about some of them and about the linkages between them. In speaking just about water, Clapper assessed that “fresh water scarcity at local levels will have wide ranging implications for US national security”. But just what these would be, was not yet known. He called for wide-ranging assessment from the whole of the government to “assess the impact on state stability”.

The existential threat though was in the electronic domain. Or more correctly, the existential vulnerability lay there. The United States is facing “new security challenges across a swath of our economy”, he said. New technologies intended to underpin prosperity “are enabling those who would steal, corrupt, harm, or destroy public and private assets vital to our national interest”.

This is linked to international organized crime which, he said, was penetrating governments, degrading the rule of law and enhancing the ability of states to manipulate key commodities markets, such as oil.

The idea of “convergence” was mentioned by Clapper, the proposition that the physical infrastructure is becoming more fully integrated into the production and consumption cycle. He talked of the “far-reaching impact of the cyber threat” that this convergence could produce.

You, the reader, will have to decide whether you think American diplomacy and security policy matches the threat analysis from the Director of National Intelligence. You may also want to reflect on the role that US allies in Europe need to play to address these threats.

Click here to read Austin's column on New Europe's website.