Countering Transnational Threats

Countering Transnational Threats

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Michael R. Fenzel, CFR’s 2015–2016 U.S. Army fellow, discusses U.S. national security policy and efforts to combat transnational threats facing the United States, as part of CFR’s Academic Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR’s resources for the classroom at CFR Campus.


Michael R. Fenzel

2015–2016 Military Fellow, U.S. Army, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We’re delighted to have Michael Fenzel with us to talk about national security and transnational threats. Colonel Michael Fenzel is CFR’s 2015 to 2016 U.S. Army fellow. He most recently served as the chief of staff for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Previously, he commanded brigades in the 1st Armored and the 82nd Airborne Division. His other assignments include commander of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, and director for transnational threats at the National Security Council. He is, in addition to being a fellow this year, he is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And he holds his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins, master’s from U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University, and his doctorate from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Mike, thank you very much for being with us today. We have seen transnational threats on the rise. I thought you could talk a little bit about the threats we are facing as of today, and how international cooperation should be restructured to deal with these growing threats.

FENZEL: Sure. Thanks so much, Irina. And good afternoon to everyone.

So let me just provide a word or two about transnational threats in general, and then I’m going to try to scope the issue for purposes of our discussion that will follow. So what I’d like to talk about a little bit is how I define transnational threats, and maybe address the nature of a few of our most important ones, particularly given yesterday and what occurred in Brussels. And then, before we go to questions, let me give perspective on what we should do about them.

And so, let me just begin at the end by saying that in order to effectively address transnational threats, I think there’s got to be a higher degree of international collaboration and cooperation than we’re seeing right now. I know we’re all aware of the tragic attacks in Brussels yesterday morning. They’re obviously a stark reminder of what’s at stake here. So of course, transnational threats, they don’t recognize the significance of borders, they don’t—they effect multiple nations, and they quickly outsize the capacity of any one country’s ability to deal with those threats.

Part of what complicates things is that they are loosely structured, if there is any structure at all. These threats aren’t driven by the actions or the policy of a state either. So what we’re talking about here is terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime. And that, of course, includes kidnapping, money laundering, human smuggling, illegal arms trade, sea piracy, cybercrime—the list goes on and on. One figure that I’ve been able to turn up estimates that there are financial flows from transnational threats at $600 billion a year. Or to put that into more familiar terms, more than our defense budget.

So what’s interesting is that as long as these activities and financial flows don’t connect directly with organized interstate violence, then technically they’re not national security issues. And I can tell you from my own experience that this is pretty frustrating, and it also frustrates our government’s efforts to get at these problems. And just give a quick example, when I was on the National Security Council managing the issue of U.S. citizens taken hostage abroad, we were incredibly frustrated by the unwillingness of the interagency to respond. Many folks were suggesting that hostage taking was a law enforcement issue, and not a national security issue, so it shouldn’t involve them in any way.

So, without taking you through the extended arguments that occurred over the course of more than a year on both sides, let me just tell you now hostage taking is seen as an act of terror. So it’s a national security issue that our government has to respond to. The complicated thing is, that before President Bush 43 signed NSPD 12, National Security Presidential Direction 12, if your parents were taken hostage in the Philippines by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, there was no requirement for a coordinated government response. And now there is. So this is just one example of how we’ve got to be organized to address transnational threats. We’ve got to be much more nimble as a government and as an international body.

So thugs, bugs, and drugs is a pithy way of summing up what comprises most of transnational threats that we track. These are threats that we don’t have the burden of sovereignty—don’t have the burden of sovereignty or any sort of moral code. What makes it even more complex is the challenges of intel collection since transnational terror cells, drug traffickers, and proliferation networks are smaller and they’re harder to track. These thugs aren’t driven by strategic or geopolitical lanes in most cases. And they don’t have a set of values that guides their behavior either. So instead we’re focused quite a bit more on tactical gains.

So how do we develop a new approach to intel collection and still preserve civil liberty is going to be an open question. I’m sure that you’ve heard some say that transnational threats represent the dark side of globalization. And I think we all know that our interconnectedness means that borders aren’t barriers to communication, to interaction, or to transactions. One common quality of transnational threats is that they move so much faster than governments can possibly react to, and there’s just this sort of constant game of catch-up that governments are playing. And Belgium is just one recent example, and France was an example before that.

Now, the case of refugee flows, like those coming out of Syria, the European Union’s inability to develop collaborative approaches to the migration crisis in the last few years reflects how politically nervous these European governments were in the face of opposition parties and strong public opposition to accepting refugees. And I’m sure that yesterday’s attempts aren’t going to make that any easier.

Where bugs are concerned, the Ebola crisis is the perfect example of a threat without any governing agent. I mean, pathogens obviously aren’t actors. They have no respect for borders, treaties, laws, values, and can affect multiple nations. They’re also resistant to single-state resolutions and solutions. Now, where global warming and environmental degradation are concerned, I don’t include them in the discussion of national security threats, and not because they’re not grave or threaten our way of life, but because they require a different kind of expertise to address.

Where international organized crime is concerned, at the end of the day most criminal organizations, I would suggest, are out to make money first. But even criminal organizations have no ideological objectives, once they’ve established infrastructures to move things illicitly, then that infrastructure is going to be taken advantage of by other organizations who want to employ it for their own purposes. And if a criminal organization is looking to make money, and someone provides them with a way to do it, then there’s a strong body of evidence, and in fact intelligence, that shows that these other groups are going to take them up on it, even if they’re terrorist organizations. So the mechanisms, skills, and models, its logistical support is going to go to the highest bidder.

So now let’s move onto the hottest topic. International terrorist groups like ISIS, they’re our most clear, present, and pressing threat. And we were reminded of that after the attacks yesterday morning in Brussels. And despite the capture of the last terrorist bomber the Friday before, and knowing that an attack was coming, the Belgian government still couldn’t prevent that attack from occurring. And the New York Times pointed out yesterday the danger that’s associated with open borders in Europe, but of course, it’s a much larger problem that requires a regional response and transnational cooperation to counter transnational threats like these.

With ISIS, there’s got to be a concerted effort to counter ISIS propaganda, to prevent radicalization, to step into the fray to counter the ideology as part of an overall international strategy. I mean, drone strikes in isolated areas in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, they’re effective in reducing the threat locally, as far as that goes. But transnationally it fuels the fire because ISIS is counterattacking on a much wider scale to win the ideological and social media fights. And they are, I would suggest, much more effective at that than we are with the drone strikes.

OK, so getting back to the attacks in Brussels yesterday, the problem for Europe is that on a border-free continent, ISIS does business transnationally, the failure of one country, like Belgium, is amplified. Now, the problem in Belgium is threatening lives across all of Europe. So European security services are obviously overwhelmed. Terrorists are free to cross these open borders, while national security service still can’t share intelligence freely. And after these latest attacks, I think attention to terrorism and, of course, resources to fight ISIS are obviously going to grow quite a bit more. But I’m afraid that even closer international cooperation is still going to be a problem, even under these current and aggravating circumstances.

And even though we’ve made strides here, I think yesterday’s strategy does more than reinforce how vulnerable we are to terrorism. It also demonstrates how far we’ve come in working together as an international community. I mean, when that last terrorist attack plotter was arrested last Friday, it was done in an effort that involved the NYPD, FBI investigators, French police and investigators, Belgian direct action forces. But the challenging thing is that within that Belgian district of Molenbeek, the authorities were tracking up to eight hundred suspects in that district alone. And this is, of course, far too many to track. And obviously it outpaced the Belgian capacity. So I just think that if we’re going to be effective at combatting transnational threats, we’ve got to develop greater trust and cooperation between nations. We’ve got to become more resilient as an international community.

Now, in terms of how we’re doing as an international community, a recent CFR Council’s report card on international cooperation last year graded a number of issues—10 issues total—and that included combatting transnational terrorism. And the international community received a C-minus in that regard. The highest grade was a B-minus for preventing nuclear proliferation. And the lowest grade was for preventing—responding to international violent conflict. And they got a D in that regard. So given the fact that greater international cooperation is what we need to counter transnational threats, I’d just say we’ve got to do whatever is required to get our grades up.

I’ll just wrap up by saying that when it comes to transnational threats, the only effective strategy demands better international cooperation. I mean, this dark side of globalization is something that we’re now feeling pretty acutely after yesterday. And I think we all know in developing strategy among leading nations, the United Nations—the United States, rather, is going to have to leave from the very front. And so, with that, Irina, I’m happy to answer any questions that the group has.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. Let’s open it up to the students for questions, please.

OPERATOR: At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The first question comes from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Hi. My name is Katherine (sp). And I’m interested—you spoke a little bit about countering ISIS propaganda and preventing radicalization. And I was wondering you just had just a few more specific measures as to what that means.

FENZEL: Yeah. I mean, I wish I had a better explanation for you as to what it means. I do know that we right now are so focused on kinetic action as a government that we have taken our attention away from what’s going to be most effective, I think, in countering it. And the interesting thing is that this is not something that is disputed. You know, if you sat down and talked to any expert in government on ISIS, or outside of government, they would all agree that countering the ideology is what’s most important and that, you know, cultivating the support of more moderate Islamic leaders throughout, you know, the Muslim world, for example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, that that’s what’s necessary.

And yet, it’s almost as though we can’t get off the mark. We aren’t able to move beyond the kinetic because—and I would suggest it’s because you’re able to pull the trigger so much easier by sending troops over, or you’re able to focus on, you know, the forces that are in Mosul or Raqqa. I just think that we’re going to have to get organized, first as a nation, and then we’re going to have to lead the international community in this regard. And then they’re going to have to define what that look like exactly. I would just say—you know, I don’t have the answers in how it’s countered. I just know that what we’re saying we should do we have to start to do in as focused a way as we are in the kinetic way—(inaudible).

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Colorado Technical University.

Q: Yes. Good morning. This is Professor Bernard Stancati. Thanks very much for the discussion and the introduction.

Just a quick question. I heard a lot of talk on C-SPAN from various experts, and also on Charlie Rose, about a grand strategy for combatting—I think the focus on the talks in those cases were ISIS, but I think that would apply, you know, on what you’re talking about also. So what would a grand strategy look like? Do we need one in your opinion, so the what, where, how, when, why’s—who would put it together, what it would look like, how would you execute it, et cetera? Thank you.

FENZEL: Professor, that’s a great question. And you know, I think, first of all, we have to change how we look at this. I think that despite the fact that this is clearly a transnational threat, I think we have seen it as a national threat because people worry about what happened in San Bernardino, or what might happen within the United States. And those people in Belgium worry about what’s going to happen next in Belgium. And I think it’s going to have to—and I don’t want to, you know, oversimplify this—but I mean, it’s going to depend upon leadership saying: OK, look, it’s time for us to have a Yalta, if you will, where we bring together perhaps strange bedfellows.

I mean, one of the most iconic pictures that I can recall seeing in the last decade is of President Obama leaning forward with President Putin after the attacks in Paris, where they were clearly discussing what should be done next. Well, it seems like it’s got to be more than a moment in a picture. They’ve got to come together with other leading nations from NATO and from around the world, particularly the Arab Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular, to come together and determine what that looks like. I mean, this is how the threat can turn into an opportunity.

Now, in terms of tangible actions, I mean, the first thing which is discussed, ideology has to be a large component of it. I also think that there is going to continue to have to be a kinetic component to that grand strategy. And then there’s going to have to be an education component to that strategy as well. I would suggest that any grand strategy has got those three components, but it’s got to have the leading nations that are assembled in much the way we’ve seen this, you know, prior to or in the middle of some of our world wars in the past. And this is the sort of thing that’s going to have to be done. Not just our country is going to have to be inspired, but the world, to take effective and coordinated action.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Washington University.

Q: The first point, you use the term of transnational threats. So do you think is there any difference between transnational threat and an international threat? And my second question is just, what’s the difference between ISIS and al-Qaida? What’s the difference between those two terrorist groups? Thank you.

FENZEL: I don’t purport to be an expert on either ISIS or al-Qaida, so let me just focus on your first question a little bit more carefully.

So transnational threats, they focus on—you know, they don’t respect borders, as I mentioned in the very outset, whereas international threats are on perhaps—more focus and can be addressed more effectively by international governments taking perhaps their own single solutions. Transnational threats move without respect to values or without respect to any other impacts or—you know, any other influences at the state level. Whereas, you know, international threats are much more rigid, I would say, and I think addressing them with single state solutions is much more effective. There can be coordination, but I don’t think it’s imperative, necessarily, to resolving them within the borders of the country, whereas transnational threats it’s literally not possible to address it without transnational cooperation.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Montana State University.

Q: Hello. This is Linda Young.

I had a question. I was listening to the BBC last night, and there was an Islamic leader from Molenbeek. And he said that he thinks that radicalization is occurring in places like Brussels because Islamic youth don’t have equal access to education and jobs, and that the governments aren’t supporting their integration to society. And can you comment on that as part of the strategy that we need to adopt?

FENZEL: Yeah, that’s a great point. You know, I think it goes back to the first question that was asked as well, as how you address this issue of ideology. I mean, look, a tragedy like Brussels results in a wider national conversation—you know, an active conversation with districts like Molenbeek and others that are disaffected, and leads to actual tangible action in expanding education and maybe greater understanding, rather than what we all expect, which is an immediate response, a kinetic response—you know, house-to-house searches for that one suspect. But instead, leavened by, you know, a conversation and an action as it relates to education across Belgium, and then perhaps leads to, you know, a conversation in France and elsewhere.

But I mean, I think that there’s going to have to be someone who takes the lead in that regard. And whether that is Belgium or that’s the United States, which is much better equipped to do that, I just don’t know. I can’t tell you from personal knowledge, you know, the state of education in Belgium, or whether or not the claims of this individual in Molenbeek are true, but I can say and will suggest that if it leads to greater dialogue and then perhaps to come other actions being taken, then, you know, these tragedies can lead to, again as I mentioned earlier, an opportunity.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the Naval Postgraduate School.

FENZEL: My alma mater.

Q: Yes, sir. Major Dan Blingenarm (ph) from NPS here.

I just have one question. Regarding transnational threats, generally they still need physical space, and strive where failed states exist. Should we focus on capacity building vice targeting? Thank you, sir.

FENZEL: Yeah, you know, it’s a great question. And I will just tell you that generally speaking, in my estimation, it’s got to be a balance of the two. So my wife is an international development specialist who’s worked with the World Bank in places like East Timor. And if she was on the call right now, she would—she would wholeheartedly agree with that assertion, that capacity building is the future of any country. And I wouldn’t disagree with her, and wouldn’t disagree with you.

I would also say that when we talk about transnational threats like ISIS, then I think it has to be balanced with targeting. And then, as I mentioned as well with respect to the question about developing a grand strategy, there has to be, you know, other components that are built into it, not least is going to be education. I think—and again, I don’t want to oversimplify here—but unless education is weighted heavily, then I think we’re going to continue to be tackling the same problems for generations, rather than, you know, what we’re hoping to now is just to get to next week and next year without additional attacks. I think that if we want a long-term solution, it’s going to have to include education and, as you suggest, capacity building.

But in order to provide us that space to operate, I would also say that targeting has to get be included. And you take a look at the success that we’ve had in Iraq, as an example. I guess ISIS has lost forty percent of the territory that they had not even two years ago. And then in Syria they lost twenty percent of their space. And that’s all interesting, but I think what we’re all most concerned about is kind of their global reach. And so I would agree with you that capacity building is going to be essential when we take a look at how to address this in any long-term sense.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Norwich University.

Q: Good morning, sir. Captain Eric Azula (ph) here, calling from the Defense Language Institute. Thank you for taking my question.

I wanted to talk a little bit about technology and the role it plays in our discussion. With the recent controversy regarding the FBI attempting to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, much has been made of encryption as being a boon to terrorist efforts, requiring backdoors in encryption, potentially infringing on private communications. However, the New York Times has reported that the Paris attackers used disposable phones and SIM cards, not encrypted communications, to evade detection. Could you please touch a little bit on how intelligence agencies can better combat the threat of terrorists going dark while respecting civil rights and the right to privacy?

FENZEL: Yeah. So, you know, it’s an incredibly complex question. And I’m going to answer it this way: There’s got to be, number one, very close coordination among intelligence agencies. And I’m not talking about the normal, you know, U.K. to United States, because obviously those are well-established and are happening every single day. I’m talking about developing stronger relationships with countries that haven’t normally worked together closely. You could suggest perhaps that Indonesia’s one of those examples, and you that you could go into some of the other Middle Eastern countries and, you know, pick which ones would fit in this place. Saudi Arabia, another example. So that would be one component.

The other component would, of course, be developing a close relationship and not a confrontational relationship with the technological world. And so I wonder if getting into a fight with Apple makes the most sense, or if it in fact makes more sense to have, you know, constructive dialogue where the objectives which are going to be common—you know, I don’t think it’s really challenge to determine whether or not, you know, the technological world wants, you know, security and, you know, the FBI doesn’t. Of course they do. They want the same thing. So having that constructive dialogue and not turning it into a law enforcement or a litigation issue I think is critically important.

Now, once you’ve gone through that, I think we’re going to have to develop additional capacity and capabilities to determine how to exploit, because when you talk about ISIS and when you talk about other terrorist organizations that are developing new capabilities, we’ve got to stay on the cutting edge with them. So that’s why this dialogue with—you know, with the technological companies is going to be critically important, I think, going forward.

Q: All right. Thank you, sir.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Q: Hi. So you had touched upon, you know, bringing in moderate Muslim leaders to kind of help counteract some of the ideology involved in ISIS. And when you mentioned that, the first thing that came to mind for me was Jordan as an American ally and a relatively moderate Islamic country. Do you think there’s any way the U.S. can help build Jordan’s capacity to kind of counter ISIS, especially given that ISIS territory kind of rides along their border?

FENZEL: Yeah. So of course they can, and I think we are. Where the challenge is—it comes back to the question about grand strategy, right? I mean, what exactly is it going to look like in the rest of the world, because let’s say, for example, we do an exceptional job of developing Jordan’s capacity. Then what I think ISIS will do, and they’ve already shown to be more than capable of doing, is moving along the path of least resistance to some place where they’re not encumbered—Libya, for example. I just think that whatever solution we’re going to develop in terms of developing capacity to counter ISIS along, you know, all avenues, including an importantly the ideological avenue, it’s going to have to be comprehensive.

And you got to take a look at all those countries which are going to have to work to counteract. We have to engage them in a coherent and strategic fashion, rather than doing it bilaterally. I think this is one of those issues where, you know, bilateral will get us tactical gains, but if we want to develop strategic gains that we’re going to have to do this multilaterally. And it’s going to have to be done in a very inspired way, with us leading and, you know, a large sort of gathering where leaders are going to have to work through how to address this global scourge.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

The next question comes from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Q: Hello, sir. This is Mike Trivette (sp), University of Southern Mississippi.

FENZEL: Hello, Mike.

Q: My question is about the timeline in the Middle East and the recent Russian withdrawal. I mean, if anyone analyzes the timeline of events from the beginning of the Arab Spring to today, you can see obvious patterns in their behavior and the behavior of ISIS or ISIL, the behavior of the Russians. What we don’t have is an obvious pattern for us. And that’s what’s lacking in the world. They don’t understand what we’re doing. So leading up to that, especially regarding the vacuum of U.S. leadership there, what do you make of the recent Russian withdrawal from Syria, or at least they’re downsizing—maybe not a complete withdrawal, but they’re downsizing. Thanks.

FENZEL: Right. So it’s a great question. And obviously a very tough question to answer. I think it’s answered in part on the U.S. side of thing by reading the Atlantic article where President Obama was interviewed at length and he explained in great detail—excuse me—what was motivating him and U.S. foreign policy. And then on the Russian side, look, let me just say, you know, as a kind of a student of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, I will tell you that it does appear to be strategically very sound. And I don’t know how else to put it. I mean, they achieved, at least purportedly achieved their political objective, and then they pulled away. They had used overwhelming force and announced a withdrawal.

And I also was a student of their involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 until 1989. It appeared as though they were learning from their tragic history, where they were embroiled in ’79 and hoped to be out within a year or two, and then as leadership changed from one general secretary to the other, they found themselves there for just over nine years instead of the one or two years that they had hoped, and moved well-beyond their political objectives. I think, you know, it shows that President Putin is, if nothing, a strategist.

When it comes to the U.S. and how—why we’re acting the way we’re acting, I think you got to look at what’s been going on for the last fifteen years. We’ve had two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s also the, you know, not inconsequential issues of political will and public appetite for continued involvements or any new involvements or entanglements. And I think clearly if you read that Atlantic article, and if you haven’t read it then I would suggest that you do, it really does lay out the reasons why. And I think right now you have two great powers that are tackling, you know, perhaps the same foes, but doing so in a very different way, because the geopolitics and the local politics are driving them in different directions.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question come from the University of Connecticut.

Q: Good afternoon, sir. You spoke a lot about essentially winning the propaganda war, stopping recruiting and counteracting all their propaganda. Using ISIS for simplicity sake, do you really think that this alone—kind of ending recruiting—will essentially kill ISIS, and fast enough? And if not, what type of relative importance do you put on a multipronged approach with economic, military, or other action?

FENZEL: I place all emphasis on a multipronged approach. Again, I think it’s a great question. It goes back to the grand strategy that the professor asked early on. I mean, there’s—ending the war is one thing. I think that, you know, such a powerful light is being shined on that right now because we’re doing such a poor job of it. I think that this is where we’re least equipped to—or demonstrate the least ability to address. And that’s the thing that has to change the quickest. And it just seems as though we’ve got all of the tools at our disposal to address the propaganda war more effectively. And I think that’s the area—if I had to pick one of the prongs that I was most concerned about, then it would be the propaganda war, for sure, the ideological war.

Now, there is no question, as I mentioned already, the education component is huge. The international level of cooperation and collaboration that has to focus on how we’re going to get at this, what this grand strategy ought to look like, that has to be the starting point, I think. Right now, I think the problem with this is it’s not a comprehensive or coherent strategy. It’s a series of actions—tactical actions that are being taken. And that’s what’s most disturbing. And it’s also, as I mentioned, you know, just a moment or two ago, it’s each nation trying to do it on their own, and then coming together only when it’s, you know, in aggravated circumstances, like following the attack in Paris, or pursuing, you know, a final suspect in Belgium, or some other reason.

We have to get out in front of this in developing a strategy that, as you suggest, is in fact multipronged, comprehensive, but more importantly it has international consensus as well. And until we have this, it’s still going to be disjointed, fragmented, and ineffective. And you know, I only point out the propaganda war because it’s the thing that is—that ISIS is so effective at right now. Even with our tactical successes, I mentioned amount of land ISIS has lost, well that’s inconsequential because their tactical wins on the social media side of the house and propaganda side of the house have outpaced our victories in Iraq and elsewhere.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Harvard University.

Q: Hi. My name is Yakwan Key (ph). I’m from Harvard University. I’m an international business major.

My question—

FENZEL: Nice to meet you.

Q: Thank you. My question is, what concern, if any, that perceived anti-globalization rhetoric being spewed by presidential candidates here in the United States may have on transnational security.

FENZEL: Yeah, I think—you know, this election cycle is unlike any other I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. And I’m sure that I’m not alone, as I mention that. Look, this isolationist bent that we’ve heard at different stages in this campaign, absolutely concerning. I mean, I cannot imagine sitting on the outside of—you know, as someone who’s not a U.S. citizen sitting outside and looking in and saying, OK, what the heck is going on there in the United States?

But I think the other thing you’re seeing—and this is the heartening thing, and I’m sure you all have seen the trend as well—as we move closer towards the general election you see a dampening of that rhetoric. Now, there’s still this issue—and I’m sure it’s not going to help—the latest attacks in Brussels. As you’ve seen the governors across our country say, look, they’re not willing to take any Syrian refugees in, I think that is going to be—continue to be a political bombshell. And so I don’t think that that is going to be—I think that’s going to be very interesting to see how that is addressed as we lead into the general election.

I also think it’s incredibly disturbing when you talk about, you know, economic policy and you talk about trade and things like that, that can set us back many years. But I think also there’s a stark difference between campaigning and governing. And I would suggest that when the dust finally settles and when the impacts of some of these anti-globalization and isolationist rhetoric meets reality, and when the experts are able to talk to whomever is left standing, I think that will—and I strongly believe—that’s when things will—you know, it won’t look anything like that, because I think that the globalization trends, you know, on the positive side, you know, are so great and so important for us, for progress, along things that go way beyond the economic, that in fact I don’t see a scenario where you’re able to govern in the same way you’re campaigning.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from the University of the Puget Sound.

Q: Thank you very much for your time today. So you’ve spoken several times about the need for greater international interstate cooperation. But given the level of the threats and the challenges that we’ve seen—the terror attacks, and the wide range of other kinds of transnational threats—if that hasn’t been enough to overcome the obstacles, then I guess what will? I mean, what are the obstacles at this point and what is going to take to overcome them if states haven’t been able or haven’t been willing to overcome them, given what we’ve seen, you know, in the—in terms of the level and the intensity of threat?

FENZEL: Yeah, that’s a great question. And my answer is going to be a somber one. I think it’s a catalyzing event is what it’s going to take to develop that kind of international cooperation. And I don’t know that, you know, Brussels is going to be enough, because clearly when Paris occurred—the attacks of Paris occurred you had an outpouring of emotion from around the world, and then it passed. And the U.S. attacks in San Bernardino, which brought it much closer to home, but then things calmed. We’re also at a unique place right now when it comes to politics, and the nation is focused right now on elections, who’s going to be in the White House in 2017.

So you know, since we’re so distracted right now by these threats, that as we talk about this seem to be critically important and decisive to all of our lives, in fact, I just wonder if it’s not going to take a much greater—a catalyst of some much greater event to drive the international community together. The only alternative for that is for time to pass and for the next president to say: OK, this is one of my highest priorities, is to bring the international community together, and to address the Middle East peace process, not to address anything else except for this. We have to come together as a nation in order to address this growing scourge of ISIS.

And then to host it, whether it be in Dayton or it be in Yalta, or wherever it occurs. The United States is going to have to lead it. And the next president is going to have to be the person that tries it. Otherwise, and again, I would just say it would be a catalyzing event that it would require, along the lines of a 9/11. And I certainly hope I’m wrong, but history has shown that that’s what’s going to be required to bring the world, or even our country, together.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

The next question comes from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Thanks, Colonel Fenzel, very much for taking the time to speak to us today. Tanisha Fazal, I’m the professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame.

And I wanted to—my question is kind of a follow up on the previous question. Could you be a little bit more specific about what you see as the barriers to cooperation in countering some of these transnational threats? I mean, your answer to the previous question suggested that it’s perhaps a lack of U.S. leadership, perhaps some differences. But I wonder if you could drill down a little bit and get a little bit more specific about, you know, are there barriers to cooperation that could be more easily dismantled? Is there some low-hanging fruit here that could be gone after pretty easily?

FENZEL: Yeah. So I’d be interested to hear what you think as well. I mean, to me I think that, you know, there is—you know, there’s the obvious issue of what each country is dealing with, you know, and they’re different, right? So we’re in the middle of a kind of an election fog that is preventing us from coming together. I mean, there was already congressional stasis before this occurred. We were dealing with sequestration and—you know. So right now, that’s what we’re dealing with. France has been dealing, you know, squarely with this ISIS issue since the attacks in Paris. And much of what you see as you travel through France indicates that as well. And certainly now in Belgium, the same.

But the issue is that the next attack is not likely to occur in any of those three places. And so the barriers are—you know, to answer your question directly—are, number one, whatever the country is dealing with at the time. And if it’s not—and if their highest priority is not terrorism because they haven’t, you know, had to face an attack, then getting them to come to the table and focus on it in as intense a fashion is going to be challenging.

In terms of the low-hanging fruit there, like, I think that it’s probably what we talked about earlier. It’s bringing together the tech world, in the corporate sense, with international leaders to talk about how we work together to address, you know, not only policy but also to overcome these threats. So this last weekend I was at a conference where the managing director—or the person who’s responsible for YouTube was sitting across from me. And he was expressing his own deep concern for how his platform is manipulated by terrorists for their own ends. And he was trying to find a way—I mean, and his whole team had obviously been trying to find a way to shut them off—shut this off from them. But he’s also, of course, he has his other corporate responsibilities to think about.

 I think that the lowest-hanging fruit is that, because you’ve got those corporate entities that are—that have got the same conscience that we all have, you know, inside and outside of government. You’ve got the leadership that is driven by, you know, allowing these ideological influences to continue the way they are, and ISIS activity. Bringing them together, that seems to me to be the lowest-possible hanging fruit that I could consider. But I’m curious, what do you think?

Q: Can you hear me? Am I on?

FENZEL: Yeah. You’re on. Go ahead.

Q: OK. So, you know, this is not necessarily my particular area, but I guess I was wondering if there were—if there was low-hanging fruit with respect to barriers to intelligence sharing or standardization of police procedures—because the police are a really critical institution here. And it seems like that that’s the kind of thing—you know, working at that level is maybe something that’s a little bit easier to overcome than some of the political or electoral issues that you mentioned as well.

FENZEL: That’s a great point. And it’s something that is not published normally in the New York Times, but I just spent some time actually just a couple of months ago, immediately following, actually, the attacks in Paris—we spent some time with the deputy New York City police commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism. And one of his points that he made actually is that, look, as soon as the attacks occurred, they already had literally scores of their agents that were—that were moving to Paris to assist them. And I think that the same thing is true when you talk about the FBI. The same thing is true when you talk about our intelligence agencies. So I think the low-hanging fruit that you’re referring to here, it’s happening already. We’re not reading about it, but I think that the—that is certainly—(off mic).

The problem is the political will and determination to bring this to the fore, and beyond just the wake of the attacks, right, when it’s the bright shining object and everyone is concerned. But it’s beyond that. It’s to look longer term and to put in place, you know, a strategy, as was mentioned before, but there is not one. It’s been a series of tactical actions. And I think that’s also what prevents us from addressing low-hanging fruit, because, again, it’s going to be another tactical action. And until we actually develop something that’s coordinated—and that takes, again, a focused, national-level leadership. And right now we’re in that sort of strange space nine months before we have a new president that may be preventing it.

 FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Q: Sir, good morning. Major Tim Burton (sp) from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Quick question for you, sir. You mentioned multiple ideas. My question is, as coalition forces and operations are slow to respond often to informational messaging as a result of a lengthy approval process, which limits their ability to form a consistent and unified narrative. Targeting kinetic operations also can be equated to a whack-a-mole methodology. My question, sir, is that with finite resources, how would you suggest that the international community move forward to effectively combat both the information operations side of things, as far as combatting ISIS on a communications side, as well as combatting combat operations throughout multiple and international areas of operation.

FENZEL: OK, so you know, you kind of answered your own question there with the first part of it. I mean, the information operations can’t be slow moving. There’s no question about that. It’s got to be more nimble. There’s got to be a significant degree of trust that exists. And you got to be able to provide intense—you know, not only with U.S. forces, but across a coalition. And maybe clarify what you don’t want to see, what effects you’re not willing to accept, and then also talk about the delivery mechanisms that are OK and those that are not OK, and then allow it to run in a very decentralized fashion, because lord knows that’s exactly what we’re up against—the most decentralized and flat of all organizations.

I think that, you know, given the fact that we are slowly—making slow and steady progress—and as I mentioned, the stats, forty percent of decrease in territory in Iraq and your twenty percent in Syria. If we’re willing to accept those gains, those slow and steady gains, and if they continue to increase, then obviously there’s not going to be any change when it comes to this—you know, this approach, because it is making progress. Now, if you start to see a reverse in it, I would suggest that, you know, we have to keep on the table all options. And that must include, and obviously—you know, it must include consideration for, you know, being—facing that sort of challenge with our counterparts.

Now, I would also just say that, you know, we’re not likely to be in that position anytime soon, because at least in Iraq we see that Iraqi forces are about ready to counter—to go and try to retake Mosul. So I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But I also would suggest that maybe we’re not at the whack-a-mole stage. It must feel like it. I just have to think that in fact there’s going to be progress. If progress is reversed, then we’re going to have to readdress it. But I couldn’t agree any more on the information operations and sharing business. It’s got to be relooked.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Georgetown University.

Q: (Off mic)—sir. This is Captain Mackenzie Colola (sp) at Georgetown.

FENZEL: Hey, how are you?

Q: Pretty good, sir. So terrorism, although victims are disproportionally Western, is in some ways considered to be a strategy of the weak. It’s not how ISIS first gained their significance in the Muslim world, as opposed to like a secretive terrorist organization like al-Qaida. So as ISIS—as you discussed, as ISIS continually starts to lose ground and loses that state-like power that has gained them a lot of their prominence, do you think it’ll erode some of their popularity and their recruiting efforts, and make them more like an organization like al-Qaida that we’re kind of more experience in countering?

FENZEL: I mean, I think that’s what we’re all hoping, right? The problem, of course, is that, you know, hoping is clearly not a method. If we continue to make progress in Iraq and Syria, my fear is that ISIS just goes to the next weak state. We’ve seen this develop in Libya. Wherever there is a failing or weak state, you have to think that ISIS has already got their eyes on expansion. But if they do lose their foothold in Raqqa, as an example, or they do—when they do lose Mosul, that they’re going to be—they’re already going to know where they’re expanding to next.

I would like to think that in fact this state-like power that you talk about, as they’re not able to retain territory, which is what makes them—another thing that makes them different from al-Qaida, to get at the past question—that they are not—they are going to be in a position to not have as much power as they’ve had in the past. But you know, that, again, I get right back to this—that first question that was asked about the grand strategy. That is what’s critical. That has got to be developed not only on a national basis, but much more importantly on the international basis. So I know that I’m harping on that, but without a concerted and coordinated strategy, I don’t know how we can achieve any of the kind of effects that we’re hoping to achieve.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Q: Hello. This is Mike Trivette (sp) again.

FENZEL: Hi, Mike.

Q: Speaking to grand strategy, you mentioned that, and I think it was two questions ago the guy from the Naval Postgraduate School, was talking, I think, about the tactical level, really, and operational level. But mine is more of the strategic or international level. And it has to do with the economy. And we really haven’t discussed that very much, on how the economy limits our options strategically and internationally. So what would you view as, say, the top two or three truly vital or critical national security threats to us, in view of the economy? I mean, when I was in uniform several years ago, several of mine would have been military related. But now—(laughs)—they’re not. They’re economically related. Thanks.

FENZEL: Yeah. You know, and ironically I just had the chance to listen to Secretary Geithner speak yesterday where he was much more sanguine about the interruptions not only of the national economy, but also the international economy. And, you know, he thought it was developing a much greater resilience, but yet you’re what he described at the kind of last stage of recovery from the ’08-’09 international financial crisis. So I would not include that one. I mean, it certainly is concerning, because if something goes wrong then we’re all at risk. But the first risk that—or, rather, threat that I would point out is Russia right now, and only because of their—how difficult it’s been to deduce what they’re going to do next, and how difficult it is to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

I mean, it would be one thing if we had a closer relationship and dialogue that was going on with Russia, but we don’t. I mean, I don’t know any of my Russian counterparts. And yet, there are a number of fellow officers that know some of their Chinese counterparts. And I just think that—that’s just one example of mil-to-mil dialogue that—you know, I also know that the diplomatic log has been reduced as well. So that’s concerning to me. And I also think that there is—there is real issues with Crimea and the Ukraine and, you know, our—the justified requirement we have for these gains of Russia to be rolled back. So there’s tensions that exist that might place them at the top of the list.

The next would be North Korea. And that’s largely because of the total lack of understanding of what’s driving them, what’s motivating them, and then their use as we just saw, I guess it was over the weekend, when they fired several missiles into the sea. What’s driving them, what their objectives are, and again, the total lack of communication between them and the international community.

FASKIANOS: We are at the end of our time, but I thought if you could just take one minute—and I know this is really hard to do, but I know you can do it, Mike—any advice you could give—you’ve had a terrific career—to students who may be interested in pursuing a career in national security? You know, love if you’ll stay a few words about your career and any advice you could give.

FENZEL: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Irina.

Well, first of all, I mean, if you’re—if you’re passionate about it, then you’ve got to get involved, right? There are so many different ways to get involved. I mean, for example, there is obviously the Council on Foreign Relations term membership program. But there are a number of other methods to get yourself involved. And what I would say is you have to seek those methods out. And then when opportunities present themselves, you just got to go for it.

So in military terms, you know, I saw an opportunity to go to graduate school and to pursue, you know, something that I thought I was interested in. I went to the Kennedy School of Government and got an MPA, but with a focus really on national security policy. And I just found that I loved it. So the first thing I would say is that, you know, whatever part of national security or international relations or political science—whatever part of it is most compelling to you, I think that’s also more than likely what you’re going to be the best at. So go after it.

I’ve also—and then the other thing I would say, Irina, and to the group, is: Start to write on these things. I mean, reading is step number one, so you have a level of understanding. But until you start to write, you’re not truly going to own any of these subjects. And it doesn’t have to be, you know, something that’s published right off the bat, or published in the New York Times. It can be published in a local paper or in a local periodical. Those are the things that are going to drive your interest to one of a real holding concern. And then possibly to employment. It’s also what’s going to make your valuable, both with whatever employer you have or, when the opportunity presents itself, perhaps in government.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. So, Colonel Fenzel, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today. We really appreciate it. And, of course, for your service to our country.

FENZEL: Thank you. Glad to do it.

FASKIANOS: And to all of you for your excellent questions and comments. We appreciate it. And our next call will be on Thursday April 7, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. eastern time. Priscilla Clapp, senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace will talk about what to expect in Myanmar. You can follow us on CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. And I encourage you to go to our website,, to look at blogs written by fellows, other op-ed pieces, Foreign Affairs articles, and the like.

So thank you all, again, for joining us today. And we look forward to your continued participation.


Please note that the audio and transcript have been edited.

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