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Guest Post: Paul Stares on Forecasting Preventive Priorities

December 16, 2011

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An Iranian Shahab 3 missile passes by during a military parade to commemorate the start of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran, September 21, 2004. Iran will use a modified version of its Shahab-3 missile, which defence experts say can reach Israel or U.S. bases in the Gulf, to launch a test satellite before March 2005, a defence industry source says. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl CJF/DL
An Iranian Shahab 3 missile is displayed during a military parade in Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl/courtesy Reuters)

Earlier this week, CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA) released its 2012 Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS). The PPS identifies thirty “bad” foreign policy developments or “contingencies” that could potentially occur over the next year. Think of it as an effort to help policymakers identify the trends or events that should be on their radar screen–and that they should be taking steps now to prevent. I asked CPA’s director Paul Stares to explain a little more about how CPA generated the PPS and what the results mean. Here is what he had to say:

Why create a list of plausible foreign policy contingencies for 2012? What’s the point of sorting them according to their relative importance to U.S. national interests?

Well, unless you happen to believe that the foreign policy resources available to the United States are limitless–and in this era of fiscal austerity you would be foolish to think that–policymakers will have to make hard choices about where the country focuses its efforts abroad in the coming years. This requires setting priorities not only about what “good” developments the United States would like to promote in the world but also what “bad” ones it would like to prevent. In the latter category, the need to avoid new and potentially costly military commitments overseas while the United States puts its proverbial house in order would probably strike most Americans as a “no brainer.” Certainly public polling suggests widespread sympathy with this proposition.

The chances of averting new U.S. military commitments that derive from emerging threats to our interests typically improve with foresight and warning. In other words: with some lead time to work with, a variety of foreign policy tools can be put to work to help head off events that could trigger U.S. intervention. That’s the theory at least. Given how complex the world is, predicting such events with a high level of certainty is very difficult if not impossible. Two general approaches are typically employed to reduce the level of uncertainty. The first is to use sophisticated quantitative methods that assess the statistical likelihood of events happening based on collected data about known contributing factors and their causal relationship to specific events. The other is through qualitative methods that draw on the collective wisdom of specific country and regional experts to give their assessment of probable trends and the likelihood of certain events happening. We took the latter route by providing an initial list of what we thought were plausible contingencies in 2012 to around 300 foreign policy experts. Not all responded but a respectable number did.

There are clearly limitations with this approach—as there are with any forecasting tool—and thus the results should be seen as no more than a “best guess” by a cross section of foreign policy experts. We haven’t used this approach long enough to really judge its predictive utility. It is worth noting, however, that last year’s list released in December 2010—did correctly anticipate heightened political instability and violence in quite a few places including Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cote d’Ivoire.

Besides our effort to poll a large number of foreign policy experts, what most distinguishes CFR’s list from other efforts of this kind is that we also rank the potential contingencies by their relative importance to U.S. national interests. This may seem like a straightforward exercise, but it’s not. We all carry around notions of what makes something important to the United States—at least those in the business should!–but determining which potential contingency represents a greater or lesser concern to the United States than another is hard. You would think, moreover, given the number of times “the national interest” has been invoked in decades of public debate, not to mention reams of foreign policy analysis, that reasonably rigorous criteria would have been offered for making such judgments even if they had not become fully embraced. Yet, as far as we could tell, there have been very few such attempts. Please don’t hesitate to correct me in the comments section below if I’m wrong about this!

We organized the contingencies into three Tiers of relative priority for preventive action. We felt that Tier I contingencies had to include those that cause or are likely to cause a direct threat to the U.S. homeland principally gauged by the number of American lives that could be potentially lost or seriously harmed. Those contingencies likely to trigger major U.S. military involvement because of treaty obligations or the threat they posed to vital strategic resources, notably energy, were also included in this category. Tier II contingencies affect countries that are strategically important to the United States but where there are no defense treaty commitments. Finally, Tier III contingencies are primarily humanitarian disasters in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States.

We are the first to admit that these distinguishing criteria are arbitrary (and again if any readers have suggestions for how to improve them, be our guest!). As a consequence, the placement of certain contingencies may seem odd. Doubtless some viewing the list would question, for example, whether the potential spillover of drug-related violence from Mexico (Tier I) really constitute a greater threat to U.S interests than another Indo-Pakistan war (Tier II) that might potentially go nuclear. Does renewed conflict between Russia and Georgia, which could affect U.S.-Russian relations, really warrant a Tier III ranking?  And then there are the primarily humanitarian contingencies that could involve the death of many thousands of civilians. Don’t these deserve a higher priority?

These are certainly all valid arguments, and if the survey stimulates people to challenge and debate what the priorities should be, we would feel that this exercise has been worthwhile. Better still would be that it prompts greater effort to head off the very contingencies that many clearly feel warrant more attention regardless of which Tier they have been placed in. After all, come December 2012 and the next Preventive Priorities Survey, we very much hope that our fears—for whatever reason––have not been realized.