WASHINGTON – Substance often runs a distant second to drama in the age of U.S. President Donald Trump. So it was when America’s intelligence chiefs visited Capitol Hill recently to deliver their agencies’ annual worldwide threat assessment. It got traction in the news media largely because Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel gave testimony that implicitly cut across Trump’s policies toward North Korea and Iran. Kim Jong Un has no intention of giving up is nuclear weapons, Coats and Haspel testified, whereas while the Iranians might like to have them, they are not currently building them. Coats’s testimony, in turn, triggered a predictable Twitter meltdown from Trump, who admonished his own intelligence officials to “go back to School.”
Largely lost in this controversy were the most interesting aspects of the intelligence community’s assessment. These shed light on three trends that could seriously alter the global landscape for the worse.
The first involves the ever-closer relationship between China and Russia. For years, America’s relationships with Beijing and Moscow have been deteriorating, and the threat assessment provides a window into the intelligence community’s thinking on both. Russia is a declining but aggressive actor that is likely to intensify its election meddling and information warfare against the U.S. and other democracies. China is not simply a revisionist power but is pursuing “a long-term strategy to achieve global superiority.”
Just as notable, however, is what the assessment has to say about the ties between America’s authoritarian challengers: “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” They will likely become even closer because of their shared opposition to democratic values and U.S. global leadership.
Russia and China are now cooperating on military exercises and arms sales, energy deals and economic ties, efforts to weaken international norms surrounding human rights, and many other fronts. This cooperation better enables each country to challenge Washington. China, for instance, has improved its anti-access/area denial military capabilities by buying (and, in some cases, copying) Russian military technology. Even where Russia and China are not cooperating directly — such as in supporting authoritarian regimes and undermining democratic governance abroad — their efforts have mutually reinforcing effects.
Granted, an earlier Moscow-Beijing axis broke up in the 1960s, and there are probably limits on how well today’s relationship will work over the long term. If China really is bent on global superiority, Russia will face an aggressive behemoth on its borders. But in the medium term, the U.S. confronts a quasi-alliance between its two chief competitors, one that heightens the difficulties of dealing with either.
The second trend involves U.S. alliances. The first page of Coats’s prepared statement offers up a warning: “Some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing U.S. policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships.” The wording is a bit oblique, but this single sentence captures a collection of anxieties that are testing America’s geopolitical coalitions.
Those anxieties predate Trump, although they have been exacerbated by him. For years, U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific alike have worried that America’s will and ability to defend the international order it created is declining. Incidents such as the red-line fiasco in Syria in 2013 and China’s success in gaining control over large swaths of the South China Sea have fed concerns about U.S. intentions; shifting military balances in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific have fueled fears about declining American capabilities.
More recently, Trump’s anti-ally rhetoric, his penchant for waging trade wars against America’s closest friends and his generally erratic behavior have led a number of U.S. partners and allies to consider whether they need a geopolitical backup plan — even as the U.S. has increased defense spending and ramped up efforts to deter Russia in Eastern Europe.
What political scientists call “hedging” is becoming more common: Countries from Australia and Japan to France and Germany are trying to develop new partnerships that would soften the blow if it turns out that Washington can no longer be counted on. Talk of a European Union army, Japan’s efforts to cultivate closer ties with Australia and India, and the Philippines’ shift toward accommodation of China are all part of this pattern. These tendencies could become more pronounced if Trump or another skeptic of American globalism is elected in 2020.
Finally, there is the role of advanced and emerging technologies. The intelligence community provides some assessments and predictions in this area. China now has the ability to launch cyberattacks that could cripple U.S. critical infrastructure for days or even weeks; Russia is “staging cyberattack assets” that would allow it to severely disrupt U.S. society in a crisis; even relatively unsophisticated competitors will use cyberattacks against America in the coming years.
More broadly, the international economy and global politics will be profoundly shaped by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology. Whatever nation seizes the commanding heights in these areas will have enormous advantages over its competitors. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have been saying this for years; the U.S. intelligence community is now saying it publicly, as well.
It is far from guaranteed that the U.S. will come out ahead in this rivalry. America’s intellectual leadership in science and technology has eroded. U.S. researchers accounted for more than 50 percent of academic citations in those fields in 1996, compared with less than 35 percent today. China’s share has risen from virtual insignificance to well over 20 percent. Beijing may well be ahead when it comes to artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies, and its ability to access vast troves of data gathered from its 1.4 billion people will provide further advantages. For decades, Americans have considered technological dominance to be their geopolitical ace in the hole. But now technological breakthroughs are threatening to erode U.S. power and take the world toward a darker destination.
Spies get paid to worry about the scary possibilities, of course; it is the job of policymakers to ensure that the U.S. effectively deals with them. But the intelligence community’s assessment reminds us that while Trump and his antics capture the attention, there are bigger global changes afoot.
Hal Brands, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.