Former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon '85 Explains Why Next President Inherits Shaky Ground

"If the world seems like it has a large number of volatile, unstable situations — if it seems that way to you — it's because it's true," Tom Donilon '85 told law students.

September 19, 2016

Former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, a 1985 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, contends that the next president of the United States will inherit some of the worst global instability in modern times, and must be nimble enough to address a plethora of threats.

Donilon, recently named co-chair of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's transition team, spoke at the Law School on Thursday in a talk co-sponsored by UVA's Miller Center.  

The CIA tracks volatility around the globe, he said, and the situation has only been worse two other times since World War II.

"If the world seems like it has a large number of volatile, unstable situations — if it seems that way to you — it's because it's true," Donilon said.

He said the first crisis the new president may have to field could come from North Korea.

"I think the principal security challenge in Asia we have is North Korea," he said. He added that any tensions may also test the United States' improving relationship with China.

But chief among the threats to national security isn't a nation, political group or warring faction per se, he said, but declining economic prosperity.

"There aren't a lot of iron laws in history, but one of them I think is that a nation's diplomatic and military primacy is absolutely dependent on its economic vitality," he said.

Donilon said he is worried that Europe, which has experienced economic uncertainty as well as assimilation problems unlike those in the U.S., has the potential for becoming a major hub for terrorism.

"You know, you can drive from Syria to Europe," he said. "You saw the bombers in Paris and Belgium last year went back and forth to Syria like they were on holiday."

The threat of terrorism is as significant online as it is in the physical world, he said. He cited not only the United States' vulnerability to cyberattacks, but the ability for ISIS to recruit effectively online. Donilon also pointed out that the two most extensive cyber breaches in U.S. history were not overt attacks, and came from insiders (Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning).

More recently, enemies apparently associated with Russian intelligence conducted cyber breaches of the email accounts of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and members of the Democratic National Committee — with possible motives being to influence elections and eliminate political opposition, he said.

"Russia has engaged aggressively in information warfare," Donilon said. "You see that in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, where there is a covert operation to take territory, to take property and violate borders — and a lot of this has to do with information warfare."

Russia, as led by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, is a particular problem because Putin is unwilling to integrate into the political and security organizations of the West, Donilon said.

"For 25 years after the fall of the Soviet empire, the United States and the great powers had generally constructive and productive relationships, right?" he said. "That ended with Putin coming back into office, frankly. … Putin's not interested in integration. He's interested in something else."

Looking further ahead, Donilon said, the U.S. should be proactive in requiring safeguards for households whose devices will be increasingly connected to the internet, and thus vulnerable to exploitation.

"In the security realm we would say the 'attack surface' is about to expand dramatically," he said. "We are about to enter the era of 'the internet of things' involved with our physical lives every day, with hundreds of devices and censors — everything from turning off your air conditioning and heating, to your toaster at home, to your automobile. These are vulnerabilities."

Professor Tom Nachbar facilitated the talk with Donilon and the question-and-answer session that followed. Dean Risa Goluboff provided introductory remarks.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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