October 15, 2019

On September 30, the Center on Global Energy Policy’s International Security Initiative hosted its first event led by CGEP non-resident fellow Mike Dempsey. Dempsey, the former acting director for national intelligence, guided a conversation on the geopolitical outlook for the next 18 to 24 months.

He was joined by national intelligence managers for East Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East—the senior officials within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who oversee operations in their assigned regions for a coalition of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and organizations—and by Professor Richard Betts, who directs SIPA’s Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies.

Three common themes emerged from the discussion: the importance of alliances, combating foreign influence in elections, and America’s trillion-dollar deficit.

Alliances Under Pressure

It is the United States’ alliances and partnerships that truly provide an advantage when it comes to global competition, said Scott Bray, national intelligence manager for East Asia.

“Competing with China on a global scale is not easy,” he said. “It takes capability and capacity.”

“One of the areas of momentum is our relationship with foreign partners and our allies,” said Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community election threats executive.

The shared history of the United States and European Union regarding security issues makes their relationship a particularly important one, he added.

Global alliances are under pressure from military sales that conflict with established arms agreements in Europe and the severing of military intelligence sharing agreements between crucial North East Asian allies that leave nations alone in their pursuit of security in the global order.

“We believe in our community very strongly, that intelligence relationships are a foundation of relationship that you build other things,” Bray said,” Never do you let political issues, or [historical] issues, or trade issues or anything impact those intelligence relationships.”

Election Security, at Home and Abroad

Pierson asked audience members if they intended to vote in the next U.S. election, to which the entire room of almost 50 people proudly raised their hands. That number dropped to just four when she posed her second question:

“How many of you are confident in the source and sponsorship of the information you consume to inform your vote?”

All of the panelists said their regions have countries that try to influence public discourse outside their own borders. They cited China, Iran, and Russia as examples.

The United States’ ecosystem of defense against the dark arts of information operations has three parts: government, ranging from local polling officials to federal agencies; civil society, including academia, individuals, and the public space; and lastly the private sector, with social-media companies at the forefront.

The government’s relationship to the private sector “has been on a positive trajectory,” said Pierson. “This is a burgeoning additional opportunity for us in the government because they also have, frankly, experts on the same threats that we have in the intelligence community.”

The Economics of Security

In his opening remarks, Dempsey had asked, “Can the U.S. remain a dominant international actor and securer while carrying a trillion-dollar deficit?”

With the variety of expected and unexpected threats that exist in this newly pronounced era of great-power competition, both sharply pointed tariffs and rewritten trade agreements decrease the United States’ economic flexibility. This expected threat will compound over time if lawmakers continue absolve each other through bipartisan silence.

“Trillion-dollar deficits are more of a problem than either political parties seems to think,” Betts said.

In the end, the first, and most pressing, question that Dempsey began the evening with remained unanswered: “What is America's desired engagement strategy with the world?”

— Daniel E. White MPA ’20

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Geopolitical Outlook -- 2019-2020