Beyond Ukraine: Three security challenges that must set Biden’s agenda

| January 31, 2022

When President Biden was elected, many international diplomacy experts breathed a sigh of relief. As a president, Donald Trump had managed to antagonize allies, cozy up with autocrats, abandon international agreements and create a sense of chaos.

Further, Trump’s ‘America First’ rallying cry and commitment to ‘bring the troops home’ portrayed an isolationist stance that made many allies reliant on a USA presence nervous.

In contrast, Biden promised a return of American engagement. Drawing on his diplomatic experience, there was a sense of optimism that the ‘adults’ where back in charge and that both America and diplomacy were back.

Within twelve months, this sense of optimism has continued to dissipate. The disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as the inability to ease tensions with Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea combined with the poor handling of the AUKUS announcement have all played a role.

Even in the last few weeks when the world’s attention has turned to the Ukraine, Biden spent the first anniversary of his inauguration in damage control, having to clarify his gaff that the West might accept a ‘minor’ Russian incursion into Ukraine.

While there is no doubt that Ukraine presents a major challenge to both Biden and the European allies, the deeper challenges are much hard to define and respond to. Beyond global hot spots and belligerent actors, the security landscape has been dramatically re-shaped since America established itself as the sole superpower.

Here are three security challenges that the West must confront and must shape Biden’s security agenda.

Cyber warfare

Be it the Russian Federation, Iran or even non-state actors, cyber warfare is a powerful asymmetrical weapon of aggression. While Russia’s economy is only one tenth of America’s and its armed forces much less sophisticated, its willingness to engage in offensive cyber operations has caused enormous harm, including massive financial losses, undermined critical infrastructure, and disrupted vital supply chains.

Russia’s targeted cyber capabilities have moved away from phishing-based compromises to supply chain and service provider intrusions such as the SolarWinds hack that began as early as March 2020.

While the USA and the West are far from defenseless, the problem is that the political dominance of traditional weapons and a sense of bureaucratic inertia means that serious vulnerabilities are likely to persist.

This needs to change because the West simply cannot afford to misunderstand how rapidly this technology is transforming in the modern world.

Mistrust and social media

In a recent interview, former US National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, extends the above cyber threat by arguing that the US is already under attack.

Echoing various themes outlined in his book, Battlegrounds, McMaster argues that the nature of warfare has changed so fundamentally that most do not even recognize that it is occurring. McMaster outlines how hostile foreign actors are weaponizing social media to undermine faith in the government, fellow citizens, and even democracy.

We have seen this play out in real time in the USA: claims and counter claims that Russia influenced the outcomes of the 2016 election as well as debates about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

In other words, hostile actors do not care who wins an election, but the legitimacy of those elected is questioned. This has played out with both Democratic and Republican voters seeing each other among the major threats to the nation and ‘Not My President’ slogans appearing at protest rallies.

With such high levels of distrust and both parties drawing on this sentiment to motivate their political base, the risk is that divisions will continue to grow.

In this scenario, policy reform is not possible and democratic governments will grow stagnant. This means that they cannot deliver on improving the lives of their citizens and, as such, further undermining confidence.

The slow burn

Work by resilience scholars tends to split the need to plan for two types of catastrophic events: sudden, sharp, and acute incidents such as a terror attack or natural disasters; and slow, incremental, obtuse changes that are, initially at least, almost imperceptible.

The former is something that our politicians are drawn to: they allow for pre-election announcements, a ‘cash splash’, the chance to build something new and be seen in ‘high-viz’ vests.

The slow burn challenges are the ones that are the riskiest because they require preparing for events that if done correctly, may never eventuate. The most obvious example is climate change but as we have learnt, we also have global pandemics, heat effects from poor urban planning, and the instability created by inequality.

What makes inaction appealing is that the election cycles of three to four years are out of sync with the long-term planning, investment, commitment to structural change and trade-offs required. As such, no-one will remember the politician that planned for the pandemic – but we will celebrate the one who has the resources to respond.

The result is that there is no incentive to prepare.

Unlike a hostile actor that can be named, these threats are difficult to define and remain vague and amorphous. A response requires bipartisanship – something that is harder to find that an independent hacker hidden behind multiple IP addresses.