The troubles we see

This year’s Council on Foreign Relations Preventive Priorities Survey was published this morning. It annually surveys the globe for a total of 30 Tier 1, 2 and 3 priorities for the United States. Tier 1s have a high or moderate impact on US interests or a high or moderate likelihood (above 50-50). Tier 2s can have low likelihood but high impact on US interests, moderate (50-50) likelihood and moderate impact on US interests, or high likelihood and low impact on US interests. Tier 3s are all the rest. Data is crowdsourced from a gaggle of experts, including me.

We aren’t going to be telling you anything you don’t know this year, but the exercise is still instructive. The two new Tier 1 contingencies are Russian intervention in Ukraine and heightened tensions in Israel/Palestine. A new Tier 2 priority is Kurdish violence within Turkey. I don’t believe I voted for that one. Ebola made it only to Tier 3, as did political unrest in China and possible succession problems in Thailand. I had Ebola higher than that.

Not surprisingly, the top slot (high likelihood and high impact) goes to ISIS. Military confrontation in the South China Sea moved up to Tier 1. Internal instability in Pakistan moved down, as did political instability in Jordan. Six issues fell off the list: conflict in Somalia, a China/India clash, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo Bangladesh and conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Remaining in Tier 1 are a mass casualty attack on the US homeland (hard to remove that one), a serious cyberattack (that’s likely to be perennial too), a North Korea crisis, and an Israeli attack on Iran. Syria and Afghanistan remain in Tier 2 (I think I had Syria higher than that).

The Greater Middle East looms large in this list. Tier 2 is all Greater Middle East, including Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen (in addition to Tier 1 priorities Israel/Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine). That makes 11 out of 30, all in the top two tiers. Saudi monarchy succession is not even mentioned. Nor is Bahrain.

Sub-Saharan Africa makes it only into Tier 3. Latin America and much of Southeast Asia escape mention.

There is a question in my mind whether the exclusively country-by-country approach of this survey makes sense. It is true of course that problems in the Middle East vary from country to country, but there are also some common threads: Islamic extremism, weak and fragile states, exclusionary governance, demographic challenges and economic failure. From a policy response perspective, it may make more sense to focus on those than to try to define “contingencies” country by country. If you really wanted to prevent some of these things from happening, you would surely have to broaden the focus beyond national borders. Russian expansionism into Russian-speaking territories on its periphery might be another more thematic way of defining contingencies.

One of the key factors in foreign policy is entirely missing from this list: domestic American politics and the difficulties it creates for a concerted posture in international affairs. Just to offer a couple of examples: failure to continue to pay Afghanistan’s security sector bills, Congressional passage of new Iran sanctions before the P5+1 negotiations are completed, or a decision by President Obama to abandon entirely support for the Syrian opposition. The survey ignores American “agency” in determining whether contingencies happen, or not. That isn’t the world I live in.

For my Balkans readers: no, you are not on the list, and you haven’t been for a long time so far as I can tell. In fact, it is hard to picture how any contingency today in the Balkans could make it even to Tier 3. That’s the good news. But it also means you should not be looking to Washington for solutions to your problems. Brussels and your own capitals are the places to start.

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