America gets a lot of heat for the way it handles itself on the world stage, but there’s really no other country out there that has as much responsibility. When things go awry, when the chips are down and some bad thing happens, it’s how America reacts, or doesn’t react, that largely shapes how things progress.
That responsibility and power come with a good heap of trouble. Yes, there’s plenty of fear-mongering out there, and the average American is probably perfectly safe on any given day. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who really want to see the American government and the American people suffer.
Every year, the US Intelligence Community releases a report outlining the greatest risks to US National Security. These are the Global Threats, the things that, if left unchecked, the intelligence community worries will wreak havoc not only on America, but also on the world.
Here are the ten biggest threats to America, as outlined by that report.
10 Human Security – Infectious Disease
“Infectious diseases are among the foremost health security threats. A more crowded and interconnected world is increasing the opportunities for human and animal diseases to emerge and spread globally.” – p. 14
Ebola was the talk of the town last year, and it gets special mention in the government report. But it’s far from the only concern. “Antimicrobial drug resistance,” the phenomenon that is seeing many bacteria once thought to be under control developing resistance to the drugs used to fight them, is a large concern now, and is projected to become much worse in the future.
MERS, a respiratory disease related to SARS, also gets singled out as a developing threat, along with diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.
All told, diseases and pathogens kill millions of people around the world each year. As the report points out, it would only take one disease of exceptional virulence and deadliness to bring about a real global health disaster.
9 Human Security – Extreme Weather Endangering Food & Water Supplies
“Extreme weather, climate change, and public policies that affect food and water supplies will probably create or exacerbate humanitarian crises and instability risks.” – p. 15
It should be shocking to nobody that global warming makes the list as one of the greatest dangers facing society today. The report points out that Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia could soon struggle to produce enough food for their population, and the rest of the world could soon see food prices explode if global production drops.
Water problems are also expected to increase. Developing nations will likely have difficulty securing enough water for their populations, and developed nations could see a rise in unrest as water shortages become more common.
Beyond that, the activity of upstream nations could undermine efforts by those found downstream, and could lead to increased political tension in parched areas.
8 Human Security – Instability
“Global political instability risks will remain high in 2015 and beyond... Declining economic conditions are contributing to a risk of instability or internal conflict.” – p. 16
We’ve seen plenty of political instability in the news in the past year, notable examples being the conflict in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS. It might soon get a lot worse. The report points out that “roughly half” of all countries not currently unstable might soon become so, with violence expected to emerge in many of the newly-unstable regions.
On top of the destruction that causes in itself, instability can lead to big problems in trying to solve some of the world’s other pressing concerns, like disease, food and water shortages, and terrorist activity. The fact that many developed nations will likely intervene less in the coming years is just icing on the cake.
7 Economics and Natural Resources
"The global economy continues to adjust to and recover from the global financial crisis that began in 2008; economic growth since that period is lagging behind that of the previous decade." – p. 13
The recent plummeting of oil prices was actually a good thing for the global economy, a bit of a shot in the arm to help try and speed up what has been a slow recovery. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty bad news for oil exporters, and it won’t be enough to pull the world out of the muck.
The report says global growth is at about 3.2%, “well below its 20-year, pre-[global financial crisis] average of 3.9 percent, and America’s humming economy is actually contributing, in part, to continued weakness in other countries. More people are looking to invest in America, which means fewer are looking to invest elsewhere.
6 Transnational Organized Crime
"Savvy, profit-driven criminal networks traffic in drugs, persons, wildlife, and weapons; corrode security and governance; undermine legitimate economic activity and the rule of law; cost economies important revenue; and undercut US development efforts." – p. 12
This is a bit of an umbrella category, catching up all sorts of different activities undertake by the world’s criminal organizations.
Drug trafficking gets particular notice, with the world’s heroin production near record-high levels now, and newly-developed synthetic drugs entering the market all the time.
Human trafficking, the report estimates, accounts for “tens of billions of dollars annually” of illegal business, and is no isolated concern – it happens everywhere on earth, ruining lives of people from every country.
There is also wildlife trafficking to take into account, including the illegal export and import of exotic animals and organs, limbs, and other parts taken to be sold on the black market.
There is also the matter that illegal arts and antiquities trading is happening more often, more quickly, and with fewer results to stop them from happening.
And to top it all off, corruption and instability are major contributors to crime of all kinds, making it easier for unsavoury elements to conduct their dirty deals and slip past whatever agencies are trying to keep them in check.
5 Space and Counterspace
"Threats to US space systems and services will increase during 2015 and beyond as potential adversaries pursue disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities." – p. 11
Though America’s space program has, in many ways, taken a back seat in recent years, many US interests depend upon the capabilities of satellites in orbit. The report singles out two states, Russia and China, as having and continuing to innovate on systems meant to destroy and disrupt satellites of nations they are in conflict with.
These include “reconnaissance, navigation, and communication” tools that, if crippled, could seriously hinder the capabilities of the targeted nation.
One Chinese test performed in 2007 created “long-lived space debris,” which is another potential hazard of these kinds of systems – there’s nothing stopping any debris created by a destructive anti-satellite weapon from taking out other systems, including those belonging to other states.
4 Weapons of Mass Destruction + Proliferation
"Nation-states’ efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their delivery systems, or their underlying technologies constitute a major threat to the United States, its deployed trooped, and allies." – p. 9
Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction have been a concern for decades, and recent developments have given increased cause for alarm.
Iran is mentioned as a top concern, though the report does mention that “We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” Recent developments suggest that the country is as least willing to negotiate its activities with the rest of the world, which gives reason for hope. The report notes that should it decide to pursue nuclear capabilities, its developments in space deployment could deliver it ICBM capabilities.
North Korea continues to be a destructive influence in the East Asian region, and continues to work at developing weaponry that would allow it to strike at America directly. The report notes that its nuclear ambitions are likely “intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” and not likely intended for active use.
China and Russia continue to develop their own capabilities as well, designing new missiles, delivery systems, and transportation for the weapons.
Lastly, Syria has been singled out for its use of chemical weaponry, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
"If ISIL were to substantially increase the priority it places on attacking the West... then the group's access to radicalized Westerners who have fought in Syria and Iraq would provide a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States and other countries." – p.9
Terrorism, and particularly Islamist terrorism, are one of the largest threats on the list, but the report mentions that “Sunni violent extremists” the world over remain cause for concern for America and its allies.
Attacks like the one in Paris in January will likely remain the exception, according to the report, as terrorist groups continue to focus on domestic activity, and not campaigns in America and other Western nations.
Still, it does say that “homegrown violent extremists” remain cause for concern because of their “immediate and direct access” to their home countries. The report does expect, though, that such radicals would travel to the Middle East to join jihadist groups like ISIL. It says that since 2011, over 20,000 people from around the world have traveled to Syria to join the conflict.
"Penetrating the US national decisionmaking apparatus and Intelligence Community will remain primary objectives for foreign intelligence entities." – p. 8
Once again, Russia and China are named specifically as risk factors for America, and are likely to continue to try to infiltrate, intercept, and disrupt American intelligence activities. “Non-state entities” like organized criminals and terrorists, are also likely to be a problem, and will continue to increase their counterintelligence work in order to try and evade government.
The report emphasizes that a part of the problem is globalization, which has seen the US relying increasingly on international bodies for supplies and services. Additionally, “trusted insiders who disclose sensitive US Government Information without authorization” are listed as being major threats to the country and its intelligence work.
“Cyber threats to US national and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact.” – p.5
Thankfully, cyber crime is unlikely to reach the levels seen in films, where massive disaster can be meted out with nothing more than a laptop, an internet connection, and a single, massive infiltration. Instead, the report claims that smaller, more frequent attacks are likely to continue to harm the American economy and the country’s security.
It’s the same groups as many of the other categories that will persist as threats in the online arena. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are all mentioned as being involved in some of the largest infiltrations in recent memory, including activity against American financial institutions and destructive attacks on corporations.