Former NSA & CIA Director Michael Hayden Talks Global Threats to National Security


Former CIA chief Michael V. Hayden speaking at Stevens Institute of Technology on March 16, 2016.Former CIA chief Michael V. Hayden at Stevens Institute of Technology on March 16, 2016.

"Buckle up... it's going to be a tough century."

Those were the cautionary words of General Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, in describing the state of world affairs in the 21st century.

Now a principal of The Chertoff Group, a global advisory firm comprised of experienced intelligence experts and security professionals, Hayden delivered a talk on "Danger, Complexity and Immediacy: Today's Security Challenges" as the seventh speaker in The President's Distinguished Lecture Series held at Stevens Institute of Technology March 16, 2016.

Stevens President Nariman Farvardin introduced the former CIA director as a modern-day James Bond with an intelligence expertise few can match. The retired four-star general with a decades-long career in the U.S. military and government captivated the audience of students, faculty, alumni, media and invited guests who packed Stevens’ DeBaun Auditorium with an hour-long discussion of the tumultuous global environment and what it means for Americans and America's interests.

There have been moments when the world was more dangerous than it is today, Hayden began, citing the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. But never has the world been more complicated, or immediate, than it is now, he observed.

In a thoughtful analysis of what's causing the geostrategic surface to change, Hayden outlined fundamental shifts, or “tectonics,” that have left the U.S. more vulnerable to chaotic events that occur beyond its borders than ever before.

Changing technologies, changing borders

The most striking tectonic shift in the 21st century, said Hayden, is the diffusion of power caused by increased globalization and interconnectivity. The conventional use of hard power (military) by sovereign nation states is not enough to combat today’s global security challenges, he explained.

Cheap and fast access to advanced communications technology and software has enabled non-state actors such as religious fanatics, extremists and terrorist ideological groups and individuals to target and wreak havoc on societies and individuals rather than simply nations or states.

“The security establishment is having a hard time adjusting to it," he admitted.

Quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he told the audience, “Distrust all straight lines on maps.”

It was a comment Hayden made in reference to the changing nature of international borders, alluding to countries (Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) and vast empires (Ottoman) that no longer exist.

The artificial nature of these borders is most vivid in the Middle East, he noted, where territorial disputes continue to plague the region with no end in sight. U.S. involvement in the region in this century, according to Hayden, has merely served to unleash forces that had been “flash-frozen” 100 years ago. 

Rogue states: Brittle, ambitious, nuclear

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., one of the conclusions drawn by the intelligence community, noted Hayden, is that the U.S. is now threatened less by strong states than it is by failing ones. Hayden specifically cited the 2002 National Security Strategy, which found that poverty, weak institutions and corruption can make weak states, such as Afghanistan, vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.

Hayden went on to list states that either already fall under this category or are in danger of doing so. What distinguishes those countries from other weak states, he explained, is their nuclear weapons capability. He described North Korean rulers as "pathological gangsters;" Russia as a revanchist state that is trending nuclear once again; Iran as a permanent nuclear threshold state (despite the Nuclear Agreement that went into effect in January); and Pakistan as the country with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal.

But the strategic challenge he has spent the most time worrying about as an intelligence officer, Hayden revealed, is America’s relationship with China. 

The two are not allies, he emphasized, yet there is also no good reason for the two to be enemies, considering the high stakes involved for both nations.

“Never has the economy of a status quo power been so enmeshed with the economy of an emerging power,” he noted.

The greatest threats to America's peaceful coexistence with China are the structural weaknesses within China, he continued. A slowdown in China’s economic growth, that nation's alarming environmental issues and the long-term consequences of a "one-child policy" could give rise to the nationalism and social unrest often associated with nations under stress, he said.

The many (presidential) faces of U.S. foreign policy

Lastly, Hayden spoke about the “bipolar” nature of America’s foreign policy, a policy that wavers between hawk and dove in dealing with conflicts abroad.

He described former President George W. Bush as a Jacksonian president: one who strongly believes in national defense and takes decisive action against any threat to the United States, its honor or its treaty allies.

Current President Barack Obama, on the other hand, is not so straightforward in Hayden's view. He described the Obama doctrine as part Wilsonian and part Jeffersonian. The Wilson side wishes the U.S. to build a world order anchored in liberal human rights practices and international law, while the Jefferson side seeks to avoid war and foreign entanglements at all costs, Hayden believes.

In his opinion, the lack of a consistent U.S. foreign policy has played out most starkly in the Middle East. Describing an "all in" strategy in Iraq, an “in and out” tactic in Libya and a "don't touch it" approach to Syria, Hayden posited that all three models have tragically led to similar chaos in those nations. 


General Michael V. Hayden (USAF, Retired) is the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Before becoming director of the CIA, General Hayden served as the country’s first principal deputy director of National Intelligence and was the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the armed forces. Earlier, he served as director of the National Security Agency. Currently, he serves as a principal at The Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm, and as a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University. In 2014 he was the inaugural humanitas visiting professor in Intelligence Studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In February 2016, Hayden released a new memoir, "Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror," which details Hayden’s role as one of the most prominent intelligence officials in recent U.S. history.


The President’s Distinguished Lecture Series was launched by President Farvardin in October 2012 as a forum to create dialogue on important topics in science and technology, the linkages between societal issues and advances in science and technology and related policy issues.

Among the influential scientists, technologists and policymakers who have appeared as President’s Distinguished Lecture Series speakers are Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, chief investment officer of the Private Wealth Management Group (PWM) at Goldman Sachs; Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Harold Varmus, former director of the National Cancer Institute; Dr. Craig Barrett, retired CEO and chairman of Intel; Dr. John Deutch, institute professor at MIT and former CIA director; Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Dr. Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

For more information about the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, please visit