“In the coming years, the president of the United States will face five significant national security challenges: pandemic recovery, debt planning, rebalancing our over-militarized approach to the world, handling China, and harnessing allies.”

—Kori Schake, “Take On America’s Five Key National Security Challenges,” Governing Priorities


The United States faces a growing number of complex and multidimensional threats in foreign and defense policy. In this environment, the US military must make difficult choices on how its forces should be sized, shaped, modernized, and ultimately resourced to meet its strategic and national security objectives. Across these issues, AEI's Foreign and Defense Policy scholars aim to rebuild a consensus about the need for continued American leadership in the world that will secure future generations, underscore the imperative of a free global commons, and ensure that the sacrifices made to secure liberties in the 20th and 21st century are not lost or abandoned.

▮ With the United States' killing of Qassem Soleimani, Middle East watchers and policymakers alike turned to the work of AEI scholars. Frederick W. Kagan, Danielle Pletka, Kenneth M. Pollack, Michael Rubin, and Kori Schake briefed US government personnel, published more than a dozen op-eds in top news outlets, and spoke with dozens of reporters offering a deep dive into the latest developments in Iran. Pletka also testified before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee in late January on US escalation with Iran.

▮ AEI scholars examined the pandemic's effect on the future of the world order more broadly through numerous articles and op-eds in the popular press. Additionally, Hal Brands and Kori Schake contributed chapters to Brands' coedited book, COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation (Johns Hopkins University Press, September 2020). An AEI web event with Brands, Schake, and other book contributors featured a discussion, moderated by Colin Dueck, addressing how COVID-19 will affect global security and stability.

Frederick W. Kagan and AEI's Critical Threats team released a report providing the first comprehensive, open-source order of battle of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces using Farsi-language materials and detailed analysis of satellite imagery. “Iran's Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle” assesses the IRGC's ability to suppress internal unrest and wage irregular warfare.

AEI on China

"[Dan] Blumenthal's penetrating diagnosis of the challenges China poses and his compelling case for a new competitive strategy that exposes China's weaknesses will shape Sino-American relations over the long term."
—Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY)
The work of AEI scholars and fellows who study China has helped lead to a rapid shift, from viewing China as a "responsible stakeholder" to a serious geopolitical competitor. Derek Scissors was among the first researchers to demonstrate that China was understating its coronavirus statistics, and Scissors' analysis drove legislative proposals that were centered on "decoupling" American supply chains from China. Zack Cooper engaged with the White House, the State Department, the intelligence community, and the US Senate on how to respond to Chinese disinformation campaigns. Hal Brands' briefings with US and allied government actors and military officials helped advance strategic debate on key issues such as the future of the global order after COVID-19. And Dan Blumenthal's and Cooper's analysis helped policymakers formulate legislative responses to Chinese propaganda and information warfare.

In January, Derek Scissors provided a statement before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on the importance of protecting the rule of law and advanced technology over the financial interests of American companies. In a March statement before a Senate Committee on the Judiciary subcommittee, Scissors stressed that limits are overdue in the US-China technology relationship. Dan Blumenthal testified in March before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee regarding the public health costs of China's censorship, propaganda, and disinformation about the coronavirus. And in June, Oriana Skylar Mastro testified before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee on China's maritime ambitions.

Dan Blumenthal conducted background calls with journalists from many outlets. Zack Cooper's engagement with journalists from outlets such as CBS News, Fox Business, and the Los Angeles Times helped shape the narrative on US defense strategy and policy in Asia. Derek Scissors appeared on CNBC's The Exchange and Squawk Box to discuss the coronavirus' impact on the Chinese and US economies.

In November, AEI Press published The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State by Dan Blumenthal, which argues that as Washington has started to see China's strategic competition more clearly, policymakers have also begun to misdiagnose the challenges that China poses.

Dan Blumenthal and Nicholas Eberstadt's June National Review piece, "China, Unquarantined," explained the dangers of allowing a Chinese Communist Party–run China to integrate into the US economy. Blumenthal's June piece in Foreign Policy, "China's Steps Backward Began Under Hu Jintao," offered a close examination of China's internal politics. Oriana Sklyar Mastro's 2018 piece in Foreign Affairs, "The Stealth Superpower: How China Hid Its Global Ambitions," was selected as the "Best Policy Article on U.S. Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy" for the World Consortium Article Prize competition. And Michael Beckley's assessment that China's economy will stall before overtaking the United States garnered much attention in Washington, especially the conclusion that a failing China could be a greater national security threat to the United States than a successful China.

China's overseas investment and construction saw a crucial shift in 2019, according to Derek Scissors in his report accompanying the January update of the Chinese Global Investment Tracker (CGIT). In July, Scissors published a report offering a guide for partial decoupling from China.

Dan Blumenthal hosted House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) at a packed AEI public event in February on what the United States can do to counter China's global malign influence. In September, Zack Cooper hosted a web event with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia to assess China's military.

AEI produced a mini-documentary titled "Why China's One-Child Policy Is a Tragedy Like No Other," based on Nicholas Eberstadt's 2019 edited volume, China's Changing Family Structure: Dimensions and Implications. Since posting to AEI's YouTube page in August, it has garnered more than 42,000 views.

▮ In March, Kenneth M. Pollack published an AEI report, “The Evolution of the Revolution: The Changing Nature of Iran's Axis of Resistance,” explaining the significant shift in the Axis' composition and effectiveness.

▮ The Republican Study Committee adopted in its foreign policy recommendations Katherine Zimmerman's framework and definition of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Zimmerman moderated a July web event (with Emily Estelle) on the Islamic State, its ideology, and its operations.

▮ In April, Katherine Zimmerman published a report and interactive graphic focusing on the Salafi-jihadi ecosystem in the Sahel specifically. Emily Estelle, Frederick W. Kagan, and Zimmerman hosted the current commander of US Special Operations Command Africa, Major General Dagvin Anderson, for an AEI public web event on countering the rise of violent extremist organizations and great-power rivals in Africa.

Michael Rubin's 15 years of scholarship on Turkey has changed the debate or at least been well ahead of the curve; what once was a minority position, calling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan out for his ideology and conspiracy mongering, is now conventional wisdom.

Michael Rubin was one of three think tank scholars invited to address the State Department's Middle East Chiefs-of-Mission Conference. In Washington, DC, in February, Rubin addressed the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs' ambassadors about the trajectory of US policy toward the Middle East and what the State Department was missing about the region.

Michael Rubin and Katherine Zimmerman gave lectures to US Navy SEAL teams and other deploying military units. Rubin trained deploying US Naval Forces and Marines and instructional teams, delivering lectures on topics such as Iranian threat networks, Iranian maritime strategy, and the Arabian Peninsula. Zimmerman lectured on Yemen, counterterrorism, and the Gulf region.

Elisabeth Braw joined AEI as a resident fellow in October to lead a project on the tools free societies use to protect other free societies. She researches defense against and deterrence of new non-kinetic threats and forms of aggression and the intersection between government and industry in building defense against gray-zone threats.
Gen. John G. Ferrari joined AEI in September as a visiting fellow. He is concurrently the chief administrative officer at QOMPLX, a data analytics and cybersecurity firm. After a 32-year Army career, Gen. Ferrari will lend his years of experience in assessing the US Army's key strategic and operational objectives to research and discussions of technology innovation and what new advancements mean for the future of warfighting.
William C. Greenwalt returned to AEI in July as a visiting fellow, specializing in defense innovation, acquisition and procurement reform, industrial base, and public management issues. Before rejoining AEI, Greenwalt served in senior positions at the Department of Defense, in Congress, and in the defense industry.
Elaine McCusker joined AEI in September as a resident fellow to focus on defense strategy, budget, and innovation; the US military; and national security. Before joining AEI, McCusker served as deputy and then acting under secretary of defense (comptroller) from August 2017 until June 2020. In total, she served for more than 13 years at the Department of Defense.
Eric Sayers joined AEI in December as a visiting fellow. Drawing on his past experiences as a consultant for US Pacific Command, a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee for Asia-Pacific affairs, and a policy adviser to Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), Sayers will focus on security challenges in the Pacific, particularly the implications of China's rapid military modernization.
Kori Schake joined AEI in January as the director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies. She also specializes in national security as a resident scholar and regularly comments on civil-military relations, US foreign policy, and great-power competition.
Michael Beckley, John Maurer, Neil Narang, and Ivana Stradner joined AEI as the latest cohort of the Institute's Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellowship and Scholars Program.

▮ Launched in August, Karen E. Young's Gulf Financial Aid and Direct Investment Tracker analyzes Gulf investments by sector and provides details on state investment actors. She also updated weekly her Gulf Economic Policy Tracker, which is widely used by businesses, law firms, analysts, and governments as a source for up-to-date information on economic policy shifts across the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Leon Aron predicted significant costs to Putin's support (and thus his regime's legitimacy) and the increased domestic repression and still greater belligerence in foreign policy, publishing pieces in the Wall Street Journal in April and Los Angeles Times in June.

▮ In March, Ryan C. Berg published a comprehensive report on the largest transnational organized crime group in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil's Primeiro Comando da Capital, demonstrating its involvement in a large percentage of the region's insecurity.

▮ As the business lobby in Nicaragua threatened to leave the opposition coalition, the Latin America team offered suggestions to maintain unity among the opposition. Ryan C. Berg published a report in July that provides the State Department and the Treasury Department a road map for escalating pressure against Nicaragua's authoritarian regime.

Mackenzie Eaglen published numerous pieces in the popular press, including a detailed breakdown of defense budget shares by service in an article for Breaking Defense.

Gary J. Schmitt released an update to his 2015 edited volume A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of US Allies and Security Partners (US Army War College Press, October 2020), providing an up-to-date and in-depth look at key European and Asian allies and partners.

Mackenzie Eaglen's and Kori Schake's work was instrumental in persuading current and former high-ranking military leaders to reinforce the bright line that separates our military from involvement in domestic politics.

▮ Policymakers relied on Mackenzie Eaglen and Zack Cooper for their analyses and recommendations on the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Eaglen contributed expansive analysis at every level of the defense enterprise, and the House Armed Services Committee later incorporated into the NDAA Cooper's recommendations for ground-based anti-cruise missile development with Japan.

Defense Futures Simulator

Nearly 20 of AEI’s Foreign and Defense Policy scholars are engaged in a major initiative, the Alternative Defense Strategies Project, which AEI launched to expose the unacknowledged risk of underfunding US defense. A key element of the project is the Defense Futures Simulator, used to game the cost of various defense strategies to allow policymakers to better understand the trade-offs under different budget scenarios. Zack Cooper, Giselle Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, Elaine McCusker, and other AEI colleagues, along with partners from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and War on the Rocks, are creating a user-friendly, publicly available software tool that will allow congressional staffers, journalists, and nonexperts to understand the strength and weaknesses of US defense strategies—and their associated costs—to evaluate how US military forces should be sized, shaped, modernized, and ultimately resourced.

Danielle Pletka and Brett Schaefer (the Heritage Foundation) coauthored a series of reports, including “The Human Rights Council Must Reform to Earn US Re-Engagement” (September) and “What the World Health Organization Must Do to Earn Back US Support“ (August), and cohosted a virtual event with Amb. Kelly Craft on how to fix the broken UN Human Rights Council.

Hal Brands regularly consulted with the military, intelligence community, and other government entities; wrote a weekly column in Bloomberg; and produced sharply argued research essays in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and Texas National Security Review on subjects including spheres of influence and the value of the national security establishment, the path China will try to take the global hegemony, and the shortcomings of America's one-war defense strategy.

▮ In a July interview with Marc A. Thiessen, President Donald Trump acknowledged for the first time that, in 2018, he authorized a covert cyberattack against Russia's Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 and 2018 elections. They also discussed NATO, the president's decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Germany, China's malign influence, and political polarization.

Danielle Pletka and Marc A. Thiessen hosted high-profile guests in their podcast What the Hell Is Going On? The podcast's guests have included members of Congress, senior administration officials, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, a Nobel Prize winner, and foreign leaders.

Marc A. Thiessen's biweekly column for the Washington Post is currently syndicated to 178 national papers and is one of the most widely read opinion columns at the Washington Post. Sadanand Dhume's biweekly column in the Wall Street Journal and monthly column in the Times of India focus on US-India relations, Indian domestic and foreign issues, and economic policy and democracy. Other regular columns include Hal Brands for Bloomberg; Danielle Pletka for the Dispatch; Dalibor Rohac for Týždeň, a Slovak magazine; Michael Rubin for the Washington Examiner, National Interest, and the Kurdistan Times; Kori Schake for the Atlantic Monthly and Bloomberg; and Karen E. Young for Al Monitor.

Foreign Affairs selected Michael Beckley’s essay, “Rogue Superpower: Why This Will Be an Illiberal American Century,” as one of its 10 best articles of 2020 from the print magazine. This is the third year in a row that Foreign Affairs has selected one of Beckley’s articles for the “best of the year” list.