American troops approaching the shores of Omaha Beach off the coast of Normandy, France - "D-Day," June 6, 1944 - World War II. Colorized.
U.S. troops approaching Omaha Beach in Normandy, June 6, 1944 (goodfreephotos)

Millions of words have been written explaining how Western democracies defeated Nazi and Japanese fascism 80 years ago. We now face our own existential threat from the modern totalitarian axis, led by the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran (the “Axis”). Three qualities indispensable to our prior victories may prove decisive in the gathering storm we face:

  1. Unity of Purpose
  2. A Clear Strategic Goal
  3. Individual Commitment and Courage

As we honor the bravery of the greatest generation, all three of these essential elements of victory are under extreme stress, and if they break, we lose.

“We” includes the United States, NATO, and our sister Western democracies, but also Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan (“the Allies”). Israel and Ukraine’s defensive wars are early battles in the global conflict between freedom and democracy on one side and totalitarianism, military expansion, and, yes, Axis colonialism on the other. Whether that war is fought through arms, training, and intelligence support to brave warriors of Israel and Ukraine, in the cyber and information spaces, and through diplomatic and economic efforts or — much worse — with the blood and treasure of our children, depends on decisions we make now.

When the history of World War Three is written, it likely will be deemed to have started in February 2014, when Russia illegally invaded Crimea, sovereign territory of Ukraine. Ill-advised statements and weak deterrence from President Obama emboldened Putin to seize part of Europe by force, and President Trump spent his term undermining NATO and cozying up to Putin. Presidents Trump and Biden failed to arm and support Ukraine sufficiently to deter further Russian aggression and co-authored our catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. While President Biden has supported Israel and Ukraine, political decisions by the Democratic President and Republican House of Representatives have left those brave nations, Taiwan, and the Axis wondering whether America can be relied upon.

With this recent history, can we still right our national ship before it’s too late? We can, if we return to the principles that defeated totalitarianism the last time.

Unity of Purpose

Churchill famously observed that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” The last few years have seen our leaders prioritizing their own political fortunes over defeating our enemies. Whomever leads us next — and I must confess I do not much like either of our current choices — neither will ever run again and, as such, can and must put partisanship behind them and unify our nation. I’m old enough to remember when partisanship (mostly) stopped at the water’s edge. We must get back there.

Let’s demand that our next president unify America and the West behind a single, overriding purpose. But what is it?

A Clear Strategic Goal

After Pearl Harbor, the singular goal of the greatest generation was to defeat global fascism. During most of my Cold War CIA career, our steadfast national goal was defeating the Soviet Union’s totalitarian empire building (speaking of colonialism). After 9/11/2001, we single-mindedly sought to dismantle the global Islamic jihadist terror network and prevent another catastrophic attack.

Recently, we have lost our way on the global stage and — a central lesson of the 20th Century — when America loses its way, the world burns. The West must dedicate itself, right now, to the following proposition:

Western democracy must defeat the totalitarian Axis. Full Stop. We waver — we lose. We equivocate — we lose. We fail to maintain focus — we lose.

Individual Commitment and Courage

Each new generation challenges their elders. It is not just a rite of passage but necessary — like the occasional forest burn to renew the soil. And let’s face it, boomers like me will not fight the next global war (although I will do what I can). This will be our children’s war and, if we don’t act quickly, their children’s. Are they up to it?

I think yes, if, but only if, they are given a compelling reason to fight, in a language they understand, by messengers they respect. After 9/11, the CIA hiring pipeline was overwhelmed with young volunteers and US military recruitment skyrocketed. Ukrainians flocked home and into danger after Russia’s genocidal attack, and young Israelis ran to the sound of the guns after the Hamas atrocities of October 7, 2023. Our young people will fight if properly motivated, but so much better to avoid inflicting such life-changing horror on them.

So, here’s the formula: 1 + 2 avoids 3.

If the United States and the West can find the unity of purpose and clear strategic goal we’ve been lacking, and we communicate these effectively — through words and deeds — to our own people and our Axis enemies, we can still, I believe, avoid condemning more generations to global war.

But the clock is ticking.

About The Author

Bryan Cunningham serves as the Executive Director of UCI's Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute, focusing on addressing technical, legal, and policy challenges to combat cyber threats, protect privacy and civil liberties, and ensure public safety and national security. A recognized expert in cybersecurity law and policy, Cunningham is a former White House lawyer and adviser who frequently appears on major media outlets like Bloomberg, ABC, CBS, CNN, and FOX.

With extensive experience in senior U.S. government roles, Cunningham served as Deputy Legal Adviser to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and spent six years in the Clinton Administration as a senior CIA officer and federal prosecutor. He played a key role in drafting the Homeland Security Act and contributed significantly to the first National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. Cunningham has also provided legal advice to high-level government officials on intelligence, terrorism, and cybersecurity matters.

Currently, Cunningham was the founding vice-chair of the American Bar Association Cyber Security Privacy Task Force and has received the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. He has also been involved with the National Academy of Sciences, the Markle Foundation, and the Bipartisan Policy Center, and has authored key legal and ethics chapters in cybersecurity textbooks.

Follow Bryan on X (formerly Twitter) at or via Linkedin.

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