Conclusion: Global Threat Level
China's provocations, North Korea's missile programs and Af-Pak instability combined to elevate the threat score in Asia over last year.
America and its interests face challenges around the world from countries and organizations that have (1) interests that conflict with those of the U.S., (2) sometimes hostile intentions toward the U.S., and in some cases, (3) growing military capabilities. The government of the United States faces the constant challenge of employing the right mix of U.S. diplomatic, economic, public information, intelligence, and military capabilities, sometimes alone but more often with allies, to protect and advance U.S. interests.
In Europe, Russia remains the primary threat to American interests. The 2016 Index, like the previous year’s Index, assessed the threat emanating from Russia as: a behavior score of “aggressive” and a capability score of “gathering.” Russia has continued to support separatist movements in Ukraine, has engaged in massive pro-Russia propaganda campaigns internal to Ukraine and in other Eastern European countries, and over the past year has performed a series of provocative military exercises and training missions that are viewed as warning signals to neighboring countries.
In the Middle East, Iran has long been the state actor most hostile to American interests. The 2016 Index assessed Iran’s behavior as “aggressive” and capability as “aspirational,” the same scores as the 2015 Index. Of note since publication of the 2015 Index, Iran has moved closer to becoming a nuclear power as a consequence of its negotiations with the U.S., has continued to back Houthi rebels in Yemen in what some consider a proxy war between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors, has continued to exert influence in the region through its backing of the Assad regime and Hezbollah, and has deepened its involvement in the instability of Iraq by providing direct support to Shia militias.
Also in the Middle East, a broad array of terrorist groups, most notably ISIS and the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah, are the most hostile of any of the global threats to America examined in the Index. They also, however, are evaluated as among the least capable. In 2015, the threat posed by ISIS has increased dramatically through a combination of highly publicized acts of brutality, territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and aggressive campaigns both for recruiting and for inciting “lone wolf” attacks around the globe.
In Asia, China represents a degree of provocation that the 2016 Index classifies as “aggressive,” the same as the 2015 assessment. Since the 2015 assessment, China has developed islands on reefs in international waters that it claims as sovereign territory, positioning military equipment on some of them. By contrast to the principal state-based threat in the Middle East, however, China represents a “gathering” threat with a fuller range of capabilities that could be used in ways that are contrary to American interests, evidenced most notably by its continued military buildup.
North Korea’s level of behavior in this edition was raised to “hostile” from the previous edition’s “aggressive,” driven by the Pyongyang regime’s cyber attack on Sony and continued provocative actions on the Korean peninsula. The 2016 Index also assessed North Korea’s capability level as increasing due to developments in its missile technology.
The terrorist threats emanating from the Afghanistan–Pakistan region continue to be viewed as “aggressive” in the 2016 Index. Cross-border attacks, continued aggression of groups such as the Taliban and LeT, and the appearance of ISIS as a contributor to Afghanistan’s security woes contributed to this assessment. The capability score for the region’s terrorist threat has increased to “gathering” from “capable,” mostly because the region’s weakening governing structures have helped to make it a hotbed of terrorist activity.
Just as there are American interests that are not covered by this Index, there may be additional threats to American interests that are not identified here. The Index focuses on the more apparent sources of risk and those in which the risk is greater.
Compiling the assessments of these threat sources, the 2016 Index rates the overall global threat environment as “aggressive” and “capable” in the areas of threat actor behavior and material ability to harm U.S. security interests, respectively, leading to an aggregated threat score of “elevated.” This score is the same as the inaugural 2015 Index; however, it is slightly higher than in 2015, suggesting that if certain factors do not reverse course, the overall threat generated from Asia could rise to the level of “high” in the near future.
Our combined score for threats to U.S. vital interests can be summarized thus: