Since the Cold War ended, U.S. national security has focused on issues like terrorism and climate change rather than conflict with other countries, says Jami Miscik, CEO of geopolitical consulting firm Kissinger Associates.
But she said that trend is now reversing, with Russia and China returning to lead the list of national security risks. Of course, Russia is alleged to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign while China and the U.S. are engaged in a trade war that is expected to intensify.
Miscik, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday in Laguna Niguel, Calif., also named Brazil as a potential hotspot because of its upcoming elections that could put a more extreme far-right government in power. Meanwhile, more extreme leaders may be coming into power in Iran because the economic prosperity promised by moderate politicians after the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal failed to materialize.
“I don’t think [Western] companies ran in there the way moderates in Iran hoped they would,” Miscik said. “Domestically, the moderates have declined in popularity.”
When it comes to China, she expects that President Donald Trump’s trade war will worsen relations. The longtime safeguard against conflict between the U.S. and China—their financial interdependence—is no longer enough.
“I think the tensions are here. I think they’re likely to grow,” she said before adding: “What we really are interdependent on is trade. If we take that off the table, with sanctions or tariffs, we start to remove the one thing that links us together.”
When asked to assess President Trump on foreign relations, Miscik praised his decision to renegotiate NAFTA (“that’s something that many people thought could be tweaked, was overdue for some tweaking”) but criticized Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a terrible mistake”) and his general approach toward America’s allies.
“I do not give him a high grade on making our allies feel comfortable that we will be there for them,” Miscik said.
Miscik said that financial prowess is what allows the U.S. to wield global power. Most transactions come through the American economy at some point, which gives the U.S. government jurisdiction to enforce measures like sanctions on other countries.
“We have economic exceptionalism in our control of the national financial system,” she said, but countries are beginning to explore alternative payment methods in order to avoid the U.S. entirely, which could dilute America’s international influence.
Despite the increased risks from individual nations, functional issues remain a significant threat, from terrorism and rising nationalism to nuclear proliferation, populism, and authoritarianism.
“Climate change has officially become a national security issue,” Miscik said, based on the huge number of Americans living in coastal areas that are in danger of flooding if water levels rise.
She also warned about cybersecurity threats and the new types of attacks that U.S. organizations may need to be prepared to face.
“The one I’m worried about now, especially for businesses, is an attack that manipulates the data,” she said—a tactic that could be used to undermine confidence in American institutions and financial systems.
Correction, Oct. 5, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated Miscik’s opinion about Trump’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We regret the error.