But Stares noted that the president didn’t appear to seriously consider countering Assad’s atrocities with anything beyond limited air strikes and that while Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea last year contributed to an atmosphere of crisis, it’s not clear he was really on the verge of taking military action. (Nikki Haley, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was instrumental in executing the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, recently told me that the president wasn’t planning to “instigate something” despite his bluster, but that he “totally would have” gone to war had Kim “launched something” that came “near the U.S.”)
Developments that might well trigger a substantial U.S. military response, like a large-scale attack on American citizens or Russian aggression against a European NATO ally, haven’t materialized, Stares pointed out. And the one time Trump deployed U.S. troops on a new military operation, it was to the border with Mexico to deter a migrant caravan ahead of the midterm elections—a move his critics dismissed as a political stunt.
The president has used force sparingly in part because he doesn’t share his predecessors’ expansive view of the United States as the guarantor of global stability. But, as Stares told me, “you could say he’s just been lucky, too.”
The CFR survey, in which about 500 American government officials and foreign-policy experts estimated the likelihood and impact on U.S. interests of 30 hypothetical incidents in 2019, points to a range of places where the luck could run out.
Great-Power Conflict Is More Cold Than Hot—for Now
In and outside the U.S. government, there’s a lot of talk about how fierce competition is getting between the world’s great powers, whether in the form of Russia interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or the United States waging a trade war with China. But the participants in CFR’s poll didn’t seem especially concerned about such political and economic skirmishes turning hot.
Read: The Trump administration debates a cold war with China
Only one contingency directly involving China or Russia—an armed conflict between China and one of America’s regional partners over disputed territory in the South China Sea—appeared in the report’s top tier of risks. That category includes situations judged either highly likely to occur next year or liable to inflict a high level of damage on U.S. interests.
Other scenarios might implicate the United States’ geopolitical rivals. One of the highest-ranked risks in the report—eclipsing a major act of terrorism against the U.S. homeland or an ally—was a cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure and networks, which might be carried out by a sophisticated state actor such as China or Russia. The Assad government’s violent reassertion of control in Syria, which respondents deemed very likely to happen, could place Washington and Moscow at odds.