The Council on Foreign Relations yesterday released its annual Preventive Priorities Survey, which evaluates ongoing and potential conflict flashpoints based on their likelihood of occurring in the coming year and their impact on U.S. interests.
A NATO-Russia confrontation has been deemed a top risk by by the CFR survey, conducted by foreign policy experts. This placed it alongside the risk of a nuclear crisis with North Korea, a highly disruptive cyberattack, and a severe terrorist attack on the US among the events with the highest impact on the US.
The likelihoods for the biggest potential conflicts coming true were split into two groups – those with a moderate likelihood of happening, but causing a high impact; and those with a high likelihood of happening, but causing a moderate impact.
Unlike prior years, in 2017 no scenario was deemed both highly likely and highly impactful to U.S. interests, a change from last year when an intensification of Syria’s civil war was considered the most urgent threat. Respondents still considered a worsening of Syria’s civil war to be highly likely in 2017, but downgraded its impact on U.S. interests from high to moderate.
The survey identified the following seven "top tier" conflicts in 2017:
Impact: High; Likelihood: Moderate
- deliberate or unintended military confrontation between Russia and NATO members, stemming from assertive Russian behavior in Eastern Europe
- severe crisis in North Korea caused by nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapons testing, a military provocation, or internal political instability
- highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
- mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally by either a foreign or homegrown terrorist(s).
Among the less impactful risks, the CFR noted the following:
Impact: Moderate; Likelihood: High
- increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from a continued strengthening of the Taliban insurgency and potential government collapse
- the intensification of violence between Turkey and various Kurdish armed groups within Turkey and in neighboring countries
- the intensification of the civil war in Syria resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers
Four conflicts were downgraded to lesser priorities in 2017. These include political instability in European Union countries stemming from the refugee crisis, the fracturing of Iraq caused by sectarian violence and the Islamic State, increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and the political breakup of Libya.
The CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA), which conducted the survey, believes that if any escalation – intended or accidental – takes place alongside Russia-NATO borders, it will stem “from assertive Russian behavior in Eastern Europe”, avoiding the Russian version of things according to which it would be a provocation by Baltic NATO members, whether it be renewed force buildups or mass-scale military exercises.
The potentiality of a North Korea crisis is thought to be exacerbated by an escalation in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing by Pyongyang, as well as a risk of internal conflict. Alongside Russia and North Korea, in the moderately-likely-but-highly-impactful category, the experts placed a mass-casualty terrorist attack on the United States or an ally (by both foreign and domestic terrorists) and a crippling cyberattack.
Four conflicts were downgraded to lesser priorities in 2017. These include political instability in European Union countries stemming from the refugee crisis, the fracturing of Iraq caused by sectarian violence and the Islamic State, increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and the political breakup of Libya. However, the same could not be said for risks associated with ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgents now control a third of the country; and the Turkish-Kurdish fight, which continues to be a cross-border conflict. Both possibilities have been projected to have a moderate impact on US interests, yet almost certainly likely to take place.
The biggest wildcard, however, remains Trump, and how he will respond to rising geopolitical crises: “With a new presidential administration assuming office, it is important to help policymakers anticipate and avert potential crises that could arise and threaten U.S. interests. Our annual survey aims to highlight the most likely sources of instability and conflict around the world so that the government can prioritize its efforts appropriately,” said Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and CPA director.