Challenging the Lion

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb to every battle.
—Sun Tzu [1]

The risk of violent conflict is growing in several regions of the world, which threatens U.S. national security interests and may trigger a military response in the near future. While foreign crises can arise in unpredictable ways, in many instances the warning signs are evident. Prior to conflict escalation, the opportunity exists to take preventive action to lessen the risk of events transitioning in an undesirable direction. In today’s global environment, security risks increase in a variety of ways because of coups d’état, security crises, cessations of political dynasties, and less predictable environments. With violent conflict opportunities increasing throughout the international system, state and non-state actors can impact societies in a manner that challenges U.S. national security interests as a global superpower.

Competing Powers

To counter many of the threats, the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) articulates how instruments of national power can be employed to achieve objectives contributing to U.S. national security interests appraisal of U.S. national security interests, the global security environment, and challenges to U.S. interests.[2] The security challenges faced today may be less existential than during the Cold War, but they are dramatically more complex. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy states a commitment to engaging weak and failing states perceived as breeding grounds of conflict and threats to regional and global security:

Power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state. Governments once able to operate with few checks and balances are increasingly expected to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors. They are contending with citizens enabled by technology, youth as a majority in many societies, and a growing middle class with higher expectations for governance and economic opportunity. While mostly positive, these trends can foster violent non-state actors and instability especially in fragile states where governance is weak or has broken down or invite backlash by authoritarian regimes determined to preserve the power of the state.[3]

The complexity of challenges attempting to counter the U.S.’s national security interests result from societies transitioning beyond the satisfaction of basic needs to displaying an increased craving for transparency and accountability, placing increasing demands on their government, and becoming more restless.[4] In these societies, the confluence of massive population growth in the urban areas of littoral regions, hyper-connectivity, increased natural disasters, and the rise of non-state actors has the potential to create conflicts. Elaborating on the challenges of competing societies, the 2017 NSS states:

China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to...grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people. Transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations, are actively trying to harm Americans. While these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.[5]

The global landscape portrays the symbolic lion of the U.S. distracted by the flies of five strategic challenges: the four potential state competitors of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, and the non-state challenge of violent extremist organizations (commonly referred as the 4+1).[6] These four countries have developed methods for challenging U.S. primacy below a threshold that could trigger an overt U.S. response.[7] The four countries and potential extremist organizations focus U.S. national power entities relative to plans, capability development, modernization, and intelligence collection requirements. Each of these nations leverages economic coercion, political influence, unconventional warfare, information operations, cyber operations, and military posture to advance their national interests. The result of these clashes competes with a military dimension falling below the threshold, which would trigger a traditional, and decisive, military response. In this scenario, the lion of the U.S. is bigger, stronger, and technologically superior, but the flies of the 4+1 project power are dispersed, agile, creative, and challenging America’s global dominance.

Diplomacy’s Long Road

  U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv | Marc Israel Sellem

U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv | Marc Israel Sellem

Since 2002, the NSS has addressed the nexus between Western security and state failure by identifying insight to the conditions where the US would intervene in support of its vital national interests.[8] President George W. Bush made a case for preemptive military intervention in weak, failing, and rogue states to protect the security interests of the U.S. and its allies in his 2002 National Security Strategy and it was reaffirmed in the following 2006 NSS.[9] The 2002 NSS noted that weak and failed states pose as great a threat to the international order as do conquering states.[10]

The international community continues to accept imperfect peace processes that accompany failed transitions. The resolution of fragile states’ systems takes time. The 2011 World Bank Development Report proposes it takes 17 years on average to navigate from war to a peace agreement that includes sustainable institutions and order.[11] In 20 of the fastest-transitioning countries, it took an average of 17 years to draw the military out of politics, 20 years to achieve functioning bureaucratic quality, and 27 years to bring corruption under reasonable control.[12] Poor governance, weak national political institutions, economic inequality, and the rise of violent non-state actors undermine countries abilities to project authority.[13]

Competing in 2018

China continues to pursue an active foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region through competing territorial claims amongst its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to reorder the region in its favor enhanced by a growing military power. Russia seeks to restore its great power status by reinvesting in military capabilities and modernized forms of subversion enabled by cyber capabilities that creates an unstable Eurasia.[14] Meanwhile, North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program, public threats, defiance of the international community, confrontational military posturing, and cyber activities “pose a complex and increasingly grave national security threat.”[15] Iran continues to develop nuclear capable missiles, sponsor terrorism, and leading regional proxy wars that threaten the U.S. and its partners. Finally, violent extremist organizations are “crowd-sourcing their violence and franchising terror to small cells and independent followers, drawing on the power of social media and using secure, encrypted communications to conceal their plots” while exploiting new power vacuums.[16] The result is an unprecedented terror surge and the advance of more terrorist foot soldiers and safe havens than any time in modern history.

Although the 2017 NSS was recently released, the U.S. remains focused on protecting American interest despite increasing conflict opportunities throughout the international system while maintaining its position as a superpower. To counter elements of the 4+1, the U.S. will continue to integrate elements of national power to protect American interest, while coordinating with allies and partners under common interest to increase governmental capabilities to confront shared threats. Even though all security risks to national interest cannot be predicted, the U.S. lion intends to not succumb to weak or failing processes that challenge their global dominance.

Troy E. Mitchell, PhD is an officer in the United States Marine Corps and is a featured contributor for The Strategy Bridge. He currently serves as an exchange officer to the Australian Defence Force. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: North America, via NASA.


[1] Tzu, S. (2006). The Art of War. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, p.14.

[2] Department of Defense (2016, February 15). Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Retrieved from

[3] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2015). Washington DC: The White House. Retrieved from

[4] Council on Foreign Relations (Producer). (2015, January 14). What to Worry About in 2015 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

[5] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2017). Washington DC: The White House, pp.2-3.Retrieved from

[6] Dews, F. (2017, February 24). Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford on the “4+1 framework” and meeting transnational threats. Washington DC: Brookings Institute. Retrieved from

[7] Hamre, J.J. (2016, December 15). What are the main national security challenges facing the Trump administration? Washington DC: CSIS. Retrieved from

[8] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2002). National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2006). Washington DC: The White House. Retrieved from National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2010). Washington DC: The White House. Retrieved from National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2013). Washington DC: The White House. Retrieved from National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2015).

[9] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2002).

[10] Ibid.

[11] World Bank. (2011). World Development Report: Conflict, Security, and Development. Washington DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Coats, D. R. (2017, May 11). Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. Washington DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Retrieved from:

[14] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2017).

[15] Coats, D. R. (2017, May 11). 16.

[16] McCaul, M. (2016, September). A National Strategy to Win the War Against Islamist Terror. Homeland Security Committee, 5. Retrieved from: