The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New intelligence strategy warns of threats to Western democracy

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats listens to President Trump during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 18.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats listens to President Trump during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 18. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The United States will be challenged in coming years by nations that exploit “the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals” and “increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West,” according to a new intelligence document published Tuesday.

The document, known as the National Intelligence Strategy, cited Russia as seeking to flex its geopolitical muscle in order to challenge the United States “in multiple regions.”

Meant to set U.S. spy agencies’ priorities for the next four years, the language echoed the intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion, released in 2017, that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election in order to “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”

The warning of increased isolationism comes as decades-old alliances among Western nations are strained and waves of nationalism are upsetting long-held assumptions about the stability of democratic governments.

President Trump, who campaigned on a promise to put “America first,” has questioned the value of mutual-defense treaties with U.S. allies, chastised European nations for not spending enough on their militaries and spoken warmly of autocrats, in Russia and elsewhere.

The intelligence strategy is not a direct rebuke of the president’s policies. But it is the latest expression of intelligence leaders’ intention to pivot away from a focus on combating terrorism, which has been their central concern since 2001, toward countries that threaten the United States on a geopolitical scale, chief among them Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

“The 2019 strategy is more than just an update to previous strategies,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said in remarks unveiling the document. “In some areas, it offers incremental improvements to things we do today. In other areas, it offers fundamental changes to how we operate.”

The new strategy was notable for emphasizing a kind of return to basics, focusing on rival nations and providing policymakers with information to “detect change and provide critical warning in the future,” Coats said.

The strategy also emphasizes responding to new technologies, including anti-satellite weapons that could degrade U.S. military strength in space; cyber threats that are “challenging public confidence in our global institutions, governance, and norms;” and artificial intelligence, automation and high-performance computers that create economic benefits but also could give other countries’ militaries and spy services an edge over the U.S.

The document also rued technology’s ability to exacerbate inequality. The emergence of nano- and bio-technologies could cure disease and improve quality of life, but their proliferation is “uneven, increasing the potential to drastically widen the divide between so-called ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”