America has entered an age of danger that may come to rival anything in its history, Andrew Hoehn and Thom Shanker argue in a new book. Yet even as the nation faces a growing array of threats, from cyber attacks to climate change, it still relies on a national security system that was built for the Cold War and has been focused on terrorism.
That system “needs an overhaul,” Hoehn and Shanker write, “a retooling that rivals the major changes made at other critical turning points in history,” such as after World War II. Chapter by chapter, they lay out the risks that system needs to anticipate—adversaries like Russia and China, but also mounting threats from germs, storms, and new technologies.
The book is based on dozens of interviews Hoehn and Shanker conducted with top national security leaders, as well as their own experiences inside the Pentagon. Hoehn, RAND's senior vice president for research and analysis, previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Shanker, now the director of the Project for Media and National Security, is a former national security and foreign policy editor at The New York Times. He coauthored the New York Times bestseller Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.
Their new book, Age of Danger: Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons, and New Threats, went on sale in late spring.
What got this project rolling?
Andrew Hoehn A few times a year, Thom and I would sit down and have lunch, just catching up. On one of those occasions, we were lamenting that, for all the enormous strength and power and capability of this country, many problems were getting worse, not better. We thought, well, maybe there's a story here. We decided we would sit down and talk to smart people about what we were sensing, this mounting set of dangers.
Thom Shanker We first began focusing on problems that aren't getting enough attention. We called them ticking time bombs. And initially, we thought that would be our book: a list of these ticking time bombs for which we aren't prepared. But we realized a book like that could be an infinite number of pages long. So we tried to come up with an analytical approach that would help America prepare for the problems we identified but also problems we couldn't possibly predict.
What was the main message you took from those conversations you were having?
Hoehn We need a more expansive definition of what constitutes national security. We ended every one of our conversations with people in national security, in the Intelligence Community, with the same question: What worries you the most? This is starting in 2017, 2018. And more than a few times, people would look at us and say, 'There's a pandemic coming, and we aren't ready.' We knew the challenge that China poses, the challenge that Russia poses. But those challenges alone don't explain why we feel less secure, even in the most powerful country on Earth.
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Shanker The attacks on 9/11 gave the U.S. national security machine a pointed focus on terrorism. Compare that with our experience with COVID. A million people have died, the death toll is still rising, and this nation never went on a true war footing. Disease doesn't get the same attention and funding as combat, and that's a problem. We need to redefine national security to include health security, data security, food security, climate security. If it's not another pandemic coming, it will be one of those other threats, and we need a broader set of tools.
How do you widen the scope without losing focus?
Hoehn We've got the institutions, we've got most of the pieces we need—but we need to draw the connections. After 9/11, we brought the FBI and the CIA together, among others, in the National Terrorism Center so they could talk to each other. We need to think similarly about health preparedness or cyber preparedness. We've got to build that connective tissue—not just across the federal government, the military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but also across state and local governments and the private sector. The military learned this when it started creating standing joint task forces. They come together, they work on plans, they go through routine training and exercises. That's how you do it. That's how you begin to build readiness for these other threats that we've identified.
How did you land on Age of Danger as the title for your book?
Shanker We are approaching a period when the United States has two nuclear rivals with arsenals that could more or less end our society as we know it. I'm not sure we have the tools for that. Diseases—against humans, but also against our food supply—can travel farther, faster. The internet has brought some good information and lots of bad information. So I truly think an argument can be made that there's never been an age of greater danger for our nation.
Who do you see as the audience for this, and what do you want them to take away from it?
Shanker Andy and I are both creatures of Washington, D.C., but we really want this to be read by a general American population. We consciously tried to appeal to readers who don't think a lot about national security, because we wanted to help create an informed citizenry, better able to make decisions and vote and pay their taxes with some reason behind it. These decisions are too important to be left to the experts.
Hoehn We also wanted to give a sense that it's not hopeless. We could have written a parade of terribles, all these ticking time bombs, but we actually are hopeful that there are things we can do about it. This is the time to act. There's a quote from JFK that I'm quite fond of: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” Well, we need a new roof.
Obviously a lot has changed since you started this project. Are you more or less optimistic than when you went into it?
Hoehn I think the knowledge and awareness is there. I think there is a growing appreciation of what this moment really means for the country. If we allow polarization to blind us to what's really happening in the larger world, that's when I begin to worry. But I see hints of cooperation and progress in some of these areas, and we've got to highlight them and accelerate them, because this really is an age of danger.