CNAS's Eighth Annual National Security Conference

Last week was the Center for a New American Security’s (CNAS) Eighth Annual National Security Conference. The panel discussions and keynote speakers’ focused on national security and foreign policy themes that resemble what have been discussed for years:

  • Rising threat from state actors like Russia and China as well as rogue states like Iran and North Korea
  • The metastasizing terrorist threat of al-Qaeda and its affiliates
  • The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Lack of U.S. leadership, which leads to:
    • Allies losing confidence in U.S. to deliver on its promises
    • Enemies emboldened to challenge U.S. interests
  • Sequestration has diminished the fighting capacity, readiness, and capability of the U.S. armed forces and threatened to disincentivize the best and the brightest from joining.


Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) headlined the morning program, while National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice provided the keynote address in the afternoon. The other speakers included former Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III, Admiral James Stavridis (retired), former National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, Stephen Hadley, and Ambassador Dennis Ross, among others.

Some points that were touched on during the conference:

  • In his speech, Representative Ryan called for a strategy of renewal and focused on the need to improve the U.S.’ relationship with its allies, improve the military, and improve the economy. He singled out the debt as the number one threat facing the country, forcing the U.S. to kowtow to bondholders.
  • The panel of international experts agreed the world needs U.S. leadership, but it is failing to lead effectively in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.
  • The next panel discussing “Strategy, Technology, and the Future Defense Industry,” cautioned of the closing technology gap between the U.S. military and its competitors, but stressed the need to ensure U.S. operational superiority.
  • The panel simulating a briefing to the next president in 2016 agreed pre-sequestration levels of funding needs to be resumed.
  • The final panel, discussing energy and Gulf security, returned to the first panel’s theme and stressed that the growing conflict in the Middle East requires strong leadership to mediate the various conflicts and ensure U.S. interests.


Some national security conversations that were not discussed at the conference include:

  • Power of the NSA: Even though Congress continues to debate reforming and limiting the NSA’s power, the conference all but avoided discussing the implications of such legislation.
  • Transparency: President Obama has repeatedly called for the need to increase transparency in U.S. counterterrorism to offset “terrorist propaganda and international suspicion”—most recently at the commencement address at West Point—but the issue was also left off the agenda.
  • Drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles arose as a topic of discussion, mostly to acknowledge its inevitable proliferation, but the need to establish an international legal framework to establish rules did not see serious focus.


A few speakers, however, did challenge the common understanding of the United States’ role in the international system. Admiral James Stavridis, the former commander of NATO, mentioned that success in the 21st century requires “building bridges with allies, partners, and friends,” which is the theme that National Security Advisor Susan Rice highlighted in her speech. According to both of them, working together with other states and within international institutions only strengthens the United States and its interests.