The Role of Terrorism in Great Power Competition

The Role of Terrorism in Great Power Competition

Confronting major powers, especially Russia, to say nothing of smaller powers like Iran, also requires counterterrorism tools, but what that means in practice differs considerably from the fight against non-state groups.


As satisfying as it might be to use the terrorism label to shame countries like Russia, that is usually a mistake. Much of what these countries are doing when they manipulate proxies in civil wars better fits Cold War concepts like “revolutionary war” or “subversion” rather than terrorism. Analytic concerns aside, officially designating a country as a state sponsor of terrorism brings with it a host of automatic punishments that would curtail U.S. policy flexibility without achieving much to stop the support. Better is the approach begun in the Trump administration, which designated the Russian Imperial Movement in 2020. Whether intended or not, this decision highlighted Russia’s involvement with right-wing terror without adding the state sponsorship label.

Making this all even more complex is domestic support for U.S. rival powers in the United States and allied democracies themselves. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has cultivated support from an array of populist parties in Europe in particular, and he is also admired by some right-wing voices in the United States, supposedly embodying a mix of masculinity, nationalism, and traditional Christian values. Tucker Carlson, for example, declared in 2019, “I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”


THE QUESTION today is not about a choice between the terrorism threat and the great power competition challenge. Rather, it is how to use the weapons America has honed and wielded for two decades more effectively, recognizing that the challenge differs and the response must change as well in this new era.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. His latest book is Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism.

Image: Reuters.