Today marks two decades since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the sign on the wall as you walk into the CIA’s Mission Center for Counterterrorism still reads, “Today is September 12, 2001.”
The sign represents the sense of urgency that the officers who work there still bring to the job of protecting the country, every day, from terrorism. The effort has been a remarkable success, considering that extremist terrorists have repeatedly attempted to attack the U.S. homeland. International terrorism is by no means abolished; vigilance is still required. But the nation is much safer today than it was before 9/11, in no small part because we put our political differences aside in the interest of national security.
That solidarity has been shaken by rising political polarization in recent years — a dangerous development because, today, the United States faces staggering global security challenges. National unity is essential as the United States responds to myriad threats, including Russia’s attempts to weaken us at home and abroad, Iran’s military adventurism and support for terrorism, and North Korea’s continuing nuclear threat.
But the most formidable challenge, perhaps the most daunting the United States has faced since World War II, is how to respond to the rise of China. Beyond wanting to restore its place as Asia’s dominant nation, China is seeking to become the most powerful and influential country in the world. Moreover, its economic success is allowing its authoritarian political system and mixed economic system to become a model for other countries. For the first time in decades, there is a worldwide debate about the best form of government and economic system.
China’s People’s Liberation Army is on a path to becoming a military power stronger than any the United States has encountered since the days of the Soviet Union. Beijing knows that any contest in Asia between China and an adversary, including the United States, would first be a naval- and air-combat engagement, and the Chinese have prepared accordingly, developing sophisticated capabilities at sea, in the air — and even in space. China’s military is also undergoing its most profound organizational reforms since the modern nation’s founding in 1949. Beijing is better capable of projecting military power than ever.
Beyond its growing military, China makes a particularly challenging adversary because it deploys legitimate economic and diplomatic tactics, such as free-trade agreements and development assistance, and illegitimate ones, such as intellectual property theft, economic coercion and the seizure of contested islands in the South China Sea.
The question of how an established power deals with the rise of a new global power is one at least as old as Thucydides. It is one the United States needs to answer, and answer soon. We have not yet found a long-term strategy. But the status quo is not an option because, every day, China grows in confidence that it can go its own way. Similarly, containment is not an option because China’s power is already too great and the rest of the world’s dependence on it too significant.
Some in the national-security community believe there is a deal to be had, one in which the United States would cede some of its global influence in exchange for Beijing’s agreement to adhere to the rules of the international order. Others, questioning whether China even needs a deal with the United States to become the world’s most powerful nation, suggest that we need to think about how we best manage ourselves as No. 2, as Britain did after World War II.
Personally, I remain hopeful that a deal may be possible — but it will take the United States convincing China that if it wants to succeed in the world, it still needs us. That will happen only if the United States plays hardball when China violates long-standing rules, but accepts and even rewards Beijing when it follows them.
Michael Morell is a contributing columnist covering intelligence and national security.