From cyber to China, here’s what has former US national security advisors worried

The South Portico of the White House is seen before U.S. President Donald Trump travels to his golf club in Sterling, Virginia, in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago

Whether current US President Donald J. Trump is re-elected or former Vice President Joe Biden becomes the next occupant of the White House, the next US president will be confronted with a growing challenge from China, the lingering danger of an assertive Russia, and a broad range of threats complicated by the proliferation of new technologies.

That is the picture three former US national security advisors painted during a discussion on the future of US national security hosted by the Atlantic Council on October 19 as part of the Council’s Elections 2020 and Commanders Series. “The foremost family of threats to the United States stem from China and the challenges it is offering in every domain,” Robert McFarlane, former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan, argued. John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security advisor from April 2018 to September 2019, agreed, calling China “the existential threat of the 21st century,” while also highlighting Russia’s aggressive actions and the “more immediate” threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Whoever occupies the White House on January 20, 2021 will have to grapple with the fact that in this century “the very concept of national security and everything that it entails is much broader and it is all happening at a much more rapid pace,” added James L. Jones, Jr., former national security advisor to Barack Obama and Atlantic Council executive chairman emeritus.

Here’s a quick look at what the former national security advisors said about the post-2020 landscape and how the National Security Council (NSC) can help the next US president meet the challenges ahead:

The coming contest with China

  • While the US was out, China gained clout: McFarlane argued that the United States took “a thirty-year holiday since the end of the Cold War where we deluded ourselves into believing that the rest of the world would evolve toward adopting freedom and the rule of law and it hasn’t happened.” This gap in US leadership has been most effectively exploited by China, McFarlane explained, as Beijing has sought to make inroads across the world. Chinese activities have focused on gaining valuable resources such as cobalt in Africa and lithium in South America, acquiring access to strategic locations such as the Suez Canal, and entering lucrative markets for Chinese goods. China has even tried to extend its reach to the United States itself, he added. It has achieved “penetrations of institutions that are very precious to us” through, for example, the establishment of pro-Chinese organizations within US universities and the listing of Chinese businesses on US stock exchanges.
  • First step is to gather friends: In order to push back against China’s growing influence “we need friends and we need allies,” Jones argued. “China doesn’t really have a friend or an ally” that it can depend on, he added, giving the United States a key advantage, as Washington can lean on “a century worth of relationships” in nearly every corner of the globe. But the United States will have to repair many of these partnerships, Jones conceded, as there “is still doubt about our commitment” among many in the world after decades of receding US engagement. The next administration will need to make a point of sending “a strong message that we are committed to remaining a nation of great influence and that we are going to do the things that are required in order to maintain that greatness,” Jones argued. Bolton suggested that this means the United States needs to look at its current partnerships and cooperation mechanisms, especially military commitments. Amid discussions about US troop pullbacks from Afghanistan and shifts in troop levels in Europe, Bolton argued, “this is hardly the time to say we should be withdrawing significant American forces from around the world and expecting that the oceans are going to protect us. That was a great idea in the eighteenth century, [but] that is not where we are today.”
  • New START needs to include China: Bolton also suggested that China’s growing nuclear-weapons arsenal should give the Trump administration more reason to reject Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent offer to extend the New START nuclear arms-control treaty, which expires in February. Trump has refused to negotiate an extension with Russia in part due to growing concern that the treaty limits the United States’ ability to adapt its nuclear-weapons capabilities while Beijing can continue to amass its stockpile without limits. There is no need for “Cold War, bilateral nuclear deals with Russia where we just let China have a free pass,” Bolton said, adding that when China says that their weapons levels are too small to justify negotiating limits, they really mean that “after we build up to your level, then we will talk about arms control.”

Don’t neglect Russia and other challenges

  • Putin remains a concern: While the attention of the next US president will likely be fixed on the threat from China, Bolton warned that Moscow’s behavior cannot be ignored. Putin is “playing a bad hand very well,” Bolton explained, as the Russian president is able to still pursue Russian interests vigorously abroad despite declining economic and military power. Moscow has utilized “asymmetric warfare techniques like in cyberspace” and its revenue from oil and natural gas to make itself a major player in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, Bolton said.
  • The other nightmares: Bolton also cautioned the next US president against ignoring the “more immediate threats” facing the United States, such as the nuclear-weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, as well as “the continuing threat of terrorism.”
  • COVID has left the US more exposed to its enemies: Bolton argued that the United States’ poor track record with the coronavirus pandemic “has taught our adversaries a significant lesson about just how vulnerable we are,” and could increase the possibility of a chemical or biological attack on the United States in an effort to achieve similar results.
  • The importance of cyberspace: The cyber domain will also prove more important for US national security going forward, Jones argued. He predicts that “the 21st century [will be] about cybersecurity just like [how] the 20th century was about nuclear power.” The asymmetric use of cyber capabilities has been most visible in attempts by Russia, China, and other actors to influence the 2020 elections, which Bolton called “an act of war on our Constitution.” He clarified that “it is not the question of picking one candidate over the other,” but rather foreign actors “are trying to undermine our basic institutions and our approach should be absolutely zero tolerance.” Bolton said the United States “should increase our offensive cyber capabilities and we should help create structures of deterrence” to prevent against further influence campaigns by US adversaries.

The president’s information hub

  • NSC critical for presidential success: The October 19 event with the three former national security advisors was held a couple of months after the passing of two-time US national security advisor and Atlantic Council Chairman Emeritus Brent Scowcroft, who many credit with creating the modern model for the National Security Council. Jones explained that the NSC serves an essential role for the president as “a coordinating mechanism across the interagency to highlight for the president those things that he or she absolutely has to know in real time.” He argued that it is perhaps the “one institution in our government that has to be ready to go as soon as the inauguration ceremony is over with.” Bolton agreed, saying that “in a time when many, many issues come before the president that involve national security, when the interagency process has become cumbersome and bureaucratic, the effectiveness of the NSC to advise the president…is critical.”
  • A tailored solution: Unlike other federal agencies, however, “every president gets to shape the National Security Council the way he or she wants to shape it,” Jones explained, giving new administrations the leeway to adapt the organization to fit the president’s style. McFarlane said that the main purpose of the NSC is to “enable formation of policies designed to accomplish the goal[s] the president has set,” requiring an organizational set-up that best produces results.
  • Reforms needed: Current US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien led a “right-sizing” of the National Security Council in October 2019, reducing total staffers from 175 to 110, in an effort to streamline the process of getting information to the president. McFarlane said it was important to have “a staff that doesn’t portray [its importance] in numbers or hubris,” but rather manages “a system to enable the president to make sensible decisions,” which becomes nearly impossible when staff size is too large. Jones agreed, saying that when he began his term as national security advisor, he found the “National Security Council was severely underfunded and severely overpopulated.” Jones also was concerned that “two-thirds to three-fourths of the staff on the National Security Council were from the interagency—from the Defense Department, from the State Department, from all over the government,” meaning that staff rotated out of the NSC within a year or two. Jones suggested that it would be much better for the NSC if there was a “smaller staff but a dedicated professional staff who would be there for the long haul.”

David A. Wemer is associate director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Further reading: