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The Top Thirty Global Hot Spots in 2012

December 8, 2011

The Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has released the fourth annual Preventive Priorities Survey ranking the most plausible conflicts on which the U.S. government should focus in the year ahead.

CPA asked a select group of government officials, academics, and experts to review a list of plausible conflicts that could occur in 2012 and group them into three tiers of relative risk to U.S. national interests.

The threats within each tier are not listed in any order of priority or probability.

Tier One contingencies directly threaten the U.S. homeland, will likely trigger military involvement by the United States because of treaty commitments, or threaten the supplies of critical strategic resources. They include:
— intensification of the European sovereign debt crisis leading to the collapse of the euro, triggering a double-dip U.S. recession and further limiting budgetary resources
— a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure (e.g., telecommunications, electrical power grid, gas and oil reserves, water supply, banking and finance, transportation, and emergency services)
— a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or on a treaty ally
— a severe North Korean crisis (e.g., North-South armed provocation, internal political instability, advances in nuclear weapon or long range missile capabilities)
— a major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces
— an Iranian nuclear crisis (e.g., surprise advances in nuclear weapon development and delivery capabilities, a preemptive Israeli attack or response)
— a significant increase in drug trafficking violence in Mexico that spills over into the United States
— major internal instability in Pakistan, triggered by a civil-military crisis or terror attack
— political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers global oil supplies
— a U.S.-Pakistan military confrontation, triggered by a terror attack, or in response to U.S. counterterror operations

2012 Global Hot Spot Map

Tier Two contingencies affect countries of strategic importance to the United States but do not involve a mutual defense treaty commitment. They include:
— political instability in Egypt with wider regional implications
— a severe Indo-Pak crisis that carries risk of military escalation, triggered by major terror attack
— rising tension/naval incident in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Israel
— a major erosion of security and governance gains in Afghanistan with intensification of insurgency or terror attacks
— an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Syria, with potential outside intervention
— an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Yemen
— rising sectarian tensions and renewed violence in Iraq
— a South China Sea armed confrontation over competing territorial claims
— a mass casualty attack on Israel
— growing instability in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action

Tier Three contingencies could have severe/widespread humanitarian consequences but occur in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States. They include:

— military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan
— heightened political instability and sectarian violence in Nigeria
— increased conflict in Somalia, with continued outside intervention
— political instability in Venezuela surrounding the October 2012 elections or post-Chavez succession
— political instability in Kenya surrounding the August 2012 elections
— renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia
— an intensification of political instability and violence in Libya
— violent election-related instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
— political instability/resurgent ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan
— an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, possibly over Nagorno Karabak

"The United States has a dismal record of forecasting instability and conflicts. Presently there is no systematic U.S. government process linking forecasting to contingency planning. This survey is intended to meet that need," says CFR fellow for conflict prevention Micah Zenko, who conducted the survey.

Compared to last year's survey, the threat of a cyberattack moved from a second to a first tier priority, and several new contingencies were introduced:
— intensification of the eurozone crisis;
— acute political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers oil supplies; and
— growing unrest in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action.

The likelihood of two contingencies was lowered:
— renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia,
— military conflict between Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan.

One contingency dropped off the list entirely: political instability and violence in Haiti.

For the complete survey visit: Read an interview with Zenko. Rank the top ten priorities yourself on CFR's Facebook page.

The survey is made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Since 1922, CFR has also published Foreign Affairs, the leading journal on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.