Micah Zenko

Cloudy With a Chance of Conflict

We asked 1,200 U.S. government officials and experts what they were most worried about in 2014. Here's what they said.


After 12 years of war, 6,711 troops killed, and costs to taxpayers projected to be at least $4 trillion, Americans’ message to the White House and Capitol Hill is loud and clear: less involvement abroad (for now). In a December poll conducted by Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 52 percent of Americans said the United States "should mind its own business internationally," the highest percentage since that question was first asked in 1964. This hesitancy is prevalent throughout America — even as its friends want Uncle Sam’s bombs and missiles to lead from the front. In a September Ipsos Global @dvisor poll administered in 15 countries (all U.S. allies or partners), 28 percent of all respondents supported U.S.-led military action in Syria; among Americans alone, support was lower at 27 percent. Nevertheless, there is limited public appetite for deeper U.S. military engagement in the world’s problems.

Given the limited tolerance among Americans for brokering regional or global disputes — and diminishing appropriated resources — how can U.S. officials focus their time and attention on the most urgent and important sources of conflict or instability? Unfortunately, despite all the early warning analysis done throughout the U.S. government, there is no systematic process to forecast potentially threatening developments that could require direct U.S. diplomatic or military involvement. Nor is there a routine system for bringing such information to the attention of senior officials in a timely manner.

To help U.S. officials and policymakers focus on the most important conflict prevention demands, the CFR’s Center for Preventive Action produced its sixth annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS), which evaluates ongoing and potential conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year and their impact on U.S. interests. (See here for all previous year’s surveys, and here to evaluate the accuracy of the 2013 PPS.)

A word on PPS methodology. First, we harnessed social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) to solicit a few hundred suggestions of contingencies from anyone with Internet access, which helped us to bypass the media filter. Second, with input from our CFR colleagues, we distilled the crowd-sourced results down to 30 contingencies deemed most plausible to erupt or escalate in 2014. Third, those 30 contingencies were sent to a broad selection of 1,200 government officials, foreign policy experts, and academics, who rated their likelihood of occurrence in 2014 and potential impact on U.S. interests. Here are the results:

Tier One: Situations that should be the most worrisome for U.S. policymakers:

  • Intensification of the Syrian civil war including possible limited military intervention
  • A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability
  • A mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally
  • A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities
  • Growing violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the drawdown of coalition forces and/or contested national elections
  • Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan
  • Strengthening of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulting from continued political instability in Yemen and/or backlash from U.S. counterterrorism operations
  • Civil war in Iraq due to rising Sunni-Shia sectarian violence
  • Growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan triggered by spillover from the Syrian civil war

Tier Two: Situations either less likely to occur, or are in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States:

  • Further deterioration of the political situation in Egypt resulting in significantly increased violence, especially in the Sinai Peninsula
  • Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • Continuing conflict in Somalia and intensification of al-Shabab’s terrorist attacks on neighboring countries
  • Continuing political instability and growing militancy in Libya
  • Escalation of drug-related violence in Mexico
  • A severe Indo-Pakistani military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir
  • An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
  • An armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants to disputed maritime areas
  • Increasing sectarian violence and heightened political instability in Nigeria
  • Escalating violence and risk of mass atrocities in the Central African Republic as a result of the ongoing insurgency

Tier Three: Situations the least likely to occur or would have a minimal impact on U.S. interests, if at all:

  • A Sino-Indian clash resulting from escalation of a territorial dispute and/or a military incident
  • Destabilization of Mali by militant groups with spillover effects on neighboring areas
  • Growing popular unrest and political instability in Sudan
  • Military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan triggered by border and/or resource disputes
  • Resumption of conflict in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey and the Middle East
  • Intensification of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regional spillover
  • Increased sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
  • Protracted internal violence in Bangladesh surrounding the general elections
  • Deepening political crisis in Venezuela leading to civil violence and potential regional instability
  • An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh

Finally, experts were asked to provide their own outliers for U.S. officials to keep their eye one. Among the commonly cited:

  • Growing political instability in China
  • Competing territorial claims in the Arctic
  • Rising political instability in Russia
  • Possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states
  • Growing political instability in Saudi Arabia
  • Political unrest following the death of Fidel Castro
    in Cuba
  • Renewed political instability in Bahrain
  • Third Palestinian intifada or heightened conflict between Israel and Hezbollah
  • Renewed political instability in Tunisia
  • Chinese military intervention against Taiwan
  • Rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan



Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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