Why Biden’s Afghanistan decision wasn’t the most important national security story of the week

A new assessment on global threats was more significant and in touch with what most Americans see in the world

Like young children playing a soccer game huddled around the ball, America’s media ran towards Afghanistan for at least a few hours this week.

That’s expected: when the President of the United States takes time out of his busy schedule to say something, we all pay attention. But in many ways the “big” announcement on Afghanistan was much ado about nothing and obscured a bigger story happening at the same time. 

Take a step back from a lot of the noise on U.S. foreign policy generated by the political commentary industrial complex on any given day. This week the hot-button issues are Biden’s decision on Afghanistan and a sabotage incident at a nuclear facility in Iran, both important and complicated issues, but often discussed in a narrow, tactical way. In the broader scheme of things, the Afghanistan move and Iran events are blips on the bigger screen of the international system and how America relates to it.

This month, the U.S. intelligence community released its annual global threat assessment, an unclassified report released to the public that offers the collective analysis of America’s 18 intelligence agencies on what matters, what doesn’t, and what to look for in the years to come.  Since the Trump administration failed to release one last year, this is the first public global threat assessment in two years.

It’s essential reading for anyone interested in global issues, even if it doesn’t contain any state secrets or tidbits stolen from the phone conversations or emails of some foreign official. Why it’s essential: it usually provides a balanced assessment of thousands of people who serve the public in the shadows thinking about trends and events and telling America’s leaders what it all means and why it matters for U.S. national security. 

The report’s introduction makes clear that it is “not an exhaustive assessment of all global challenges,” and it offers a subtle reminder to America’s adversaries and competitors, saying the public report “notably excludes assessments of U.S. adversaries’ vulnerabilities.”  (Interpretation: we know more about our enemies than we’re telling you hear.)

The U.S. intelligence community produces analysis like this every day, usually in the classified realm – but in the rare instances these assessments are made public, they offer some important clues on the issues on the United States government’s agenda. This week, Congress is holding public hearings with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on the assessment. 

Here’s the thing about this year’s global threat assessment that stood out: it’s actually something the vast majority of Americans will understand and appreciate, at least based on recent public opinion polls looking at attitudes towards global issues.

In broad strokes, the threat assessment lays out a set of challenges that are widely recognized by most Americans, on five key issues: 

1.  China’s ambitious effort to reshape the world in its own image. The global threat assessment outlines China’s multifaceted strategy to reshape the international system and present an alternative to America’s political, economic, and ideological model.  It further states that China “increasingly is a near peer competitor.”  In multiple public opinion surveys, Americans across the political spectrum recognize the challenges China presents, even though there are partisan and generational differences about the best way to respond to these challenges. In one survey, a majority of American voters (56 percent) categorized China as a “competitor,” when asked to choose from “mostly a friend,” “mostly an enemy” or “mostly a competitor.:

2. Russia’s termite-like role in chipping away at the international system.  The second main section of the global threat assessment details Russia’s multiple efforts to use its military capabilities as well as influence operations –both online and off –to undermine US influence, develop new international norms and partnerships, and divide Western countries and weaken Western alliances.

As with China, the American public expresses broad skepticism about the role Russia plays in the world. However, Russia has become a much more partisan issue in U.S. domestic politics with some Republican voters shifting towards more positive views during the past five years – for a number of reasons.

3.  The threats posed by Iran and North Korea to global and regional security. The global threat assessment lays out in sharp detail the negative facts about these two countries and the roles they play in undermining security in their immediate regions and more broadly.  Here again, the American public understands what the U.S. intelligence community is saying about both countries – three quarters of American voters (76%) put North Korea in the “mostly an enemy” camp, and 71 percent say the same about Iran. 

4. New security challenges from technology and cyber. The global threat assessment also reiterates a common theme from previous assessments of the past decade: the rapid evolution of the world’s technology and cyber landscape. On this front, Americans also get the challenge – and there’s little partisan division on the issue from most public opinion polls. What’s missing is a game plan from their leaders to deal with cybersecurity and the national security challenges posed by new technologies. 

5. Threats that know no national borders such as COVID-19 and climate change. In addition to the new technology and cyber challenges that cut across other areas of the global threat assessment, the report analyzes the economic and social effects of global issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change and its impact on migration.  On issues like climate change and immigration, stark partisan divisions exist, particularly on climate change and immigration. But more than a year into the pandemic, most Americans appreciate the importance of these transnational threats, even though they may not quite fully understand the interlinked nature of all of these challenges.

This year’s global threat assessment paints a gloomy and troubling picture, and recent public opinion surveys show that most Americans understand what’s going on in the world overall. That’s why President Biden’s announcement today on Afghanistan and the media coverage was a missed opportunity: it mostly took America to the past, with recycled debates the country has been having about Afghanistan and other conflicts for decades now.

Most Americans are looking for a new story and the Biden team is putting one together. But as the Obama administration learned, it is difficult to pivot to the wider competition in the world when America remains stuck in the past and isn’t fully honest with itself about the risks that still remain in places like Afghanistan.