The Crisis Manager’s Cheat Sheet for 2017
It’s time to start setting priorities for the coming year of war and conflict.
Speaking recently before a military-friendly audience in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Donald Trump indicated his intent to pursue a more constrained foreign policy in 2017 and beyond. “We’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn’t be fighting in,” he decried. “This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally come to an end.” Echoing noninterference perspectives more often heard in Beijing and Moscow, the president-elect further declared that “respect for mutual sovereignty helps form the basis of trust and understanding.”
Trump may aspire for a reduced U.S. global role, but international crises will emerge in the next year that test his rhetorical doctrine of restraint. To help the his administration prioritize and plan for such inevitable crises, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) recently conducted our ninth annual Preventive Priorities Survey. The survey identifies plausible contingencies and ranks them based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year and potential impact on U.S. interests. (For previous years’ surveys, see here.)
The survey’s first phase crowdsourced 2,000 suggestions via social media, blogs, and email. From these, in-house country and regional experts identified 30 possible conflicts that could erupt or worsen in 2017. We then sent a randomized survey to 7,000 U.S. government officials, foreign-policy experts, and academics asking them to estimate the likelihood that the 30 contingencies would occur, and what was their likely impact on U.S. interests. Finally, the more than 500 survey responses were scored by their ranking, and sorted into three preventive priority tiers: high, moderate, and low.
What were the takeaways? One big difference between this year’s survey and our eight previous ones is that there are fewer conflicts in the Middle East deemed “high priority” for 2017. For example, both Iraq and Libya were downgraded to “moderate” priorities for next year. Compared to 2016, four conflicts in the greater Middle East came off the list and nine new contingencies were added, only one of which was based in the Middle East.
These nine new contingencies included the risk of growing authoritarianism and political instability in the Philippines and Turkey (both new “moderate” concerns). Seven other “low priority” contingencies included: intensification of the current political crisis in Burundi, growing civil unrest and ethnic violence in Ethiopia, continued al-Shabab attacks in Somalia and neighboring countries, political instability in Thailand related to the royal succession, widespread unrest and violence in Zimbabwe, political instability in Colombia stemming from a breakdown of the peace agreement with the FARC, and a new outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Similarly, nine contingencies from last year’s survey vanished: political instability in Egypt, escalation of organized crime–related violence in Mexico, increased sectarian violence in Lebanon, growing political instability in Jordan, a potential confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or allies over Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts, political instability in Saudi Arabia, an escalation of Islamist militancy in Russia, an escalation of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, and an intensification of sectarian violence in Myanmar.
Finally, one surprising contingency did not make it into our survey, as it fell outside of our foreign-policy remit. When we asked the 7,000 officials and experts to write in their own contingencies outside of the 30 that we provided, many highlighted the dangers of political instability and violence within the United States. For example, some respondents listed:
- “internal unrest within the United States due to rising populism on the right and left”
- “Donald Trump is elected”
- “domestic U.S. political instability! Post-election and continued rhetoric of violence and extremism”
Here are the full results of the survey:
Tier One: Seven contingencies judged high preventive priorities for U.S. policymakers
- A severe crisis in North Korea caused by nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapons testing, a military provocation, or internal political instability
- A deliberate or unintended military confrontation between Russia and NATO members, stemming from assertive Russian behavior in Eastern Europe
- A highly disruptive cyberattack on S. critical infrastructure
- A mass casualty terrorist attack on the S. homeland or a treaty ally by either a foreign or homegrown terrorist(s)
- Increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from a continued strengthening of the Taliban insurgency and potential government collapse
- Intensification of violence between Turkey and various Kurdish armed groups within Turkey and in neighboring countries, including Iran, Iraq, and Syria
- Intensification of the civil war in Syria resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers
Tier Two: Thirteen contingencies judged mid-level preventive priorities
- An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan, stemming from tensions over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu 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 — Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, or Vietnam — which draws in the United States
- Political instability in EU countries exacerbated by the influx of refugees and migrants, with heightened civil unrest, isolated terrorist attacks, or violence against refugees and migrants
- A severe India-Pakistan military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir
- Further fracturing of Iraq caused by political differences and violent clashes among Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities, worsened by the presence of the Islamic State
- Heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians leading to attacks against civilians, widespread protests, and armed confrontations
- Continued political fracturing in Libya, worsened by the presence of the Islamic State, with heightened violence and further external military intervention
- Increased internal violence and political instability in Pakistan caused by multiple militant groups and tension between the government and opposition parties
- Growing political instability in the Philippines stemming from opposition to the government’s domestic and foreign policy agenda
- Increased political instability in Turkey stemming from growing authoritarianism after the July 2016 coup attempt
- Increased violence in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militias and Ukrainian security forces, with potential overt Russian military intervention
- Intensified civil war in Yemen stemming from the Saudi-led military intervention against Houthi rebels that further fractures the country
- Deepening economic crisis and political instability in Venezuela leading to violent civil unrest
Tier Three: Then contingencies judged low preventive priorities
- Intensification of political crisis in Burundi and escalation of violence among state forces, opposition groups, and civilians
- Growing political instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to delayed elections, resulting in widespread violence
- Growing civil unrest and ethnic violence in Ethiopia in response to government repression
- Intensified violence and political instability in Nigeria related to conflicts with Boko Haram in the northeast and other conflicts in the Delta region
- Continued al-Shabab attacks in Somalia and neighboring countries
- Intensification of the civil war in South Sudan stemming from political and ethnic divisions, with destabilizing spillover effects into neighboring countries
- Political instability in Thailand resulting from the uncertainty of royal succession — following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016 — and continued military rule
- Widespread unrest and violence in Zimbabwe related to the succession of President Robert Mugabe
- Political instability in Colombia following the collapse of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC, causing a resumption of the insurgency
- An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region
Photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON/Pool/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.