PRISM  Volume 9, no 2

PRISM Vol. 9, No. 2

(March 2021)

The global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 has catalyzed a re-examination of what national security consists of, and what responsibilities the world’s armed forces must or should assume to meet such non-military challenges. Yet the competition between the United States and its adversaries has intensified, requiring that the national security enterprise retain traditional capabilities while keeping up with the fierce pace of technological innovation. PRISM V.9,N.2 authors address the emerging challenges armed forces must meet, offer perspectives on competitors, and suggest major changes in the innovation ecosystem.

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More than 1,300 members of the Indiana National Guard assist with testing and other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Spc. Jules Iradukunda, Indiana National Guard, Oct. 30, 2020)

Natural Hazards and National Security: The COVID-19 Lessons

By David Omand

Natural hazards can have serious implications for national security. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how first-order challenges are created for our national security planners, not least maintaining SSBN and SSN submarine crew and air crew rosters during quarantine restrictions, as well as keeping forces operationally effective while establishing social distancing in supply, repair and support facilities, gyms, and mess halls. We must also expect our adversaries to try to exploit the dislocation such events cause to further their own agendas.

Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda,
Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed. (December 21, 2020 Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas)

The Military in the Time of COVID-19: Versatile, Vulnerable, and Vindicating

By Nina Wilén

Since the eruption of the world’s latest pandemic, COVID-19 in December 2019, militaries throughout the world have taken on a variety of unfamiliar domestic tasks—an arena which is usually reserved for internal security forces. In Peru the military called upon 16,000 reservists to help fight the pandemic—an exceptional move that did not even occur during the fight against the rebel group Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s. The Italian military found itself driving truckloads of deceased COVID-19 victims to mortuaries, provoking questions about possible post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). In Spain, the military has also drawn international attention, not only for its assistance in imposing national lockdowns, but moreover for the revealing uniforms, with deep v-neck shirts and leather suspenders. This prompted both comments from mainly female writers, reflecting on the physical attraction of the male soldiers, and a deeper and more critical discussion on the role of the Spanish military during the civil war and the succeeding dictatorship.

China and the United States are in a different game than the rising power/established power conflicts of the past. (image by Pixabay, January 20, 2017)

China and America: A New Game in a New Era

By William H. Overholt

China and the United States are in a different game than the rising power/established power conflicts of the past. Most analyses of such rivalries are based on pre–World War II history and fail to notice that the game changed radically after World War II. Sometimes when alterations are made in the rules or implements of a game, the risks and the optimal strategies change.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882,
prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. (MOCA: Museum of Chinese in America, May 11, 2011)

China and America: From Trade War to Race and Culture Confrontation

By Walter Woon

The Thucydides Trap is an intellectual trap for the unwary when uncritically applied to China. China is not a rising power; it is a returning power. The psychology is different. Misapprehending the nature of the problem will exacerbate it.

3D Rendering abstract technological digital city from data in cyberspace, information storage in the information space. (iStck photo: ID: 1071154136, by vitacopS)

Time for a New National Innovation System for Security and Prosperity

By Robert D. Atkinson

In his 1989 classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers Paul Kennedy wrote, “To be a Great Power—by definition, a state capable of holding its own against any other nation—demands a flourishing economic base.” Kennedy should have added, “an economic (and technology) base that is flourishing more than its competitors.”

(Mohammad Ali Dahaghin, February 19, 2020)

Iran’s Gray Zone Strategy: Cornerstone of its Asymmetric Way of War

By Michael Eisenstadt

Since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran has distinguished itself (along with Russia and China) as one of the world’s foremost “gray zone” actors. For nearly four decades, however, the United States has struggled to respond effectively to this asymmetric “way of war.” Washington has often treated Tehran with caution and granted it significant leeway in the conduct of its gray zone activities due to fears that U.S. pushback would lead to “all-out” war—fears that the Islamic Republic actively encourages. Yet, the very purpose of this modus operandi is to enable Iran to pursue its interests and advance its anti-status quo agenda while avoiding escalation that could lead to a wider conflict. Because of the potentially high costs of war—especially in a proliferated world—gray zone conflicts are likely to become increasingly common in the years to come. For this reason, it is more important than ever for the United States to understand the logic underpinning these types of activities, in all their manifestations.


A Friend to All is a Friend to None: Analysis of Russian Strategy in the Middle East

By Jason Hamilton, Rosemarie Wilde, and Jason Wimberly

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Russia has sought increased influence in the Middle East, rekindling relationships and building influence in Syria, Turkey, Libya, Israel, and elsewhere. The return of Russian influence puts pressure on U.S. interests in the region. In the increasingly complex security environment of today’s world defined by transregional and multi-functional challenges across all domains, the United States is constrained in the Middle East by both available resources and an American public exhausted by military efforts in the region. America must make difficult choices and prioritize efforts. This article analyzes Russia’s strategy in the region, framed by the ways, means, ends, and risk models, to uncover risks to the Russian strategy that the United States could exploit.

(Australian Army Research Centre, June 25, 2020)

Negotiating [Im]plausible Deniability: Strategic Guidelines for U.S. Engagement in Modern Indirect Warfare

By Kyle Atwell, Joshua M. Portzer, and Daphne McCurdy

American adversaries such as Russia and Iran are persistently challenging U.S. interests around the world through indirect attacks. Rather than threaten the United States head-on, these competitors employ nebulous tools like private military contractors, proxies, and cyber-driven disinformation campaigns that are difficult to attribute, enabling plausible deniability, and muddle the distinction between violent and nonviolent actions. The frequency and ubiquity of these incidents—whether in Syria, Afghanistan, or even back home—suggest that indirect attacks will remain a primary tactic in geopolitical competition for the foreseeable future. Yet, the implications of these indirect means of competition for U.S. policy are not well understood. The centerpiece of these attacks is adversaries’ ability to threaten U.S. interests repeatedly over time and geographies while obfuscating the seriousness of the threat and keeping the acts below the threshold of public attention. We find that by mitigating domestic political pressure in the targeted state to react decisively, indirect attacks provide that state the benefit of decision space for how to respond. The aggregate implication for national security is that the use of indirect attacks may have the overall effect of reducing the level of conflict in the international system by increasing opportunities to offramp escalation. For this to be true, however, states must take advantage of the space to leverage other tools like diplomacy to reduce tensions.


Jacob “Jack” Lew served as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury 2013-2017.

“GeoEconomics and the Emerging World Order: The Power of the U.S. Dollar”: Interview with the Honorable Jacob J. Lew

Interviewed by Michael Miklaucic

Let me start with the positive—being the world’s reserve currency gives us enormous capacity to support our own fiscal and trade objectives in a way that strengthens our economy and our country. One of the reasons that the United States has the ability to borrow as much as it needs to at a moment like this—during a pandemic, when other countries might not have such easy access—is that when you have the world’s reserve currency, there is depth and liquidity in the markets for your securities unavailable to other currencies.

Book Reviews

America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

Reviewed by Thomas Pickering

The book should deservedly become a canonical text for students and teachers of U.S. foreign relations, American and foreign diplomats, and importantly, the U.S. military.

How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Toughest Decisions

How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Toughest Decisions

Reviewed by Walter M. Hudson

Part memoir, part historical recounting, part leadership lesson, Susan Eisenhower’s How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Toughest Decisions is not only the sum, but the product of its parts, in keeping with her grandfather’s own “Great Equation.” Each part magnifies and amplifies the other: exploring Eisenhower in such a personal way helps us understand his historical period; delving into the historical context informs us about the man; providing the strategic insights illuminates both Ike and his times. This is a rich, multiform yet still cohesive book.

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare

The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare

Reviewed by T. X. Hammes

In the introduction to Kill Chain, Christian Brose issues a blunt warning. “Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: we have lost almost every single time.” (pp. xii) The statement is meant to be shocking—more so because Brose brings significant credibility and inside information to this work. He served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, as a senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain, and as staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee where he supervised four National Defense Authorization Acts.

Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in
Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization

Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter- Radicalization

Reviewed by Vivian S. Walker

Preoccupation with the effort to fight extremist propaganda in an increasingly complex information environment has produced an overwhelming amount of literature from professors, practitioners, policymakers, and pundits. The problem of terrorist messaging is easily defined; solutions, in the form of effective counter-narrative strategies and the tools to disseminate them, are much harder to come by. Kurt Braddock’s Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization takes this on, providing well-researched and relatively jargon-free guidelines to the development of persuasive counter-narratives and the use of emerging communications technologies to fight back.

Power on the Precipice: The Six Choices America Faces in a
Turbulent World

Power on the Precipice: The Six Choices America Faces in a Turbulent World

Reviewed by John Campbell

Clearly argued, lucidly written, and well-documented, Andrew Imbrie’s Power on the Precipice deserves a large audience, not just of foreign affairs specialists but also of those concerned about America’s place in the world and how to improve it. Imbrie is ambitious. In 205 printed pages (plus notes), he addresses diplomatic challenges that any Washington administration will face and suggests ways forward. In such a wide-ranging work, area experts will question some of his analysis and conclusions. Nevertheless, Imbrie should be applauded as he seeks to persuade policymakers and voters to think harder about different policy choices and tradeoffs from the optic of the long term rather than the short. Identifying national interests and how to promote them is always a challenge, but especially so in the United States, where the 24-hour news cycle is supreme. Elections every 2 years result in never-ending campaigning, and social media—with all its superficialities—has become a news source of choice for many, if not most.