2018 Conflicts To Watch
The Global Conflicts To Watch In 2018
“The U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today.”
As conflicts ignite and burn and flicker out around the world, U.S. officials assess the dangers they represent back home. Not all of these conflicts directly threaten American interests, which is why the Council on Foreign Relations conducts an annual survey to help U.S. leaders prioritize threats in the year ahead. For the past decade, this survey has focused on the risks posed to America by foreign actors. Now it’s reckoning with the risks America poses to the world—and to itself.
“The U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today, and that has caused profound unease,” said Paul Stares, the director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, which produces the annual survey. “You used to be able to pretty much put the U.S. to one side and hold it constant, and look at the world and consider where the biggest sources of unpredictability, insecurity are. Now you have to include the U.S. in that. … No one has high confidence how we [Americans] would react in any given situation, given how people assess this president.” This president might welcome the development. “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing—or thinking,” Donald Trump wrote in 2015. “It keeps them off balance.”
America’s newfound unpredictability is most evident in two scenarios that emerged as the highest-priority risks identified by this year’s report, which drew on the feedback of 436 government officials and foreign-policy experts: 1) military conflict involving the United States, North Korea, and North Korea’s neighbors, and 2) an armed confrontation between Iran and the United States or a U.S. ally over Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and support of militant groups.
“They’re the two most volatile, brewing crises at the moment,” Stares said. “Some would say it’s a good thing that people are guessing and this is all a concerted effort to increase [America’s] bargaining leverage with North Korea or with Iran. I think most professionals would say that is not a smart strategy: It can backfire, or lead to miscalculation, misunderstanding, and so on.”
In the survey, which was conducted in the first half of November, during a temporary pause in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing, the consensus assessment was that a conflict with North Korea would have a “high” impact on U.S. interests but was only “moderately” likely. (To say a conflict with North Korea would be high-impact is quite the understatement—most experts believe it could lead to the most ferocious fighting since World War II.) Stares noted that while last year’s poll had flagged “a severe crisis in North Korea” over its nuclear-weapons program as a first-tier risk, displacing the Syrian Civil War as the premier conflict to watch in the survey, what’s new this year are serious worries about direct military hostilities between North Korea and the United States—and implicitly about those hostilities escalating to the first exchange of nuclear weapons in history.
“Now the concern is clearly that any renewed fighting on the [Korean] peninsula could involve the use of nuclear weapons,” Stares said. “People’s perceptions of what a war would look like” have changed, he explained. There are three main reasons for this: the intensely personal war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un; North Korea’s rapid advances in developing a missile that can reach the United States and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on it; and the repeated threats by Trump and his advisers to take military action if they feel it necessary.
The survey’s finding echoes recent estimates by knowledgeable observers such as James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral, and John Brennan, Barack Obama’s CIA director. Stavridis has put the odds of a non-nuclear U.S.-North Korean conflict at anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, and the odds of nuclear war at 10 percent—perhaps, for example, if North Korea shoots down a U.S. warplane or launches a missile near the U.S. territory of Guam, prompting an American response and then a spiral of retaliation. In an interview with The Atlantic, Brennan cited Trump’s unpredictability as a critical factor in why he pegged the chances of war at 20 to 25 percent. “I have a pretty good sense that North Korea does not want to initiate a major military conflict. And for many years, the United States was loath to initiate” a conflict, Brennan said. “I don’t know what Mr. Trump is capable of deciding or doing.”