from The Water's Edge

Dangers and Ditches

January 4, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Young returnees from north Sudan smile in Aweil
Young returnees from north Sudan smile in Aweil. (Goran Tomasevic/courtesy Reuters)

CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA) recently asked a wide range of government officials, academics, and think tank experts to name the potential flashpoints that could grab the headlines in 2011. Reading the list, which groups the potential conflicts according to the dangers they pose to the United States and the international system, will give you at least twenty-nine things to keep you awake at night.

( offers something similar with its list of sixteen potential wars for 2011. And yes, there is considerable overlap between the two lists.)

My first reaction whenever I read about potential calamities is to recall President Calvin Coolidge’s comment that “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” (My colleague, Amity Shlaes, is writing a biography of Coolidge so I am learning a lot of “Silent Cal” aphorisms. My favorite is the woman who told Coolidge at dinner that she had bet a friend she could get him to say three words. His response: “You lose.”)

Coolidge is right that most of our fears never materialize. The problem is that it is hard to know ahead of time which ones will fall by the wayside and which ones will make you miserable. Moreover, whether a problem ends up in a ditch is often the result of whether you take it seriously. Some prophecies are self-denying.

Sudan offers a potential and interesting example. Experts have been worrying for months, and for good reason, that the January 9 vote in south Sudan over whether to break away from the north could be violent. But recent news coverage gives some reason to be optimistic, at least in the short run, about the chances for keeping violence at bay. If so, some credit should be given to the Obama administration for deciding late last summer to make preventive diplomacy in Sudan a top priority. And some credit should also be given to George Clooney and John Prendergast, who have worked with the UN and Google to arrange for satellites to watch the border between northern and southern Sudan. The idea is that using technology to record violence will help deter it. So perhaps we can chalk one up for celebrity foreign policy activists.

Back to CPA’s list of twenty-nine potential dangers. Which worry me the most? In no particular order: A mass casualty terrorist attack on U.S. soil; an Iranian nuclear crisis; a North Korean crisis; a deadly U.S.-Chinese military incident that escalates; and a new war between Israel and Hizbollah. The Obama administration no doubt also worries about these dangers. May their preventive efforts succeed. I would be delighted to write a post on January 4, 2012 explaining why the problems that loomed on the horizon at the start of 2011 ended up in the ditch.

Which potential flashpoints or dangers worry you the most?