What Is an Existential Threat?


This article was originally published on Real Clear Defense on February 10, 2016.  Thank you to Real Clear Defense for continuing to publish my work!

In the United States the 2016 Presidential Election looms and candidates from all sides are taking to the stage at debates and other venues in an effort to establish their foreign policy credibility.  Whether discussing ideas to counter Russian aggression in Europe[i], how to engage China, or whether to destroy, defeat, or minimize[ii] the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a term often discussed is existential threat.  While an existential threat is generally defined as something that is a threat to existence[iii], this is imprecise and deserves further explanation.  A more detailed definition could point to a threat being existential if it involves a group with the capability to permanently change another group’s values and the way it governs itself against the latter’s will.

Two examples where a group permanently changed another group’s values and the way they govern, against their will, occurred during World War 2.  In this case, the Allies destroyed the 25-year-old Nazi[iv] movement in Germany and the 76-year-old Imperialism[v] movement in Japan.  To make this happen took tremendous military force[vi].  Not counting the Allied Forces, the United States employed 16,112,566 military members and two nuclear weapons to achieve this end.  Today, a truly existential threat to the United States would entail another country being able to permanently take away its freedom and change its democratic form of government, regardless of the preference of the citizenry.

The groundwork for freedom and democratic government in the United States was laid on July 4th, 1776, when the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence[vii] believed it to be self-evident that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Later, the first amendment[viii] to the Constitution would establish freedoms of religion, speech, the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government to address grievances.  When looking at the United States and thinking about the term existential threat the question naturally arises:  What countries have the capability, in this case an armed force, that could permanently take away the freedom and change the democratic form of government the United States has enjoyed for over 239 years?

The Russian military[ix] has 771,000 personnel, 22,000 tanks, 1,337 combat aircraft, and approximately 4,500 deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons[x].  China[xi] has 2.3 million active military personnel, a further 500,000 estimated in the reserves, and approximately 250 stockpiled nuclear weapons[xii].  In contrast to these large standing forces, ISIL has approximately 100,000 fighters[xiii] located mostly within Iraq and Syria.  Based upon the framework presented here, Russia[xiv] is the only existential threat to the United States, in large part due to their nuclear arsenal.  And while China can threaten United States interests worldwide, ISIL’s main capability to strike the United States is through inspiring someone already there to conduct an attack[xv].

After the November, 2016 elections, the new President of the United States will have to deal with one existential threat and many lesser ones. While the President will need to ensure the United States maintains sufficient capability to address these threats, he or she will also need to take into account how this capability is viewed by other countries.  To the majority of the world, the United States is the existential threat.  This being the case, the next President will need to engage with other countries very carefully, always being aware of this potential undercurrent.  It could easily be said that one country’s underwriter of security[xvi] is another’s existential threat.


[i] Hilleary, C. (2016, January 28). Election 2016: The Candidates’ Foreign Policy. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://m.voanews.com/a/election-2016-candidates-foreign-policy/3166107.html

[ii] Walter, P. (2015, May 27). Destroy, Defeat or Minimize the Islamic State? | RealClearDefense. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/05/27/destroy_defeat_or_minimize_the_islamic_state_107978.html

[iii] Wordsworth, D. (2015, January 24). Existential threat: The birth of a cliché. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/01/existential-threat-the-birth-of-a-cliche/

[iv] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Nazi Party. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/topic/Nazi-Party

[v] The Meiji Restoration and Modernization | Asia for Educators | Columbia University. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1750_meiji.htm

[vi] By the numbers: U.S. war veterans. (2013, June 5). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/war-veterans-by-the-numbers/

[vii] The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[viii] First Amendment. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment

[ix] CFR Backgrounders: The Russian Military. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.cfr.org/russian-federation/russian-military/p33758

[x] Arms Control Association Fact Sheets & Briefs. (2015, October). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat

[xi] Lowy Institute Chinese Military. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/chinese-military

[xii] Arms Control Association Fact Sheets & Briefs. (2015, October). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat

[xiii] Gartenstein-Ross, D. (2015, February 09). How Many Fighters Does the Islamic State Really Have? – War on the Rocks. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://warontherocks.com/2015/02/how-many-fighters-does-the-islamic-state-really-have/

[xiv] O’Hanlon, M. (2015, July 12). We Need to Get Serious about Russia, Now. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/07/we-need-to-get-tough-with-russia-now-120002  

[xv] Yourish, K., Watkins, D., & Giratikanon, T. (2016, January 14). Recent Attacks Demonstrate Islamic State’s Ability to Both Inspire and Coordinate Terror. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html?_r=1

[xvi] 2015 United States National Security Strategy. (2015, February). Retrieved February 6, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf