Conclusion: Global Threat Level

Assessing Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

Conclusion: Global Threat Level

Nov 17, 2020 6 min read

Conclusion: Global Threat Level
The Heritage Foundation

America faces challenges to its security at home and interests abroad from countries and organizations that have:

  • Interests that conflict with those of the United States;
  • Sometimes hostile intentions toward the U.S.; and
  • In some cases, growing military capabilities that are leveraged to impose an adversary’s will by coercion or intimidation of neighboring countries, thereby creating regional instabilities.

The government of the United States constantly faces the challenge of employing—sometimes alone but more often in concert with allies—the right mix of diplomatic, economic, public information, intelligence, and military capabilities to protect and advance U.S. interests. Because this Index focuses on the military component of national power, its assessment of threats is correspondingly an assessment of the military or physical threat posed by each entity addressed in this section.

Russia remains the primary threat to American interests in Europe as well as the most pressing threat to the United States. Moscow remains committed to massive pro-Russia propaganda campaigns in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, has continued its active support of separatist forces in Ukraine, regularly performs provocative military exercises and training missions, and continues to sell and export arms to countries that are hostile to U.S. interests (its sale of the S-400 air defense system to Turkey is a prime example). It also has increased its investment in the modernization of its military and has gained significant combat experience while continuing to sabotage U.S. and Western policy in Syria and Ukraine. The 2021 Index again assesses the threat emanating from Russia as “aggressive” in its behavior and “formidable” (the highest category on the scale) in its growing capabilities.

China, the most comprehensive threat the U.S. faces, remained “aggressive” in the scope of its provocative behavior and earns the score of “formidable” for its capability because of its continued investment in the modernization and expansion of its military and the particular attention it has paid to its space, cyber, and artificial intelligence capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army continues to extend its reach and military activity beyond its immediate region and engages in larger and more comprehensive exercises, including live-fire exercises in the East China Sea near Taiwan and aggressive naval and air patrols in the South China Sea. It has continued to conduct probes of the South Korean and Japanese air defense identification zones, drawing rebukes from both Seoul and Tokyo, and its statements about Taiwan and exercise of military capabilities in the air and sea around the island have been increasingly belligerent.

Iran represents by far the most significant security challenge to the United States, its allies, and its interests in the greater Middle East. Its open hostility to the United States and Israel, sponsorship of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and history of threatening the commons underscore the problem it could pose. Today, Iran’s provocations are of primary concern to the region and America’s allies, friends, and assets there. Iran relies heavily on irregular (to include political) warfare against others in the region and fields more ballistic missiles than any of its neighbors. Its development of ballistic missiles and its potential nuclear capability also make it a long-term threat to the security of the U.S. homeland. In addition, Iran has continued its aggressive efforts to shape the domestic political landscape in Iraq, adding to the general instability of the region. The 2021 Index extends the 2020 Index’s assessment of Iran’s behavior as “aggressive” and its capability as “gathering.”

North Korea’s military poses a security challenge for American allies South Korea and Japan, as well as for U.S. bases in those countries and on Guam. North Korean officials are belligerent toward the United States, often issuing military and diplomatic threats. Pyongyang also has engaged in a range of provocative behavior that includes nuclear and missile tests and tactical-level attacks on South Korea.

North Korea has used its missile and nuclear tests to enhance its prestige and importance domestically, regionally, and globally and to extract various concessions from the United States in negotiations on its nuclear program and various aid packages. Such developments also improve North Korea’s military posture. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies assess that Pyongyang has already achieved nuclear warhead miniaturization, the ability to place nuclear weapons on its medium-range missiles, and an ability to reach the continental United States with a missile. This Index therefore assesses the overall threat from North Korea, considering the range of contingencies, as “testing” for level of provocation of behavior and “gathering” for level of capability.

In the Afghanistan–Pakistan (AfPak) region, non-state terrorist groups pose the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland and the overall stability of the South/Southwest Asia region. Pakistan represents a paradox: It is both a security partner and a security challenge. Islamabad provides a home and support to terrorist groups that are hostile to the U.S., to other U.S. partners in South Asia like India, and to the government in Afghanistan, which is particularly vulnerable to destabilization efforts. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are already among the world’s most unstable states, and the instability of the former, given its nuclear arsenal, has a direct bearing on U.S. security. Afghanistan’s inability to control many parts of its territory and Pakistan’s willingness to host and support terrorist groups help to facilitate the operations of such entities as al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and affiliates of the Islamic State. This Index therefore assesses the overall threat from AfPak-based actors to the U.S. and its interests as “testing” for level of provocation of behavior and “capable” for level of capability.

A broad array of terrorist groups remain the most hostile of any of the threats to America examined in the Index. The primary terrorist groups of concern to the U.S. homeland and to Americans abroad are the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and its branches remain active and effective in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and the Sahel of Northern Africa. Though no longer a territory-holding entity, ISIS also remains a serious presence in the Middle East, in South and Southeast Asia, and throughout Africa, posing threats to stability as it seeks to overthrow governments and impose an extreme form of Islamic law. Its ideology continues to inspire attacks against Americans and U.S. interests. Fortunately, Middle East terrorist groups remain the least capable threats facing the U.S., but they cannot be dismissed.

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. This Index focuses on the more apparent sources of risk and those that appear to pose the greatest threat.

Compiling the assessments of these threat sources, the 2021 Index again 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.”

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Our combined score for threats to U.S. vital interests can be summarized as:

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