Holding Back the Chaos

By Alan W. Dowd
, 7.9.18

“The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War.” So begins the Intelligence Community’s 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment. Echoing the IC, the Defense Department’s 2018 National Defense Strategy concludes: “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order…a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” Those who keep up with the headlines know the DoD and IC are not exaggerating.

Here’s a sampling of those headlines: “Iran fires rockets into Golan Heights from Syria,” “Israel strikes Iranian arms depot,” “Russians killed in U.S. airstrikes,” “Assad still using chemical weapons,” “Farmers caught in crossfire of global trade war,” “NATO once again practicing for the worst,” “Russia launches war games with two top allies,” “U.S. leads war games near Russian border” “Norway to host biggest NATO military exercise since Cold War,” “U.S. announces sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine,” “Putin boasts of new Russian nuclear weapons,” “Mattis warns China over ‘militarization’ of South China Sea,” “U.S. B-52s fly by Spratlys amid rising tensions with China,” “France and Britain join U.S. to oppose China in South China Sea,” “Prepare for breakup of NATO,” “India tests ballistic missile, posing new threat to China,” “North Korea rapidly upgrading nuclear site despite summit vow,” “Japan to buy cruise missiles capable of striking North Korea,” “China threatens war over U.S.-Taiwan bill,” “Pakistan and India exchange artillery fire.” And these are just from the past six months.

In short, it seems the liberal international order built after World War II is eroding or at least being rearranged, as rising autocracies, revisionist governments and rogue regimes flex their muscles—and the West struggles to muster a cohesive response.

In an effort to bring order to how we understand the causes of international disorder, defense and intelligence officials use the term “Four plus One”—shorthand for Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorist groups.

Because of its capabilities, actions, and stated intent to oppose and undermine the existing international order, Russia tops the list of strategic threats. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invaded and annexed parts of Ukraine and Georgia, militarized the Arctic in a bid to turn its claims into fait accompli control, propped up the Assad regime and countenanced Assad’s chemical-weapons barbarism, violated arms treaties, threatened NATO members with attack, used energy supplies as a weapon, carried out assassination-by-poison in Britain, and conducted cyberattacks against the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Moscow’s cyber-enabled influence operations “remain a significant threat to U.S. interests,”according to the IC. Using cyber-technologies, social media and false-front organizations, Russia has interfered in political systems in the U.S., France, Germany, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, Macedonia and Ukraine.

According to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Russia’s actions “represent an all-out assault…on the rule of law, Western ideals and democratic norms.” Indeed, Moscow’s broader objective, as a 2017 U.S. intelligence report concludes, is to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and “U.S.-led liberal democratic order.”

Equally worrisome, while U.S. defense spending—measured in constant dollars—fell by nearly one-fourth between 2010 and 2015, Russia’s military outlays have spiked 125 percent since 2006.

Russia seeks nothing less than “to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor,” the Pentagon assesses. “The Russians are actively seeking to divide our alliance,” adds Coats, “and we must not allow that to happen.”

While Russia hacks away at the West’s political system, China targets the West’s economic system. China’s “One Belt One Road” program is part of a wider effort to alter the existing economic order. China also is engaged in a relentless cyber-campaign against Western economic targets—a campaign that “has opened rich veins of previously inaccessible information that can be mined both in support of national-security concerns and, more significantly, for national economic development.” Gen. Keith Alexander, former head of Cyber Command, calls this cyber-siege of the West “the largest transfer of wealth in history.”

At the same time, Beijing has constructed 3,200 acres of instant islands in international waters—deploying SAMs, anti-ship missiles, radar systems and warplanes in an effort to annex the South China Sea piecemeal. Beijing has 27 military outposts sprinkled across the tiny islands and atolls of the South China Sea, many of them in or encroaching upon waters claimed by other nations. Some of these “Made in China” fortifications are flatly illegal.

China’s military spending has mushroomed 150.9 percent since 2008. On the strength of this spending binge, China will deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020. The Pentagon reports China deploys 2,800 warplanes and has a missile arsenal with “the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific.”

Notwithstanding Kim Jong Un’s recent willingness to talk, Pyongyang has not handed over a single missile, warhead or ounce of uranium. Kim continues to oppress his people brutally and, like Putin, has ordered assassination-by-poison on foreign soil.

Throughout 2017, North Korea test-fired missiles and, according to the Missile Defense Agency, has “conducted an unprecedented level of nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches since 2016, including its fourth and fifth nuclear tests, as well as its short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range, long-range and submarine-launched ballistic missile launches.” Pentagon officials assess North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-08 mobile ICBM system to be operational—bringing all of Alaska, Hawaii and the western part of the continental U.S. in range. North Korea test-fired what appears to be a full-fledged ICBM in mid-2017. Around that same time, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Pyongyang had produced as many as 60 nuclear warheads.

Iran’s influence and reach are spreading like a malignant tumor. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explains, Iran has trained and equipped Hezbollah fighters in Syria; deployed its own military personnel to Syria; “sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces”; bankrolled Houthi militias in Yemen and Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia; backed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan with weapons and funding; conducted “covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe”; “advanced its march across the Middle East”; continued to hold Americans hostage; and concealed the nature of its nuclear program.

In addition, Iran in recent months has launched attacks against Israel. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (2011, 2012, 2016, 2018), seized cargo ships (2015) and detained a U.S. Navy vessel (2016). Nor can we forget that Tehran has the blood of 500 American troops on its hands.

Indeed, Coats notes that Iran’s support for Shia militants in Iraq is now “the primary threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq.” He adds that “Iran’s ballistic missile programs give it the potential to hold targets at risk across the region.”

Given its lead role in the terror trade, Iran provides a perfect bridge to the fifth source of international disorder.

To be sure, ISIS was dealt a heavy blow in Syria and Iraq. Its caliphate has been erased, its jihadist army decimated, its base of training and operations destroyed. However, the IC reports ISIS is operating in at least 14 countries, stretching from the Philippines through Pakistan, into Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and across a large swath of Africa. ISIS has gained critical WMD knowhow by using sulfur-mustard in Syria. Likewise, Iranian-backed Hezbollah has gained critical battlefield skills in Syria. And al Qaeda—the organization that triggered America’s global campaign against terror—has a presence in at least 11 countries.  

Because of ISIS, al Qaeda and their brethren, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia are open wounds; Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan and the Philippines are at risk; Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Kenya are teetering; and Europe and America are in the crosshairs.


The DoD offers multi-pronged solutions to this multi-pronged challenge of global disorder, including:

  • Becoming strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable. The U.S. was highly predictable on the operations side during the Obama administration. Consider President Obama’s debate with himself over intervening in Syria, which resulted, predictably, in the U.S. not intervening—and in Iran and Russia filling the vacuum; or his long-delayed, highly-telegraphed decision to order freedom of navigation operations near China’s illegal islands. On the other hand, the U.S. has become strategically unpredictable during the Trump administration. Consider President Trump’s bombastic threats in Northeast Asia, suggestions that NATO is “obsolete,” musings about withdrawing from the WTO and invading Venezuela, and tariff war with Europe, Canada and Mexico.
  • Prioritizing preparedness and modernizing key capabilities. The bipartisan gamble known as sequestration ignored the time-tested wisdom of peace through strength. Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military, but as Defense Secretary James Mattis concludes, “It took us years to get into this situation. It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”
  • Strengthening alliances. No one can honestly say recent years have strengthened America’s system of alliances. President Obama threatened Mexico and Canada with a pullout from NAFTA, undercut Poles and Czechs in hopes of a Russian “reset,” bypassed Israel and Arab partners to make a dubious deal with Iran, alternately ignored and scolded Britain, invoiced France after the U.S. provided air support, and gave NATO a time limit for U.S. participation in Libya. President Trump suggested he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us,” reneged on an agreed-upon G-7 communique, threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, and stunned Seoul, Tokyo and DoD with an offer to end U.S.-ROK military exercises.

Add it all up, and the Pentagon and IC have their work cut out for them in protecting the nation, preserving our freedom and holding back the chaos—which is why those of us who are people of faith need to add to one more item to the above to-do list: praying for our leaders and our world.

We must never put our country ahead of our faith. However, it pays to recall that Paul urged people of faith to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” Paul recognized that legitimate governments exist to promote order within and between nation-states, that God opposes chaos and that God’s crowning creation cannot flourish in chaos—or survive without some sort of refuge from the chaos.

This notion serves as a foundation stone for Project Fortress. Psalm 27 describes God as a “refuge and fortress” amidst the chaos of besieging armies, the threat of war, the schemes of enemies, the gathering violence. There is something strangely comforting in realizing we are not the first generation to wrestle with such challenges and worries.

The world has been bending toward disorder since the Fall. Yet God cares about the world He created and calls on imperfect men and women to join in the hard work of holding back the chaos. As Churchill said, in a time far more chaotic than ours, “Some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.