From flashpoints in U.S.-Iran and U.S.-China relations to global public health and economic crises, 2020 featured an ever-evolving series of national security challenges. At home, nationwide protests against racial injustice and a polarized presidential election underscored ongoing deep social and political divides. CNAS experts are sharpening the conversation about the issues that defined 2020 and America's competitiveness at home and abroad. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore their ideas and recommendations.
Rising to the China Challenge
Throughout this year, the future of U.S.-China relations remained a critical issue for national security experts. In January, CNAS released a major independent assessment, “Rising to the China Challenge,” as required by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. The report prescribes a comprehensive approach to competition with China and offers nearly 100 specific, actionable policy recommendations across seven critical vectors of American competitiveness. “The United States and China,” the authors wrote, “are locked in strategic competition over the future of the Indo-Pacific—the most populous, dynamic, and consequential region in the world.”
Bolstering American Democracy Against Threats to the 2020 Elections
From August to September, CNAS released weekly commentaries exploring issues related to foreign interference in elections and election security in Europe and the United States. Expert authors examined Europe’s efforts to address foreign interference in its elections, the application of international law to election threats, and Poland’s work to counter disinformation. Shifting to the United States, commentaries from civil society and federal and state government officials addressed voter attitudes about foreign interference, election security, and fostering confidence in the November election.
The Next Defense Strategy
By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. From July to December 2020, CNAS released new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the last several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.
Tensions between the United States and Iran rose sharply in 2020. However, the international community may find Iran ready to consider a return to negotiations in 2021. Any U.S. administration seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran, though, will be forced to deal with a number of complicated challenges. In an August CNAS report, experts Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers, and Kaleigh Thomas outlined a phased approach for engaging Iran in 2021 that takes into account both regional and nuclear issues.
The U.S.-China Confrontation Is Not Another Cold War. It’s Something New.
"Cookie-cutter Cold War policies—such as a counter-China military alliance, a geographic containment strategy or all-out economic warfare—are as ill-suited as they are unlikely to succeed," Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner write in The Washington Post. "Nor is the answer to fan fears of a looming Cold War and urge Washington to ease up on competition with China. Beijing’s ambitions are increasingly global and at odds with the United States, and Washington needs an approach that factors in this new reality."
It's Not Just the WHO: How China Is Moving on the Whole U.N.
According to an essay in POLITICO Magazine by Kristine Lee, "Governments across Asia and the West remain preoccupied with containing the spread of the virus as Covid-19 ravages their economies and populations. But once the crisis eases, the pandemic may provide a moment of reckoning for both Beijing and the U.N."
The Pandemic and the Protests: Necessity and Perception of the National Guard
Expert Nathalie Grogan writes in Policy Perspectives, "Understanding the role of the National Guard and the value it contributes to its communities and our nation's common defense will help to ameliorate some overwhelming fears. The role of the National Guard during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests has called attention to a component of the armed forces that is often forgotten, though present in American communities. Federal activation over local concerns threatens the perception of the National Guard among these communities."
COVID-19 and Illicit Finance in the Cyber Domain
In a CNAS commentary, experts Yaya J. Fanusie and Sam Dorshimer write, "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major economic disruptions and forced large amounts of financial activity online. Illicit actors are likely to take advantage of the rapid shift to digital transactions and virtual business environments, requiring law enforcement and national security officials to address more cyber-enabled operations."
On Iran, the Next Administration Must Break With the Past
"Only nine months ago, the United States and Iran nearly went to war," Elisa Catalano Ewers, Ilan Goldenberg, and Kaleigh Thomas wrote in Foreign Affairs this October. "Even with simultaneous public health and economic crises dominating today’s agenda, that sobering fact should make Iran an early priority for a new U.S. administration in 2021. In order to relieve tensions, the next U.S. administration will need to engage Iran in renewed diplomacy. But successful diplomacy with Iran will not come easily."
How To Avoid Becoming a Misinformation Superspreader
"At every level of American political life, the 2020 elections are not only testing social media companies’ ability to police their platforms, but social media users’ capacity and willingness to show restraint online," Megan Lamberth, Chris Estep, and Martijn Rasser warn in Inkstick. "Both during and after this fraught set of events, every American must embrace their role as a digital citizen by exercising caution and restraint when creating, consuming, and sharing online content."
In the News
Featuring commentary and analysis by Susanna V. Blume, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Kayla M. Williams, and Carrie Cordero.
About the Sharper Series
The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.
Sign up to receive the latest analysis from the CNAS expert community on the most important issues facing America's national security.
More from CNAS
ReportsEsports and the Military
Executive Summary Electronic sports, known as esports, are video games played like competitive sports on viewing platforms. Esports are a developing market with a significant ...
By Elizabeth Howe, Elena LoRusso & Emma Moore
CommentaryCuba Needs a Free Internet
The online tug of war between dictator and dissident is nothing new. But the nature of that war is changing, and tomorrow’s digital battles will feature greater decentralizati...
By Richard Fontaine & Kara Frederick
CommentaryThe United States Can’t Afford the Brutal Price of Chinese Solar Panels
Buying Chinese solar panels to reduce emissions is like using gas to put out a fire....
By Henry Wu
CommentaryIsrael’s growing ties to China are testing its relationship with the U.S.
As a sovereign, high-tech, democratic powerhouse, Israel has a fundamental stake in the contest between China and the free world....
By David Feith