The Global Conflicts to Watch in 2015

A survey shows which countries matter more to U.S. policymakers—and which matter less

Center for Preventive Action/Council on Foreign Relations

Foreign policy often involves making difficult and debatable choices about which parts of the world matter more to a given country—and which, by extension, matter less. It's about defining national interests and determining where those interests are most evident and endangered. This is why the United States has done far more to stop ISIS in Syria and Iraq than, say, sectarian war in the Central African Republic.

In short, it's about priorities. And according to a new survey of U.S. foreign-policy experts and practitioners, those priorities could look a lot like the map above in 2015, at least from America's point of view. The map sorts potential conflicts around the world into three tiers of risk: red for high-priority threats, orange for moderate-priority threats, and yellow for low-priority threats. According to Paul Stares, the report's lead author, it's a color-coded snapshot of "where the balance of U.S. attention and resources should be devoted" in the coming year. As such, it's also a guide to the places and conflicts that are likely to receive relatively little attention from America's national-security apparatus in the months ahead.

The survey, this year's edition of a study conducted annually by the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action, flagged violence in Iraq between ISIS and the Iraqi military, and between Sunnis and Shiites more broadly, as the top priority for the U.S. in the coming year. Other high-priority potential scenarios include a major attack on the United States or a U.S. ally; a cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure; a crisis involving North Korea; the prospect of Israeli military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites; a confrontation between China and its neighbors over territorial claims in the South China Sea; an escalation of the Syrian civil war; and growing instability in Afghanistan. Notably, they also include two contingencies that weren't raised in last year's report: an intensification of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias in Ukraine, and heightened violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Respondents in this year's survey reported more concerns about Iraq and Afghanistan unraveling than they have in past reports, along with "growing unease about confrontation with Russia and China," Stares, the director of the Center for Preventive Action, told me. Respondents were also more worried than last year about the potential outbreak of a Third Intifada in Israel and the consequences of a possible collapse of nuclear talks between Iran and Western powers. They were less worried than last year about conflicts in countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, and Mali. This doesn't necessarily mean that instability has receded from this latter set of countries; just that these countries appear to have receded as a priority for those surveyed.

"What is interesting is how people rank the relative importance of these conflicts," Stares explained. "The risk of U.S. military engagement, [nuclear] proliferation, terrorism—these are the leading criteria for how most people judge [a conflict's] importance to U.S. interests. Humanitarian concerns definitely fall down the list in terms of hierarchy of interests."

"Homeland security [and] instability in the Middle East and East Asia dominate the tier-one contingencies," he continued. "In tier two there are more African contingencies, more South Asian contingencies. You can see how, despite the U.S. desire to ... put more emphasis on Asia, we're still going to be preoccupied with the greater Middle East for the foreseeable future."

Center for Preventive Action/Council on Foreign Relations

These maps do not depict where violence will be fiercest in 2015, or where turmoil will be the most destabilizing or transformative. They are not the product of a sophisticated algorithm for predicting the world's next trouble spots. Instead, they offer a broad view of the world through the lens of U.S. national security—more a reflection of current anxieties among experts than a forecast of future developments (last year's report, for instance, did not foresee the rise of ISIS or Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea, though it did warn of civil war in Iraq). The report's results are "often just an extrapolation of the recent past," Stares said.

To arrive at the results, Stares and his fellow researchers asked 2,200 U.S. government officials, academics, and experts to assess the impact and likelihood of 30 scenarios, whittled down from a universe of more than 1,000 suggestions solicited online. Their answers were then sorted into the matrix below.

Center for Preventive Action/Council on Foreign Relations

The exercise depends, of course, on how U.S. "interests" are defined. In the report, a "high-impact" scenario is one that "directly threatens the U.S. homeland, is likely to trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threatens the supply of critical U.S. strategic resources." A "low-impact" scenario is one that "could have severe/widespread humanitarian consequences but in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States."

If you interpret the meaning of "interests" another way, the world might look very different.