Forum dissects today’s national security landscape

Andrew Hoehn and Thom Shanker led the March 8 Salisbury Forum. The two reviewed the modern climate surrounding national security and global threats.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Forum dissects today’s national security landscape

FALLS VILLAGE — Andrew Hoehn and Thom Shanker said the U.S. needs more robust and responsive intelligence and action “machines” to respond effectively to global threats.

The two spoke at the Salisbury Forum Friday, March 8, at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. Alex Ward moderated.

Hoehn is a former deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and currently senior vice president for research and analysis at the RAND Corporation. Shanker is a veteran reporter for the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Ward is a retired New York Times book editor.

Hoehn and Shanker just published a book: “Age of Danger: Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons, and New Threats.”

There was some initial fiddling around with microphones and positioning of armchairs, with audience participation. (“Speak up!”)

Logistics settled, Ward asked how the authors got together.

Hoehn said he met Shanker when he was at the Pentagon and Shanker was working for the Times.

He said he grew to respect Shanker’s reporting and found him trustworthy.

“He wasn’t about ‘gotchas.’ He was fair and accurate.”

When Hoehn moved to RAND, the two stayed in touch.

Asked about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Shanker called him, and post-Soviet Russia, “the threat hiding in plain sight.”

“Russia became a country the West ignored” after the collapse of the Soviet Union — “a gas station with rockets.”

He said a 2007 speech by Putin at the Munich Security Conference told the world “exactly what he was going to do.”

Acknowledging the peril of making comparisons to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, he said Putin’s speech was like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in spelling out each man’s plans.

“Everybody wrote it off as bluster” aimed at a domestic audience. “And a year later, he invaded Georgia.”

Shanker said that after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on 9/11, the U.S. became focused on terrorism to the detriment of other threats.

He compared Putin to a Russian czar rather than a general secretary of the Communist Party. And he said the West “ignored Putin getting angrier and angrier.”

Hoehn explained the concept of “warning machines” and “action machines.”

The warning machine looks at all the “little pieces of information” that come in from numerous sources. The action machine, acting on the intelligence, comes up with a response.

Problems arise when the two machines aren’t working properly together.

Hoehn said that in the two years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he and Shanker spoke with intelligence and public health officials and asked what worried them the most.

The answer was a pandemic, which nobody thought the U.S. was prepared for.

At the time, Hoehn concluded, “We don’t have a warning machine or an action machine.”

Shanker added, “We never defined health as a national security problem before.”

And: “We need to define national security away from problems we solve by blowing them up.”

Ward asked if the country is now ready for another pandemic.

Hoehn replied. “Ready? No. A work in progress? Yes.”

He said strategic planners should use the war game model for identifying possible responses and problems in the event of another pandemic.

Asked about the current situation with Ukraine, the “fraying” of support for aid to Ukraine in the American political world, and Putin’s recent rattling of the nuclear saber, Shanker said “I’d never bet against anything he says.”

But he said he found it hard to see the tactical advantage Putin would gain by deploying nuclear weapons.

Shanker pointed out that support for Ukraine comprises about 5% of the defense budget, and expressed concern about shifting American attitudes.

“You don’t have to be partisan to say that this country used to support freedom and independence. There’s a dysfunctional situation in Washington, and both sides are guilty.”

The entire discussion can be seen at www.salisburyforum.org

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