The Looming Threats to National Security

Of all the perils we face, cyber warfare is the one for which we are least prepared, Fletcher Dean James Stavridis tells EPIIC Symposium

James Stavridis at Tufts

The threat to U.S. security that most concerns James Stavridis, F83, F84, dean of the Fletcher School and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, is cyber warfare. “I would say it’s the thing I worry about the most, because there is the greatest level of mismatch between the level of threat, which is quite high, and the level of preparation, which is low,” he told a Tufts audience on Feb. 24.

Stavridis’ comments came during a keynote address at the 32nd annual Norris and Margery Bendetson EPIIC International Symposium. The retired admiral structured his talk around the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century security. While acknowledging that there are indeed any number of dangers facing the United States and the global community, he said there are also ample tools to address them.

He reminded his listeners that the world was roiled by violence, destruction and instability on a larger scale during the last century, when 60 million to 80 million people died in two world wars and the planet was on the brink of a nuclear conflagration during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Everything I’m about to tell you is dark and disturbing and worrying,” he said. “But we ought to keep it in perspective, and, as we say in the military, here’s my ‘bottom line up front’: I believe that we do have the tools to surmount these challenges.”

Among the greatest threats to the safety of the world is the Islamic State, in particular, and radical extremism in general, he said. He emphasized that many of those extremist threats have no connection to Islam, citing the racially motivated killings of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Extremism “cuts across borders, ideology and nations,” he said. Because the Islamic State has been extremely effective at raising money and recruiting followers—thanks to “its mastery of the strategic narrative” and its long geographic reach—it presents a threat even if its forces are eventually driven out of territorial strongholds like Mosul in Iraq or Raqqa in Syria.

Other global concerns, Stavridis said, include established state powers such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Russia; Afghanistan, for its role as a source of raw materials for the U.S. heroin epidemic; the consequences of environmental events, such as the melting of the polar ice caps; and pandemics such as Ebola, Zika or other emerging viruses.

But the growing threat of cyber warfare, which can be effectively deployed by small nations as well as superpowers, is the most alarming, Stavridis said. “All the other things I talked about—Islamic State, our concerns about Iran, North Korea, Syria—they’re very concerning, but we’re pretty well prepared. Cyber, not so much.”

To get prepared, he recommended the United States take three actions: the speedy establishment of a “cyber force,” similar to the other branches of the military; greater cooperation between the public and private sector; and splitting the National Security Agency from the U.S. Cyber Command.

Despite the litany of dangers he described, Stavridis stressed that the United States has the tools to help stabilize the situation, using the avenues of diplomacy, science and governance. “The most important thing we can do is to listen to each other, to our friends and allies, and maybe most importantly, to our opponents,” he said.

The United States, he said, has the resources of both “hard power”—a strong, capable military—and “soft power”—aiding the world through American values. “I deployed literally dozens and dozens of aircraft carriers,” said Stavridis, who served more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy and commanded military operations throughout Latin America for nearly three years as head of the U.S. Southern Command. “In many, many ways, the most significant deployments I ordered forward were hospital ships. Hundreds of thousands of patient treatments create real security by changing the impression of the United States.”

The key, he said, is the balance between hard and soft power. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to negotiate a settlement with the Islamic State. It’s not going to happen. We’re going to find them, and we’re going to eliminate them,” Stavridis said. “But the long goal of creating security is on the soft power side. It’s education, opportunity, diplomacy, listening, literacy—all the soft power tools.

“The point is, you need both. You need to know how to dial that rheostat. If you know how to do that as a nation, you’re not using hard power or soft power—you’re using smart power.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at


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