The world according to CFR

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) survey of prevention priorities for 2014 is out today.  Crowdsourced, it is pretty much the definition of elite conventional wisdom. Pundits of all stripes contribute.

The top tier includes contingencies with high impact and moderate likelihood (intensification of the Syrian civil war, a cyberattack on critical US infrastructure, attacks on the Iranian nuclear program or evidence of nuclear weapons intent, a mass casualty terrorist attack on the US or an ally, or a severe North Korean crisis) as well as those with moderate impact and high likelihood (in a word “instability” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq or Jordan).  None merited the designation high impact and high likelihood, though many of us might have suggested Syria, Iraq  and Pakistan for that category.

The second tier (moderate impact, moderate likelihood as well as low impact, high likelihood and high impact, low likelihood) is likewise dominated by concern about internal stability:  Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, Libya and Mexico as well as Nigeria and the Central African Republic.  But it also includes some inter-state issues:  confrontation between India and Pakistan as well as confrontation between China and its neighbors in the East and South China Seas.

The third tier is also mostly about internal stability, albeit with causes and consequences that cross borders:  Mali, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Bengladesh, Venezuela.  But it includes some interstate and multistate issues:  a clash between China and India, between Sudan and South Sudan, conflict involving Kurdish-populated areas, and war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Note only one of these issues involves the Western Hemisphere.  The top tier is still mostly Middle East.  The second and third tiers are mostly Africa and Asia.  Few of the 30 contingencies directly affect the vital national security interests of the United States (even in the top tier many of the impacts are indirect).  None involve a conventional military attack on the homeland.

What didn’t make the list?  I found this an interesting array, call it the nonconventional wisdom:

  • 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 action against Taiwan
  • rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan

Dropping off the 2013 list were Kenya, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, all internal stability issues.  Internal instability in South Sudan, already in progress, is not mentioned.

Balkans friends take note:  you are nowhere on the list or even among the candidates for the list. That might be the best news for those who live there.  For all the passion the Balkans stir, their ongoing challenges (the Macedonia name issue, Bosnia’s dysfunctional state, still incompletely settled relations between Serbia and Kosovo) are far less important to the United States than even rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan.

It’s not a pretty world.  Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen and quite a few other places are suffering mightily.  But it is one where states going to war has become rare.  In Europe and Latin America it is becoming unthinkable. Asia and Latin America have seen quite a few successful and relatively peaceful democratic transitions in recent decades.  Democracy may be at a standstill for the moment, but more or less democracies are now close to a majority among the world’s more substantial states, for the first time in history I imagine.

No one will be surprised if I note the relative uselessness of military instruments to dealing with well over half the CFR contingencies (counting the interstate conflicts in which the US would not want to get involved).  Civilian instruments are increasingly important to national security.  Click on that book title to the right to find out more.

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