Around the globe, the 21st century is unfolding as an era of great promise, but also of growing peril. More than a generation has passed since the 1991 Soviet collapse that ended the Cold War, and the peace dividend is long gone. America faces an array of rising, hostile powers and compounding threats. Advances in technology have brought enormous potential for the spread of health, wealth and freedom around the globe. But the dangers are also on the rise, whether cyber or nuclear, terrorist groups or predatory despotisms. Our freedom ever more urgently needs defending.

To explore this scene, and sound a warning, the Independent Women’s Forum, together with the Jewish Policy Center, hosted a conference on Oct. 3, in Washington, on “Tyrants, Terrorists and Threats to the 21st Century World Order.” Video clips of this vibrant, thought-provoking forum are embedded below.

It was our tremendous pleasure and privilege to have as our main speakers two women whose careers have spanned decades on the front lines of U.S. intelligence. They brought to our discussion a wealth of hands-on experience in how the threats to America have been evolving, what dangers loom highest today, and how we must be ready to meet them. Their remarks were followed by two panel discussions on the global networks now contending to shape the 21st century world order, the “axes and alliances of good and evil.” Along with the bad news, there was some good news — especially on some of the ways in which enterprising women have been serving the cause of freedom.

Our keynote speaker was the Honorable Susan M. Gordon, currently the second-in-command of America’s intelligence services. Her title is long — Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence — but her speaking style is brilliantly clear and concise. For this conference, she offered remarks in the form of a lively, wide-ranging conversation onstage with IWF foreign-policy fellow Claudia Rosett, followed by questions from the audience.

Gordon has served for almost three decades in U.S. intelligence, including 27 years with the CIA, and a stint as Deputy Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. She has stories to tell about everything from rope-climbing the newly built American embassy in Moscow in the 1980s to see it if was bugged (it was), to divining what matters most in today’s technology-driven tsunami of data.

The list of threats she enumerates as highest on her radar today are China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. Gordon talked about some of the differences among these various actors, while also noting that on many fronts — such as China’s and Russia’s ventures in super-computing — they have shared interests and cooperate with each other. Her biggest worry is the risk of serious miscalculation by actors wielding increasing capabilities in a world she describes as immensely dynamic and complex.

Gordon’s work includes briefing the president, and she talks about that as well, in her briefing to us:

Our second speaker was a 30-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently retired Special Agent Jane Hemenway. One of the few women in the early 1980s to complete the grueling law enforcement training at Quantico Marine Base, Hemenway worked for much of her career in counter-intelligence — catching spies. In her talk, she warns that since the Cold War, Russia has morphed into something new, but just as dangerous. Or, as she further clarifies: “The Cold War was never over. It may have paused as bit, but it has just shifted battlefields.”

Hemenway presents a series of vignettes — or case studies — that provide a terrific tour of the evolving threats to America, together with insights on the kind of wisdom and grit it takes to deal with them: 

We followed up with two panel discussions, moderated by the Jewish Policy Center’s Senior DIrector Shoshana Bryen, on the theme of: “They Don’t Do It Alone: Axes and Alliances of Good and Evil.”

Panel I focused chiefly on such issues as nuclear deterrence, and the shifts in U.S. strategic thinking since Sept. 11, 2001 — in which the main focus in recent years has moved from counterterrorism to countering the rise of a network of militarizing nation-state tyrannies.

The panelists were:

—The Heritage Foundation’s Michaela Dodge, who gave a fact-filled rundown on the return of a new era of Great Power Competition, the dangers of complacency, the renewed recognition of the importance of America’s nuclear deterrent. Dodge highlighted the problem that America with its aging nuclear arsenal and dwindling ranks of personnel skilled in testing such weapons risks “a de facto disarmament by attrition.”

— Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith, who talked about Iranian networks in the Middle East, and argued that American policy works much better when we stop focusing on jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS as the chief threat, and focus on the role of nation states.

— American Foreign Policy Council Vice President, Ilan Berman, who observed that “we’re very good at fighting the last war,” but not so good at looking ahead. Berman stressed the importance of the war of ideas, an area in which he argued America could be far more fully enagaged.


Panel II brought some good news, focusing on the war of ideas, in both principle and practice — especially the role of women around the world in cultivating and spreading such vital underpinnings of freedom as private property and free markets.

The panelists were:

— Andrea Bottner, a former State Department official who served as Director for the Office of International Women’s Issues. Bottner gave a sweeping survey of networks of women around the globe, both public and private, striving in various ways for their basic rights and the building of freer societies.

— Casy Pifer, Director of Institute Relations at the Atlas Network. Pifer presented an inspiring set of case studies of what Atlas calls “intellectual entrepreneurs.” These are people in countries such as Afghanistan, Uganda and Ukraine, who in the face of tremendous obstacles have been working to plant and cultivate “the seeds of freedom” — the ideas and practices on which free societies and their institutions are built.

— Suzanne Scholte, President of the Defense Forum Foundation and longtime champion of the horrifically oppressed people of totalitarian North Korea. Scholte delivered a stunning presentation on the role of North Korean women, trapped in a system that strips them of every human right. Many of these women, determined to feed their families, have become grass-roots entrepreneurs, pushing back against their country’s monstrous regime to become grass-roots entrepreneurs, and introducing into North Korea the first stirrings of private markets.