Preventive Priorities Survey: What Threats Will America Face in 2012?

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Surveying 300 national security experts on three tiers of challenges the U.S. is likely to face next year

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North Korean soldiers look south at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone / Reuters

In February, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned West Point cadets, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right." Similarly, when commander of U.S. Central Command General James Mattis was asked what missions American ground forces might undertake ten years into the future, he responded, "As we look toward the future I've been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years."

Such sentiments by senior officials, reinforced by the Arab Spring's unexpected start and trajectory, reflects America's dismal record at forecasting instability and conflicts abroad that are important to U.S. national interests. Indeed, presently there is no regular or systematic U.S. government process for the forecasting of potentially threatening developments that could arise, which is linked to contingency planning.

The Center for Preventive Action's annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) is intended to help overcome this shortcoming by harnessing expert opinion to inform the U.S. policy community about the relative urgency and importance of competing conflict prevention demands in 2012. We do this by developing a list of 30 plausible human-generated contingencies of relative importance to U.S. national interests, grouped according to levels or categories of risk associated with various types of instability or conflict into three tiers:

  • Tier one: Contingencies that could threaten the homeland, trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten critical strategic resources.

  • Tier two: Contingencies in countries of strategic importance but which are non-treaty allies.

  • Tier three: Contingencies in countries of limited strategic importance, or in those where humanitarian consequences are likely to be severe or widespread.

The 30 contingencies were sent to a wide selection of over 300 government officials, policy analysts, academics, and journalists for their confidential feedback. Their insights led to a number of additions, subtractions, and refinements, based upon whether they believed the contingencies were more or less probable and severe in the coming year. Those changes are reflected in the PPS for 2012 below.

In addition to the findings detailed in the PPS, respondents raised a number of other possible situations that were deemed less likely to occur and/or less critical for U.S national interests. Among those that were not included:

  • Popular uprisings in several countries, specifically in China, Russia, Jordan, and among Palestinians against the Palestinian Authority or Israel.

  • The assassination of a U.S. official that is attributed to a foreign national.

  • Possible renewed unrest or ethnic conflict in Myanmar if the government's promise of political reforms is not fulfilled.

  • The potential for civil war in Angola based on predictive indicators, such as the widespread availability of weapons, political unrest, and prior conflict.

  • Unspecified natural or humanitarian disasters that would require a U.S. military response.

  • Sudden and steep downturn in the Chinese real estate market that significantly limits economic growth in China and beyond.

The PPS for 2012 differs in several important ways from the PPS for 2011. The contingencies that were introduced for the first time or elevated in terms of their relative importance and likelihood in 2012 were an intensification of the Eurozone crisis, acute political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers oil supplies, and further unrest in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action. Contingencies that were lowered or dropped included a reversal of security and governance gains in Afghanistan, political instability and violence in Haiti, renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia, and a military conflict between Sudan and the newly-formed South Sudan.

Nobody could have foreseen that the slap of a Tunisian fruit vendor by a municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid would trigger the political uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that resulted in the collapse of the governments of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Qaddafi (so far). As Secretary Gates noted two months into NATO's intervention in Libya, "If you'd asked me four months ago if we'd be in Libya today, I would have asked, 'What were you smoking?"

However, given the inability to know what the trigger could be, it would be unreasonable to plan equally for contingencies everywhere given the competing priorities for the attention of senior policymakers and increasingly limited resources for attempting to prevent instability and armed conflict. The PPS provides a framework that policymakers, academics, journalists, and citizens can use when assessing the potential countries or issues that are most likely to dominate the headlines regarding U.S. foreign policy for 2012.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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