A Third Intifada and Castro's Demise: 30 Global Crises to Watch For in 2013

The Center for Preventive Action looks towards the future in its annual survey.

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One of President Obama's strongest applause lines on the campaign trail was his oft-repeated pledge to do "nation-building at home" during his second-term. This is the stated goal of many presidents facing reelection but, more often than not, unanticipated world events get in the way. In the Middle East, Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is in a precarious state; in Asia, China's territorial disputes with U.S. treaty allies are increasingly strident; in North Africa, the growth and collaboration of al-Qaeda-inspired extremists could result in safe haven for international terrorism. President Obama and his new foreign policy team cannot plan for, prevent, or mitigate all the crises that the United States could potentially face in 2013. With slight reductions to the defense and foreign affairs budgets on the horizon, they must prioritize the contingencies that warrant the attention of senior policymakers. The Center for Preventive Action's Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) seeks to help in that process by identifying plausible contingencies and ranking them based on their potential impact to U.S. interests and likelihood of occurring in 2013. The survey can be found here.

Perennial PPS consumers will notice changes to our methodology. For the first time, we used crowdsourcing to help identify the 30 contingencies appearing on this year's survey. Harnessing social media (Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc.), we solicited hundreds of suggestions from anyone and everyone with Internet access (thanks!) that helped bypass the media filter, which tends to focus on only that day's headlines. For example, if you had relied on the media to anticipate the recent turmoil in Mali, you would have missed the simmering, widespread dissatisfaction with the corrupt and incompetent government in Bamako until the recent rebellion and coup.

Compared to the PPS 2012, the most notable change this year is the addition of the likelihood ranking. Previously, we asked survey respondents to rank the thirty contingencies based solely on their potential impact; however, by integrating likelihood, policymakers now have the full breadth of the most pressing strategic priorities. We included this added ranking with full recognition that international crises are notoriously difficult to anticipate. Even the U.S. intelligence community (IC), with a combined $75 billion annual budget, was caught off guard by one of the most important geopolitical events of the past decade: the Arab Spring. Although Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave the IC "a B+, if not an A-" for envisioning the Arab Spring, many would rightly call this grade inflation.

We captured expert knowledge beyond the IC by asking over 1,500 U.S. government officials, academics, and forecasting experts to rank the likelihood and potential impact of the thirty contingencies that emerged from the initial crowdsourcing.

Many "Tier I" contingencies (i.e., high preventive priorities) appearing in last year's PPS remained, suggesting a degree of intractability. The prospect, for instance, of a major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces has not dissipated in the last twelve months. Rather, as Sino-Japanese tensions heighten over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the threat has only worsened with little signs of a resolution on the horizon. At the same time, other Tier I contingencies are likely to come to a head in 2013. For instance, indicators point to Iranian nuclear crisis being addressed either through military or diplomatic means.

Presented by

Micah Zenko and Andrew Miller

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 at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action. Andrew Miller has worked on USAID-funded projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a research associate for CFR's Center for Preventive Action.

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