Center for Strategic Communication

On Monday, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) released its Global Trends 2030 report, a quadrennial strategic assessment detailing long-term projections for the international security environment. The current report was authored with acknowledgement by the NIC that past analyses were conservative on particular issues, underestimating for example China’s rapid economic ascendancy and the pervasive global effects of climate change.

Though current forecasts cannot be guaranteed with 100% accuracy, the theme of political instability in the report is one the intelligence community should duly note and address through adjustments in analytical foci. Global Trends 2030 specifically cites instability in the Middle East and South Asia as central to international security as countries experience various stages of transition from autocracy to democracy. This is not necessarily a linear process, as many nations will ebb and flow between the two indefinitely.

So why should it be particularly noteworthy that the NIC’s report highlights political instability around the globe as a concern to Americans’ national security? Given that the $70-80 billion pot annually allocated to intelligence is sure to level off and potentially decline as we tackle a national budget deficit, an efficient distribution of resources will be paramount. Structural reorganizations such as the DIA’s initiative to create a Defense Clandestine Service should be weighed against threat projections before approval and implementation.

Global Trends 2030 suggests that perhaps intelligence estimates should increasingly be aimed at comprehension of political currents, and the foreign public opinion that drives protest and social upheaval. Americans have enough trouble understanding their own political system and predicting future elections and legislation; however, this is not a legitimate excuse not to train and develop specialists for analysis of foreign political and socioeconomic environments, in order to gauge their effects on national security.

Using a sample of countries in the media headlines for instability in recent weeks, it is relatively simple to gather why heightened analytical attention from the IC could enhance U.S. foreign policy. Using Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) – an accepted measure of governance and political stability – many of the nations in the midst of current crises score very poorly. For example, all of the countries on this list are in the bottom 40% of CPI rankings of 176 countries for 2012 (ranked from high to low):

The fact that all the above nations rank in the bottom 40% on the CPI index scale should be informative in itself, but the gross CPI scores may be even more telling. The CPI score “relates the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians by business people and country analysts.” A score of 100 would indicate a highly clean government whereas zero would evidence complete corruption.

All of the countries currently experiencing considerable degrees of civil turmoil score 34/100 or below, with Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia measuring the worst at less than 20/100 respectively. A poor CPI rating does not necessarily preclude stability, as relatively stable states like Russia rank poorly (t-133/176 rank; 28/100 gross score). Hence, causality cannot be drawn to universally declare that intelligence estimates should be directly at political estimates for countries below a certain arbitrary level, yet there is clearly a strong correlation between instability and violence, as recent media reports on the aforementioned states in the table will verify. Mali, Egypt, and Syria, those countries with the highest CPI scores currently in the headlines, are all arguably on the verge of collapse. Recent ASP reports have explored various elements of stability and security from Iran to Somalia to Yemen.

What are the implications of the correlation between political instability and national security threats to be addressed by the intelligence community? The assertion that terrorism and other forms of insurgency are non-state, sub-state, or transnational threats is true, but that does not mean that national politics and social instability do not influence these movements. If anything, transnational adversaries will leverage public opinion surrounding instability to fuel their causes.

Along the above spectrum, the intelligence community deals centrally in the intermediary realms. Though counterterrorism has been a central focus since 9/11 (and rightly so), respected intelligence veterans like Paul Pillar and Robert Gates favor approaches toward the right side of this scale, to the extent external circumstances permit. Pillar advises that one of the most vital components of counterterrorism is cooperation with other governments and the trust developed through such activity. This recommendation does not lend itself to the increasingly relevant unilateral policy of lethal drone strikes employed against America’s suspected enemies. Reliance on drones verges on what Gates deemed the “creeping militarization” of US foreign policy which he recommends we counteract through a renewed focus on diplomacy. Engagement through diplomacy is precisely the type of policy favored by ASP board member and former Senator Chuck Hagel in response to the Global Trends 2030 report.

In analytical capability, for example, the CIA should shift back toward its traditional “Ivy League-esque” research orientation and away from paramilitary search-and-destroy missions that now characterize counterterrorism. Intelligence should seek to understand the underlying drivers of turmoil and resultant radicalism, not just imminent threats. There will, of course, be instances where covert applications of power are deemed necessary to accomplish critical national security objectives. The US’s limited engagement with Pakistan surrounding the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden is a fitting example. However, in weighing the merits of unilateral power vis-à-vis long-term foreign stability through intelligence cooperation and diplomacy, the latter set is more favorable.

Pillar reminds policymakers that intelligence is but a tool in their arsenal, but the ultimate decisions to act on estimates fall to elected officials. When intelligence is provided as designed – objectively – its provision alone should not preordain a particular policy. Enacted policies are based on the strategic interpretations of leadership, and they should avoid using the IC as a scapegoat for miscalculations like those leading to public outcry over Benghazi. A renewed focus on analysis of political trends will lay the proper foundation to restore the objective aim of intelligence.

Americans should view our choices to project power globally through the lens of reciprocity. As the remaining international leader still a step ahead of the multipolar world forecasted by Global Trends 2030, it is ideal for the U.S. to set favorable precedents now before other state or non-state actors develop parallel capabilities in surveillance and remote lethality. A shift toward sociopolitical analysis and diplomacy – softer manifestations of power – is in our strategic interest.