At no time since the Cuban Missile Crisis has there been a greater risk of miscalculation by one the world’s superpowers, said Frances Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor to the U.S., during a panel discussion at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit on Tuesday.
Since Russia has entered the conflict in Syria, Townsend said that there have been several Russian incursions into Turkish airspace.
Michèle Flournoy, co-founder and CEO of think tank the Center for a New American Security, concurred, saying that Russia is “not interested in deconfliction” and is “taking a real risk” that an accident could occur.
However, Russia’s military presence in Syria is a chance “to pull the coalition back together and get on the same page,” Flournoy added. She said that the U.S.-led coalition needs to be much more united in how it approaches Syria and also think about how it can provide humanitarian assistance and shore up all the states in the region. “I would like to see more of a strategic approach, not just in Syria but the region as a whole,” she said.
Flournoy also pointed to the stunning fact that the number of refugees Jordan has taken in from Syria is on par with the U.S. absorbing the entire population of Canada.
Townsend said there’s been a “real sorry lack of leadership” and noted that the strategy of air-dropping weapons to groups that U.S. intelligence believes are fighting ISIS and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is hugely risky, because we lose control as soon as the weapons are dropped.
But beyond U.S. vital interests, Townsend stressed that 250,000 Syrians have been killed. “Let’s be clear—there is genocide taking place in Syria,” she said. She added that there should be a national interest in taking refugees into the U.S. If not, the world risks an educated, angry, alienated, lost generation that could “wind up being a recruiting pool for ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or the next extremist group.”
Townsend said that while we’ve developed better capabilities to stop terrorists from entering the U.S. since 9/11, she also worries about homegrown threats.
Flournoy also pointed to concerns about China, which has made “tremendous investments” in modernizing its military. She said that the Chinese government is also creating islands out of rocks and reefs not in accordance with international law. “Our traditional role as underwriting international rules of the road,” she said, “I think that’s going to be contested in the future.”