While there may be global issues with “shorter fuses,” the only person to serve as both head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency believes the most pressing question of the 21st century surrounds the relationship between the United States and China.
Speaking to members of the Alabama World Affairs Council at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus on Wednesday, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden cautioned that consequences at failing in that relationship would not be good.
“The most important question of the 21st century is the Sino-American relationship. Get that right, we will figure the other stuff out. Get that wrong, the other stuff won’t matter,” Hayden said. “I don’t think China is an enemy of the United States, and I don’t think there are any good reasons for China to ever be an enemy of the United States.”
China was one of five “potential consequences” facing the United States in 2018 and beyond as what Hayden called “a year of disruption.”
“2017 was a year of disruption, and let me be candid, we – the United States – were the disruptors,” he said. “There have been significant enough changes in American policy in the last year that we have created what my grandchildren would refer to as a ‘great disturbance in the Force.’ We can argue about the merit of those changes, and we should. Some of them may be good, some bad and some a jump ball, but I don’t think we can argue that we have not seen significant changes in America’s approach to things.”
Other consequences resulting from the disruptions caused by the United States include North Korea, Iran, terrorism and Russia, according to Hayden.
“The first consequence that is coming down the pike at us is North Korea,” he said. “This consequence is getting worse, and it is becoming more imminent. The President has amped up the pressure on North Korea. Frankly, I think he has done it unartfully at times, but I get the amping up of the pressure. This is a conscious policy on the part of the United States because we knew where this was going and where it was going was where we really don’t want to be. Unfortunately, I don’t know that we can really affect where it is going.”
Contrary to the labels sometimes placed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Hayden said no one within the intelligence community believes him to be irrational.
“In fact, we think he is absolutely, coldly calculating,” Hayden said. “This is all about regime survival, which in his country means his survival – it’s personal. He would have to be crazy to give up his weapons. On the other hand, the President has made it quite clear that the only acceptable solution with regard to Kim and his weapons is zero; he has to give them up. So, if you have North Korea policy over here – can’t live without them – and we’ve got American policy over here – they have to go to zero – you know those circles don’t overlap. This is a really difficult question. It may be more dangerous to try to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons than it will be to deal with a North Korea with nuclear weapons.”
In terms of terrorism, Hayden said the United States “is not in a bad place,” noting the last successful act of terrorism in North America occurred last Halloween when a truck drove up the bike path in Manhattan, killing eight people.
“That was a tragedy, but it was not a catastrophe,” he said of the incident. “With my background, when stuff like that happens, you think ‘what is the larger significance of that successful attack?’ The word that came to my mind was limits. It suggested to me that the attack pointed out the limits of the abilities of our enemies to do us harm. I think that attack also showed the limits in our abilities to stop that sort of attack. We have gotten to the limits to predict and intercept attacks of that nature without changing the nature of our society.”
In broad terms, Hayden said the world has been a more dangerous place than it currently is.
“Most of us in this room have lived in a more dangerous world, but I have never seen it more complicated and I have never seen it more immediate. What I mean by immediate is something happens over here and we see it, usually from some unhappy cell phone video, but it also actually affects us.”
The debate moving into the future, he said, is what role the United States will play in the world.
“What do we Americans now think is our appropriate role in a troubled world in which we are still fairly a unique nation? That is where we are and that is the ongoing national debate,” he said.
In addition to leading the CIA and NSA, Hayden served as the country’s first principal deputy director of national intelligence and the highest-ranking military intelligence officer in the country. He also served as commander of the Air Intelligence Agency and director of the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center and served in senior staff positions at the Pentagon, at U.S. European Command, at the National Security Council, and the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria. He was also the deputy chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces in South Korea.
Hayden has been a frequent expert and commentator on major news outlets and in top publications, valued for his expertise on intelligence matters like cyber security, government surveillance, geopolitics, and more. His recent memoir, “Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror,” has been a New York Times best-seller and was selected as one of the 100 most notable books of 2016.
The Alabama World Affairs Council sponsors lectures and programs on current and recent events of national and international interest throughout the year with the aim to increase individuals’ knowledge of world affairs and how they impact the United States. The Council also serves as a platform to showcase some of the world-class faculty at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air University. The Council has partnered with Troy University, bringing all Council events to the University’s Montgomery Campus.