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Gauging Top Global Threats in 2012

Interviewee: Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
December 8, 2011

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CFR's new Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) lists instability in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, an Iranian nuclear crisis, and an intensification of the European sovereign debt crisis among the most important international contingencies relative to U.S. national interests. CFR Fellow Micah Zenko discusses, in an e-mail interview, what is driving concerns for 2012.

What is the goal of this contingency list?

There is no regular or systematic U.S. government process for the forecasting of potentially threatening developments that could arise, which is linked to contingency planning. The goal of the PPS is to help overcome this shortcoming by harnessing the power of expert opinion to inform policymakers about the relative urgency and importance of competing conflict prevention demands in 2012. It is a perennial problem to get policymakers to focus on future challenges when dealing with the tyranny of the inbox, but in age of austerity it has never been more important to forecast, prevent, or mitigate plausible contingencies that could result in an expensive and long-lasting U.S. military involvement.

What are the biggest changes from last year's forecast?

The contingencies that were introduced for the first time or elevated in terms of their relative importance and likelihood in 2012 included an intensification of the eurozone crisis, acute political instability in Saudi Arabia that threatens global oil supplies, and heightened unrest in Bahrain that spurs further military action. Contingencies that were lowered or dropped included a reversal of security and governance gains in Afghanistan, political instability and violence in Haiti, renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia, and a military conflict between Sudan and newly formed South Sudan.

Does the inclusion of an economic crisis, namely fears of a collapse of the euro, mean forecasters are more attuned to economic threats than in the past?

No, forecasters are always sensitive to economic issues that both potentially constrain and enhance the capacity of states to pursue their interests in the world.

A year ago, the Arab upheavals triggered by events in Tunisia didn't make anybody's list. Does that make you more sensitive to undercurrents of unrest like those seen in the Arab world?

Indeed, Libya and Syria were not listed on last year's Preventive Priorities Survey as contingencies. Nobody could have foreseen that the slap of a Tunisian fruit vendor by a municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid would trigger the political uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. "Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (PDF) in February 2011. "What intelligence can do is reduce, but certainly not completely eliminate, uncertainty for decision-makers."

Saudi Arabia is the lone Arab state featured on the top tier list. Why?

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer and exporter of oil and holds approximately one-fifth of proven global oil reserves. In 2010, Saudi Arabian oil accounted for 14 percent of U.S. total imports. As such, internal instability that limits oil production would have serious repercussions for U.S. and global supplies. Potential instability could arise from: succession related to the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, increasing popular demands for political reform, and demographic pressure from a youth bulge and corresponding high unemployment.

Are Washington and other governments giving more attention to cybersecurity threats now?

As more and more American citizens, businesses, and government agencies rely on the ease and efficiencies of networked information systems, there is no question that the potential vulnerability to cyber exploitation or cyberattacks will increase. According to the annual threat assessment (PDF) issued by the director of national intelligence, cyber poses an increasing threat to U.S. critical infrastructure: "Industry estimates the production of malicious software has reached its highest level yet, with an average of sixty thousand new programs or variations identified each day. Some of these are what we define as 'advanced, persistent threats,' which are difficult to detect and counter." Although there are innumerable benefits of the cyber domain, it remains a major point of vulnerability for "those who would steal, corrupt, harm, or destroy the public and private assets vital to national interests."

This year, a U.S.-Pakistani military confrontation replaces a Pakistani-Indo clash as a top ten contingency on the Preventive Priorities Survey. How did such a shift occur?

Survey respondents believed that the potential of an Indo-Pakistani conflict resulting from a replay of the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba Mumbai attack is increasingly unlikely. Correspondingly, relations between the United States and Pakistan have further deteriorated, and tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed near the Afghan border with Pakistan.

Pakistan is the one country mentioned twice in the top ten. Given the troubled relationship with Washington, what kind of role can the United States or its allies play in trying to improve the internal situation in Pakistan?

Despite providing over $22 billion in assistance since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the ability of the United States to understand, much less improve, the internal situation in Pakistan is poor. Recognizing the inherent limitations, the United States should continue to increase efforts to build counterterrorism capacity among civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Pakistan, restructure financial assistance, and pursue cooperative efforts that emphasize mutual security threats and goals.

Nuclear concerns permeate the list, especially with reference to North Korea and Iran. Is there more the international community can be doing on nonproliferation?

There are a number of international treaties and agreements that facilitate cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues. Unfortunately, they have limited effectiveness as important nuclear-capable countries have remained non-signatories. To respond to increasing threats to the nuclear nonproliferation regime by rogue states, enhancing international restraints on nuclear weapons and fissile materials is critical. The international community should take steps to reform and strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; increase national and international efforts to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force; and implement the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit workplan, with the stated goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.

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