What to Worry About in 2022

Monday, January 10, 2022
Maksim Levin/REUTERS

Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Former Secretary of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2013–2017); Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

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


Podcast Host, Times Opinion, New York Times; CFR Member

Our panelists discuss potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2022, as well as their global political implications. This event explores the results of the 2022 Preventive Priorities Survey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hello and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. It is my absolute pleasure to have you here.

We have with us, of course, Jeh Johnson. He is the former secretary of homeland security.

We have Meghan O’Sullivan. She is the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

And we have Paul Stares, who is the General John Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and the director of the Center for Preventative Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome to you all on this very cold afternoon here in Washington, D.C., where I am.

I am Lulu Garcia-Navarro from the New York Times Opinion. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion. Today’s meeting is the launch event of CFR’s 2022 Preventative Priorities Survey, which is an annual survey that asks foreign policy experts to identify and evaluate thirty ongoing or potential conflicts based on how likely they are to escalate or to occur in the next year, and their possible impact on U.S. interests. Our brave panelists will parse the findings of this report. It is always very brave to look ahead and see what might be in the books. It has been, shall we say, a very tumultuous period of time.

I would like to first turn to Paul Stares for him to briefly describe the results of the 2022 survey. And that will guide our conversation today. Paul.

STARES: OK. Well, thanks, Lulu. And thanks to everybody on the Zoom today for participating, and particularly those who took this year’s survey. We’re already very appreciative of those who are engaged in this activity.

So as Lulu explained, for the last fourteen years we’ve been polling American foreign policy experts to assess the risk of particular violent conflicts either erupting or escalating over the next twelve months. And the goal is to not just assess the likelihood but the potential impact on U.S. interests. And I think this differentiates what we do from many other such surveys. The whole point being to nudge U.S. foreign policymakers to not neglect the important as they focus on the urgent. So it’s clear—I should be clear from the outset that we only focus on foreign sources of instability and conflict. We do not evaluate domestic sources of instability or terrorism within the U.S. We don’t look at potential environmental threats, or health-related threats, or economic shocks, for that matter. And we can go into discussion later about why we do this. These are clearly all important issues but we, as I say, focus primarily—exclusively, actually—on foreign source threats to U.S. interests.

So what are the main takeaways from this year’s survey? Well, the good news, if that’s the right term, is that most American experts now believe that the likelihood of a mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a U.S. ally—another 9/11, in other words—to be quite low. In fact, this is the first time in fourteen years we’ve been polling that it’s no longer a top tier—what we call a top-tier preventive priority. Now, the bad news is that the same group of experts now point to a daunting array of foreign policy challenges which they consider to be either highly likely or moderately likely to occur in 2022. And for the sake of clarity, I’m trying to organize them into three relatively discrete baskets.

The first basket concerns various ongoing humanitarian crises that could get significantly worse in the coming months. These include Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, Venezuela, Ethiopia, and Yemen. They are all considered highly likely to get worse in 2022. The second basket is the growing risk of rising tensions and even armed confrontation between the major powers. And we’ve been seeing that in recent years over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. There’s also—Taiwan is now a top-tier priority. And in the second tier there’s the ongoing borders dispute that led to various armed clashes in 2021 between India and China. There’s also the possibility of escalation from some incident in the South China Sea too. The third basket is the potential for regional conflict or an armed confrontation arising as a result of various proliferation concerns. This year the possibility that we will see an acute crisis over Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons is a real concern. It’s now back as being a top-tier concern. And of course, in the background there’s always the possibility that North Korea might do something that also leads to a serious crisis.

Now, I can’t recall in recent memory—and maybe Jeh or Meghan can correct me on this—when a U.S. president or a U.S. administration has had to face the prospect of those three kinds of baskets of contingencies occurring simultaneously. I can think of times when two out of three have happened, but three out of three is, I think, extremely rare. And I’m having a hard time thinking about when this last occurred, or last presented itself to a U.S. president. So on that cheery note, I’ll hand it back to you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. Cheery, indeed. I mean, Jeh, I’m going to turn to you. Tell me, when you look at the report and what you’ve just heard, what your thoughts go to?

JOHNSON: Thank you, Lulu. And thank you, Paul, for leading this effort on behalf of the CFR. I think this is a very worthwhile, valuable and healthy exercise to go through each year. I very much appreciate considering on the matrix the both likelihood and impact. Forty years ago, when I was studying for the Bar exam, that’s exactly how I planned—how I would study, and how I’d spend my time. The likelihood that the subject would be on the Bar exam and impact if I’m asked, and I don’t know the answer.

And when I was secretary of homeland security, invariably I would prioritize and ask our team to prioritize how we spend our time based upon the potential impact of some form of attack and the likelihood of such an attack. And you put them together. Invariably, politically, because we live in a political world, those events of high likelihood, even the smaller scale lone wolf bad actor, get more attention day to day in the life of a secretary of defense or a secretary of homeland security or an FBI director. So this is a very worthwhile exercise.

When you go through something like this invariably you look for places when you disagree. And I had—I had the insight of reading the presidential daily brief and my other intel reports on a daily basis every morning at 6:30, and then would, you know, read the New York Times and David Sanger afterward to see how they were covering what I knew to be reality. I have to say, I was a bit—I guess the one significant exception I would make here is the—a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure by a state or state-supported group is in the likelihood moderate impact high category. I would put that in the likelihood high category.

I believe that cyberthreats and cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure are here. I think the likelihood is high. I think that the potential impact of such an attack is high. Best example is the attack on Colonial Pipeline several months ago. I gave a whole speech on this several weeks ago, on cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. In my judgement, cyberspace is the 21st century battleground. And covert actors are giving—are replacing conventional actors, and cyberattacks are replacing kinetic attacks, in my judgement. And so if I were up to me only, I would put cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, like the defense industrial base or government infrastructure, higher likelihood, potential high impact. So that’s my initial reaction. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to circle back to that, but I want to get, of course, Meghan’s thoughts on the report.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you, Lulu. And thanks to everybody for joining this call. And also many thanks to Paul and his team for putting together an excellent report. I share my appreciation for the report in the same ways that Jeh mentioned. And I would say that it has, over the last fourteen years, really been a consistent, and useful, and rigorous report. It has added rigor in the way that Jeh mentioned, that I think not all beginning of year reports usually have. Often those reports are insightful, but they’re really about the judgement of one or two people, whereas this report here really does a great job of bringing together a range of views and doing so in a kind of systematic way. So it’s been a go-to report for me for many years.

Consistent with what Jeh did, I just wanted to share a couple things in reading the report that I found really struck the right chord, and then a couple things I found a little disconsonant. First, you know, this point that was already mentioned about how terrorism and a fear of a terrorist attack, or a 9/11-style terrorist attack, seems to have gone down in favor of, you know, conflicts that more fall into the category of great-power conflict seems exactly right. We’ve been talking about this in the foreign policy community for many years—or, several years, I should say—that the great-power conflict is becoming the dominant paradigm to think about foreign affairs. And this survey that’s here reflects that.

I would only ask whether it is simply that the intensity of these great-power questions and challenges has risen so acutely and that, you know, it’s a debatable point about whether the risks of terrorism have fallen in an absolute sense. When I look at 2022 and I think about events that happened in Afghanistan at the end of last year, you know, my assessment is that our risk of maybe not a 9/11-style attack, but our risks of more terrorist attacks emanating from foreign soil has actually gone up in 2022 rather than gone down from 2021. Maybe it still belongs behind great-power conflict, but there’s an absolute question as well.

The other point, and, again, I think we may come back to these, just has to do with the place that a potential U.S.-China conflict takes in a report. I think the report gets it exactly right. It’s actually a tier two—a tier-two concern or threat rather than a tier one, which many may think looking at a lot of the rhetoric in Washington and elsewhere. But I think it does belong in that second tier because of the two parameters the report looks at and I think reflect reality quite well. That obviously such a conflict would be very high in terms of its consequence, but that it is only moderately possible—or, moderately likely in today’s scenario, looking at the year of 2022. And that is for a range of reasons. Of course, that really—I think that assessment that it is not likely to occur really assumes that there is nothing that—nothing unforeseen or that there isn’t some kind of, you know, fall into conflict that neither party really wanted.

A couple of things that struck me as a little disconsonant. I also share Jeh’s view about the likelihood of a very disruptive cyberattack probably being higher. The terrorism point that I just made I think is worth considering. But the other point which hasn’t been mentioned is I was not surprised but interested that even in today’s world, which is, you know, so defined by COVID—unfortunately, but in reality—that U.S. analysts didn’t think that there was any conflict that really had particular consequence for the United States. And particularly, as we know, the role of instability, and poor governance, and the relationship to vaccination, and just the fact that unvaccinated countries are—the fastest-growing continent being largely unvaccinated, you know, just provides a lot of opportunity for this virus to continue to mutate and stay with us for a long period of time. So I think that judgement maybe is a little different than it might have seemed a year or two ago.

And then finally, Lulu, if I could just say a couple of words about the structure of the report. And this is more a refinement than a criticism. Paul mentioned upfront about how it has been the tradition of the report not to look at nontraditional threats, or threats that we would consider today to fall into—you know, things like pandemics or climate change, and look more at threats that have to do with state actors and more traditional forms of conflict. And I would just argue—and perhaps we’ll talk about this some more—I would just argue that it may be time to reconsider that judgement, because the world has changed so dramatically in the last fourteen years. And I particularly feel that’s the case with climate change. And let me just say a few words about that.

I think a dozen years ago or fourteen years ago when we thought about the intersection of climate and national security, we really might have been thinking primarily about some mass weather event that would create a humanitarian hardship and would lead to economic instability and potentially political instability—something along those lines. And of course, that’s very hard to predict. But now I would say climate change is much more deeply infused into national security, and it’s no longer this just exogeneous factor out there that could potentially have an impact on national security. It really is—you know, it animates a lot of the foreign policies of great powers. You know, be it China, be it the United States, be it Europe, or be it countries that are looking to spoil the transition to a cleaner economy. If you think about the Biden administration and just how the president has pledged that climate change is going to be at the center of virtually all their relationships, I think that’s indicative of how much has changed.

So I think, in closing, it might be difficult to figure out how exactly how to account for climate change. I was trying to think about making a constructive recommendation. And perhaps it would be useful to ask those surveyed how much climate change is part of your assessment of the severity of the threat or the likelihood, rather than putting it as a separate category because climate change, as we all have come to appreciate, is what is called a threat multiplier. For instance, you know, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the conflict going on there didn’t even make it into the tier-three list. But that is the country that produces 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, and cobalt is absolutely essential for a lot of clean energy technologies. So suddenly the conflict in the Congo has, you know, potentially direct consequences for the pace of decarbonization. And that might mean that people start paying a lot more attention. And that conflict might be seen to have more importance for the U.S. and other countries. So with those said, I think I’ll stop here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, well I’m going to—

JOHNSON: If I could—if I could—


JOHNSON: If I could just build on what Meghan said about climate change. The assessment talks about security challenges in the conventional sense. I think it’s time that we view climate change, global warming, as a security challenge. It is—it has the ability to cause mass migration events, famine, drought—famine, drought in Central America—wildfires. And from my perspective, on homeland security, severe weather events and the impacts of that on aging infrastructure—like a tunnel or a bridge—is itself a security challenge. So I think it’s important that we do view climate change, global warming, as a security threat, in the conventional sense. Over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Paul, I’m going to actually put this to you because obviously, you know, the way that it has been traditionally looked at is that we see foreign actors and the way that they influence, or don’t, or can impact American security. Is it time to sort of look at these things less as sort of regional conflicts and more looking at issues in terms of how they affect different countries in different places, and global security and American security all as one?

STARES: Well, these are all good comments. And I have no real disagreement with them. Just to be clear, the assessment is sort of an aggregate of respondents’ views. It’s sort of the wisdom of the crowd’s approach. So just to be clear, how the results came out don’t reflect my personal judgements. I have, you know, different takes on many of the issues.

So on climate change, we’ve struggled with this for many years, as, actually, frankly, has the intelligence community—U.S. intelligence community—in trying to assess this risk and get their arms around it. And it’s not that we’re dismissing the threat or the risk involved. On the contrary. It’s how we actually assess that risk. And I think that if we, you know, inserted a question in next year’s survey that said, you know, what is the likelihood of a hurricane hitting Central America and causing political instability and mass migration, or, as happened last year, an earthquake following the assassination of the president of Haiti, most respondents would say there’s no way I can judge the likelihood of that.

But I think if we change the parameters of the survey so that it’s not just foreign policy experts but actually, you know, climatologists, meteorologists, seismologists, whatever, and tried to broaden and have a much more inclusive group of experts involved in the polling, and possibly try to, you know, carry out a defined set of questions about—that will lead you to reach some appreciation of the growing risk, then I think that’s possible. But it would require, I think, us changing the way we do these surveys, or doing a separate one that’s primarily focused, as Meghan says, on these sort of nontraditional threats and just have just a broader range of experts making these judgements. That’s the only way I think we can do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I’m going to jump in here because—just one second—I’m going to jump in because time is limited and I do want to have a look at what’s actually in this report. One place where there was a lot of agreement, in fact the most agreement, was Afghanistan, because all of those surveyed said that that had—that that was the highest number of respondents saying it was of high concern. I’d like to sort of get everyone’s take on why that is and what the concern is when you think of Afghanistan. It is now a country where the United States had a very messy departure after twenty years of war. The Taliban has taken over. What impact does that have for the United States? Jeh, I’m going to start with you.

JOHNSON: Well, no doubt the foreign policy experts when they were surveyed had Afghanistan fresh on their mind. And the role of the Taliban, the evolving nature of the Afghan government, the future of Afghanistan, that problem is here now as we speak, day-to-day. We see the rollback of women’s rights. We—you know, we had hopes, I think, in the beginning that the new government would somehow try to behave in a more moderate fashion, but I think they’re reverting to form. And so the picture from the U.S. perspective doesn’t look bright. And so I can understand why it should be high on the list.


STARES: If I could just—sorry—can I just say something about Afghanistan too?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to ask you.

STARES: Yeah. It’s a bit of a paradox, because I think a lot of Americans look at what happened in August in Kabul, as well as the drawdown in U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria over recent years, and, you know, more or less, at least psychologically, have drawn a line under the 9/11 era. But I think, as Meghan correctly points out, in many respects the terrorist threat to the U.S. may actually now be on the rise again as a result of our departure and, you know, that has a larger debate about whether we were doing it the right way, and how long we would do it, and so on. There is somewhat of a disconnect there between how most experts assess the risk versus what I think could be happening on the ground. You know, talking to terrorist experts. They certainly are worried about the resurgence of al-Qaida and ISIS-K or Khorasan, as it’s called, in Afghanistan, or even how the Taliban may aid and abet other terrorist groups in the region, is posing a real threat down the road. So I don’t think this challenge is, by any means, disappearing. In fact, it could be getting worse in the coming years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was precisely what I wanted to ask you because it strikes me, certainly, as someone who has been in Afghanistan and covered that part of the world, that the concern always was—the argument for staying in Afghanistan always was that you wanted to have American troops on the ground to prevent another 9/11. And so it seems that there is a bit of a disconnect between saying, on the one hand, there isn’t going to be the likelihood of a mass attack—a mass terror attack has gone down, while saying Afghanistan is still of great concern.

Meghan, another sort of big issue that’s in the news right now is, of course, Russia and the U.S. And this falls under the more traditional, you know, great-power confrontations. Right now they’re meeting in Geneva over Ukraine. Russia has been massing its troops on the border of that country. How do you see those negotiations playing out? And how concerned should we be over these very traditional forms of confrontation? I mean, that is potentially a hot conflict—not a conflict in the cybersphere, not a conflict over resources, but really a conflict with guns and tanks.

O’SULLIVAN: Right. I know we’re short on time so let me just simply point out that there is a massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan as well, where you have half the population facing potentially life-threatening hunger this year, and a quarter already facing what are called near-famine conditions. So that’s going to—you know, that is a very severe source of instability as well as humanitarian problems.

To your Russia question, I put this, you know, extremely high on the list of things to be worried about in 2022, even probably higher up than it was when the survey was conducted in November. And so it’s possible that today in Europe that there will be some kind of lessening of the tensions, but I think we’re looking at a very real possibility of military action by President Putin into the Ukraine. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for this, but I think largely he feels that this is a good time for him to take steps to ensure that he is not the president that lost Ukraine to the West. And that really is his overriding preoccupation at this moment. And he actually looks at what has happened in the last couple of years as moving in the wrong direction, with the U.S. signing a partnership agreement well short of NATO—and I think most of us are well-aware that the U.S. is not going to be in favor or bring Ukraine into NATO. But Putin doesn’t feel—he doesn’t have that assurance.

So I think there is that real possibility that we’ll see military action there. Again, he sees—you know, this is a good time. Biden, he perceives as weak. Macron will be preoccupied with his hopefully reelection, from his perspective. There’s a new leader in Germany. And there’s a major energy crisis already unfolding in Europe. And this obviously strengthens his hand and diminishes what Europe can do in reaction to a crisis there. So I think we are—you know, more likely than not we’re looking at an escalation of that crisis. Although I, of course, like others, hoping for a diffusion of it.

It’s possible that there are some diplomatic steps that can be made, some kind of understandings between the West and Putin that doesn’t make the explicit commitments he’s looking for but leave him a lot more comfortable that NATO is not going to welcome Ukraine into its doors. Maybe some limitations on the kinds of weapons, but I think—that are in Ukraine. But I think, you know, actually this is a very, very hard situation to diffuse given the depth of Putin’s feelings and given the fact that he feels, you know, that this would be the time to ensure that his legacy in terms of, you know, Russia’s near abroad is secure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have a few more minutes left for this portion. Please think up your questions, because we will be taking your questions in the second half of this. But I do want to get to something close to my particular heart, which is, of course, this region and Latin America in particular. Jeh, for the first time things in our hemisphere became tier-one issues. Am I correct in saying that, Paul? Because it seems like—

STARES: Yeah, it was the first—I think there were three particular conflict or sources of instability that made it into tier one. And in the write-in section to the survey, respondents also brought attention to Central America and Brazil as additional hemispheric concerns. So I’m not sure we’ve ever had so many so highly rated before in the survey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. So, Jeh, I want to ask you about this. Venezuela, instability in Haiti, migration coming from Central America. I mean, last year we saw the most apprehensions at the U.S. border since record keeping—1.6, 1.7 million apprehensions, I believe. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how that could impact the U.S., as someone who used to assess those threats, and why you think that that has risen now to such a critical concern.

JOHNSON: Yes. I owned this problem for three years, so I think I know it well. Though, thankfully, I’m not as close to it as I used to be. It’s much easier to talk about this issue from my den in Montclair, New Jersey than when I was wrestling in the thick of it. So the one thing I’ll say about migration is this: We can—and this is the hard lesson I learned—we can put all sorts of defenses on our southern border. We can build a wall, we can—we can bring in more aircraft surveillance, more border patrol agents. We can enhance enforcement by ICE. But as long as the underlying push factors exist in Central America, as long as the famine, the drought, the corruption, the economy that are driving families to make the basic decision to come to the U.S.—even if it’s only for a couple years while their asylum case is pending—they’re going to keep coming.

And on being apprehended, they don’t really count on evading capture. And so the answer to this, and I know President Biden believes this because he believed it when he was vice president and we talked about it all the time, you have to address the problem at the source. That’s not a quick and easy solution, but we can adopt a form a Plan Colombia for Central America, which is a more discrete region of the world, that tries to get at some of these issues. We began in 2016 with a drop in the bucket of, I think, $750 million. And the experts would tell you that even that amount of money was beginning to make a difference and giving people hope again.

Now, as you point out, migration is as—the numbers are as high as they ever have been. I once asked somebody at DHS: Listen, the women and the children, is there a saturation point where they just stop coming because they’ve entered the country? And the answer is no. So you have to address the problem in Central America from the migration point of view.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jeh, I’m going to ask you just a question. Plan Colombia obviously was a military and a humanitarian, and it had other components to it. I lived in Colombia while it was ongoing. Is that what you envision for Central America, something with a military component as well?

JOHNSON: No. No, no, no. Something that addresses the core needs. So, for example, aid to help coffee growers get their—better get their product to the market, to give people hope in that fashion, through the embassy. Not a military solution. I wasn’t suggesting that at all. All I’m trying to suggest is we’ve done this kind of thing before to some degree of success.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. That means that it will be released into the public and in the wild, so only say something that you want your mother or sister to hear. (Laughter.) The operator will—something I keep always present in my mind. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue.

JOHNSON: Or the Washington Post.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or the Washington Post, precisely. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Shaarik Zafar.

Q: Thank you. And, Secretary Johnson, it’s nice to see you again. And, Paul, congratulations on the report. I thought it was terrific survey. It’s always possible, you know, for people to nitpick here and there. I thought it was a terrific report.

I know it’s dated, you know, by a certain time when you surveyed the respondents, but I was wondering if the experts could opine particularly on what’s happening in Kazakhstan right now and how you would rank that given the previous criteria or just where you think, you know, the situation is.


O’SULLIVAN: I’m happy to jump in there. And of course, I think Paul can confirm the survey was done in November, so Kazakhstan had not really reached out front pages yet. But in terms of putting it into context, I think it is consequential not only for Kazakhs but on a number of different levels. And quickly I’d say one. I think it’s a harbinger to what we’re going to see a lot more of over the course of 2022. And that is political instability that comes from energy crises. And we begin the year with energy crises.

So people who maybe haven’t been watching the Kazakh situation as closely, these protests were started over energy prices. And so essentially there is a shortage of energy in the world that has to do with the demand growing more quickly than had been expected, underinvestment in conventional sources, and Russian actions in Europe and other things. So there is an energy crisis in Europe. There has been one in China. And we see one in Kazakhstan resulting in this political upheaval. So that’s the first thing I would say that we’re likely to see more of these events.

In terms of the significance for the region, I would say it is quite interesting because some people have questioned, is this Russia’s opportunity to reestablish what it has called a near abroad? As you probably noted, Russian troops were called in to help provide security or reinforce stabilization efforts over the very immediate term. This is a question, you know, once Russian troops are in, how long are they there? They say they’re temporary. We’ll see about that. But I think this could be an indication of Russia, you know, I don’t think they’re behind the protest, but pushing more into that part of the world. And just lastly I would say, if Russia gets more present, more visible in Central Asia, this actually could cause tensions between Russia and China, which is a relationship that is otherwise actually growing in a positive direction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Joseph Nye.

Q: Thank you. I’m Joe Nye at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Paul, you’re—you know, I’ve long admired your works. But let me pose a question to you that’s about your methodology. Nobody can predict the future. And I used to chair the National Intelligence Council that did intelligence estimates for the president. And obviously there was never an ability to predict the future. What was most interesting and useful to policymakers was to learn about possible surprises and how they would have an impact. Now surprise, by definition, you can’t predict it. But you can sensitize people to some that are more important than others.

The problem with the wisdom of crowds is it’s not very surprising. I mean, you look at what the wisdom of the crowd says, and it all comes out pretty much as you’d expect. It’s what you’d see on the New York Times front page. But the most interesting thing for the policymaker is what could change this dramatically at great cost? And that’s why I used to always ask the analysts at the NIC, after you’ve done your best estimates put in something in the report that says, what could make this all wrong? So what would be intriguing for you on your next report would be to ask the crowds that you’re surveying, OK, on one possible event which might mean that all these assessments you’ve made are out of whack, what would it be? And how likely or unlikely it is?

Now, they may range from Don’t Look Up planet hitting the Earth—(laughter)—but there might be something much more interesting. Like if the probability of Putin invading Ukraine is 0.5, and the probability of China invading Afghanistan—invading Taiwan is 0.1 or 0.2, if Putin does go into Ukraine what’s that do to the probability of China going into Taiwan? Does it suddenly go up closer to 0.5, or across? So if you could push your respondents after they’ve given you the wisdom of the crowd to ask this other question, what could make this all wrong and how likely or unlikely is that, I think I would learn a lot more from the reports than I do the way they’re administered right now.

STARES: Well, as always, terrific wisdom with Joe Nye. And I couldn’t agree more with you, Joe. You know, I’m the first to admit that this instrument or methodology is pretty crude. It’s just a first cut. As the Kazakhstan case I think demonstrates, the assessment is just a snapshot of what people were thinking about in mid-November. So it’s not something that is, you know, constantly being updated. And so you are, as you say, it’s not just the wisdom of the crowds, it’s also the madness of crowds. And in as much as that you follow the whims and fashions and so on. And you’re absolutely right.

I think one way to try to address what you’re pointing to is do what I think the intelligence community does with so-called red teaming, in which they pull together a group of contrarians, if you will, to essentially, you know, doublecheck the assumptions and look at alternative futures, if you will, to what the analysts are saying. And I think we could do the same with this report each year, and say, you know, tell me what could be different or why this could be completely off base. You know, the scenarios I always think out is major political change inside Russia, or even Beijing, for example. You know, how would things change if there was some event or series of events in those two capitals? And how things would change. Or the house of Saud, for instance. If there’s major instability in Saudi Arabia, what would that do to energy markets. You know, I think the implications would be profound. But you’re absolutely right, Joe. And we’ll take it.

JOHNSON: One of—I just watched Don’t Look Up. And one of the reasons I really disliked that movie was it has an element of reality to it. You know, I worry that if there was a crisis, national or international, our government would have an inability to even agree upon what the facts are, which affects our ability to effectively respond, which itself in my judgement is a security issue. Anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s funny that you didn’t like it. Me and my husband roundly disagreed. I loved it. He hated it, for similar reasons than you. He felt it was more of a documentary than a comedy.

We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sherri Goodman.

Q: Hello, everyone. Sherri Goodman from the Wilson Center and the Center for Climate Insecurity.

Thank you all, Jeh and Meghan, for your brilliant analysis, Lulu, great job moderating, and, Paul, you know, I’ve been—I’ve been participating in this survey since the beginning, when I think I was on the advisory board for the Center for Preventive Action there at the Council. And as the person who fifteen years ago coined the phrase “threat multiplier” and really worked with the first group of generals and admirals to address the national security implications of climate change, thank you for bringing that in. I’ve tried in the past, but I think now you both have succeeded at raising a higher level of visibility onto this subject.

So I do want to sort of address the ways in which I think you both have spoken to how climate could be better reflected in this survey because, as you say, while we might not predict when the next hurricane is going to occur or the next typhoon, we know they’re occurring with increasing frequency and increasing intensity. And certainly, that is something we should be planning for, even as we—as Jeh would say, you know, we can’t necessarily predict when the next cyberattack is going to occur, but that war is already started.

And there are some specific—you know, threat events is one way to address it; and then the likelihood and the impact, as you said, Meghan, I think is another way. As you said, increasingly we’re going to have conflict over new energy resources such as—you mentioned the Congo, but also potentially in Bolivia, Chile, you know, increasing instability in regions that are possessed or sub-seabed mining eventually, because of that possess the new energy resources.

And the other dimension of this is water. And that also can be potentially an increasing driver of conflict and instability.

And lastly, I would—I would observe that—and the two, well, regional scenario conflicts that we used to plan as our force-sizing criteria in defense, the two MRCs from the—from the Cold War era, has now changed dramatically, where we’re now deploying equal numbers of—increasing number of troops to respond to domestic natural disasters, some of which are climate-driven, some of which are our democracy at risk and others. And that tension, I think, between the troops for the away game and the home game and is going to continue, and that also could become a fundamental challenge as we think about the future of our ability to respond to a variety of regional conflicts.

So I appreciate your reactions to that.

O’SULLIVAN: I’m happy to jump in.

Sherri, thanks for those comments and thanks for all the good work that you’ve done. I was actually thinking this morning, who was it that coined threats multiplier? And you were one of my candidates. So it is good to have that confirmed.

There’s so much that we could say about this, so I’ll just make a couple of additional points to what we’ve already said. First, just bringing together, Lulu, one of the questions you asked about migration and about displaced people. I think there’s a climate aspect to this that is difficult to get your head around.

So two years ago—and so I imagine this assessment has been updated, but two years ago the World Bank estimated that by 2050 there would be 143 million climate migrants or refugees, and that’s in contrast to today about 23 million refugees and about 85 million people who are displaced. So imagine, you know, having that exponential growth in refugees and migrants from climate itself on top of all the other sources of migration and refugee flows? So that is a huge source of instability that I think we all kind of give a nod to, but talking about preparing for them is something that would be deeply, deeply—you know, it would require enormous amounts of resources.

The other thing I would mention—and I said a little bit about this before—but there’s actually going to be a whole geopolitics of the energy transition. This move to decarbonize the global economy is going to be extremely disruptive. And this is going to be because not only are countries going to be doing things within their own economies to try to decarbonize—whether or not they succeed is a different question—but increasingly we’re going to see countries, Europe and the U.S. maybe first and foremost among them, try to get others to decarbonize their economies. And this could have all kinds of implications on the bilateral relationships, but also on the internal politics as we move or as the impulse to decarbonize becomes more and more intense, as I imagine it will, and it’s more and more evident how far apart we may still be from the need—the need to meet the realities.

The last place I’d say where climate and conflict could intersect is over this whole question of geoengineering, which I won’t go to in any depth. But certainly there’s an evolving—I won’t say consensus, but an evolving view within the climate community that we may actually need to do some form of engineering the climate, at least—at least for some period of time. But there are still no governance mechanisms to decide how countries are going to agree whether or not we need to invoke to engineering techniques, how much we need to do, where we need to do it, what kind. And all of that could be a huge source of geopolitical tension.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jeh, I just want to ask—

STARES: I have nothing to add except, Sherri—Sherri, it’s good to hear your voice again. Can’t see you. (Laughter.)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I actually want to ask you something, Secretary Johnson, because when we think about climate and migration, you were speaking about how you have to help people at the source. Of course, with climate change that is a global threat. That really isn’t necessarily something that one can account for. And so how, then, does the United States deal with that, if indeed we’re going to see huge outflows because of climate change?

JOHNSON: Well, you’re right, this is a global problem. It’s not a regional problem and it’s not a southern border problem. It’s a global problem.

The thing that worries me most about climate change, aside from the fact of climate change, is it’s, as Barack Obama once said, a slow-moving—a slow-motion emergency. It never makes it to the top of the inbox in terms of priorities to address. And so our government’s inability to take a sustained, consistent leadership role in addressing carbon emissions, in addressing global warming year after year after year is itself a huge problem. What—I know the percentage of carbon emissions from the U.S., India, and Russia is some huge number. It’s like 70 percent. And so our own inability on a sustained basis, administration after administration, to accept a leadership role in dealing with this is itself a dire emergency, in my view.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jim Kolbe.

Q: Oh, thank you. Interesting discussion here.

Jeh Johnson alluded to the comment and question I want to make. And it doesn’t—it seems to me that you really can hardly—particularly at this moment in time, hardly separate our domestic issues from the foreign policy. Now, that’s always the case, I know, that what happens domestically has an impact on foreign policy and foreign issues, either how we react or how other countries do, but it seems to me right now that the threat to democracy in this country seems to rise so high that it’s in—possible impact in how other countries see us and how they decide to react to some of the crises or some of the threats that we’ve identified really just has to be considered. I’d be interested in your comments on that.

JOHNSON: Agree a hundred percent. That’s the best I can say. I agree 100 percent with the comment. Maybe others have a view.

STARES: I can just add it’s, obviously, a huge distraction to the president and senior advisors if the country is polarized and immobilized, as well, as a result of unrest and civil division in the country. It also undermines our moral standing around the world to project our values on issues. So it’s of huge relevance, absolutely huge. You cannot underestimate it. And as Richard Haass, the president of CFR, constantly reminds us, you know, we really do have to put our house in order if we really want to address many of these foreign policy issues in an effective manner.

JOHNSON: And if you had another 9/11, I worry that there would be a basic argument about who did it. Somebody might say it was Antifa, it wasn’t al-Qaida. And so if we had another 9/11, I worry about the ability of our government to mobilize a national response for the American people to see a national purpose today.

O’SULLIVAN: And in addition to those points, I’d like to put this in the context of the U.S.-China competition. So there are many, many aspects of that complex relationship, but one of the most competitive areas is the democracy versus authoritarianism. And that is something that, you know, the Biden administration is trying to rally all democracies together to have joint action, not just vis-à-vis China but elsewhere, and I think the politics at home make it very difficult for the United States to be—you know, to be as strong as it could be in carrying that banner. And so in a world where China is really selling its model, it would be great for America’s democracy to be as strong as possible to—not only for us at home, but also to counter that abroad in many ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have a few minutes left. We’ll take another question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from John Tyson.

Q: Hello. Thank you guys for your time and your wisdom today. I am a term member and my day job is chief strategy and sustainability officer at Tyson Foods, so a question from the private sector here, bringing the discussion back to cyber as a threat.

All of you guys acknowledged in some capacity cyber as credible and likely. And the focus of Mr. Johnson’s comments were on critical infrastructure, for example the Colonial Pipeline. So my question to you is: How should the U.S. government be thinking about deterring cyberattacks on both critical and non-critical infrastructure and global supply chains? For example, one of the largest payroll software companies in the U.S. suffered an attack in December, is not expected to be back online until January or February, and this impacts millions of American workers. So the question, to bring it back to preventing threat, is—or acknowledging threat hotspots—is: What should the U.S. government be doing to deter cyberattacks on both critical energy infrastructure as well as non-critical supply chain infrastructure? Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think that’s to you, Jeh.

JOHNSON: First of all, I think there are seventeen, eighteen sectors of critical infrastructure. You’d be surprised at the number of us who are—who don’t—didn’t realize were critical infrastructure, like food, for example, agriculture.

On cybersecurity, there’s a lot we can do on defense—educating those that use our systems, better cyber hygiene, which is about 75 percent of the problem. There is no foolproof defense to a cyberattack, which is why you have to deter the bad actors. There is the criminal remedy for conventional criminal actors, and then for nation-states you have to make the behavior cost-prohibitive. All nation-states—most nation-states, whether they’re monarchies, democracies, communist regimes, do think in a certain rational way. And so if you make the behavior cost-prohibitive, the price of action is just too high—the cost of action is too high; they will stop—which, for many state actors, we have not achieved yet.

The other thing I’ll say, and then I’ll stop, is very often a group like REvil is only one degree removed from a nation-state. Very often, nation-states outsource bad cyber behavior to a group of people who used to work for their intelligence community who are now in the private sector, who do all sorts of bad things whether it’s ransomware, espionage, or so forth, which gives the state very often some degree of deniability. So the picture if often muddy when it comes to state actor versus pure private criminal.

STARES: If I could just jump in, you know, this is a great question, John, and people have been struggling with this for a long time about how do we deter cyberattacks against the U.S. And there’s a lot of concern that if we retaliate we will create this sort of escalatory spiral and things will get out of hand, or we will show our hand about what we might do in wartime, and so on.

I think the—where a lot of people come down is relying on deterrence through denial; essentially denying a would-be attacker the low-hanging fruit, the prospect that they would succeed, rather than being deterred by the prospect of retaliation or at least not retaliation that’s directly comparable—something that’s in another area which the perpetrator may hold more dear. And it’s that kind of response, or that kind of deterrence, I think, is probably the most effective way for us to proceed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And where do you think the United States is at right now in that deterrence, in protecting its infrastructure after these quite serious attacks?

STARES: I’m not an expert on this. I’m told that, you know, the financial sector is pretty good. Some elements of the power sector are also well-hardened. I’m not sure about the health sector. We’ve seen issues on supply chains, I think are softer. So I think the picture, actually, there is across different sectors.

You know, Jeh mentioned, I think, there’s seventeen or eighteen designated critical infrastructure sectors, and I think the assessment there is across that. But I think we—there’s certainly room—everybody I’ve spoken to—room to really harden now our systems more effectively than they have in the past, which in a way will deter at least non-state adversaries from really doing damage to us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we’re going to have to leave it there. I’d like to thank you so much for joining today’s virtual meeting. And of course, thank you to our esteemed panelists for this very invigorating conversation—and terrifying. Please note that the audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website as well as the 2022 Preventative Priorities Survey. Enjoy your day and stay warm.

STARES: Thank you.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you.



Top Stories on CFR

Middle East and North Africa

Turkey’s geography and membership in NATO have long given the country an influential voice in foreign policy, but the assertive policies of President Erdogan have complicated its role.


For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, and an influencer; and with over 1.3 billion followers around the world, the pope and his governmental arm, the Holy See, have the power to shape the future. How has the pope's power changed over time, and what is his role today?  

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

Opioid addiction in the United States has become a prolonged epidemic, endangering not only public health but also economic output and national security.