Conclusion: Global Threat Level
America and its interests face challenges around the world from countries and organizations that have:
- Interests that conflict with those of the U.S.;
- Sometimes hostile intentions toward the U.S.; and
- In some cases, 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 2017 Index assessed the threat emanating from Russia as a behavior score of “aggressive” and a capability score of “formidable,” the highest category on the scale. Russia has increased its support to 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, particularly the Baltics. It also has increased its investment in modernizing its military and has gained significant combat experience while supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In the Middle East, Iran continues to be the state actor most hostile to American interests. The 2017 Index assessed Iran’s behavior as “aggressive,” and its capability has increased to “gathering.” Since publication of the 2015 Index, Iran has methodically moved closer to becoming a nuclear power, successfully maneuvering to stabilize its program via the nuclear agreement negotiated 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 further 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 2016, the threat posed by ISIS 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. Terrorism in the region reached new “lows” in atrocities as ISIS and other terrorist groups redoubled their efforts to solidify and expand their control of sub-regions.
In Asia, China remained “aggressive” in its provocative behavior. China moved to militarize the islands that it built on reefs in international waters, continuing to claim them. It also has continued to field new equipment, most notably in naval power, perceived to be most important in its efforts to shape the maritime domain of the western Pacific in line with its interests.
North Korea’s level of behavior dropped back to “aggressive” from the “hostile” level noted in the 2016 Index. The 2017 Index assesses North Korea’s capability level as remaining at “gathering” as Pyongyang continues to develop and refine its missile technology, especially in the area of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The terrorist threats emanating from the Afghanistan–Pakistan region subsided somewhat to “testing,” a notch down from the 2016 Index’s level of “aggressive.” The capability score for the region’s terrorist threat remained at “gathering.”
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 2017 Index rates the overall global threat environment as “aggressive” and “gathering” in the areas of threat actor behavior and material ability to harm U.S. security interests, respectively, leading to an aggregated threat score of “high.” This score is a full category worse than the 2016 Index assessment of “elevated,” driven by increases in the capability of Russia, Iran, and terrorist actors in the Middle East to harm U.S. national security interests.
Our combined score for threats to U.S. vital interests can be summarized thus: