National Security Strategies of the 21st Century: Five Minutes with Chuck Hagel

Before “The Global Future of Security,” an event hosted by Georgetown’s Global Futures Initiative, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to discuss how new technological and environmental concerns have transformed the international system and impacted U.S. national security strategy.

GJIA: Potential threats from non-state actors not only pose challenges to the national security apparatus, but also to the traditional system of state sovereignty and authority. How has the U.S. adapted its defense strategy to accommodate this new reality?

CH: A country’s national security apparatus is constantly adjusting – not only to adapt to current challenges, but also to anticipate new ones. Governments are not, nor are they capable of anticipating everything. The plethora of sophisticated technology that is now driving our world presents great opportunities for those in the general public to improve their lives. This is not without some risk, however, because people with different agendas can also use that technology for their own benefit.

Cybersecurity is a tangible example of the new kind of threat that has emerged as a result of technological change. It is not easy to stay ahead of potential threats and anticipate what defense may be required to deal with cyber-attacks. Right now, we are dealing with security risks of numerous dimensions, such as terrorism, threats of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, pandemic health issues, and severe economic downturns. It will get no less complicated in the future.

GJIA: After last year’s data breach at the Office of Personnel Management, where does state-sponsored hacking fall on the list of national security challenges, and what foreign policy tactics might help prevent these attacks?

CH: Foreign policy should always be the framework through which nations approach security. The more the U.S. can connect with the common interest of all nations — including China, Russia, and Iran — to neutralize any hostile endeavors of potential adversaries, the better. We can do this, we should be doing this, and we constantly are doing this. At the same time, a strong national defense strategy, which includes diplomacy, foreign policy, intelligence and information sharing, people to people programs, and cultural exchanges, must always be maintained. Furthermore, our objectives, resources, and strategies must match the mission of our security. We have used this collaborative architecture since World War II to not only advance our own interests, but also to advance our alliances and partnerships. The entire policy toolbox should be used toward securing both national security and economic growth, though such a task cannot be achieved unless it is framed within larger global economic interests.

GJIA: How substantial of a threat is an attack on a major U.S. financial institution, and are there ways that the government can work with the private sector to help prevent these occurrences?

CH: The private sector is most vulnerable to sophisticated and substantial cyber attacks. If there were to be a massive attack on one of our financial institutions, it would paralyze not only commerce in the U.S., but also the entire global economy. Furthermore, a successful attack on power grids could stop everything, from computers and satellites right down to the stoplights of individual communities. Cyber attacks could potentially throw the entire international system into tremendous chaos and disarray, without a country ever registering a single shot, moving one soldier, putting one airplane in the air, or moving a ship. It is a challenging threat because not only is it unpredictable, but there is also always an element of uncertainty as to who instigated it, especially with emerging state versus non-state conflicts.

One strategy that we need to pursue entails bridging the gap between our governmental resources and those of the private sector. Congress has been working toward a solution on this for some time, but lawmakers have failed to develop new regulation that facilitates government assistance to the private sector. The next president is going to have to make this a priority.

GJIA: Cyber attacks are not just carried out by states or groups of actors; with new technological advancements, these acts can now also be perpetrated by individuals. How important is international cooperation in addressing this, and in what ways can information sharing between countries best be facilitated?

CH: International cooperation is absolutely essential. The U.S. no longer lives in the world that we were fortunate to live in for 250 years by virtue of our geographic location: protected on the east and west coasts by two vast oceans and a very secure northern border. Even our southern border has never been a major problem for a prolonged period of time. Geography has been a very blessed thing, but those days are over. International cooperation and partnerships have become as essential as ever before for our own security.

After World War II, the U.S. constructed a national security architecture founded upon international relationships. Those are as important today, maybe even more so, than ever before. These alliances now require new and expansive thinking. Twenty years ago, cyber threats seemed like something from a fantasy space odyssey movie. Now, they are incredibly real, which is why the U.S. must constantly adapt to anticipate future cyber issues. No country can do it alone — it is a global problem that requires continued global cooperation to address.

GJIA: How important is energy in the context of national security?

CH: Energy is a critical component of national security. Without energy, there is no growth, no movement, no anything. Since World War II, certain nations and regions such as the Middle East, North Africa, and other areas have essentially been left behind by the rest of the international community. Some of this can be attributed to political dysfunction resulting in a lack of accountable and responsible governance; however, economic underdevelopment is also a key factor. Although there are a variety of reasons for underdevelopment in these countries, one has always remained very clear: energy.

As two billion more people populate the face of the Earth over the next thirty years, the type, quantity, and usage of energy by our citizens becomes more critical than ever before. The environment and energy policy are undoubtedly intertwined in the mix of issues that must be addressed on the security agendas of both the United States and other world nations alike.


Chuck Hagel served as the Secretary of Defense under President Obama from February 2013 to February 2015, after serving two terms in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Nebraska. During his time in the Senate, he was a senior member on the Senate Foreign Relations, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Intelligence Committees. He has also served as Co-Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Chairman of the Atlantic Council. Mr. Hagel currently serves as the Distinguished Executive in Residence at Georgetown University.