One important caveat to the finding is that the survey was conducted from early to mid-November, meaning some respondents submitted their answers before the U.S. election and others did so afterward. “Knowing that [Donald] Trump generally has a positive view of Russia and is seemingly hopeful that U.S.-Russia relations will be better under his presidency, would the respondents have felt that a NATO-Russia contingency deserved such high-level concern?” asked Paul Stares, the director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, which produces the survey. “I don’t know.”
When I pointed out that you could just as well draw the opposite conclusion—that Trump’s questioning of NATO’s utility and of America’s commitment to defend fellow NATO members from Russian aggression, along with his apparent fondness for Vladimir Putin and open-minded attitude toward Russian land grabs in Ukraine, could make the scenario more likely—Stares chuckled. That’s also possible, he conceded.
The uncertainty surrounding what a Trump presidency will mean for Russian behavior in Eastern Europe hints at a larger point: The biggest unknown for U.S. interests in the world in 2017 may lie not in Russia or North Korea or the Middle East, but in the United States itself. Trump has consistently suggested that he will depart dramatically, in style and substance, from decades of agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the general outlines of U.S. foreign policy. We simply don’t yet know whether that will enhance or diminish U.S. security and global stability. What can be said with more confidence is that Trump will introduce greater unpredictability into international affairs, perhaps reshuffling the way the world is ordered in the process.
“When you’re looking at how the world might evolve, it’s logically silly to put the U.S. off to the side as if it’s a neutral or passive actor,” Stares told me. “How some of these contingencies evolve reflects very much what the U.S. may do immediately before or during the crisis. [The United States is] just too important a player for it not to have that effect.”
This year’s moderately likely, high-impact risks include not just a showdown between Russia and NATO, but also a major cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure—a prominent worry in Washington at the moment following Russia’s suspected meddling in the U.S. election. They also include a “mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally.” Trump has described terrorism as a much graver threat to the United States than Barack Obama has, and his administration looks set to wage a broader battle against “radical Islam.”
In this category as well is a crisis in North Korea “caused by nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile weapons testing, a military provocation, or internal political instability.” Obama has reportedly warned Trump that the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—especially the progress that Kim Jong Un’s regime is making in placing a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could reach the United States—should be the top national-security priority for the incoming administration. North Korea has a tendency to take provocative actions during U.S. political transitions, and any deal to halt the North Korean nuclear program would require cooperation from the Chinese government, whose relations with Trump have grown tense over the status of Taiwan.