The Grand Dilemma: What Is the Most Dangerous Threat to America?

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tags: foreign policy



Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

In formulating its defense policy, the United States has to face four separate security challenges simultaneously: China, Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism. This is very different from the Cold War era when, although America faced security problems in many parts of the globe, there was one overarching challenge that it confronted throughout the world: the Soviet Union.

The Soviet threat during the Cold War was undoubtedly much greater than any of the four threats that America now faces. The Soviet Union was a global threat, while Russia, China, Iran, and Sunni jihadists are mainly regional threats. Nevertheless, dealing with four separate threats is much more complicated than dealing with just one.

The Cold War, of course, was not simple, and the “Soviet threat” was complicated because it did not just emanate from Moscow alone, but from numerous governments and revolutionary movements allied to it. But however much the challenges these posed emanated from local or regional causes, their linkage (real or imagined) with the Soviet Union was what made them the focus of Washington’s attention. Further, while the Soviet-American dimension of so many of the conflicts that took place during the Cold War meant that all of them had the potential for escalation, it also meant that Washington and Moscow had a strong incentive to negotiate with each other directly in order to limit them. Moreover, both superpowers could prevent escalation by reining in its allies in these local and regional conflicts.

This is not the case now. The challenges posed by Russia, China, Iran, and the Sunni jihadists are largely separate from one another. The threat Russia poses to American interests is mainly in Europe. The one posed by China is mainly in East and Southeast Asia. Iran and the Sunni jihadists both threaten American allies and interests in the Middle East, but they are also a threat to each other.  While distinct, these four separate challenges do interact with one another. For example, America’s growing concern with Russian policy toward Ukraine and Europe means that U.S. foreign policy cannot “pivot toward Asia” (i.e., focus on containing China) as fully as the Obama administration may have wanted. Further, while Iran and the Sunni jihadists are virulently opposed to each other, Washington has to be concerned that any actions it might take to weaken one will only serve to strengthen the other. ...




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