General Dunford is Right about Russia, but not because of their Nukes

July 13, 2015

During his Senate confirmation hearing to replace Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford was asked his opinion of the most serious threat facing the United States today. Given the continuing chaos across Syria and Iraq, one could easily assume his response would be “the Islamic State.” Another easy answer might have been China, especially considering its aggressive moves in the South China Sea and its proven ability to conduct costly cyberattacks on U.S. commercial and government computer networks. Conversely, the nominee for the nation’s top military position might have gone with something a little more unconventional, such as climate change.

But General Dunford didn’t choose any of these — instead, his answer was Russia. This may have come as a surprise to some. But when pressed by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin to expand upon that response, Dunford cited a rather obvious reason for why Russia is at the top of his list. Specifically, he noted Russia’s nuclear arsenal makes it the only country in the world that poses an existential threat to the United States, and that its behavior lately has been “alarming.”

Notably, Secretary of State John Kerry publically disagreed with this assessment. This difference of opinion likely has less to do with a considered critique of Dunford’s analysis and more to do with the fact that Kerry is teamed with not just Russia, but China as well, in trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran at the moment.

Despite what may have been poor timing, the nominee was quite right that Russia’s nuclear arsenal could pose an existential threat, and Moscow’s recent behavior is problematic to say the least. However, these are not the reasons why Russia should be at the top of the threat list. The primary reason that Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security today is because of its proven ability to hold at risk vital U.S. interests in the three most strategically important regions of the world — Europe, East Asia, and the petroleum producing areas of the Middle East.

Of the top 15 U.S. trading partners today — a group that accounts for nearly 75 percent of all U.S. imports and exports — 11 are located in Europe or East Asia. With the exception of China, these countries also share most U.S. values and norms. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States has established treaty-based defensive alliances with nearly all of these countries. U.S. collective defense arrangements with allies in Europe and East Asia are not based on altruism, history, or institutional inertia — instead, they are vital to the U.S. economy and hence the American way of life.

Meanwhile, the unfolding fracking revolution is reducing American exposure to the vagaries of foreign petroleum suppliers, as well as revitalizing American manufacturing and contributing significantly to the ongoing economic upswing. However, the most important American trading partners in Europe and East Asia are still heavily reliant on petroleum products from the Middle East, so even as the United States becomes less so, these countries remain tied to the region. Moreover, oil is a global commodity. A supply disruption in say, Kuwait, affects the price of oil everywhere.

Foreign fighter attacks in Tunisia and France, as well as Islamic State ties to Boko Haram in Nigeria, may prompt some to conclude that the Islamic State has the ability to threaten American and allied interests around the globe. In reality, this seems open to debate and perhaps the most that can be proven conclusively at this point is that the Islamic State has the ability to inspire globally. In any case, the terrorism challenge it poses is not as potentially strategically decisive as Russia’s behavior. China’s actions in both the East and South China Seas clearly threaten stability in East and Southeast Asia. However, China poses virtually no threat to U.S. interests in Europe or the Middle East.

Russia, unlike the Islamic State or China, is the only entity on the planet that has the proven ability to decisively threaten American vital interests in all three of the regions most important to the United States, in part because Russia is physically connected to them. Certainly, Russia’s military stockpile of roughly 4,500 nuclear weapons appears threatening, but ultimately these weapons are only one tool in the service of Russian national security policy.

From Washington’s perspective, the most compelling aspect of Russia’s security policy is its zero-sum nature, a stark alternative to the West’s positive-sum approach, pursued to great success in most of Europe over the last several decades. To a large extent, Moscow’s zero-sum approach to national security is a function of Russia’s historical geopolitical position, with potential adversaries on three sides — Germanic peoples to the west, Muslims to the south, and Chinese and Japanese to the east. Under these circumstances, domestic political incentives appear to favor zero-sum approaches in national security. And the sooner the United States learns how to compete with Russia in a zero-sum context, the more effective it will be in responding to Gen. Dunford’s concerns.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is the founding editor of and a frequent contributor to the SSI Live podcast series, and you can follow him at @JohnRDeni.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff