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The Crisis Manager’s Cheat Sheet for 2016

Next year will have no shortage of war and conflict. Now’s the time to start setting priorities.

President Barack Obama May 1, 2011. 
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In September, President Barack Obama rallied more than 50 countries to expand their U.N. peacekeeping commitments, claiming that more funds, troops, and modern equipment could “prevent mass killing, and ensure that peace agreements are more than words on paper.”

Obama was right to suggest that greater military and diplomatic support for conflict prevention can produce more peaceful, cost-effective political outcomes. He neglected, however, to specify which ongoing or potential areas of conflict and political instability he thought the international community should focus on. It’s a challenge for political leaders’ would-be peacekeepers to set clear priorities, but it’s also a necessity, especially for the United States, which has greater military capabilities, financial resources, and diplomatic reach than any other global power.

To help U.S. policymakers prioritize, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) recently conducted its eighth annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS). The PPS identifies plausible contingencies and ranks them based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming calendar year and their potential impact on U.S. interests. (See here for all previous years’ surveys, and to review and evaluate the relative accuracy of the 2015 PPS.)

We at CPA conduct this survey by first harnessing social media, blogs, and newsletters to solicit nearly 1,000 suggestions on possible conflicts that could erupt or worsen in the coming year. The most cited suggestions were then narrowed down to 30 with the help of country and regional experts. A randomized survey was then sent to almost 6,000 U.S. government officials, foreign policy experts, and academics asking them to estimate the likelihood that each of the 30 contingencies will occur, and the likely impact on U.S. interests. Finally, the survey results were scored according to their ranking and sorted into three preventive priority tiers: high, moderate, and low.

Unsurprisingly, instability and conflict in the Middle East dominated the results again this year. The Syrian civil war replaced the violence in Iraq as the number one concern, and was judged by the respondents as the only contingency to be both highly likely to occur and to have a high impact on U.S. interests. Political fracturing in Libya, political violence in Turkey, and instability in Egypt all rose in their ranking from last year. Meanwhile, an armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and other Southeast Asian claimants, renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine, and violence and instability in Nigeria related to Boko Haram were all downgraded.

This year’s PPS includes five new contingencies: political instability in European Union countries stemming from the influx of refugees and migrants, tensions between Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states, political instability in Saudi Arabia, escalation of Islamist militancy and violence in Russia, and political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although contingencies in Iran and Yemen were included in last year’s survey, they have significantly evolved. In light of the nuclear agreement with Iran, a risk of military strikes against Iran was replaced by a risk of confrontation arising from its support for militant groups in regional conflicts. The risk of the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has shifted to the country’s intensifying civil war and external intervention.

Five contingencies included in last year’s survey were not included this year: political unrest in China, unrest and political instability in Sudan, political instability and unrest in Thailand, political instability stemming from Ebola in West Africa, and an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Here are the full results of the survey:

Tier One: Contingencies judged high preventive priorities for U.S. policymakers

  • intensification of the civil war in Syria resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers
  • a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally
  • a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • a severe crisis with or in North Korea caused by nuclear or ballistic missile weapons testing, a military provocation, or internal political instability
  • political instability in EU countries stemming from the influx of refugees and migrants, with heightened civil unrest, isolated terrorist attacks, or violence against refugees and migrants
  • continued political fracturing of Libya, with heightened violence and further military intervention by Arab states
  • heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories leading to attacks against civilians, widespread protests, and armed confrontations
  • intensified political violence in Turkey involving various Kurdish groups and Turkish security forces, exacerbated by spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • increased political instability in Egypt, including terrorist attacks, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula
  • increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the strengthening of the Taliban insurgency
  • continued fracturing of Iraq due to territorial gains by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and ongoing Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence

Tier Two: Contingencies judged mid-level preventive priorities for U.S. policymakers

  • escalation of organized crime–related violence in Mexico, with spillover effects into the United States
  • increased internal violence and political instability in Pakistan caused by multiple militant groups, primarily Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
  • increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militias and Ukrainian security forces, with potential overt Russian military intervention
  • growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan, triggered by spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • intensified civil war in Yemen as a result of fighting among national loyalist forces, Houthi rebels, and intervening outside forces
  • potential confrontation between Iran and the United States or one of its partners or allies over Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and support of militant proxy groups
  • an armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan, stemming from tensions over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which draws in the United States
  • an armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants, which draws in the United States
  • increased tensions between Russia and NATO member states leading to an unintentional or deliberate military confrontation

Tier Three: Contingencies judged low preventive priorities for U.S. policymakers

  • a severe India-Pakistan military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir
  • political instability in Saudi Arabia caused by growing economic stress, tensions within the royal family, and the cost of war in Yemen
  • intensified sectarian violence and political instability in Nigeria related to Boko Haram, with potential spillover into nearby countries
  • escalation of Islamist militancy and violence in Russia, including civil unrest in the North Caucasus region
  • protracted civil war in South Sudan stemming from political and ethnic divisions
  • escalation of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic between the ex-Seleka rebels and anti-balaka militias
  • an intensification of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, potentially exacerbated by postelection political instability
  • deepening economic crisis and political instability in Venezuela, leading to heightened civil unrest
  • growing political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ahead of scheduled elections, resulting in widespread violence and destabilizing effects on neighboring countries

Although CPA limits the survey to 30 contingencies, it also solicits from respondents other contingencies that they believe warrant concern, but were not included. These “out of the box” concerns are often of the greatest interest to the U.S. intelligence community and policymakers:

  • growing violence in Somalia and Kenya resulting from increased attacks by al-Shabab
  • increasing gang-related violence in Central America
  • widespread unrest in Zimbabwe surrounding the electoral process and/or the death of President Robert Mugabe
  • competing territorial claims in the Arctic
  • potential mass atrocities in Burundi
  • a high mortality pandemic affecting global trade/travel
  • increased tensions with China across the Taiwan Strait
  • violence and attacks in Bangladesh against foreigners and secularists
  • civil unrest in South Africa due to continuing corruption, xenophobia, and inequality
  • breakdown in the peace process between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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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