U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term at a critical moment in world affairs -- al Qaeda raising its head in North Africa, President Bashar al-Assad possibly preparing to use chemical weapons in Syria, Iran moving toward the nuclear weapons threshold, and tensions rising in Asia. An unstable world promises to present the president with many challenges in the next four years, and his advisors are already grappling with how to confront them.
Some looming challenges -- like the America's debt or China's rise -- have been the focus of a good deal of attention. However, low-probability but high-impact "black-swan" events could also define Obama's second term, diverting the president from his intended foreign-policy agenda. These events would be so catastrophic that he needs to take steps now to minimize the risk that they might occur.
Here are some of the black swans that could upend the Obama administration's agenda over the next four years:
Confrontation over Korea
There is a serious risk of an acute U.S.-China confrontation over -- or even a direct military conflict on -- the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean regime is facing an existential internal crisis. Under such conditions, it is prone to lashing out at neighboring states or engaging in other forms of risky behavior. Although it seems strong, it is also dependent on China's support and vulnerable to quick-onset instability. If Washington and Beijing fail to coordinate and communicate before a collapse begins, we could face the possibility of a U.S.-China confrontation of almost unimaginable consequences.
The Obama administration has sought to sharpen Pyongyang's choices, pushing it to recognize that it can't have nuclear weapons and genuine national strength. To reduce the risks of a confrontation with China over the possibility of a North Korean collapse, the administration should pursue four objectives with Beijing. The countries should disclose information on the location, operation, and capabilities of each other's military forces that could soon intervene in North Korea; share intelligence on the known or suspected location of North Korea's weapons-of-mass-destruction assets; initiate planning for the evacuation of foreign citizens in South Korea; and discuss possible measures to avoid an acute humanitarian disaster among North Korean citizens seeking to flee.
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