January 23, 2018

IntelBrief: Pivoting from Terrorism to Great Power Competition

Defense Secretary James Mattis  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) 
  • Lost amid the news of the government shutdown was an important announcement regarding a change in direction for the U.S.’ National Defense Strategy.
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that ‘great power competition, and not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.’
  • The report says the U.S. is emerging from ‘a period of strategic atrophy’ in which the country was losing its competitive military advantage.
  • There is a significant difference between the publicly stated priorities of President Trump—which focus on the Middle East—and the new Department of Defense focus on Russia and China.


On January 19 at Johns Hopkins University, Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke about the new National Defense Strategy (NDS). Calling for an end to military funding via continuing resolutions and budgetary sequestration, Mattis declared that while the U.S. will always fight terrorism, countering Russia and China will now be the driving focus for the nation’s military services. In another move away from the fight against terrorism being the U.S.’ primary security priority, the President’s recently released National Security Strategy stated Iran the principal threat in the Middle East. Though Iran is considered a regional challenge and a main exporter of terrorism, this shift is notable, given counterterrorism alone was the main focus in the Middle East for the last 17 years.

The new NDS calls for an end to the seemingly ad hoc budgetary process that has increased military spending in unpredictable and often counterproductive ways. While both Russia and China have increased their respective defense spending, the U.S. still far exceeds both countries. The Department of Defense has long argued that the non-stop wars against terrorism have caused the military to become depleted in terms of equipment, personnel, and focus. The return of planned budgets that are strategically sound and financially feasible is vital for the military sector of the U.S. Additionally, they would allow for the rebuilding and modernization of the U.S. military to align with the new strategy.

It is notable that while the Department of Defense now says that Russia and China are the main challenges for the U.S., President Trump rarely mentions Russia when discussing national security, and when mentioned, it is usually in a positive light. The ongoing probes by Congress and the special counsel over Russian interference in the 2016 election continue to hang over the White House. Most mentions of Russia tend to be framed in tweets dismissing the investigations as a witch hunt or worse. Regarding China, recent White House remarks have been critical with respect to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Overall, however, President Trump continues to highlight the threat of Islamic terrorism over any other security issue.

It is exceedingly uncommon for there to be such a gulf between the priorities of the Department of Defense and the public rhetoric and policies coming from the White House, as pertains to the most significant existential threats to the U.S. While right-sizing the terrorism threat is long overdue, it is still crucial that the U.S. government as a whole maintain a unified vision and strategy against the country’s most pressing security challenges.


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