What threatens the United States?

The Council on Foreign Relations published its Preventive Priorities Survey for 2012 last week.  What does it tell us about the threats the United States faces in this second decade of the 21st century?

Looking at the ten Tier 1 contingencies “that directly threaten the U.S. homeland, are likely to trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten the supplies of critical U.S. strategic resources,” only three are defined as military threats:

  • a major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces
  • an Iranian nuclear crisis (e.g., surprise advances in nuclear weapons/delivery capability, Israeli response)
  • a U.S.-Pakistan military confrontation, triggered by a terror attack or U.S. counterterror operations

Two others might also involve a military threat, though the first is more likely from a terrorist source:

  • a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or on a treaty ally
  • a severe North Korean crisis (e.g., armed provocations, internal political instability, advances in nuclear weapons/ICBM capability)

The remaining five involve mainly non-military contingencies:

  • a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure (e.g., telecommunications, electrical power, gas and oil, water supply, banking and finance, transportation, and emergency services)
  • a significant increase in drug trafficking violence in Mexico that spills over into the United States
  • severe internal instability in Pakistan, triggered by a civil-military crisis or terror attacks
  • political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers global oil supplies
  • intensification of the European sovereign debt crisis that leads to the collapse of the euro, triggering a double-dip U.S. recession and further limiting budgetary resources

Five of the Tier 2 contingencies “that affect countries of strategic importance to the United States but that do not involve a mutual-defense treaty commitment” are also at least partly military in character, though they don’t necessarily involve U.S. forces:

  • a severe Indo-Pak crisis that carries risk of military escalation, triggered by major terror attack
  • rising tension/naval incident in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Israel
  • a major erosion of security and governance gains in Afghanistan with intensification of insurgency or terror attacks
  • a South China Sea armed confrontation over competing territorial claims
  • a mass casualty attack on Israel

But Tier 2 also involves predominantly non-military threats to U.S. interests, albeit with potential for military consequences:

  • political instability in Egypt with wider regional implications
  • an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Syria, with potential outside intervention
  • an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Yemen
  • rising sectarian tensions and renewed violence in Iraq
  • growing instability in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action

Likewise Tier 3 contingencies “that could have severe/widespread humanitarian consequences but in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States” include military threats to U.S. interests:

  • military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan
  • increased conflict in Somalia, with continued outside intervention
  • renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia
  • an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, possibly over Nagorno Karabakh

And some non-military threats:

  • heightened political instability and sectarian violence in Nigeria
  • political instability in Venezuela surrounding the October 2012 elections or post-Chavez succession
  • political instability in Kenya surrounding the August 2012 elections
  • an intensification of political instability and violence in Libya
  • violent election-related instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • political instability/resurgent ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan

I don’t mean to suggest in any way that the military is irrelevant to these “non-military” threats.  But it is not the only tool needed to meet these contingencies, or even to meet the military ones.  And if you begin thinking about preventive action, which is what the CFR unit that publishes this material does, there are clearly major non-military dimensions to what is needed to meet even the threats that take primarily military form.

And for those who read this blog because it publishes sometimes on the Balkans, please note:  the region are nowhere to be seen on this list of 30 priorities for the United States.


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2 thoughts on “What threatens the United States?”

  1. “For those who read this blog because it publishes sometimes on the Balkans, please note: the region are nowhere to be seen on this list of 30 priorities for the United States”.

    Well, honestly, Balkans do not represent a region of strategic interest to the United States in that a potential escalation of conflict there cannot threaten national security of the U.S (with the exception of Turkey which also is, albeit not exclusively, a Balkan state). Such a conflict could be a reason for concern to Washington if it would be of sufficiently high magnitude and intensity to be able to spill outside the region itself, i.e. further into the continent.

    However, nowadays, in contrast to the time of the collapse of the Former Yugoslavia, there is no military power of so large size and armament to be (mis)used for launching large-scale war between two or more nations, as was then-Yugoslav People’s Army. National armies of all the countries in the region are today, fortunately, too weak to commit an armed invasion against any neighbor state and are thus mainly concentrated on protection of their own territories. The worst that may happen in the Balkans under existing circumstances is therefore not interstate warfare but intrastate conflicts as a result of growing socioeconomic discontent within at least some countries of the region.

    Of course, we cannot rule out a possibility that such a conflict might escalate into an interethnic civil war in some areas with mixed population, but even in that case it is highly unlikely to precipitate into anything similar to what we were witnesses of in 1990s.

    From the perspective of the U.S. national interests and security, conflicts of such kind cannot jeopardize the country either directly (especially not so) or indirectly, i.e. by posing a serious threat to any of America’s strategic European allies. Only in the context of a broader crisis in Europe as a whole, Balkans could play a more important role. Otherwise, Washington is hardly going to be involved in Balkan affairs beyond providing purely logistic and/or advisory support to its EU partners.

  2. Not only is the Balkan Peninsula ignored, but even Russia is mentioned only in the context of Georgia. No wonder Konuzin is making such a fuss about the “humanitarian aid” they’re ostentatiously trying to drive into Kosovo – it’s been a long time since there was any attention paid to Russia, except for recent suggestions that the current regime may not last forever. (Although … when Shoigu was asked, years and years ago, what would prevent Putin from suffering the same fate as Yeltsin, he said, “WE’ll fight.” But that was a long time ago, of course.)

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