What to Worry About in 2019

Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Antony J. Blinken

Cofounder and Managing Director, WestExec Advisors; Managing Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; Former Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of State (speaking in Washington)

Paula J. Dobriansky

Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Undersecretary for Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State (speaking in Washington)

General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace (speaking in New York) @PaulBStares

Michael Dempsey

National Intelligence Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; former Acting Director of National Intelligence (speaking in New York)

Elise Labott

Global Affairs Correspondent, CNN (speaking in Washington)

Panelists discuss potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2019, as well as their global political implications, and explore the results of the 2019 Preventive Priorities Survey, conducted by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action. Survey results are available here: cfr.org/PPS2019

LABOTT: Ready? OK. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. My name is Elise Labott of CNN. It’s great to see so many friends here in the audience. I am going to be presiding over the meeting today.

This is about “What to Worry About in 2019?” We’re going to be taking a look at the Council’s preventative priority surveys. You should have a copy of that survey with you. But we’re going to use it as a jumping point to turn around and talk about some of the things that are keeping us at night for next year. And we have a great panel to do that. This is a reminder that the meeting is on the record, for a change. We have some press joining us. But I hope that that will not be an excuse to abandon candor today, because we’re going to head out for the holidays and I’m sure nobody will remember what we discussed today. (Laughter.) After all that eggnog. (Laughter.)

So I am here with Tony Blinken, co-founder and managing director of WestExec Advisors. You’ll also know him as the former deputy secretary of state. And also in D.C. with me is Paula Dobriansky, senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a former undersecretary of global affairs. In New York, my partner in crime is Paul Stares, who is the John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventative Action here at the Council. And Michael Dempsey is the council’s national intelligence fellow. And a lot of you will remember him as the former acting director of intelligence.

So we’re going to talk, I think, for about a half-hour, then we’re going to open up for questions to our members and to our other invited guests. And I think, Paul, let’s start off by talking about setting the scene for us on this survey. You know ,we’re talking about some of the big threats and big conflicts, and the likelihood that they’ll happen next year. What are your big takeaways, and how is this different than the last year?

STARES: Yeah. Well, thanks, Elise. And thank you everyone for being here today. So just some background, before I give the takeaways. As many of you know, every year we poll U.S. foreign policy experts and we ask them basically to assess thirty contingencies which we believe are plausible in the coming year. And we ask them to rate not only their likelihood, but also their potential impact on U.S. national security interests. And in that respect, it’s actually quite unique in terms of these sort of end-of-year prognostication that you see, in as much as it’s not just saying what’s likely, but which of those are more likely to be harmful to U.S. interests. And what we do, we take all the results and we aggregate them into three tiers of relative priority, and the idea being that not every potential crisis or conflict is equally likely or consequential. And, you know, given the finite time and resources we have, we should try to prioritize. So that’s the basic logic behind it.

So this year, you know, my takeaways are probably the following: I think it was interesting that the leading homeland security contingency was a cyber interference, a cyberattack against critical infrastructure. I think for the second year running now, it has supplanted concern over a mass casualty terrorist attack against the homeland. However, I think it’s interesting that 17 years or so after 9/11, there is still a high level of concern about the possibility of a kind of 9/11-type attack. So that’s quite interesting.

Secondly, you know, we hear a lot these days about major power rivalry and conflict. There was actually only one potential conflict in the upper tier in this year’s survey. And that was a potential confrontation with China in the South China Sea. The two obvious contingencies involving Russia were actually tier two, in Ukraine and between Russia and a NATO ally, which was also, I think, somewhat surprising. Perhaps if the survey had extended through the time period where we’ve had this recent clash in the Sea of Azov maybe the Russia contingency would be higher.

The third takeaway is the—for however much we want to get out of Middle East, the Middle East still dominate most analysts’ concerns. We have growing tensions between U.S. and Iran, and Israel and Iran, the situation in Yemen, Syria, are all considered to grow worse in the coming year, Libya and other parts of the—of the Middle East. And so it’s quite, I think, striking how much the Middle East still dominates people’s concerns about the world.

One final note I should add is that this is the first year that we’ve had three contingencies from Latin America. Venezuela was a tier one concern. It’s been one for several years now. But we also see Nicaragua, and Mexico as tier two concerns. And we even had several people writing in the potential for unrest in Brazil in the section where you can add your own thoughts. So that is also, I think, a striking difference between this year and last year.

LABOTT: So I think what you’re saying is what’s really interesting here is that some of these crises, while they may not be as likely, maybe they’re more, you know, damaging to the national security of the United States, or vice versa. They may not be all that damaging, but they’re probably likely and will probably have some effect here.

Let’s kick it off to the panelists and talk about—you know, I don’t want to get too much into which tier should be which and that kind of stuff, and get too in the weeds, but, Tony, why don’t you talk to us a little bit about, you know, what you saw, and how you think—you know, what are some of the big things that are—that are keeping you up when you think about threats for next year.

BLINKEN: Well, you know, Elise, when I’m asked what to worry about in 2019, I often think about the late Senator John McCain, who said that it is darkest before it goes completely black. (Laughter.) So that’s also always a useful mantra.

LABOTT: Hopefully we’re not there yet. (Laughter.)

BLINKEN: But in all seriousness, I actually find myself in fairly violent agreement with the work that Paul and the team have done, both in terms of pulling out the threats and ranking them. If I had to put a highest priority or thing I’m most concerned about it, it is probably a major disruptive cyberattack, something that we’re not ready for.

LABOTT: And something that we don’t really talk about all that much. And obviously the Council will be holding some sessions on that next year.

BLINKEN: Yeah. So that’s right at the—right at the top of the list. And then I think everything that’s in the report makes good sense. I would—I think it’s very important that Paul focused on—and the answers focused on our own hemisphere. We’re vastly under-resourced in dealing with some of the problems that are coming from the countries closest to us. It’s interesting, I don’t think the Northern Triangle countries fit into that—to that piece. And I would add them. And obviously we’ve seen a manifestation of that already. The other thing I think we should come back to is there are these flashpoints that the report I think very accurately puts its finger on. But there are also major trends—migration, climate, the U.S.-China rivalry—and then the larger dynamic of this tension between those who believe in trying to remain open and connected, and those who want—

LABOTT: Populism.

BLINKEN: Populism. And those who think we need to do whatever we can to build a wall around problems. There are going to be manifestations of those trends that sort of percolate out and bubble over in 2019 that also have the potential to be very destabilizing.

LABOTT: Let me kick it to you, Mike. You know, being a former intelligence director, what about—in terms of threats to the United States’ national security, where are you in terms of what we’re talking about? I mean, some of these threats—some of these kind of top-tier threats that are, you know, highly—you know, either likely or the most concerning—renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula, armed confrontation between Iran and the U.S., armed confrontation over the South China Sea, Syria, Yemen—and, you know, we don’t talk about the fact that, you know, seventeen years after we started in Afghanistan we’re still talking about the threats of increased violent instability resulting from the Taliban or potential government collapse. So where are you in terms of looking ahead to next year? You know, what’s on your mind?

DEMPSEY: So I am still an intel officer until 31 December. So you got me there. (Laughter.) I am.

You know, to play on Tony’s McCain quote, I think the saying when I look at the world is likely to get worse before it gets even worse. Look, the two big trends I would mention that Tony—when we were doing transnational things to watch—I would watch population displacement. I think it’s the result of the wars that we’re going to talk about, but it’s really, I think, a first-order crisis. It’s the largest population displacement since World War II. We’re going to break another record next year. And it just creates a generation of misery and a generation of lost kids that is going to be a problem long-term.

I would also mention emerging technologies and how it’s going to affect U.S. national security. And that’s everything from—we’ll talk about cyber, I’m sure—but it’s autonomous weapons, proliferation of drone technology, developments in synthetic biology. We can talk about there’s positives to all those, and then there’s long-term concerns that we have to pay attention to. And I do think, as Tony mentioned with the Western Hemisphere, on some of those areas I’m not sure we’re fully staffed, resourced, or thinking creatively enough.

In terms of concrete national security threats right now, I really am worried about Syria. I think there is a collective feeling that the war is over, and that Assad has won. And I really think for at least 2019 there’s a lot of bad stuff that can still happen in Syria. I think the truce that they signed in Idlib province is unlikely to hold. I think at some point the Assad regime wants Idlib back. And I think he’s going to go in there. When he does, there’s two million civilians. There’s a million children. I think you have the potential for a refugee crisis, again, heading north towards Turkey. It’s tough terrain. It’s the home to thousands of al-Qaida and ISIS remnants. It’s tough terrain, and if it gets tough the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in Idlib province previously. So I just think there’s all sorts of things just with Idlib.

There’s also concerns I have about what Turkey might do in—east of the Euphrates. There was an announcement over last—within the last 24 hours that President Erdogan said that Turkey may go east of Euphrates. They do that, they’re running into obviously the Syrian Defense Forces and the Kurds, where we are. There’s the continuing problem of Israeli—there’s a continuing reality of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, and the potential for an Iranian counter-response. So I can—we could spend the whole time talking about Syria, but I just would not put Syria in the category of it’s over, Assad won, don’t worry about it.

And I also—the other—the other one I would flag is I do think you could have an uptick in the Russia-Ukraine relationship. I think the Kerch incident is telling about Russia’s desire to flex muscles and to show what it—how it can impact Ukraine. I’m wondering personally—and I’ll be interested in what Paul and Tony and Paula say about it—how Putin’s calculation maybe has changed. You know, does he now believe that he’s not going to get an easing of sanctions from the United States or from Europe, that maybe he’s gotten what he can get out of the relationship with the United States and this administration. And you’ve got kind of a chaotic situation in the West. His own personal popularity falling. Russia’s economy stalling. Less than 2 percent growth. So is this a time, in 2019, with an election in Ukraine in March, that Putin doubles down in Ukraine?

So we can talk about all sorts of hot spots, but I think that’s a broad way of saying that I think there is a lot to worry about. And I think just because the survey may show that no one thinks there’s the potential for a deliberate confrontation between powers, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t get an incidental one. And I think I would watch in that regard the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the Black Sea. You know, there’s several places—and in Iraq—where the U.S. military is in close proximity to other major powers. And then you—then you have the question of how can you dial it back if something happens? So there is a lot to worry about. There’s a lot that the United States has to our advantage. But 2019 might be a rocky road.

 LABOTT: Paula, I thought that Russia would be kind of higher on the urgency list, not just in consideration of whether there’s a conflict with Europe or Ukraine, but also in terms of Putin’s ability to cause trouble for us in Syria or, you know, even in North Korea, Afghanistan, other areas where he’s looking to thwart U.S. influence, and that the relationship with—between the United States and Russia right now, obviously very rocky. What are your thoughts in terms of, if you look at this panoply of issues, where does Russia stand on its ability to make trouble in all of them?

DOBRIANSKY: Let me come to that. Let me give my overview of the survey, and then that’s going to be a core comment I want to make about Russia. Paul, first of all, congratulations to you and your team. I think you did really a great job in putting this together. And I especially—I wanted to emphasize the cyber. I thought that that was exactly right. You know, although you, I think, made the comment that we’re always not as preoccupied from the standpoint of here, maybe, in Washington, I’ll tell you the business community and also our cities and states and looking at electrical grids are really absorbed into this issue. I think it’s a key issue and one that we need to sustain our focus on. And the alert is a good one.

The second one, though, I want to flag, which we haven’t said a lot about—Tony, you made reference to the hemisphere—but I really want to flag Venezuela. Over, in fact, even the other two that are mentioned, Mexico and Nicaragua. And why Venezuela? Brookings just released a report that was flagged by one of your colleagues, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald and CNN. And it basically—it predicts actually an exodus of up to 8 million refugees. And by the way, Michael, it’s predicted that that amount will overtake the refugees coming out of Syria. It really caught my attention in that regard. I do think Venezuela is a serious situation. It’s a serious crisis situation. And I’m glad that that was flagged, because it’s something that definitely needs to be addressed.

One more comment, and then come to Russia. I agree with many of the comments already made about the ones that are flagged in the survey. Certainly the concern about China, what it is doing in the South China Seas, Iran, the fact of Iran’s continued terrorist activities and support for aggressive proxies. I think we’re going to see that continue. North Korea also in this mix.

LABOTT: We’re going to get—yeah, we’re going to get to all those.

DOBRIANSKY: But let me go to Russia. That was going to be the one that I—in fact, I have to say I was surprised. I wouldn’t have put it—

LABOTT: I was as well.

DOBRIANSKY: If we can put it in tiers, I would have put it in tier one. And not only because of the Kerch Strait and the whole Sea of Azov incident, but quite frankly if you look at what Russia’s been doing, I mean, the fact of the building of a base in the Arctic—which, by the way, many countries, particularly the Nordic countries, have really homed in and expressed a concern. But even that has had ramifications for our NATO meetings. The last NATO meeting prior to the summit actually called for the creation of a new joint force command, which is now based in Norfolk, which encompasses not only the Atlantic but, for the first time, the Arctic.

Stoltenberg announced this. There are two new joint force commands, one in Norfolk and then the other one that was announced at the summit is at Ulm, Germany. But what does the first one emanate from? From the aggressive activities. So it’s already happening. And, yes, Michael, to answer your question, I think we see more to come in this case, definitively, from Russia. I think Putin is on a path forward and will sustain that particular course of provocations, even nuclear saber-rattling, which has occurred previously, and no less aggression.

LABOTT: And then, Paul, I mean, we’ve talked about the idea that to the extent that the U.S. can choose and control what issues—what issues it deals with, I mean, let’s talk a little bit about the capacity for the U.S. to handle these crises coming out from left field. I mean, you know, a lot of these, as Mike said, you know, we don’t hear a ton about them anymore. And we think that, you know, the Syria problem will go away, the Afghanistan problem will go away, ISIS is close to being defeated. But you know, there are these problems. I would say, you know, although Saudi Arabia, the problems there, have been brewing for some time, this murder of Jamal Khashoggi obviously was a problem that came kind of out of left field. Talk about the ability for us to kind of rally and be crisis-oriented.

STARES: Well, I think you point to an important issue, Elise. There’s the makings of a perfect storm here. As I allude to in my own remarks in the report, this is a president that hasn’t had to manage a serious international crisis since he became president, which is quite extraordinary given the experiences of previous presidents who, by now, have actually had to wrestle with real life-or-death decisions about whether to commit U.S. forces. Now, there was the issue in Syria, I think the crisis on the peninsula, but he hasn’t really been tested in a serious crisis. There are many parts of the administration—there are just jobs there that are not filled. It’s unclear how the system would work, and whether even the U.S. government will be actually working is another issue. Let’s not forget that.

At the same time that high levels of the U.S. is in some degree of turmoil, you’ve got a lot of Europe in turmoil too. And they are our go-to partners in most crises. And you’ve got to worry about Britain’s capacity to be a responsive partner, France, Germany even, Italy, and so on. And then there’s this sort of undercurrent of growing distrust and antagonism between the major powers. And if you think about it, if you look out across the world, there is not a major regional conflict that does not require at least two major powers to be in agreement if we are to many any progress in resolving these crises. Any one of them can block us or block someone else in what they try to do.

So this is sort of a major set of issues. And of course, there’s also an erosion in our confidence in multilateral institutions, the U.N. Secretary Pompeo delivered a very pointed speech in Brussels just over a week ago in which he pretty much trashed the U.N., and the EU, and other multilateral institutions. Frankly, not a smart thing for him to do at a time where you actually may be relying more on these institutions to help you in a crisis. So that’s what I mean about this potential for a perfect storm, not only our capacity to manage it but the ability of others to as well.

LABOTT: Tony, you know, he makes a good point in terms of allies not seeing the U.S. as reliable. But also, when the U.S.—I think there has always been, and I think I saw this, you know, starting in Libya—when the U.S. doesn’t lead, they just—everyone follows when the U.S. does lead. When the U.S. is not leading, I think it’s hard for the world to kind of, you know, rally around an idea if they don’t have a great power, like the U.S. trying to lead the way. To the extent that our military is stretched thin, that allies don’t perceive us as reliable, to the extent that, you know, this administration is in what, you know, what some would call, you know, an America first or a protectionist policy, others would say isolationist, how is that going to affect, you know, dealing with Iran, dealing with the North Korean crisis, for instance?

BLINKEN: Look, Elise, I share your premise. And I think that, you know, we need to be informed by history if not a captive to it. And the truth is, if we forget history we’re likely to be condemned to retweet it. (Laughter.) So in this instance—


BLINKEN: I think the last seventy years have demonstrated one thing. For all the mistakes that we’ve made, we’ve realized that the world is not self-governing. And if we are not playing a leading role in helping to govern it and mobilizing others, then one of two things: Either someone else will, and probably not to our interests and values—and of course, increasingly we’re seeing the emergence of China asserting that kind of leadership role. Whether it can play it is another matter. Or if no one else is, then no one is. And that may be even worse, because you tend to then have a vacuum that’s filled by malevolent forces before it’s filled by positive ones. So I think there’s something very profound about the role that we played—and in my judgement, at least, need to continue to play. Although, given some of the missteps, given some of the overreach, we have to factor that in too. So that’s critically important.

I’d say too that as we’re looking at this, we need to factor in a couple of other things. We do have an under-resourced and under-funded diplomacy. And that means that at various times our ability to deescalate a crisis, if one occurs—and, as Mike said, it’s just as likely to be unintended as it is to be intended—that’s a problem. And some of this is of our own making. One concrete example: Some of you will remember at the very end of the Obama administration that some American sailors went off course and were detained by the Iranian navy. That was a potential huge crisis that was nipped in the bud within twenty-four hours, in part because the secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, had his Iranian counterpart’s number and email address on his—on his iPhone, and talked to him or communicated with him probably a dozen times in those twenty-four hours. And we got our guys released within twenty-four hours.

Right now, that connectivity doesn’t exist. There’s virtually no communication at that level between the United States and Iran. So just to take one example, if one of these potential incidents—some of which Mike alluded to—happens without an intent to get into a conflict, it could easily spiral into one because we don’t have the ability to deescalate.

LABOTT: To what extent does the president’s unpredictability make that less likely or more likely to happen? You know, some people would say, you know, the mad man theory—so unpredictable that we’re not even going to poke the bear?

BLINKEN: Look, I think it—as unpredictability in the system and unpredictability at time of crisis is even worse it makes it, again, harder to get things back in line. So it just creates a much more fraught overall environment in which any single spark can grow into a large conflagration.

DOBRIANSKY: Elise, if I may jump in, I have a different perspective on this. First, let me start with I think that the administration has made a very clear articulation of—in its National Security Strategy document—of who the targets are. And in this case, in referencing Russia and China, because a lot of these sub-areas that we’re also talking about have an interrelationship with what China’s doing and also with what Russia’s doing. But secondly, I’d also say that, as I know all of you know, the administration also came in because of a domestic population that really focused very extensively on how resources get used. Resources should be used effectively on the domestic front. And many of our allies and in our alliances, others should be stepping forward.

So fast-forward, I look at NATO. I mentioned already the fact that you have here two new joint force commands as part of preparedness that had been put into place—

LABOTT: Those were—those were being put in place before the Trump administration came—

DOBRIANSKY: No, no, not the Arctic. Not the Arctic one. Not the Arctic. Secondly, I think I would also point out the rise of the NATO Readiness Initiative. But thirdly, Stoltenberg himself came out and mention that as a result of now—not all countries, but a good number have stepped forward. They’ve done the 2 percent increase. And you have some $87 billion that have been allocated towards defense. But actually, you know what the issue really is? It’s what I would call—there’s always been, I think, traditionally, from administration to administration, Republican, Democrat—I can always think that there have been differences within the family over how we do things, how it goes. But the bottom line tells me in terms of the commitment that there is a strategic alignment here, and there is a commitment in terms of our collective defense.

And let me give a graphic example, by the way, of, if you could say, preparedness. By the way, let’s go back to Syria in May of this year. Remember, our special forces were attacked? Remember there were some close to 500—the term had been used—Syrian government-backed forces, of which a huge portion involved Russians? Remember that there was immediate action on our part, on the part of this administration, to defend our forces on the ground. That was something that, you know, I think wasn’t absolutely predicted. Syria, as Michael has mentioned—I think is absolutely correct—is a volatile situation. But there was a response.

LABOTT: That’s—I—

DOBRIANSKY: So I think it’s worth pointing out that even though there are differences that arise in the family at time, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a rally around core crisis issues and what’s the bottom line for all of us and our survival.

LABOTT: That’s true. And these are specific cases that you mentioned. But I would say, and I’d like Mike, if you could—if you could weigh in, I think it’s a little bit more than, you know, arguments in the family. I mean, there’s talk about, you know, the EU or NATO being worse than China. That there is, like, a whole rethinking of whether the world order as it existed should exist. And, Mike, I would be interested to see—and I don’t want—keep it—I don’t want this to be a political argument, but in this new way that, you know, the U.S. government is moving towards—and self-proclaimed, I might say, kind of rethinking the world order. How does that—how does that come from U.S. leadership, a crisis that we can avoid because of just a change in the way that the U.S. approaches its role in the world?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. And I think, Elise, to not make it specific on just this administration, I think if you were looking at Washington right now over the last, you know, several years—not just this last two, but a decade and a half—we have traditionally, I think, in our country, operated within the forty-yard lines in terms of what our vision of was our place in the world. I think in the last fifteen or twenty years we’re swinging more wildly, it seems to me. And I can’t tell you, if I’m sitting in Berlin, or Paris, or London, is the United States pro-liberal democracy promotion globally or not? Are we pro free trade or are we not? Are we pro human rights promotion or are we not? Are we pro climate change or are we not? I could go down a list of, you know, a dozen of these really important issues.

And what’s scary about it, to me, is the ceding of power by the Article I folks in Congress. So we don’t sign treaties. We have agreements. And why would you right now have any confidence, watching what we have done with JCPOA, Paris, NAFTA, TPP, that whatever I sign with the United States is going to be—is going to be a binding agreement for a longer period of time. And that is, I think, deeply unsettling to the international order. So, again, I don’t think it’s just this administration. But as a collective—as a country, I think we would be better off with some kind of intellectual framework for how we view the world that is generally agreed to. There’s always going to be debates on specific issues, but how the United States views the world right now is, I think, very uncertain overseas.

BLINKEN: Yeah. And one footnote on this, Elise—

LABOTT: Just quick. We’re going to—yeah.

BLINKEN: Which is, I think not a single one of the problems that the report highlights and that we’ve been talking about today, to state the obvious, has a unilateral solution. No single country, no matter how powerful, can deal with any of the problems that we’ve been talking about. And there is also no wall high enough, sturdy enough, to contain these problems or to prevent them from hitting us. So that does put a premium on figuring out ways to advance international cooperation. We don’t like to talk about it. We think that’s something from the 20th century. We talk a lot, rightly, about better burden sharing. But if we can’t figure this out, then everything we’re worried about in 2019, to the extent it comes and bites us, will hit us even worse than it would if at least we had in place bigger structures of international cooperation.

And the other thing that troubles me is we have seen, for whatever reason—and there are lots of them—a diminution in trust in American leadership. And this has been clear across survey after survey. And that makes it difficult for leaders in democratic countries who are our partners and allies to actually be with us, when their own publics, for whatever reason, don’t trust us. That deficit, that credibility deficit, really is a problem in advancing the national security.

DOBRIANSKY: The one quick—sorry—the one quick comment I just wanted to make, because I think, Paul, you referenced, you know, the international order and the question about that in referencing Pompeo’s speech. If you read the speech and you look at it, he calls for reform. He calls—and he gave it in Brussels—I think really the intent was that we need to look at where we’ve been, where we are. There’s been a complacency. And there does need to be a rethinking about the international order, because many of the institutions have not functioned fully. And Europe is a graphic case in point in this regard. So just want to put that in context. It seems to me there’s a real interest in engaging and starting that dialogue. And the way of doing it may not be the traditional way, but I also think it’s a way that is going to spur a great deal of interest. Just as we’ve seen in in NATO, I look at what the outcomes are not just the debates that have taken place.


DEMPSEY: Elise, can I say one thing?

LABOTT: Just—yeah, super-quick. I want to open it.

DEMPSEY: Yep, yep. If you listen to the language that comes out of Washington—and I do think has probably accelerated in the past few years—but we really much better at describing what we don’t want to happen or what we don’t want in a relationship than what we actually do want to happen.

LABOTT: Right. OK. So in that vein, let’s be prescriptive as we ask our questions. (Laughs.) I want to remind everybody that this meeting is on the record. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. Raise your hand if you have a question. And we got to keep it moving along. So no long, you know, speeches. One question and we’re going to move on. Right here.

Q: Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress.

I wonder if any of the panelists are concerned with what looks like the collapse of the arms control era between us and Russia?

LABOTT: Who wants to take that one.

DOBRIANSKY: Well, I—my own view—

STARES: Well maybe I can—

DOBRIANSKY: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

LABOTT: Go ahead, Paul.

DOBRIANSKY: Go ahead, and then I’ll make a comment.

STARES: I think it’s an excellent question. The—you know, the INF Treaty is unraveling before our eyes, and the New START agreement is probably next. I think there’s a legitimate issue about both—well, certainly about the INF and when it comes to compliance—Russian compliance. But these are not issues that cannot be resolved between two responsible powers. And I think if these start to unravel, then we’re off to the races, literally, in terms of development of new strategic weapons, theater forces, new domains will be exploited. I just don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest to go down that path again.

DOBRIANSKY: I see it differently. I see it that actually it is placing a premium on getting an agreement right and ensuring that it will actually have teeth to it rather than being flawed. And that’s the context in which I see it.

LABOTT: Well, and it would also be good if we could deal with on the issue itself, and not have these residual tensions with Russia.

Paul, do you want to take a question in New York?

STARES: Yeah. I’ll be traffic—I’ll be traffic cop here.


STARES: I think this gentleman here was first.

DEMPSEY: Can I say one thing, just one the last point? Just as we’re talking about existing agreements, we really have to spend time thinking about the new domains where we need some kind of agreement among great powers. You have more than twenty-three countries with military drone programs, more than a dozen that are researching autonomous weapons. What is an act of war in this cyber domain? Is the BW treaty sufficient for the chances in biotechnology today? So we can talk about the INF Treaty, but what worries me is it’s a little sclerotic because there’s a whole other part of the arms control discussion that we’re not really having.

STARES: Yes, you, sir.

Q: Michael Skol of Skol and Serna.

Tony has said that there was—none of the worries would be—lead to any kind of successful U.S. unilateral intervention. But I would like to suggest that the country which Paula underlined, Venezuela, could well-fulfill that role. First of all, it’s going to become infinitely worse in 2019. Second, an exceedingly rare thing has happened in Latin America, opposition leaders—some of them—have called for U.S. intervention. The U.S. can bring that country utterly down with a few clicks on oil embargo. And intervention seems to be a relatively easy task for the U.S. Do you think that’s possible?

STARES: Tony, do you want to go for that?


BLINKEN: Sure. Look, I’d say this: I think that if there is any kind of intervention in Venezuela, if it’s not done in a cooperative multilateral context then the cure may be as bad if not worse than the disease. We will resurrect all the ghosts of the past in our own hemisphere in ways that will come back to divide us. So what we can and should be doing is playing a mobilizing role in the hemisphere with all of the other concerned countries—of which we’ve talked about a number of them—talking about the refugee crisis coming out of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Chile, now as far down as South America, are now feeling and bearing the brunt of this. So there’s an incentive to tackle this question collectively. If we don’t do it that way, then I think we may have as big a problem as the one that we solved.

DOBRIANSKY: I’ll just inject.

LABOTT: Super quick.

DOBRIANSKY: Mike—and because I really emphasized Venezuela—Mike, I think your question is a very good one, and an important one. It’s already on the table in a way because—not only because it’s on the table, but actually the countries of the region—and I’d add into Brazil into that roster—because Colombia and Brazil are the two that are being—primarily being affected because of their borders. But secondly, there has been a collective effort through the OAS. There also have been sanctions that have been deployed. But there is a discussion about what kind of concrete steps could be taken. And including some have put on the table the issue of intervention.

DEMPSEY: So one thing, Elise, on that—just one second.

LABOTT: OK. Yeah, sure.

DEMPSEY: I started working on Venezuela when Chavez was a lieutenant colonel. So I’m dating myself. But the country has three straight years of double-digit economic contraction. It has really been deinstitutionalized. And PDVSA, look, on the current trajectory I wouldn’t be surprised if PDVSA is well-below a million barrels a day by the end of this—by the end of next year. So it’s not the can we—can we—I was in the 101st, right? Can the 101st go in and oust Maduro and the PSUV? Yes. You better be prepared, though, for a significant cost in terms of, you know, rebuilding a country that is in dire straits. And I think probably most people don’t appreciate how bad the economy actually is. So you know, the day after we can become quite unpopular. And it can fit this narrative of the United States, again, being big brother in the Western Hemisphere. So a lot of the people that will advocate for going in now, a month after we go in will be nowhere to be seen, is my fear. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: OK. We’re going to go in the back right there. And then, sir, you’ll go next.

Q: Thank you, Elise. Eunjung Cho with the Voice of America.

The report mentions about the possible breakdown of U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks. So what do you think of—how is current U.S. government approach effective of stepping up sanctions on North Korea and calling out North Korea’s human rights abuses, when North Korea is not coming to the negotiation table? Thank you.

LABOTT: Tony, and on top of that, the idea that certainly the tone has improved. I wouldn’t say there have necessarily been any steps. North Korea is still constituting its program. To what extent is this approach better than strategic patience, which was, you know, a lot of testing that we haven’t seen in a year, but certainly the same constituting?

BLINKEN: No. I mean, the fact is that the Obama administration, especially the last year, year and a half, actually mobilized the international community, and especially countries in the region, including China—

LABOTT: There was still testing, though. I mean, we—let’s just admit that we haven’t seen any tests in the last year.

BLINKEN: No, no, but let me—hold on. Yes, no, absolutely. And I want to come to that. But there was a significant effort made, quietly, to exert maximum pressure—as we now call it—on North Korea. To cut off every single economic, diplomatic, political tie that we could find, working in very close collaboration with South Korea and Japan. And that had an effect. And we also got two U.N. Security Council resolutions that started to tighten the noose. To the Trump administration’s credit, it continued that playbook, and it did very well. It got two additional Security Council resolutions, the toughest we’ve had. It did get China, after we’d initiated this, to do more, to exert more pressure. And I think that played a meaningful role in getting Kim Jong-un to the table.

Second, I think you have to at least raise the prospect that President Trump, however unorthodox it was in engaging directly with Kim Jong-un, basically said: Look, what we’ve been doing for the last twenty, twenty-five years over successive administrations wasn’t working. Maybe it’s time to try something new. So in a sense, I don’t begrudge him that. I think the problem is that in this case, so far at least—and the jury’s still out—but so far, at least, The Art of the Deal has become the art of the steal in favor of North Korea. Basically, thus far we’ve given everything and gotten very little in return. Yes, you’re correct, there’s been a moratorium, in effect, on testing. That’s a good thing.

But some analysts will tell you, and maybe Mike can talk about his, that North Korea had gotten to a point where it had sufficiently tested, that it has enough confidence in its program to feel it could take a timeout and see if it could leverage that to get exactly what it’s gotten: the legitimacy of a meeting with a president of the United States. President Trump likes to say no previous president did it. Well, there was actually a reason for that. It wasn’t because they couldn’t; it’s because they wouldn’t because they didn’t want to legitimize the North Korean ruler.

Second, we’ve seen that the program—although the testing has stopped and, again, that’s good—we’ve seen that the program has continued in very significant material ways building up the infrastructure, building up fissile material, et cetera. And maybe most troubling of all, by declaring premature victory a green light was shone to China, to Russia, to others, that problem solved, we can start to go back to business as usual. And so the pressure that the administration effectively exerted on North Korea has now been lessened. And that’s created a tremendous amount of space for Kim Jong-un.

I’m afraid, and I think the report is right about this, that we are headed back to a crisis moment. And it may be a resumption of fire and fury. It may be out of frustration an effort to demonstrate to North Korea that it can’t continue to do what it’s doing, so we get the bloody nose scenario, which I fear could spiral in very, very dangerous directions. So all of that said, this is hugely fraught. And you have to—you have to think that 2019, while we had a nice period of relative calm, is not going to be as calm.

LABOTT: Paul or Mike, if you want to just jump in quick before you go to the next person, would a breakdown in talks see more of an escalation in a more dangerous way than if we didn’t have this process right now?

STARES: I don’t think it’s automatic. But as Tony says, there’s a lot of expectation that Trump reached a deal. And there’s very little—very few details about what was agreed, and whether anything was agreed, frankly. And the prospect of a North-South summit in the near future is now looking very remote. And while Trump talks about a meeting with Kim Jong-un in January or February, one has to wonder what exactly that—they can agree to, because we are demanding a certain level of transparency and commitment on them to being the denuclearization process, which I just don’t think, frankly—speaking for myself—they’re willing to do. So this could start to unravel very quickly. And we may not be back to where we were at the end of last year, but certainly the same level of uncertainty and fear, if you will, about the situation will resume, I think, pretty soon afterwards.

DEMPSEY: Elise, I think we think that we, as in the administration, the U.S. government, will get frustrated and up the ante. I actually think it’s equally plausible, and if not more plausible, that Kim will think that I have given—you know, I have actually given already, whatever that is—remains, you know, from the Korean War—that his meeting with Trump—I think he is quite capable, if he does not get concessions by the spring/early summer, of him ratcheting up pressure. And I think, you know, the North Korean expression about diplomacy, milking the cow, I think that their view is by the spring/summer it might be time to milk the cow again. And I don’t think it would be a response as confrontational as another test—because I think they know that is a redline—but I could see them threatening to proliferate some of their weapons. They have ready customers internationally. I could see them launching a cyberattack, you know, pressuring the South to try to split the South from the United States. So the only thing—the only caution I would give is we may not be the only one driving that. And I think Kim is quite capable of himself driving it later this year.

LABOTT: Just, Paul, Paula has a quick—

DOBRIANSKY: Thank you. Mine is just a very fast one. It’s actually a broad point. It’s not on North Korea, per se. But just stepping back to the original point made earlier about the importance of diplomacy, it’s just worth noting: We do have an envoy on North Korea. There is an envoy on Iran, on Syria, on Afghanistan. And I think there was even one brought out on the Great Lakes in Africa. I don’t know if it’s been formally announced. But anyhow, I just wanted to point that out, because diplomacy is conducted at different levels, and the fact that those appointments were made with people who were deeply engaged.

LABOTT: Yeah. That’s true. Paul.

STARES: So a gentleman right at the back there who’s been waiting patiently. Just say who you are.

Q: Thank you. Charles Robertson, with the Episcopal Church.

Thanks, first, for the survey. Very helpful. I’m curious, given my own affiliation, of what you all see as the role of religion in general or religious extremism in particular as we’re moving forward, not only to exacerbate but also possibly to de-intensify some of what we’re seeing. I keep thinking about the Marrakesh Declaration a couple years ago. It came, it went, great fanfare. And the nothing. Where does religion fit into this as we move forward?

LABOTT: Mike? (Laughter.)

DEMPSEY: You’re asking the intel officer this question? (Laughter.) Well, look, I mean, it’s an easy assessment to say that it’s been critical to, you know, fueling extremism, different movements globally, ISIS the most well-known. But, you know, there’s still ISIS, what, eight different affiliate groups, twenty different affiliates with al-Qaida. You know, I don’t know that—you know, it’s a difficult question to answer, because it’s such a broad one. I don’t know.

STARES: I can—I can jump in and say, you know, it’s always a balance right? To what extent it’s a negative force or a positive force. And there’s plenty of examples of both. We’ve seen lots of cases of interfaith dialogues producing ceasefires or backchannels using the Vatican or other NGO—religious-affiliated NGOs playing a positive role. So it’s a balance. So I don’t think there’s an easy way of answering that question.

LABOTT: That was in your bailiwick at State.

DOBRIANSKY: I’ll make—I’ll make a brief comment. Secretary Pompeo, along with former Senator Brownback, who’s how Ambassador Brownback, who heads the Religious Freedom Office, they convened a forum. And that forum was very much geared towards bringing in a kind of interfaith dialogue, looking at issues ranging from values, the importance of religion and the protection of religious freedom, but also the very issue which I think you’re raising, as I heard it, was those areas where religion has been manipulated and used for reasons that undermine the very religions themselves. So in that regard, I’d just say that that has been something that actually I took place at the very beginning of Secretary Pompeo’s tenure. Right when he came into the department they convened a meeting specifically devoted to that issue.


Q: David Rivkin, Baker Hostetler.

I just wanted to get back for a minute to the exchange about arms control between Paula and Paul. Look, the problem is that just some diplomatic patience is difficult to recommend, and not just because of the fact that blatant violations of the INF Treaty that the previous administration, to its credit, has tried to fix and failed is a problem. But an even bigger problem, if you look at arms control which began really seriously in the first Nixon administration, featured a particular configuration of forces, particular ratio of different employment concepts and doctrines that made sense, given the fact that Russia, in particular, is emphasizing these days first nuclear use, calling it de-escalatory mode, and China is building up certainly it’s theater forces. It’s difficult for me to imagine what possible arms control agreements you can achieve. So it’s—there are instances where diplomacy just has its limitations, and this is one of them.

BLINKEN: Look, I think you’re right. This is now variable geometry in ways that it wasn’t before. A multiplicity of actors that were not in the same position when we negotiated the INF Treaty. China is the best example. Not part of the INF. So there’s a legitimate and real concern about that. And a whole series of other actors who have intermediate-range capabilities, conventional or nuclear. So there’s no question it’s more complicated, more challenging. I don’t think that takes away from the necessity to try, because here’s the problem: These issues rise to the level of the existential. And so a lot of what we’ve been talking about certainly has potential to do tremendous damage. When we’re talking about nuclear weapons we’re talking about potentially an existential threat.

And for all the deficiencies of arms control regimes and efforts that have been made over the last thirty, forty, fifty years, it at least significantly reduced, if it didn’t eliminate, these existential dangers. If those dangers return they’re, of course, bad in and of themselves, but they also create an environment in which countries believe that they can act with greater impunity because they have a nuclear weapon that gives another country pause before responding. And that means the likelihood that we’ll have more conflicts of a conventional nature actually increases, and the world becomes a more dangerous place. So I acknowledge your premise. This is a more complicated and tougher thing to pull off. I don’t think it’s any less important than it’s been.

LABOTT: Paul, you want to take—

STARES: Yeah. There’s a lady at the very back too there, and we’ll come back to the front if we have time.

Q: Hi. This is Somini Sengupta. I’m a reporter at The New York Times.

One of you dutifully mentioned climate change, but I wonder if any of you have any thoughts on whether climate change—where and how climate change is either a threat multiplier or a direct threat.

LABOTT: OK. Multiplier or direct threat. Tony.


LABOTT: Just quick. Multiplier—(laughter)—

BLINKEN: No. We see it—we see it across the border. And unfortunately, the challenge of climate change has always been in the perception of people that, oh, this is something that’s happening tomorrow or the day after, so we don’t need to deal with it today. Except, it is happening today. And Mike can go into more detail, but when we’re looking at droughts that are creating both conflict and migration, that is already a huge threat. And as we’re seeing migratory patterns, the literal crisis that we’re dealing with globally on migration is driven, in part—not in whole, but in part—by climate change. Fights over resources between groups as the resources become scarcer, in part as a result of climate change, also a problem. And you can go down the list. Infectious disease also is likely to be more of a problem not less of a problem because of the immediate impacts of climate change. So I see this as one of the single most important drivers of problems, tension, conflict, migration that we’re facing today, not tomorrow or the day after.

LABOTT: What do you guys think?

DEMPSEY: Elise, look, Iran’s had—we talk about Iran’s economic problems. You know, it’s the worst drought Iran has had in half a century. You look at what happened in Basra in Iraq, and a large part of that was from water shortages. Afghanistan is having a drought.

STARES: Northeast Syria.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, go down the list, northeast Syria, large parts of Africa. It’s not—it’s not an abstract thing. And I do think, as Tony said, it—when I mentioned population displacement of almost seventy million people, I think the two ills that are causing that are climate change and war. And, you know, as an international community, I would say we’re probably not doing a lot about either.

LABOTT: OK. We probably have time for one more question in each city. So if you have a question, raise your hand. Sir.

Q: What’s Iran going to do in the next twelve months? Are they—(laughter)—how are they going to respond? How are they going to respond to the administration’s attempt to apply pressure?

DOBRIANSKY: The one—the one thing I feel very certain of, that Iran is going to continue doing, which I mentioned in my opening remarks—and I used the word especially continue—you can expect they’re going to continue their terrorist activities. And you can expect that they’re going to continue, because they did it before, they did it during the negotiations, and they’re doing it now. They’re going to continue also their support for various proxy—regional proxy behavior and aggressive activity throughout the Middle East.

BLINKEN: The $64,000 question is what they do on the nuclear program. Thus far, they continue to abide by their commitments under the agreement that we reached. They, of course, are seeking the economic benefits that they bargained for in return. If those benefits can’t be sustained—not at 100 percent, but at least at some level where they’re getting some meaningful benefit—then forces inside Iran, including many that were against the agreement to begin with, will be in the ascendency. And they start to put the program back in place, piece by piece, being very careful, probably, not to immediately cross a redline.

The net result, though, is that over the period of the next two to three years, we’re likely, if that’s what happens, to back in exactly the place we were in before the agreement, which is Iran has the capability to produce fissile material on a very short order for a nuclear weapon. And we have the terrible binary choice of either having to act to stop them, with all of the possible unintended consequences that can bring, or let them do it, which is equally bad. The deal that was, unfortunately, torn up was at least an answer to that problem and put the problem far into the future, which in foreign policy is actually not a bad outcome.


DEMPSEY: Yeah, there’s an internal and an external component. You know, the IMF’s forecasting 1.5 percent GDP contraction this year, more than 3 percent next year. This time last year would any of us have predicted Iran would have protests in January? You know, the following month, 2018? I do think internally the combination of really high unemployment, frustration with corruption, a declining economy, you know, the plummeting of the rial’s worth, you could have internal instability, I think, inside Iran. Externally, I think the response—I don’t think they want a direct conflict with the United States. So I think the response tends to be more asymmetric. And I would look for cyber and support to proxy forces to increase.

LABOTT: Paul, I know you’re going to—if you want to take this. But as you take your last question, I’d also like to throw out one thing to you that we spoke about: some of the things that were also written in, which might have not been a huge issue in the survey, but the idea and civil (un)rest in America. And a lot of people are thinking that that could be a big threat to the U.S. next year.

STARES: Right. Well, it was somewhat unnerving to see so many people write in to the section that allows them to add whatever else is on their mind, so many put in civil unrest, political unrest in the United States. And we felt we had to reflect that sentiment. And so I do acknowledge it in the report. But I certainly think it’s something that we weren’t expecting, or it was certainly an unnerving thing to see, when so many fellow countrymen are concerned about instability in the U.S. So maybe one last question. Elise do we have—can we get one more? Yes, one more, sir. Yeah.

LABOTT: Time for one more? Yeah. I might get killed for going a minute over.

Q: I’m David Kirkpatrick. I’m with Techonomy.

And as a technology journalist who’s been hanging around here for around fifteen years, it was very gratifying to see cyberattacks finally, after way too long, rise to the level of concern. But I wanted to ask Michael to comment on a possibility, because I think even in this group, in both cities, too many people think that a cyberattack means taking down electrical grids, et cetera. And why wouldn’t you assume that the nature of a cyberattack would be a subtle as what the Russians did in manipulating the election? And then you look at the Marriott hack of five hundred million identities, probably being conducted by China, et cetera. What do you think about that kind of concern?

DEMPSEY: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, we tend to go to the worst case of what—you know, of a catastrophic take-down of an electrical grid or, you know, transportation mode, banking. There’s all sorts of way. And the example, I think, is North Korea with Sony, right? I mean, Sony made a picture North Korea didn’t like. What did North Korea do? They responded by, you know, attacking a specific target. I think that’s the most likely kind of cyber intrusion . I think it’s—I think it’s just with us now forever. I don’t think—I mean, I—there’s no—my biggest concern has always been there’s no norms established. And even inside the United States we have a new cyber strategy. But, you know, do we have an answer systemically? So if one bank is well-protected and others are not, does that really solve anything? So I do think—I mean, we always have to plan for the worst case, but intrusions, and stealing data, manipulating data, you know, propaganda to influence cultures, I think that’s the future.

BLINKEN: We need to be as concerned about attacks on our human infrastructure as we are on our critical infrastructure. And the attacks are happening as we speak, as we sit here today. What we think, what we believe, how we relate to one another, that’s as dangerous and as problematic as an attack on electrical grids.

LABOTT: And all of that is on a Council website. That was either a sign that we’re being hacked or a signal to end the meeting. (Laughter.) But I want to wish everybody a happy holiday and thank you so much for coming.

STARES: Thank you. Elise. (Applause.)

LABOTT: Take a look at the survey on your way out.


Top Stories on CFR


Nigeria needs a change of direction, not a change of government.  

The War in Ukraine


The United States and its allies have imposed broad economic penalties on Russia over its war in Ukraine. As the conflict continues, experts debate whether the sanctions are working.