Prevent what?

Most of us who work on international affairs think it would be much better to use diplomacy to prevent bad things from happening rather than waiting until the aftermath and then cleaning up after the elephants, which all too often involves expensive military action.  But what precisely would that mean?  What do we need to prevent?

The Council on Foreign Relations survey of prevention priorities for 2013 was published last week, just in time to be forgotten in the Christmas rush and New Year’s lull.  It deserves notice, as it is one of the few nonpartisan attempts to define American national security priorities.  This year’s edition was in part crowd-sourced and categorizes contingencies on two dimensions:  impact on U.S. interests (high, medium, low) and likelihood (likely, plausible, unlikely).

Syria comes out on top in both dimensions.  That’s a no-brainer for likelihood, as the civil war has already reached catastrophic dimensions and is affecting the broader region.  Judging from Paul Stares’ video introduction to the survey, U.S. interests are ranked high in part because of the risk of use or loss of chemical weapons stocks.  I’d have ranked them high because of the importance of depriving Iran of its one truly reliable ally and bridge to Hizbollah, but that’s a quibble.

CFR ranks another six contingencies as high impact on U.S. interests and only plausible rather than likely.  This isn’t so useful, but Paul’s video comes to the rescue:  an Israeli military strike on Iran that would “embroil” the U.S. and conflict with China in the East or South China seas are his picks to talk about.  I find it peculiar that CFR does not treat what I would regard as certainly a plausible if not a likely contingency:  a U.S. attack on Iran.  There are few more important decisions President Obama will need to make than whether to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Certainly it is a far more challenging decision than whether to go to war against China in the territorial disputes it is generating with U.S. allies in Pacific.  I don’t know any foreign policy experts who would advise him to go in that direction.

It is striking that few of the other “plausible” and high-impact contingencies are amenable to purely military responses:

  • a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or on a treaty ally
  • severe internal instability in Pakistan, triggered by a civil-military crisis or terror attack

It is not easy to determine the origin of cyberattacks, and not clear that a military response would be appropriate or effective.  The same is also sometimes true of mass casualty attacks; our military response to 9/11 in Afghanistan has enmired the United States in its longest war to date, one where force is proving inadequate as a solution.  It is hard to imagine any military response to internal instability in Pakistan, though CFR offers as an additional low probability contingency a possible U.S. military confrontation with Islamabad “triggered by a terror attack or U.S. counterterror operations.”

In the “moderate” impact on U.S. interests, CFR ranks as highly likely “a major erosion of security in Afghanistan resulting from coalition drawdown.”  I’d certainly have put that in high impact category, as we’ve still got 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and a significant portion of them will still be there at the end of 2013.  In the “moderate” impact but merely plausible category CFR ranks:

  • a severe Indo-Pakistan crisis that carries risk of military escalation, triggered by a major terror attack
  • a severe North Korean crisis caused by another military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities
  • a significant increase in drug trafficking violence in Mexico that spills over into the United States
  • continuing political instability and emergence of a terrorist safe haven in Libya

Again there are limits to what we can do about most of these contingencies by conventional military means.  Only a North Korea crisis caused by military provocation or threats would rank be susceptible to a primarily military response.  The others call for diplomatic and civilian responses in at least a measure equal to the possible military ones.

CFR lets two “moderate” impact contingencies languish in the low probability category that I don’t think belong there:

  • political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers global oil supplies
  • renewed unrest in the Kurdish dominated regions of Turkey and the Middle East

There is a very real possibility in Riyadh of a succession crisis, as the monarchy on the death of the king will likely move to a next generation of contenders.  Kurdish irredentist aspirations are already a big issue in Iraq and Syria.  It is hard to imagine this will not affect Iran and Turkey before the year is out.  Neither is amenable to a purely military response.

Most of the contingencies with “low” impact on U.S. interests are in Africa:

  • a deepening of violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo that involves military intervention from its neighbors
  • growing popular unrest and political instability in Sudan
  • military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan
  • renewed ethnic violence in Kenya surrounding March 2013 presidential election
  • widespread unrest in Zimbabwe surrounding the electoral process and/or the death of Robert Mugabe
  • failure of a multilateral intervention to push out Islamist groups from Mali’s north

This may tell us more about CFR and the United States than about the world.  Africa has little purchase on American sentiments, despite our half-Kenyan president.  All of these contingencies merit diplomatic attention, but none is likely to excite U.S. military responses of more than a purely emergency character, except for Mali.  If you’ve got a few Islamist terrorists, you can get some attention even if you are in Africa.

What’s missing from this list?  CFR mentions

…a third Palestinian intifada, a widespread popular unrest in China, escalation of a U.S.-Iran naval clash in the Persian Gulf, a Sino-Indian border crisis, onset of elections-related instability and violence in Ethiopia, unrest in Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro and/or incapacitation of Raul Castro, and widespread political unrest in Venezuela triggered by the death or incapacitation of Hugo Chavez.

I’d add intensification of the global economic slowdown (high probability, high impact), failure to do more about global warming (also high probability, delayed impact), demographic or financial implosion in Europe or Japan (and possibly even the U.S.), Russian crackdown on dissent, and resurgent Islamist extremism in Somalia.  But the first three of these are not one-year “contingencies,” which shows one limit of the CFR exercise.

I would also note that the world is arguably in better shape at the end of 2012 than ever before in history.  As The Spectator puts it:

Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

May it last.

One Response to Prevent what?

  1. […] we’re at it, here’s the latest Preventive Priorities Survey for 2013. Daniel Serwer unpacks and asks “what’s missing?” Hint: the world is actually pretty […]

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