Cloudy With a Chance of Conflict

We asked 1,200 U.S. government officials and experts what they were most worried about in 2014. Here's what they said.

After 12 years of war, 6,711 troops killed, and costs to taxpayers projected to be at least $4 trillion, Americans' message to the White House and Capitol Hill is loud and clear: less involvement abroad (for now). In a December poll conducted by Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 52 percent of Americans said the United States "should mind its own business internationally," the highest percentage since that question was first asked in 1964. This hesitancy is prevalent throughout America -- even as its friends want Uncle Sam's bombs and missiles to lead from the front. In a September Ipsos Global @dvisor poll administered in 15 countries (all U.S. allies or partners), 28 percent of all respondents supported U.S.-led military action in Syria; among Americans alone, support was lower at 27 percent. Nevertheless, there is limited public appetite for deeper U.S. military engagement in the world's problems.

Given the limited tolerance among Americans for brokering regional or global disputes -- and diminishing appropriated resources -- how can U.S. officials focus their time and attention on the most urgent and important sources of conflict or instability? Unfortunately, despite all the early warning analysis done throughout the U.S. government, there is no systematic process to forecast potentially threatening developments that could require direct U.S. diplomatic or military involvement. Nor is there a routine system for bringing such information to the attention of senior officials in a timely manner.

To help U.S. officials and policymakers focus on the most important conflict prevention demands, the CFR's Center for Preventive Action produced its sixth annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS), which evaluates ongoing and potential conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year and their impact on U.S. interests. (See here for all previous year's surveys, and here to evaluate the accuracy of the 2013 PPS.)

A word on PPS methodology. First, we harnessed social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) to solicit a few hundred suggestions of contingencies from anyone with Internet access, which helped us to bypass the media filter. Second, with input from our CFR colleagues, we distilled the crowd-sourced results down to 30 contingencies deemed most plausible to erupt or escalate in 2014. Third, those 30 contingencies were sent to a broad selection of 1,200 government officials, foreign policy experts, and academics, who rated their likelihood of occurrence in 2014 and potential impact on U.S. interests. Here are the results:

Tier One: Situations that should be the most worrisome for U.S. policymakers:

  • Intensification of the Syrian civil war including possible limited military intervention
  • A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability
  • A mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally
  • A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities
  • Growing violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the drawdown of coalition forces and/or contested national elections
  • Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan
  • Strengthening of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulting from continued political instability in Yemen and/or backlash from U.S. counterterrorism operations
  • Civil war in Iraq due to rising Sunni-Shia sectarian violence
  • Growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan triggered by spillover from the Syrian civil war

Tier Two: Situations either less likely to occur, or are in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States:

  • Further deterioration of the political situation in Egypt resulting in significantly increased violence, especially in the Sinai Peninsula
  • Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war
  • Continuing conflict in Somalia and intensification of al-Shabab's terrorist attacks on neighboring countries
  • Continuing political instability and growing militancy in Libya
  • Escalation of drug-related violence in Mexico
  • A severe Indo-Pakistani military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir
  • An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
  • An armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants to disputed maritime areas
  • Increasing sectarian violence and heightened political instability in Nigeria
  • Escalating violence and risk of mass atrocities in the Central African Republic as a result of the ongoing insurgency

Tier Three: Situations the least likely to occur or would have a minimal impact on U.S. interests, if at all:

  • A Sino-Indian clash resulting from escalation of a territorial dispute and/or a military incident
  • Destabilization of Mali by militant groups with spillover effects on neighboring areas
  • Growing popular unrest and political instability in Sudan
  • Military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan triggered by border and/or resource disputes
  • Resumption of conflict in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey and the Middle East
  • Intensification of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regional spillover
  • Increased sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine State
  • Protracted internal violence in Bangladesh surrounding the general elections
  • Deepening political crisis in Venezuela leading to civil violence and potential regional instability
  • An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh

Finally, experts were asked to provide their own outliers for U.S. officials to keep their eye one. Among the commonly cited:

  • 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 intervention against Taiwan
  • Rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan



Micah Zenko

Conflict Avoidance

President Obama's National Security Strategy aims to prevent the emergence of wars. So why won't the White House get behind its own strategy?

On Friday, Nov. 29, President Barack Obama released a letter to congressional leaders which he wrote to "inform you of my intent to release a new National Security Strategy in early 2014." The National Security Strategy (NSS) was first required as part of the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization legislation of 1986. The law mandated that the president submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security interests, goals, and objectives, as well as the adequacy of capabilities to achieve them. (Since 2002, presidents have submitted them every four years.) The NSS is intended to provide strategic yet prioritized guidance from which national security agencies base their own guidance documents, budgets, directives, and policies. For the Pentagon, this includes the National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy, Guidance for the Employment of the Forces, and others. But this theoretical flow of guidance documents is rarely indicative of how things work in practice. One very senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration told me that he never saw the infamous "preemptive war" NSS of 2002 before it appeared on the White House's website.

To be fair, there's a lot to read. Because each NSS is frankly too long -- the first comprehensive one developed under President Ronald Reagan was 41 pages; the latest was 52 pages -- they tend to be remembered (if at all) for one or two notable highlights. For example, Obama's 2010 NSS was characterized by analysts as the anti-Bush strategy, which highlighted America's restraint in the world and renewed partnerships with friends and allies. The last paragraph under the "Invest in the Capacity of Strong and Capable Partners" section on page 27 declared the objective: "Prevent the Emergence of Conflict." This includes a few generalized goals that "will help us diminish military risk, act before crises and conflicts erupt, and ensure that governments are better able to serve their people."

Conflict prevention's placement as a policy goal deep within the NSS, and the lack of specificity about how this is pursued, says a lot about how the U.S. government thinks about preventing future wars. In a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2009, President Obama asserted: "one of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow." However, as debates about future roles and missions unfold, the military's theory and practice of conflict prevention remains as under-prioritized and under-developed as in 2009. President Obama should elevate the importance of conflict prevention in the next NSS, and the military should act accordingly in terms of future strategies, training, education, and doctrine.

The common refrain one hears from military officials is that the mere presence of U.S. forces in any given region has a stabilizing effect, and deters the outbreak or escalation of conflict. Of course, this assumption is subjective depending on the intended audience's interpretation. Consider the Pentagon's reaction to China's unexpected and confusing declaration of an Air Defense Identification (ADIZ) that extends over disputed territories in the East China Sea. In response, a U.S. official soon announced: "We will ensure our view of how the U.S. operates in that area is clear. At some point there will be something to demonstrate that." It didn't take long. Just days later, the United States flew two unarmed B-52s through the ADIZ without informing China. U.S. military officials understandably contend that such routine flights are intended to assure its ally Japan, and emphasize the principle of free navigation in open seas or airspace. Of course, Chinese officials might perceive these moves as an aggressive escalatory response to Beijing's announcement, which itself followed Japan's own ADIZ declaration.

The potential for misperception in the East China Sea is heightened by what little insights Pentagon officials have into Chinese military thinking and decision making, despite years of military exchanges. As Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently acknowledged of his Chinese counterparts: "What their motives are, ambitions are, I wouldn't even pretend to guess those." The B-52 flights are known as Phase Zero, or "shaping" operations, "to dissuade or deter potential adversaries and to assure or solidify relationships with friends and allies." Yet, Welsh's admission gets to a core dilemma in preventing an outbreak of hostilities: How can the U.S. military influence the opinion of Chinese leaders, if it does not know their motivations?

Beyond "shaping" regional environments, there are a range of discrete programs that military officials count toward preventing conflict: training of foreign military officers within the United States, conducting joint training exercises, and other capacity building efforts for partner and neutral country's militaries. Much of this falls under the broad umbrella of geographic combatant commands' (COCOMs) theater security cooperation plans. According to many COCOM officials and staffers, these are often developed and implemented without due sensitivity to specific sources or "drivers" of instability or conflict, namely what triggers could lead to an outbreak of hostilities. Of course, no one's infallible: A fitting example of how these programs can backfire is Gen. Amadou Sanogo, who, in 2012, led a coup in Mali after participating in several military education training programs in the United States.

The first step to rectifying the U.S. military's under appreciation for conflict prevention is for President Obama to provide a clear statement of support near the top of the 2014 NSS. Without reframing U.S. national security around anticipating, preventing, and mitigating conflicts that bear on U.S. interests, the military cannot undertake corresponding changes in its own strategic guidance documents. Of course, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are lead actors in "upstream" prevention, but only the military has the funding, personnel, planning capacity, geographic reach, and relationships with foreign security officials to have an immediate impact on the ground.

There also needs to be further prioritization of conflict prevention in military doctrine and directives. For example, there is a Pentagon directive for stability operations (number 3000.05) that mandates: "Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct with proficiency equivalent to combat operations." This sentence, first published in 2005, signaled to all military agencies the importance of stability operations, and outlined the 83 specific tasks that are supposed to be developed and implemented in a coherent manner. There is no comparable directive for conflict prevention, but if defense leaders believe preventing conflict is as important as winning wars, there should be.

Conflict prevention should also be a point of emphasis in the professional military education system. You won't find Barnett Rubin's 2002 classic, Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action on the course list at West Point. Nothing analogous to the subject is offered at service academies or universities. You will not see conflict prevention or mitigation publications on the professional military reading lists of the service chiefs or combatant commanders. I've reviewed master's theses written by mid-career officers -- often a predictor of emerging themes and missions in the military-- and there are none on this topic. Without developing a body of knowledge and policy-relevant recommendations, the military's preventive programs will be based on untested assumptions and inadequate information, which appears to be the case with regards to China.

Finally, there should be a continued focus on closer interagency cooperation in preventive action. U.S. government agencies have come a long way in recognizing and forcing collaboration and coordination in the field. For example, COCOM theater security cooperation plans are often developed in conjunction with ambassadors' country plans, and every geographic COCOM deputy is a civilian. Yet, making prevention-related communities in different government agencies work together requires constant attention and encouragement.

There is also the rarely stated dilemma of allowing ambassadors and civilian officials greater insight into the "black" Special Operations forces that operate within their regions or country. If the future warfighting is -- as Pentagon officials contend -- one where Navy SEALS and Army Delta teams conduct small-footprint lethal operations against suspected adversaries, then civilian officials must have more routine insights into what those operations are. As things stand, many retired ambassadors lament special operations actions. They've told me, in so many words, the same thing: "We don't really know what they do, but we deal with the aftermath."

In May 2011,  the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, emphasized:

The reason I've been in the military my whole life is try to prevent wars.... I think that is a noble goal that all of us should seek, to end wars and prevent wars as much as possible...we work hard to try to be engaged globally in a way that is preventive in nature, so that wars won't take place in the future.

Mullen's passion for peace is echoed by many general officers, who have experienced first-hand the brutal costs and consequences of war. And while they recognize the importance of preventing conflicts that could bear on U.S. national interests, they also convey that it must be a priority for the White House first to get increased attention, and that they need a lot of help thinking about this issue. After a dozen years of warfare, and subsequent focus on counterterrorism, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, it is time to place conflict prevention at the forefront of objectives for the military.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images