In a Changing Security Environment, Defend Your Values
America’s inclusive narrative, and its capacity to learn, remain a beacon for the world.
Published in coordination with the 2023 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.
The wars in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria remind us that the world has faced war for longer than it has enjoyed peace, and not without great cost and grave risk to the aspirations for a more stable rules-based international order. But as multiple crises occur across several regions, so too have new platforms of cooperation emerged, including informal inter-governmental bodies, coalitions, and other multilateral arrangements.
Out of a unipolar post-Cold War order has emerged one that is more multipolar, where alliances and partnerships shift as events may warrant. India, which helped found the Cold War’s non-aligned movement, is now viewed as a key U.S. partner to counter China via its involvement into the Quad, albeit one that maintains some relations with Beijing via its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is worth asking: are we seeing the emergence of a new global order, and how can we make sure our defense and diplomacy reinforce our core values?
The current wave of crisis and complexity is shaped by the unprecedented scope and scale of disinformation, abetted by mass communication technologies, polarization, and hostile state and nonstate actors seeking to exploit this environment. We live in a time where “fake news” can travel farther and faster than reliable, fact-checked information. Deep political divisions, often exacerbated by mainstream politicians and challenges to pluralist democracy in many states, have created space for the deployment of conspiracy theories, mis- and disinformation (and sometimes simply the truth) to damage public trust in government. These dynamics are seen in a mainstreaming of extremist discourse even at the highest levels of government and media. Many have come to recognize that violent extremism does not just stem from hostile and foreign non-state actors, but also from segments of their own populations.
Terrorist groups are evolving as well. In many places, their threat is closely linked to strategic competition among states vying for influence and resources in places such as Africa and Afghanistan. ISIS and Al-Qaida continue to inspire affiliates and support across Africa. Jihadist violence threatens to spill over porous borders and vulnerable spaces to destabilize states in the Sahel, where the death toll of terrorism has grown tenfold in 15 years. At the same time that European states have drawn down counterterrorism operations there, Kremlin-linked mercenary groups appear to have gained traction. However, many countries are increasingly confronting threats linked to violent far-right movements—or even actors swayed by multiple and overlapping ideologies. While several countries have already designated violent far-right groups as terrorists, the transnational dimensions of this threat will likely lead to calls for greater international cooperation.
With more countries focused on strategic—or “great power”—competition, there is a risk that policymakers neglect the often-close relationships between terrorism, conflict, and inter-state competition. Some states may set values aside in the interest of accessing resources and influence. China, which has detained nearly a million of its own Muslim citizens in Xinjiang in conditions described similarly to concentration camps, remains unbowed in its quest for increased strategic influence through economic incentives like the Belt and Road Initiative, incursions into the South China Sea, and veiled military threats towards Taiwan.
The United States has learned the hard way that pursuing strategies that institutionalize violations of human rights cannot deliver long-term security. America’s story has been one of power, but it is also one of values. Because U.S. has not always delivered on those values, it has sometimes appeared to global audiences hypocritical in advancing actions to reinforce them. Yet America stands ready to do so today in Ukraine, where the principles that shape our global order—including the sovereignty of borders—are being challenged on the frontlines.
The United States’ military might is unparalleled. But perhaps more importantly, in a world where expressions of xenophobia and intolerance are once again growing louder, America’s inclusive narrative, and its capacity to learn and adapt, stands out. Faced with an inflection point that will determine the future global order, we must ensure that our investments in hardware and security are matched by our support for those who are fighting for their own opportunities to build strong, democratic, and resilient nations, from the schoolrooms of Afghanistan, to the cities of Iraq that have triumphed over ISIS’ distorted and evil narratives, and the battlefields of Ukraine.
Ali Soufan is, a former FBI special agent and a leading national security and counterterrorism expert, is the CEO of The Soufan Group, Founder of The Soufan Center, and author, including of ‘The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror after 9/11’ (W. W. Norton, 2020).
Naureen Chowdhury Fink is the Executive Director of The Soufan Center. She previously served as senior policy adviser on counterterrorism and sanctions at the United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations.