States of Insecurity

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign policy authorities—selected for their breadth of knowledge and first-hand experience in international affairs—about threats facing the U.S. and the allies that will be instrumental in confronting them.

Q: Which states will pose the greatest overall threats to U.S. security over the next decade, either directly or indirectly? (38 votes)

  Points First-Place
1. Iran 116 18.5
2. North Korea 74 6
3. Pakistan 59.5 5
4. China 57 4
5. Saudi Arabia 30.5 5
6. Iraq 27 5
7. Russia 21 0.5
Write-ins: Egypt, Venezuela (one vote each).    

On Iran

"The first new hostile nuclear power in almost half a century."

"A nuclear-armed Iran under radical leadership would destabilize the entire Middle East, threaten Israel's survival, and enable Iran to sponsor terrorism against the U.S. and our allies while meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity."

"If Iran's leadership (as it appears) is recovering its revolutionary impulse, we face a future of destabilizing activities in the region."

"Iran has a combination of nuclear program, continued support for terrorist groups and reactionary states, and growing regional influence especially with Shia dominated Iraq."

"We are heading toward the Cuban missile crisis in terms of their nuclear program."

"Unless both the U.S. and Iran shift course, this could become a major threat to U.S. security; [much depends] on the wisdom or lack of wisdom of leaders."

On North Korea

"North Korea represents the biggest immediate nuclear proliferation threat.  Nothing should give us comfort that North Korea will not sell nukes to Al Qaeda or other U.S. adversaries, or even start a conflict threatening US forces and interests on the Korean peninsula. The failure of the Bush administration, distracted by a non-nuclear Iraq, to deal effectively with the nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea constitutes the single most serious failure of U.S. national security policy in a generation."

"Their nuclear program, history of proliferation, and political instability could ignite a regional crisis."

"The big problem here is what happens when the regime starts to implode.  That could be very messy."

"North Korea will not last the decade. It will collapse, hopefully peacefully, and be absorbed by South Korea.  We will then have a pro-Western but potentially nuclear unified Korea which will be a challenge but also a potential ally. It will not be a threat to our interests."

On Pakistan

"Pakistan could become number one on this list in a heart beat, if Musharraf is toppled in a coup by radicals with the willingness to use or transfer nuclear weapons."

"In the next ten years, the most likely threats to U.S. security will come from states disintegrating rather than from rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan tops the list – it is a weak state, with uncertain control over nuclear weapons, and home to various terrorists groups that remain largely beyond the control of the state security forces."

"Pakistan is a very unstable government with nuclear weapons and a radicalizing security establishment."

"The problem in the war on terror is our 'friends' as much as our enemies. The worst kept secret in the world is that we are not allowed to debrief A.Q. Khan [the father of Pakistan's nuclear program now under house arrest for transferring nuclear technology to other states] because he'd tell us what we already know and fear to confirm—the generals were in on the proliferation scam with him."

On China

"China will threaten U.S. security indirectly as a consequence of: its insatiable thirst for oil and its willingness to do anything to compete for access to secure energy supplies; its growing economic, technological and military power; and the fact that it holds large quantities of U.S. debt."

"Our long term interests just don't line up well; they want to be the dominant power in East Asia and we are the dominant power in East Asia."

"A rising power with more political and diplomatic challenges than military challenges, but they are modernizing a military establishment in ways that we need to pay very close attention to."

"China is increasingly complicating American and European international actions, especially toward the Middle East."

"China may or may not be a major threat over time.  It is not now."

On Saudi Arabia

"More democracy would just bring worse Wahhabists to power. On the other hand, the members of the corrupt ruling family are hardly poster children for [responsibility]; supporting them is to court long-term disaster. Either way, this is a major problem."

On Iraq

"Iraq represents a massive diversion of our energies, the prospect of a radically destabilized region, and a massive erosion in the perception of our power and moral authority."

"Iraq is our most immediate challenge.  If we fail to create an independent state with a reasonably good chance of long term viability our global position—and our ability to influence events in the Middle East—will be so degraded that it will be difficult to predict future threats."

"If that doesn't go right, after all the American blood and resources, then we're in for real trouble by a bolstered radical Islamic ideology."

On Russia

"Russia will continue its slide into authoritarianism and dictatorship and will increasingly challenge Western interests, albeit largely on [the West's] periphery."

"Russia will be a continued challenge for the U.S., with disagreements over regional issues and attempts [by Russia] to play the energy card, but it will not be a direct security threat."

Methodology: Insiders were given a list of seven countries and asked to rank the four that pose the greatest overall threats to U.S. security over the next ten years. In tallying the scores, a first-place vote was worth 4 points, a second-place vote was worth 3, a third-place vote was worth 2, and a fourth-place vote was worth 1. Where respondents split their votes between two countries, the points were adjusted accordingly. Not all participants selected four countries.

Q:   What country will be the United States' most indispensable ally over the next decade? (31 votes)

1. Britain (21 votes)

2. Japan (5 votes)

3. The European Union (4 votes)

4. Germany, India, NATO, and Russia (1 vote each)

On Britain

"Easily our largest foreign direct investor (and vice versa), a country with real military and diplomatic capability, and political ties that are so close we take them for granted. The strategic realities underwriting the romance of the alliance is unlikely to change. It's not just about glorious Churchill/Roosevelt jokes or the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher. As prime minister Blair has shown, whether it's his 'friendship' with Clinton or Bush, at base it's about shared interests as much as shared values. That's why it's likely to endure."

"Current history has demonstrated that the end of the Cold War, the instabilities in part a consequence of that event, and a U.S. prepared to flex its muscles with less regard for the "good opinion" of others could all affect how we relate to the U.K. to a degree. Do not misunderstand me: I believe that independent "muscle flexing" will be an absolute necessity if we are to preserve any semblance of global stability."

"She's about all we can count on at this point so long as President Bush is in office and provided Blair's successor does not feel compelled to differentiate himself by distancing himself from Washington."

"Because for any significant use of force an American president will need to show that at least the Brits are on board. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan will all be of significant help to Washington over the next decades on particular issues."

"The only country that has will and capabilities to project force around the world with which America has a strategic convergence on most issues."

On Japan

"Japan ... should be a central pillar of stability in a rapidly changing East Asia."

"Our closest, richest, and strongest ally in the most important region of the world."

"I see over the next thirty years the rise of China is our greatest strategic challenge. We don't want that to become adversarial, but we can't afford to have Japan allied with China against our interests. So Japan becomes the key in this important (but narrow) dimension."

On The European Union

"As the trend for greater coordination of E.U. foreign policies continues, it is still the most capable and like minded partner for broadest range of issues."

"Because for all the differences in interest and diplomatic approach to world problems our interests and values are still closest to theirs, and they still do have significant influence."

On Allies Generally

"It is enormously valuable to have allies to work with in the world, but no ally should be thought of as indispensable. The term implies that we would not be willing or able to defend our interests unless that ally agreed with us and worked with us to do so. No ally, however, has such control over us."

"We must reconstitute 20th century alliances, particularly including nato with a new, broader mandate. Bi-lateral relations will matter less in the 21st century than international alliances."

Methodology: Insiders were asked to name the country they thought will be the most indispensable ally to the U.S. over the next ten years.

Poll Participants: Ken Adelman, Madeleine Albright, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Sandy Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Max Boot, Steven Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, Douglas Feith, John Gaddis, Jay Garner, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Robert Kagan, David Kay, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Jessica Mathews, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Kenneth Pollack, Thomas Pickering, Joseph Ralston, Wendy Sherman, Ann Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg, Susan Rice, and Anthony Zinni.