What to Worry About in 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations

Sarah F. Cliffe

Director, Center on International Cooperation, New York University

Richard Atwood

Director of Multilateral Affairs and Head of the New York Office, International Crisis Group


Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Experts discuss the global political implications of potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2017.

ROBBINS: You ready to go? Great. Good afternoon, everybody.

AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Good afternoon.

ROBBINS: Thank you very much. We’re going to do call and response today.

Welcome. We got a few more people coming in here. I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re having such a great turnout, beyond the fact that we have such a fabulous panel.

STARES: Yeah, what’s the—what’s the surprise? (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: Yeah. But particularly given the title. And I’ve been trying to figure out—I mean, don’t you guys have enough to be anxious about? I mean, I’m really anxious these days. And with this panel, certainly we live in a very anxious time. And with this panel our goal here is not just to add to your anxieties, to make sure—so that we can compare, to see whether or not you haven’t added everything you need to your anxiety list for 2017. But also I hope—and we hope—to perhaps bring a little hope to this, to talk a little bit about potential players and venues that can address some of these brewing crises, because this is still the United States and one hopes that there is a potential for proaction, whether it’s going to be either the United States, or in Europe, or through international institutions. So while it is an anxious time, and the focus of this is what to worry about in 2017, we also hope that we’re going to come away with the notion of what to act on in 2017 as well.

So what we are going to be doing is we’re going to—we have—you know our speakers. You have their descriptions in your—in the handouts here. We have Richard Atwood, who is the director of multilateral affairs and head of the New York office of the International Crisis Group. Sarah Cliffe, who is the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. And my colleague and dear friend, Paul Stares, who is the General John Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention, and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Just to remind, what we’re going to do is we’re going to have a conversation among us for about a half an hour, and then we’re going to throw it open to the members to have a conversation as well. And we’re going to finish precisely at 2:00 because they’d never invite me back if we go over.

So, and to begin, Paul is going to talk about the preventive action survey that we do here, that Paul does here, every year. There’s handouts as well. Paul can show you what it looks like. And you can also get it online. It’s a really interesting survey that we do, and it’s updated as well with this conflict tracker, as I said, so you can continue to be anxious 24 hours a day on the CFR.org site. So we’re going to start with Paul. Thanks.

STARES: OK. Well, thanks, Carla. And thank you all for coming here today. It’s a pleasure to see a lot of old friends. I thought I’d just give a quick overview of the—of the survey. Many of you may even have contributed to it. And I appreciate the effort you put into making it such a great product each year. I think this is, like, the ninth year now. And we’ve been doing this, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York—which we’re eternally grateful. And when I—you know, this year, I think, we’re probably—I can’t think of another year when we put this out where we’re facing such sort of uncertainty or unpredictability about the future.

And I was talking to one of my colleagues about this, and he shared with me this tweet that Garry Kasparov put out on, I think, New Year’s Eve. And he quotes an entry by Czar Nicholas the II into his diary and says: 1916 was a cursed year. 1917 can only be better. (Laughter.) And kind a reminder of the perils of prediction. So, as many of you know, every year we put out—we put out a survey to several thousand foreign policy experts. We ask them to asses 30 contingencies, crises, potential crises, conflicts, and ask how likely they’re going to be and how consequential they could be for U.S. interests, and then we aggregate the scores. And then we put them into three tiers of relative priority, all on the general premise that not every potential crisis is equally important and policymakers should essentially focus their efforts on what could be the most dangerous or consequential.

So this year, you know, I was struck, frankly, by what went down in the ranking as much what went up in the rankings. The previous year was dominated by the Middle East. And while this year Syria is still a tier one priority, a top priority, and Turkey is now in there—in fact, Turkey is there twice, both internal Turkey and Turkey-Kurdish tensions. You saw Iraq being downgraded to a tier two. You saw Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia all falling off totally. It’s extraordinary. Those countries were all prominent a year ago and they are not even showing up in the list of contingencies in this year’s survey. So that struck me as being quite significant.

In terms of what went up, the potential for a confrontational clash between Russia and NATO was one of the most prominent. And I should say that what was also interesting this year was that the survey was conducted a timeframe that spanned the election. I think two-thirds of the respondents replied before the election and a third afterwards. And it would be interesting to speculate—and we can talk about it afterwards—about how the results might have been different had it been conducted either fully before or wholly afterwards. So Russia-NATO was up there. North Korea had gone up this year, and that’s why we put it on the cover for this—for this year. I mentioned Turkey also there.

There are always the hardy perennials, I call them, the possibility of a major terrorist attack and a—or a cyberattack. And I think that obviously has more resonance with experts this year. The one thing I was surprised about and might have been affected by the timing of the survey was the possibility of a crisis between the U.S. and China, which is still in the tier two. And I think many people might question that now, given what’s been going on between President Trump’s people and his statements about China. And so one could question whether—if we did this again, whether that would be a much higher priority.

There are several—and I’ll finish here—there were several other potential crises that appeared this year that were not on prior—previous years—Burundi, Somalia, Zimbabwe. These are all kind of tier three. Nagorno-Karabakh was another one. And that was—they are sort of notable in the fact that they were new this year. But that’s more or less it.

ROBBINS: Thanks. So, Richard, what are the three things that are going to keep you up for a while, and either—can you identify them why, for strategic concerns or humanitarian concerns, or both?

ATWOOD: Well, first of all, thank you very much for having me in. And congratulations, Paul, to you and your team for putting together the survey. I think it’s extremely useful.

The three things that keep me awake—I mean, there’s a lot to keep me awake at night, obviously. Maybe let me start on, the International Crisis Group that I work for is a conflict prevention organization. I think that most people know that over the last five years the world has seen quite a dramatic uptick in the number of crises, in the number of people that are dying from crises, in the number of people that are displaced from crises. I think one of our worries is just another crisis—another crisis, perhaps in one of these pivotal states that looks vulnerable. I think the world is getting to a point at which it’s struggling to cope with the consequences of all the crises.

What might another crisis look like? Again, it’s very difficult to generalize. I think, Paul, your list captures many of the potentials. I think if you look at many of the—many of the most prominent wars today, whether it’s in Syria, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq—you can see how, although they’re civil wars, they’re regionalized or internationalized. They involve regional powers. They involve international powers. Regional powers, with often escalating geopolitical tension between them.

So I think one worry is that one of these crises spills over into direct confrontation between some of the states that—for the moment, the strongest states that, for the moment, are competing indirectly in weaker ones. And I think it’s easy to see how that might happen in Syria. Again, we can talk about whether the recent Russia-Turkish rapprochement in Syria is likely to end violence or simply usher in a new phase of violence. We can talk about that. But it’s easy to see how the conflicts in Syria could escalate into something else, or how even some of these other conflicts could escalate. So I think, first, another crisis or potentially the escalation of a crisis that at the moment is largely—at the moment is largely confined within borders.

I think the second thing that I would worry about or flag is—there’s different ways to frame this—but I think over the last few years we’ve seen a rise in—and I think it’s likely to be accelerated with the Trump administration—a rise in what we can call transactional diplomacy, diplomacy based on short-term deals. An example of this would be the European Union’s deal with Turkey, or with Afghanistan, or some African countries over refugees. Deals that are struck quickly, in the absence of an international framework or a broader strategic vision or as part of a sort of international rules-based order.

And I think in some ways these—this transactional diplomacy—in some ways it’s a—it’s a logical reflection of the fact that as the world becomes more multipolar, more fractious, countries’ interests align in some places and they conflict in others. So if you just think of Russia and the U.S., clearly Russia and the U.S.’s interests aligned for some time over the Iranian nuclear deal, they aligned in Afghanistan. But they conflict in Europe, they conflict, for the most part, in the Middle East. They conflict over Iran’s regional role. So our interests can align in one place, but conflict in another. In some ways, transactional diplomacy is an extension of that.

But there’s obviously dangers to transactional diplomacy. There’s dangers in that I think a world that’s built on short-term deals is inherently less stable, deals that aren’t necessarily backed up by long-term alliances, by alliances that are based on shared interests, shared strategic interests, and even shared values. Deals that aren’t backed up by an international system and international rules-based order.

I think the second part to that, the second part to this point about transactional diplomacy, is what the new U.S. administration, how it views multilateralism, whether it’s prepared—whether it recognizes that the international order that institutions like the United Nations like NATO tend to magnify rather than diminish U.S. power. I think it’s an easy intellectual argument to make. At the moment, it’s a more difficult political argument to make in the U.S. And I think the erosion of the international order that the U.S. has supported—particularly the United Nations but also, of course, NATO, that’s another risk. So that’s second.

The third one—the third one, perhaps I would say that some sort of—and, again, it’s very unclear the direction that the Trump administration will take—but some sort of deal between the new U.S. administration and President Putin that involves—even if it’s not directly related to European security—but involves European security and that’s struck over the head of Europeans. I think that’s potentially another worry. Now, Europe itself has some enormous challenges. I didn’t mention the breakup of the European Union which, again, I think is another big worry.

But you can see—over the last—over the last couple of years you can see the debate in the U.S. over President Putin has sort of veered between dismissing Russia as an irrelevant power, as a declining power, to seeing President Putin as a sort of evil genius with his hands in everything, or to now seeing him as a potential ally. And of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The U.S. and Russia have shared interests in some places, but overall their interests tend to conflict. So I think while it’s possible to see some sort of collaboration with Russia in Afghanistan, for example, on the Iran nuclear file, clearly U.S. and Russia interests conflict in Europe and clearly they conflict in the Middle East.

I think an alliance between the new U.S. administration and President Putin on the Islamic State, for example, on fighting radical Islamist groups in the Middle East—I think that sort of alliance is potentially quite risky. I think clearly President Putin’s policies in the Middle East have tended to play into the hands of the Islamic State. He’s for the most part together with Assad and the Iranians. For the most part they’ve targeted moderate rebels rather than the Islamic State. And I think generally Russia’s policies in the Middle East have played into the hands of more radical groups. So even there—although potentially there’s shared interests in tackling the Islamic State, there’s differences in the best way to go about it. So I think a sort of an idea that any—an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations would be welcome. I think it’s important. But that that improvement should be done with people’s eyes wide open about where interests align, where they potentially conflict.

ROBBINS: And of course, a lot of it has to do—going back to your second point—which is whether or not it’s anchored in alliances or whether or not it becomes more transactional.

So are we too focused there on immediate crises and are we missing some bigger issues, like what’s happening with the climate and perhaps the failure—the unraveling of alliances, which will make us take our eye off that big ball, or are there other things that are particularly concerning to you?

CLIFFE: So it’s important to say at the beginning that although the peace and security landscape is pretty gloomy, there are one or two bright spots. So we have, for instance, a genuine prospect now of something being delivered in Cyprus, the longest-running U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world. The Colombian peace agreement, despite the referendum, is holding—longest running civil conflict in Latin America looking as if it is on the way to peace.

In terms of the three things I would worry about, they are more in that level. So, clearly, it’s not the focus on the survey, which does a fabulous job on country analysis to think about more dramatic risks, but the prospect of an unraveling of the Paris climate change agreement I think has to be one of the things that we really worry about next year. I don’t think that that’s so much in the immediate withdrawal or undermining of the agreement that was made, but more that it was dependent on agreeing an expanded and accelerated set of targets in 2020 for 2030 implementation. And if we look ahead, the prospects of getting that expanded set of targets, which are really necessary to keep us to a 2-degree C world are look, I think, more shaky, and as if they will need much heavier lifting to address.

The second thing I would worry about very much echoes one of Richards points, and this is the shifting of alliances. So we are seeing, I think, the prospect for quite rapid shift in alliances between countries, where there’s impasse, where there’s new alignment. And that may, in some cases, I very much agree, bring some opportunity. But it also has a real risk, that—going back to what Paul said with his lovely quote from 1916—but of course, the 10 years before the First World War were a time of very rapidly shifting alliances, not very rooted in the form of governance of the countries making the alliance. Think of the alliance between France and Russia at that time. And I think we are seeing something a little bit similar to this. And this more transactional sense of alliances has risks in it, because it is not rooted in that sort of deep idea of what are the interests that are embedded in these alliances.

The third thing I would think about is more of a the second round effects of some of the changes that the survey so well-identifies. And here, perhaps looking particularly at events in Syria and Iraq, and the possibility of a much stronger attack, possibly involving new alliances, on the Islamic State. There is, I think, a question of what happens if that goes forward. So if there’s something that looks like a victor’s settlement at least in some part of Syria, if the Islamic State loses a lot of territory, what is the knock-on impacts of that? And will that actually come back to some of the countries that the survey had downgraded in risk in the Middle East—would that knock-on impact actually increase their risk because of potentially the return of fighters or the return of attention to those countries?

ROBBINS: So can we talk a little bit about institutions and leaders? I was at a security forum in Halifax, and was struck that the British defense minister got up in the very beginning and said: Yep, we’re out of the EU. But NATO, most important institution we could possibly believe in. And Russia, the number-one security threat to Europe. Very striking commitments, very striking—quite different from what we’re hearing out of many people in Washington these days. We have a new secretary-general at the United Nations. We have Angela Merkel welcoming the election of the new president in the United States, but also laying down some pretty clear lines about the basis of the alliance and what the expectation is. On the other hand, she is under pretty serious threat for reelection.

Who are the other potential leaders out there that we should be watching who might address some of these conflicts and crises? And what are the other potential venues that could provide leadership to address these concerns? Richard, do you want to take some of that, and then on to Sarah and—I’m sorry—Paul, do you want start?

STARES: Well, I—

ATWOOD: Go ahead, Paul.

STARES: Well, you ask a very important question, because, you know, I was in the meeting this morning in which there was a lot of types from the financial world who were saying that the reason why the markets often rebound very quickly to crises is their confidence in how they’re managed and the strong signal that comes, particularly from international organizations, that, hey, we got this, guys. We’re in charge and we’re going to manage it. And if there is a question about the validity or the efficacy, rather, of international institutions—whether it’s the U.N., G-20, IMF—then you could see any one of these crises being magnified, if there is this erosion of confidence that these mechanisms that have developed over the last 20 years are essentially not functioning as they were designed to do. And so I worry about that.

I worry about who are the other crisis managers on the international scene. You know, we can point to Angela Merkel but, you know, her position is not as strong as it was a few years ago. Maybe she will be reelected in the fall, but is she the strong leader of the EU we look to? I think the military alliances we have are probably the most obvious conduit for exerting our influence and managing crises. But, again, there’s been some mixed messaging or mixed signals from President-elect Trump about his commitment to those too, and the free-riding thing. So I’m quite worried about whether—how crisis could be managed internationally, what are the principal mechanisms, the go-to people that we look for to do this?

ROBBINS: On the other hand, I mean, to go back to this meeting you had—that you were in this morning, the expansion beyond—from the G-8 to the G-20, there has been a greater legitimation by expanding the participation of new economies, a certain notion of democratization, of more stakeholders, as Zoellick once called it. Was there a sense from the finance people there that there is more confidence in, at least, the international economic institutions?

STARES: I think they look to what—how the 2008 crisis was managed. And the IMF and G-20 were seen to be quite effective. But I don’t sense that there is that level of confidence that those institutions could be quite as effective in the future, unless there is a really positive signal coming out of Washington and other capitals that—to say nothing of the U.N. too—that we still value those institutions. If there’s a sense that, you know, we’re getting back to this transactional kind of comments earlier. If there’s a sense that, you know, we take every crisis as it comes, this is—we do—you know, we do things on the fly, rather than through established procedures. And then I think you can see things starting to unravel in a very, frankly, unwelcome fashion.

ROBBINS: Richard, would you—

ATWOOD: Let me just say a word about the U.N.

ROBBINS: And keeping mind that we have 10 minutes before we go to the members, so. (Laughs.)

ATWOOD: Oh. Let me—a word, very quickly, about the U.N. I mean, Sarah said that there had been some good news yesterday. I think I’d class in the good news category the new secretary-general, a former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres. Very well-respected, very credible, and a politician, which I think is important at the moment. Now, I think he does have—potentially have his work cut out convincing the new U.S. administration that it’s worth working through the Security Council, that the burden sharing of working through the U.N. makes sense for U.S. interests. I think intellectually it’s an easy case. I think it’s very easy to point to U.N. peacekeeping or U.N.—some of the stuff that the U.N. has done on the international architecture for counterterrorism, or on foreign terrorist fighters, or on strengthening sanctions in Iraq. It’s very easy to point to how the U.N. serves U.S. interests, probably more than it serves the interests of any other state. So I think intellectually it’s an easier argument. Politically, it could be a more difficult argument.

If the U.S. chooses not to work through the Security Council, to strike deals outside the Security Council, I think probably—the last time the U.S. did this was really under George W. Bush, I think, when John Bolton was the ambassador at the U.N. Then Europe was stronger, it was more united, it was richer, and in some ways, could pick up political and financial slack. That’s not the case anymore. A sort of coalition to support multilateralism, if the U.S. goes the other way, would need a broader base. I think it’s difficult to see how a coalition would be strong enough without China, without an uptick in China’s role in supporting humanitarian funding and activities, in supporting peacemaking, in supporting peacekeeping. I’m not sure yet that China’s ready to play that role, but that would probably be the only place to look if the U.S. decides not to.

Yeah, I wanted to pick up on some of—I’ll leave it for the discussion—I wanted to just pick up on some of the things that Sarah said about Iraq and Syria. But we can leave that.


CLIFFE: You know, similarly, the U.N. definitely saw a good process last year in the appointment of the secretary-general, first time that there’s been a relatively transparent, a real merit-based process and, indeed a stronger leader emerged out of it—

ROBBINS: But not a woman.

CLIFFE: —of Antonio Guterres.

ROBBINS: But not a woman.

ATWOOD: Not a woman, unfortunately, no.

CLIFFE: (Laughs.) Sadly, not a woman. But that time will come, I am—I’m sure. But Antonio Guterres, very strong, by the way, on women’s inclusion, among other issues, and has committed to parity in his own appointments. He also is committed to making prevention the center of what he does. So I think this really is a leader who sees that these are the key challenges we face, that they’re linked to progress on other issues—economic and social issues—and not going to happen, in fact, if we’re still faced by this degree of crisis. And someone who really wants to invest in it.

I agree with what Richard said, that I think you will see some new alliances forming. You see this in climate change, for instance, that the meetings in Marrakesh were in fact quite positive and quite resilient, with a lot of countries stepping up to say how absolutely committed they are to the Paris agreement, including China and India, very notably, in those discussions. But notwithstanding that, I still this is going to be a very difficult period, where some of the old systems for response are unquestionably weaker than they were previously, and what might in the longer-term be newer systems for response, involving regional and emerging powers, have not got to the stage where they quite have the strength to address all we need.

ROBBINS: And I want to go to the members, but could you—for the new sec-gen, is there—do you have a sense of what his priority—number-one priority is? And does he have the ability to—because, I mean, Ban Ki-moon, as lovely a man as he was, he was not a strong player. He could not shame the Security Council, couldn’t, you know, really—couldn’t move things forward. Do you have a sense that this guy can kick people around a little bit more aggressively?

CLIFFE: Well, he was asked about his number-one priority during the press stakeouts and the hearing. He was asked about his top three, in fact. And he said: Prevention, prevention, and prevention. So this absolutely clearly has been what he has laid out. He is an adroit politician, so someone who I think can really reach out, can set a kind of vision that is compelling for people, and can also do the necessary diplomacy to really make that work. But not coming to boast at a time which is the easiest time worldwide.

ROBBINS: I want to turn to the members. I have a list of things I’m supposed to tell you. Meeting’s on the record, a reminder. You’re supposed to wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand and state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question and not a speech. Keep it concise so you can allow other members to also have their questions. We have microphones.

And I saw that person back there had their hand up first, so thank you so much.

Q: My name is David Phillips at Columbia University.

Let’s add state fragmentation to the set of thematic challenges. And I think specifically about Iraq and Syria. So far it’s been by, with, and through Baghdad. Since the Peshmerga have shown their mettle in the battle for Mosul, is that likely to change? And what happens in the context of shifting alliances with the Kurds in Syria? The U.S. has always said that if they had to make a choice between the Kurds and Turkey they would always choose Turkey. Given the role of the YPG in Raqqa, does that equation change? And how will that affect U.S. involvement in Syria’s political dialogue?

ROBBINS: Sarah, I know you wanted to take on a little bit—or, Richard, you want to do that? OK.

ATWOOD: Yeah, no, it’s a good question. Look, I mean, first of all, I think the—let’s see what the Russians and the Turks come back with from Astana. I mean, they’re trying to forge some sort of peace deal in Syria. Let’s see what that looks like. Syria of course, as you point out, is a number of different conflicts. It’s the regime versus the rebels, or the alliance of opposition groups. And for now in Syria, the regime clearly in that struggle is winning. And Assad has taken back Aleppo. It looks like he’ll stay in power, unless the Russians decide otherwise. Whether enough rebels in Syria will buy onto that vision of Syria to diminish violence seriously I think is a big question. That’s not clear.

The other front in Syria is potentially the front between, as you say, Turkey and the Kurds, between the YPG, which is essentially the PKK for all intents and purposes—and certainly from Turkey’s point of view the YPG is the PKK. Now, Turkey for now is fighting in al-Bab, this town just east of Aleppo. It’s fighting the Islamic State there, but mostly it wants to take al-Bab because it wants to make sure that the Kurds don’t join up the two cantons that they currently control, wants the stop the Kurds establishing a contiguous Kurdish area. And it looks as though Turkey is going to be able to do that for now. Now it’s very, very close—as it takes back al-Bab, if it can take back al-Bab, it’s very, very close to the Syrian defense forces, which the YPG are part of, so it’s easy to see the potential for escalation there.

I think the U.S. administration—again, it’s very difficult to read what the next U.S. administration will do. It’s one of the flaws in—or one of the lack of—the uncertainty about the Trump administration’s policy of crushing the Islamic State—who are you going to crush them with, and this question, do you empower Turkey? Turkey, for that, for now hasn’t really been interested in fighting in Raqqa. I think the current U.S. administration sees the YPG and the SDF as a better coalition to take Raqqa. But again, Turkey is not going to want—is not going to want the Kurds to do that. So I think there’s a lot of uncertainty what happens in Syria.

You know, for now I find it difficult to see the violence in Syria—it would be good if Turkey—if, sorry, Turkey and Russia can establish some sort of—some sort of peace deal and then build from that. I think that—in principle, that would be good. I think it’s difficult to see that it would reduce levels of violence dramatically.

And then, of course, you still have the Islamic State. And the fight against the Islamic State is a bit of a misnomer. The Islamic State in Syria is everybody’s enemy and nobody’s priority. Everybody else is fighting each other. And I think for—to some degree, for Turkey, the priority is the Kurds. And of course, now Turkey with their Euphrates Shield, their Operation Euphrates Shield, they have troops on the ground.

Yeah, I find it difficult—the way the conflict’s currently going, I find it difficult to see that the Kurds are going to come out on top in Syria.

Now, Iraq is slightly different. Again, Mosul has been more difficult to take back than people anticipated, but there are these different forces coming in from different sides. There’s the Iran-backed coalition. There’s the—there’s the sort of Iraqi Army and the U.S. coalition. And then there’s the Peshmerga, which is—which is, paradoxically, supported by Turkey.

And what happens in the aftermath of Mosul I think is still very unclear. The political arrangements for the city, if it is taken back from the Islamic State, and how these forces that are going in, how they react with each other afterwards, what are the political arrangements there, how can local Sunni governance be constructed, be developed, what happens to Sunnis—do they get a stake in the Iraqi state, which is what they need; can they generate new leadership—I think there’s a lot of questions still in the anti-ISIL campaign in Iraq that, of course, aren’t answered by the very sort of simple policy of we’ve got to crush the Islamic State.

I think there’s still a lot of—the Islamic State last year had quite a bad year. And it’s not—it’s on the back foot for sure. It’s lost a lot of territory. Its brand has taken a beating. Its brand has lost some of its global appeal. But it’s still—in its heartlands in Iraq and Syria, it’s still—it’s still a long way from being defeated.

ROBBINS: Next question. Somebody in the very back.

Q: Hi. My name is Minh-Thu Pham with the United Nations Foundation. Thanks so much for this great panel.

I just wanted to touch on the conversation about international institutions and credibility and confidence in them. Earlier this morning Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Lindsey Graham announced together that they would be introducing legislation to withhold funding from the U.N. until and unless the U.N. Security Council withdraws or reverses the resolution on the Israeli settlements, and that was a resolution just a couple weeks ago. Given that and just the sort of inclinations already to withdraw from international agreements and institutions, withdrawing from the—and pulling back from the TPP, et cetera, who else is likely or what other institutions are likely to step in in terms of leadership roles and just sort of help us navigate some of the crises and situations that you’ve just talked about? Thank you.

CLIFFE: First of all, I think it’s very important to fight the battle of ideas about why we need the institutions that do exist like the U.N., with all the flaws and with all the space for improvement. But the U.N. really, from a U.S. perspective, is a(n) organization and an institution that has not only generally delivered a kind of management and containment of the world’s conflicts for decades but has very specifically delivered many things that are in U.S. interests. So it delivers peacekeeping in many countries at a modicum, a tiny amount of the cost that it would cost for the U.S. to be engaged bilaterally. General audit office, for instance, has estimated that U.N. peace operations in Haiti are only half the cost of what it would cost the U.S. to have to provide directly that kind of support. It does action on pandemics, on stopping the spread of pandemics, on climate change, as we’ve said, on underpinning the rule of law and some of the legal instruments that are important to keep the system together. So although I agree with you about the amounts of criticism that is coming at the moment and the potential of a real struggle over this, I think it’s quite important to keep getting those arguments out there.

I do think, though, that if the international institutions become blocked—Richard referred also to problems in the EU, and I think that’s a very high likelihood, perhaps, in the next period—there are going to need to be some looser coalitions, possibly coalitions that bring in partners like business, like those who assess risks from a security perspective and make the argument, look, for our long-term interests, we need action on these areas; we cannot afford to just let these areas become mired in impasse and inaction.

ROBBINS: Paul, do you have an alternative?

STARES: No. Well, you know, when you survey the range of international institutions around the world, and you think which one is working to a level that would make you feel confidence about them managing any one of these conflicts, every one has some question mark over it about leadership, effectiveness—even look at AU, you know, they’re having a hard time in trying to impose its will in The Gambia. And if it can’t impose its will in trying to remove this leader of The Gambia from office, you know, what can it do in the really big cases? And you got the EU and, you know, ASEAN too.

So I do worry that you could have this perfect storm of many international—several international institutions all looking compromised or weak at the same time without any strong leaders nationally to sort of underscore the value of these institutions to their publics, and we might just sort of contract and pay lip service but not really do the proper spadework to make these institutions effective. And I worry that this will kind of snowball, and, you know, when we come back here a year from now, we will be, you know, lamenting how some of these institutions really unraveled in a—in a—in an alarming way, you know. So I’m a little more pessimistic about things until I see some strong evidence that somebody’s going to really pick up the baton here and, you know, answer the call, mixed metaphors.

ROBBINS: You know, I would—I’m so rarely the Pollyanna on these things—I would say that if you look at the Pew polls on NATO, both in Europe and in the United States, and if you look at the testimony today of General Mattis, I—there is more appreciation for NATO now, you know, paradoxically, since even President-elect Trump’s—then-candidate Trump’s interviews with The New York Times suggesting that he was going to abandon or at least have a conditional approach to Article 5. I think the Europeans, at least, particularly as I see the unraveling, potential unraveling of the EU, are beginning to see the value once again, in great part because of the hostility of Russia, of NATO. So that may be one of the defaults. It’s not going to help The Gambia, and it’s not going to help climate change, but it may be—it’s not going to solve a lot of the problems you’re talking about, but it may be one of the default institutions.

STARES: Yeah. I agree.

ROBBINS: So one of—another—over here. We’re going to go to this side. Yes, sir.

Q: I’m Khalid Azim, Columbia Business School. I had a similar question—

ROBBINS: No, no, we already had a Columbia person.

Q: (Chuckles.) Do you think something bad has to happen in order for there to be a greater appreciation or a reversal of this trend away from, you know, institutional multilateral type of responses to crises?

STARES: I don’t know whether a bad thing—I was thinking it would be good if there had some—put some in the “win” column and that we can point to it, and that validates the importance of institutions. I worry that not just the erosion of confidence in these institutions, but you might get several crises coming simultaneously which will really I think strain the system and our ability to manage things. And that’s—again, piling on on the negativity here, but I worry about that scenario too.

ROBBINS: Well, I mean, we have a long history in this country of, you know, fundamental dismay and ambivalence about international institutions. I mean, we did reject the League of Nations, but—there also—and sadly, it took two world wars for us to embrace the Atlantic alliance and the creation of these institutions. God hopes that we don’t have to go through that again before we do it—which then raises this question of the leadership of civic society and places of that—that need to be out there; Sarah was saying—making the argument for it. So how bad you want to get, you know? That’s sort of scary, (this stuff ?).

Over there.

Q: My name is Stephen Blank.

Some crises are somewhat out of sight and largely out of mind. For example, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, we’re seeing not only the collapse of governments but the collapse of political institutions altogether, which may well result in terrible levels of distress, generation of immigration movements, refugees, loss of health and so on. What happens now in these areas which are not red-lined on your report?

ATWOOD: I think Paul had a lot of them in the survey, and I think you’re right, there are potentially a lot of—a lot of crises in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

You know, the Africa watchers are always divided sort of between—until recently, at least—between the economists, who sort of generally saw a positive story in Africa rising, and the political scientists that were less optimistic. And, you know, that may have changed now as the commodities prices have gone down, but that’s generally been the divide. I think there’s a lot of positive stories still in Africa. And there are still crises and problems, but there is a lot that’s positive. And generally, I think the uptick in wars over the last five years is mostly because of what’s happened in the Middle East. I think now there are fewer people dying of conflict in Africa than there were perhaps 20 or 25 years ago overall.

That said, clearly, the commodities prices—the declining commodities prices is a big problem for some countries, particularly where they rely on one or two exports, one or two industries. The sort of—the conflict between popular aspirations for democracy in many countries and rule as determination to hold on to power, that is another potential source of problem—source of problems. And the other source of problems, the other big one is the spread of all the increasing influence of radical Islamist groups, which you see around the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel and in the Horn. So there are—there are a lot of problems. And I think maybe the—what happens—you know, the—what happens depends on the crisis. There’s always a different configuration of states involved in trying to fix different crises.

The one—I mean, there are a couple worth highlighting. The one that I think is worth highlighting this year is the Democratic Republic of Congo, simply because of its size and its centrality, that if there is a crisis there, the implications for the region and for the continent would be particularly grave. Now, there is a—there has been a deal recently between some of the groups around—some of the politicians around President Kabila that he will stand down. He hasn’t signed on to that yet. Let’s see, but I think in terms of what happens, I think it depends very much on the crisis.

Yeah, I don’t know if that—

STARES: I worry about the demographic—and this is obviously a longer time frame, but, you know, Ethiopia is already bigger than Germany now, and Nigeria is going to be 300 million-plus in not so long. You would just wonder, how can this country, Nigeria, with 300 million, how—is that—is that a viable proposition in even the midterm? So I worry that as being the real thematic concern.

ROBBINS: And is Africa the expansion place, particularly places like Nigeria, for ISIL or for the next—

ATWOOD: Potentially, yeah. Potentially. I mean, you know, I think Boko Haram—Boko Haram, this movement around the Lake Chad Basin is—declared its affiliation to the Islamic State. I think we saw very little about the identity of the movement change once it’s declared its affiliation. Boko Haram is Boko Haram. It’s rooted in the local politics of northern Nigeria, and it’s a menace around the Lake Chad Basin. I think to conflate it with the Islamic State is a little bit misleading. But clearly, the appeal of some of the ideas and some of what these guys are selling and their ability to latch on to local conflicts and local instability, they’ve shown that they’re able to do that in parts of Africa, absolutely.

ROBBINS: So do you—are you—do we make a mistake when they embrace this word because they are attracted to the nihilism or because it strikes fear internationally, that these are groups that basically are domestically focused—you know, the same way after 9/11 we were worried about Abu Sayyaf or something like that, that these really are not internationally focused terrorist groups?

ATWOOD: I think it depends on—you’d have to look at each one. I think there are some that are more internationally focused than others. I think clearly, what’s happened over the last—over the last year or so is that the Islamic—as the Islamic State has lost some of its territory, as it’s been less able to project success and a sort of advance, it has lost—its brand has lost some of its appeal. It’s lost the territory it controlled in Libya, which was the branch closest to the mothership in Iraq and Syria. It hasn’t really made big inroads elsewhere.

Sort of hidden by the Islamic State has been the spread of al-Qaida, not necessarily al-Qaida centrally but al-Qaida’s affiliates. And al-Qaida had a good year last year, I would say, that—the affiliate in Syria is still very strong. AQAP in Yemen controlled territory for a while, has put its tentacles into a lot of other armed groups and into the—into the population. Al-Shabaab in Somalia is still very strong.

Now, again, these are all al-Qaida affiliates. I think it’s misleading to see them as al-Qaida. They’re local movements whose leaders have declared affiliation to Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida. And they’re better understood as local movements. But some of them do still want to target the West, absolutely. And some are still plotting to target American interests and to take down planes and this sort of thing. So they have a dual identity. But their primary identity undoubtedly is local.

ROBBINS: Another question back there. Woman back there. Thank you. Going for gender parity, I hope.

Q: Alexandra Starr with the Russell Sage Foundation.

I was wondering if you guys had an opinion on whether the EU-Turkey deal will unravel and, if it does, what the consequences will be.

ATWOOD: Well, hand the difficult ones to somebody else. (Laughter.)

STARES: Yeah. You know, there’s so many sort of structural problems within that—you mean, the—over the control of the migration—

Q: The refugees.

STARES: Yeah. It seems to be holding, and there’s sort of a mutual interest in making it work. And this is I think a case where, you know, a lot of money can turn people’s heads. And so I think there is a—there is a mutual interest there. But I worry about if things—if the situation in Turkey becomes more authoritarian and there’s increased tensions on the border, then the rest of the EU may sort of be worried, and it’ll be a question of, do we keep this deal that might not be, you know, the best deals rather than something that—where there’s nothing. And so I think in the short term, it probably will. But I worry that if things change in Ankara, then we’ll be in trouble.

CLIFFE: Yeah, I think there are several structural weaknesses to it. So the provision that—for each refugee or asylum seekers return, that someone be taken from Turkey and shared in a burden-sharing agreement in Europe—Europe is actually no closer to being able to deliver the burden-sharing element of that than it was a year ago. The provisions on visa access for Turks are still subject to great difficulty. And then the provisions over the talks and particularly the rule of law, constitutional areas are clearly going to cause problems, but—

ROBBINS: And are getting worse.

CLIFFE: Yes. But I think that generally you are right, that perhaps what you can most likely see here is it being threatened to come to an end or to reach a crisis point but actually continuing on, even though not delivering everything that it—

ROBBINS: I mean, we’re in this odd situation now in which Germany is suddenly embracing Turkey in a way that we always wanted them to at a period of time when Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and there are just huge numbers of journalists and opposition people being thrown to jail—not what we wanted.

Q: Bettye Musham.

Back to Turkey, have you given any thought to what might happen in Turkey post-Erdogan? Because there’s no opposition to him at all, and the Kurds may see that as a time to really start a civil war. And there are so many factors going on. So, post-Erdogan, what might be the scenario?

ATWOOD: I think it’s a good question, and there’s a lot to think about with Turkey. I think the question what happens post-Erdogan is a question you could apply now to many countries. I think this model of governance is one that unfortunately is gaining some traction. It’s something not just in Turkey.

You know, Erdogan—I think if you look at people that had a good year or a bad year last year, Erdogan I think probably had a mixed year last year. He survived the coup, of course. And while his crackdown is not good for Turkey, no doubt about that, he’s probably for now strengthened his own position. The economy is not doing well in Turkey. And then it has the Kurdish problem. And as you say, it—there is a war ongoing. It’s—levels of violence between Turkey and the Kurds reached a level over the last couple of years that they haven’t reached for some time. It’s—at the moment it’s quite violent. And then of course, it’s related to what’s happening in Syria.

And now you have the Islamic State as well. And the Islamic State in Turkey I think does pose a challenge because it’s playing on the main fault line or one of the main fault lines in Turkey between the Islamist and non-Islamist. So I think Turkey does have some challenges I think in the immediate term, even before you get to questions of what happens to—sort of what happens post-Erdogan.

ROBBINS: But I think people in Istanbul are sort of shocked in many ways. I mean, they—this is not what they—what they signed on for. And they were willing to accept authoritarianism if they thought it was the Kurds, but I think they’re beginning to see—and particularly because they didn’t really know about the renaissance of the war because there was so little information coming into Istanbul because of the control of the press. But I think the attacks in Istanbul—I think there’s a growing number of people who are—particularly people in the finance world who are beginning—in Turkey beginning to really question Erdogan’s rule. At least that’s the impression I have.

ATWOOD: I think it plays both ways, the terrorist attacks. On the one hand you have exactly that, people that question his strategy. And on the other, you have people that support a stronger leader. So I think it can—it can play both ways.

Q: What about the Gulenists?

ATWOOD: Yeah, that’s another question, of course. (Chuckles.) Yeah.

ROBBINS: Another question. Right there. Yes.

Q: A question—Michael Alderman—a question for Mr. Atwood.

How has the track record of these annual reviews been? And if there are any misses, what’s been learned from that experience?

ROBBINS: You mean for Paul.

ATWOOD: For Paul.

STARES: You mean me. Yeah, so I often use sort of baseball analogy on this, and I think our batting average would put us in the Hall of Fame in terms of—

ROBBINS: Of course, you’re a Brit, and you really don’t know baseball, but—

STARES: But, you know, batting average that gets you in the Hall of Fame is, what, 300? So you’re only getting one out of three right. So that doesn’t sound so good.

Looking back, we’ve looked at places where we’ve anticipated things. So I think quite presciently—at least the survey respondents have, I don’t want to claim credit for it—particularly, you know, the situation deteriorating in North Korea and in the East China Sea, South China—we—you know, we saw some of those coming.

I think in terms of places we missed, we didn’t see Ukraine, that happening. That was a big miss. ISIS, too, and—but we’re there with the rest of the intelligence community in really underestimating that. So there’s been some misses. I can probably come up with a few others too. But there are two that come to mind in recent years.

But overall, we’ve been—we’ve been pretty good, I’d say. And our contingency planning memo series that we do, that has been—it has a higher batting average, I would say, in terms of being able to foresee real areas of instability and conflict. And often we get overtaken by the event, and then it looks like we are just following the headlines. But actually the project was initiated much earlier.

But I could—you know, I’m happy to sort of follow up afterwards and tell you about some more cases too.

ROBBINS: We have time for one more question, and if—right there. Thank you.

Q: We’ve seen the impact of the terrible attack on the World Trade Center. And what I’m wondering is about a lot of people that I talk to are wondering what the next one is going to be. Is it going to be the tunnel going to New Jersey, or is it going to be a train, or is it going to be—what? If there is another 9/11 and the ISIS folks take credit for this particular nightmare, what should the United States do then?


ATWOOD: I think it’s very—

ROBBINS: Not reacting with fear the way we did last time.

ATWOOD: I think it’s very difficult to predict what it would look like. I mean, 9/11 was itself such a—such a surprise. I mean, you can see that what—the Islamic State in its heartlands in Raqqa and Mosul, they’re under an enormous amount of pressure right now; clearly, they’re fighting to hold on to the territory that they have. The al-Qaida affiliates in different places, they’re also fighting for the most part locally. Now, according to U.S. intelligence—we don’t know this, but according to U.S. intelligence, there are units within them that are—that are plotting external attacks. But for the moment, their focus is primarily local.

So again, it—you could be forced to eat your words next year, but it—more likely is that they inspire the sort of attacks that we’ve seen recently, driving trucks into places or inspiring people to pick up a gun and go and shoot people—because those are much easier, and they take much less planning. And with the enormous improvements in security that the U.S. has undergone and that many other countries have undergone, partly by working through the United Nations to elevate sort of counterterrorism legislation, other things, the type of planning you need for that sort of attack is difficult.

There’s probably a soft underbelly in some airports, in the ability to corrupt officials in airports. That’s probably a soft underbelly. But overall, the physical damage, of course—and this is not always popular to say this, but the Islamic State in terms of U.S. interests or al-Qaida in terms of U.S. interests, the physical damage they can cause compared with the number of people dying in many other things like car crashes or health reasons, other things, the physical risks they pose is quite small. It’s the political and psychological and emotional risk, that's what they really pose. And I think the—always to sort of keep an eye that the way that the problem’s dealt with doesn’t make things worse.

I mean, the other—the other thing I would say is that generally, in places where either the Islamic State or al-Qaida have been able to seize territory, it’s usually by piggybacking on an already existing crisis, by exploiting instability or chaos or other wars. So this means, of course, that the primary way to deal with them is to try to deal with them in a way that doesn’t aggravate, that doesn’t make these wars worse or make the causes of these wars more difficult to deal with in the first place.

So I think the—what a terrorist attack would look like is very, very unpredictable and difficult to say. But again, the way that the West in particular and the way that other states respond is also extremely important.

ROBBINS: Sarah, Paul, something fast?

CLIFFE: Similar point, that I think what we do know is how not to respond to avoid making the dynamic worse because we know that always, terrorism 101 is not the impact of the specific attack itself, as Richard said; it’s the theory that in responding, what societies will do is crack down in a way that affects much larger numbers of people, which will then result in radicalizing much larger numbers of people to join in that movement. So I think we know that that’s the response to avoid. Doesn’t in any way mean avoiding good, sound, intelligence, smart security, but avoiding something that looks in any way like a blanket crackdown in response. And I think we see countries like Germany, which suffered very badly last year in very difficult circumstances, trying very hard to avoid exactly that response. And that is, indeed, the right thing to do.

STARES: Yeah, just quickly, I can—you know, I can imagine various scenarios where we could have something—a similar kind of shock to our system—you know, something that—either driven by a biological agent of some kind, or even cyber, actually, could evolve in a very destructive way.

I think I would hope that we would, as Sarah sort of implied, learned the lessons of our reaction. It’s not just reacting in a certain way, using certain instruments, relying more heavily on military and so on, but, you know, there was a sort of a brief shining moment after 9/11 where there was that sort of international desire to help the U.S., we’ll get behind U.S. and work with the U.S. to deal with this. And that worked to some extent in Afghanistan. And then we kind of squandered that good will, if you will, and ability to sort of harness the international community to deal with the problem by acting unilaterally more or less in Iraq. And I would hope that if something terrible happens again, that we would try to look to the international community and institutions and work through them to get the legitimacy necessary to deal with this in an effective fashion. And I think that was, to me, the biggest mistake that we made.

ROBBINS: Well, I’m glad that we ended on hope, and we’ll forget the word “mistake.” (Laughter.) Thank you very much to the panel. Thank you all very much for coming. (Applause.)


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