Panelists discuss potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2024, as well as their global political implications. This event will explore the results of the 2024 Preventive Priorities Survey, which will be available on CFR’s website on Thursday, January 4, 2024.
FROMAN: So, welcome, everybody. I’m Mike Froman, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s good to see all of you here in New York, as well as our D.C. audience, and our online audience. I think all told we have over six hundred members participating in this event, which is one of our—one of our largest events. Also here in New York, this is our third event of the day. And I see people who managed to spend breakfast, lunch, and dinner here. (Laughter.) So welcome to the Council meal plan. It’s good, post-COVID, that we’re back in person and can host you all and subsidize your meals. So thanks very much for being here.
We’re delighted to have four terrific world-class experts with us today: Lee Feinstein, president of McLarty Associates, former U.S. ambassador to Poland, there in D.C.; along with him is Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; David Miliband, of course, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former U.K. foreign secretary; and our very own Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action. And, of course, today is the rollout of this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, which Paul’s center produces. Or, what we affectionately call, what to lose sleep over in 2024.
This survey has been going on for sixteen years. It surveys about over five hundred foreign policy experts. And when you read through it, it’s interesting for what’s both in there and what’s not in there. The fact that 9/11-type mass casualty terrorist events no longer feature prominently in a survey, that is noteworthy. And as Paul will discuss, the fact that a domestic issue for the first time features prominently as a tier-one issue is also—is also noteworthy. It’s not intended to be predictive. It’s more about sensitizing decision makers about what some of the priorities around prevention ought to be. And it gets wide distribution across the U.S. government and elsewhere. As Ben Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So hopefully this is a good investment in some prevention, and that will make 2024 less in need of a cure.
So at this point, it’s my great pleasure to turn over to our presenter, Juju Chang, co-anchor of Nightline. Juju.
CHANG: Thank you so much, Mike. Appreciate it. And welcome to all you hardcores who’ve been here in marathon session today. (Laughter.) You’ve heard a bit about our panelists today, so I’m just going to go ahead and launch in. I think that today is fascinating in many ways because there are a number of unprecedented aspects of the PPS. As you know, the Council has been putting it on for a number of years, since 2008. But I want Paul to start by giving us an overview of sort of where we’ve come from and where we are.
STARES: Great. Well, thank you, Juju. Thank you, everybody, for being here, both in D.C., and New York, as well as online. What I thought I would do is just sort of build a little bit on what Mike said in introducing the PPS, say a little bit about what it is and what it is not, and then get into the main findings this year.
So it’s essentially what we call a crowd-sourced risk assessment. Each year for the last sixteen years we’ve been surveying U.S. foreign policy experts about ongoing and prospective conflicts in the coming twelve months. And the goal is to ask each of them to give us their assessment of how likely they think that is, as well as the impact on U.S. interests. And the latter part is very critical because this is very much through the prism of U.S. interests. I think David’s going to talk more about more broad humanitarian concerns in the world, but this—you have to remember, this is about looking at the world through the prism of U.S. national security interests in particular.
So this year, in terms of the main takeaways, there’s a sort of broad macro observation I have. I think this year there’s been an unprecedented level of anxiety or foreboding about the coming year, and particularly conflict trends in in the world. For the first time ever—I mean this—in sixteen years we have what we call three high-high contingencies, three prospective conflicts which are considered highly likely as well as highly consequential for U.S. interests. We’ve never had three. In fact, last year, there wasn’t a single one. This year we have three. Of the thirty contingencies that respondents are asked to survey, only two were considered low priority—excuse me—low probability. Also unprecedented. The others being sort of moderate, which you’ve got to remember is a fifty/fifty chance. So pretty high.
So in terms of the top concerns this year, as Juju and, I think, Mike, foreshadowed, the leading concern by far is the possibility of domestic terrorism, political violence around the upcoming presidential election in the U.S.
CHANG: And that in and of itself is unprecedented, because it has a domestic concern.
STARES: Yes. So those of you who are familiar with the PPS and have filled it out, and for which we are very grateful, you will recall that in previous years we have never included domestic contingencies. We’ve only included foreign overseas—foreign-source threats to the United States. When we did the initial solicitation of what to include in this year’s survey, there was overwhelming demand that a U.S. domestic conflict contingency be included.
And that has proven to be validated by the results. It’s by far the most concerning issue for those who responded this year, closely followed by the possibility of escalation in the Middle East out of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. A lot of concern that it could metastasize throughout the Middle East. And we’re seeing some signs that this is already happening. And thirdly, a surge in in migration—unregulated migration towards the southwest border as a result of economic hardship, criminal violence, corruption in Central America, Mexico, and, frankly, beyond.
They’re the top three. But closely behind those, you’ve got Ukraine—the possibility that Ukraine could escalate, the possibility that there could be rising tensions over Taiwan. As many of you know, there’s the election coming up this September—excuse me—this Saturday. There’s North Korea. I call a hardy perennial. It’s always in the survey. (Laughs.) And one never quite knows whether that could become a serious concern at any moment. Cyberattack on the U.S., again, another hardy perennial, and Israel-Iran. They are the top ones.
Just one thing I think is worth pointing out that I took away from this. This unprecedented concern in this year’s—among this year’s respondents, I think it’s had an effect on how other emerging conflicts or ongoing conflicts are viewed in the world. And I think David’s going to pick up on this. Many of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world today are now ranked as tier three in this priority. And I think it’s—this high level of anxiety is having this sort of suppressing or depressing factor on how other conflicts in the world, like Sudan, South Sudan, Myanmar, DRC, it goes on—where huge numbers of people are being displaced and a lot of people are losing their lives. But we can get into all of this.
CHANG: Absolutely. And I’ll encourage David to talk about the emergency watch list that the IRC put out, and how it overlays the PPS. Just for those in the room and online, this is the analog version of the report. It will be available here in the room and also online. Today is being referred to as a super-hybrid meeting, meaning that we have people in-person both here in New York and in D.C. So I want to flip to D.C., but also warn you that we’re going to at about 1:30 go to questions, both from D.C., New York, and online. So we’ll prepare for that.
So I’m going to go to D.C. and turn to Mary Beth, because we spoke earlier, Mary Beth, about the fact that you were recently in Doha and took part in meetings with members of the Palestinian Authority. Because I want to talk—get you to talk a little bit about Israel-Hamas, which ranks so high on the PPS.
LONG: Well, thank you, Juju. And thank you, Paul and Michael, in particular. And hello, New York.
I do think one of the overwhelming themes of all the conversations, sort of the umbrella that permeated our meeting with Palestinians, with Jordanians, with Israelis, actually on the sideline Russians and others, was this idea that if—I think if you were to poll their national security experts, they’re also petrified about what may happen in 2024. Much like ours. And one of the components is that the instability with U.S. politics and national security decision making will have a greater impact on them than usual. But overwhelmingly, as far as the Palestinian conflict is concerned, I think there is a very worrisome huge disconnect, Juju, between the expectations of what might happen after the offensive of Israel, and then who will be in charge and whether that’ll be an evolving situation where you have a phased approach, and what role the Palestinian Authority will have. And I found, frankly, a lot of handwringing and unrealistic expectations about how incredibly difficult it will be not only from a humanitarian standpoint but getting the security and the infrastructure back into Gaza. Who will do this and under what—and under what, probably a quasi-hostile environment, is something people just getting their hands around.
CHANG: Thank you for that, Mary Beth.
So, David, let me turn to you on that. You were telling us about some of the briefings you were getting from staffers on the ground, giving you a sense of what it’s really like in Gaza right now.
MILIBAND: Well, there’s quite a lot of reporting now from ground level. What I can report to you as that very experienced humanitarians, in the case of the discussion I had today, it was with our emergency medical—one of our emergency medical teams. These are very experienced people. It doesn’t take much to shock them and it doesn’t take much to scare them. But they’re very shocked and they’re very scared about the current situation, about the implications for Palestinian civilians, and about their ability to do their jobs. We had to put out a press notice on Monday—or, yesterday—Sunday, actually, to say that our team at the Al Aqsa Hospital had been warned that it was now a red zone, and it was therefore not safe for them to stay. So they had to retreat from that hospital. And a new team that’s going in today is going to be going into a different hospital.
I think it’s worth flagging a couple of things, just from the humanitarian perspective. The north of Gaza has not been in the news. And it’s very, very, very hard to get in there. We still think there are around two hundred thousand people in the north of Gaza. The displacement in the center and the south of Gaza now is multiple displacements of multiple families. So the figures are 1.6, 1.8, 1.9 million out of 2.2 million population who have been displaced—forcibly displaced as a result of the fighting. The third thing is we were warning in November about public health and the threat to public health from the demolition of the infrastructure there. And that is coming to pass with a range of diseases that are obvious. I suppose the new factor since then is the lack of food, which is a very, very serious factor on which U.N. agencies have spoken very clearly and powerfully to.
So I think warnings in the list that is being published today about the wider conflict—Paul referred to this—I think it’s probably wrong to talk about the prospect of a wider conflict. There is a wider conflict. There is conflict in the West Bank. There’s conflict in Lebanon. We obviously have teams in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. But you can see that West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq have all been the sites of conflict, albeit at a much lower level than in Gaza. So it’s definitely right that you’ve got it high on your list, both for U.S. interests but also for the probability—of the danger that it expands.
If I could take forty-five seconds, the document that we put out, this is our emergency watch list which is—which uses about seventy-five or eighty different statistical indicators to predict where the greatest humanitarian crises will be in 2024. Gaza comes up—so Gaza and West Bank come up as number two, interestingly enough. And our document in that sense is a rather interesting mirror to Paul’s documents. Sudan is number one. South Sudan is number three. Eight out of ten African countries are in the top ten. Myanmar and Gaza, the West Bank are the other two in the top ten.
And I just want to make one point about this complementarity, this mirror image. Because in Paul’s ranking there are fifteen countries ranked as moderate possibility of conflict, but also low impact for the U.S. And you can see how why, for an American audience or American scholars, you might say, well, on its own Pakistan, or on its own South Sudan, or on its own Myanmar—that’s low impact for the U.S. My point to you all would be, if even ten of those fifteen moderate probabilities happen, the U.S. is going to get quite a lot of the blame because it’s the—if not hegemonic, it’s the dominant—it’s the leading superpower in the world. In some places you’re directly involved. Most places you’re directly involved in one way or another. In other places, you’re indirectly involved.
And so I think that there’s a real question for the foreign policy community about how to think about multiple crises that, on their own, may not be direct U.S. interests on the same sort of scale as Israel-Gaza, or the same sort of scale as Ukraine, which cumulatively speak to a global order that’s in danger of going out of control, which would have very serious implications not just for U.S. reputation but also, as we’re seeing with the Red Seas situation at the moment, also for some U.S. interests that are maybe not front of mind but will quickly be so if global shipping was really interrupted.
CHANG: And all the quants around are running the numbers right now as you talk about the cumulative effect of all of those moderate probabilities.
Lee, let me turn to you in D.C., because of course we could spend the entire time talking about Israel-Hamas. But I want to shift, because your expertise is in Ukraine as former ambassador to Poland. That region is something that’s been in your wheelhouse for quite some time. Give us a sense of where the war stands, where it will go, and how domestic considerations might play an impact on funding the war effort.
FEINSTEIN: Well, thanks very much. It’s great to be back at the Council.
Well, you know, just to take the theme of the—of the meeting, What to Worry About, what I would say is what to worry about now is time—how to measure time, whose side is time on, and what to do about it. So I think we’re in a situation now of a recalibration by both sides. You can call it a war of attrition. You could call it a hot stalemate. From the Russian perspective, they definitely believe that time is on their side. They’re maintaining their long-term strategic goals, which is to absorb Ukraine, to, you know, erase the idea of its sovereignty, its culture, its language. But at the same time, it’s now playing for the long game. It’s finding new sources of weaponry from Iran and North Korea. It is taking steps to mitigate damage to its economy and has been more resilient than I think many people expected. After the re-selection of President Putin in March, there’ll probably be another call up, other military mobilization.
So Russia’s belief and its position is really to wait it out. And in this sense, I guess the way I think about Putin is Putin in 2024 is more like the pre-COVID Putin. The pre-COVID Putin was not the Putin who gambled with an invasion, but a Putin who acted, prodded, tested. When the pain was a little bit too great he would—he would step back, still maintaining his long term goals. And, of course, there’s the political dimension to this as well, Juju, which is eroding stability—I should say, solidarity between the United States and Europe in support of Ukraine. And that’s obviously very fundamental. We can talk more about that if you’d like.
From the Ukrainian perspective, it’s basically they’re also recalibrating, but they’re in a position of wanting to—well, first, of course, maintain their also long-standing goals. Which is to reclaim its full territorial sovereignty back to the 1991 lines. That means reclaiming those parts of the four oblasts that were—that have been occupied by the Russians, and, of course, also Crimea. And I guess what I would say is there’s a lot of pessimism around Ukraine. You know, the timing, the way people measure success for Ukraine, I think is a little bit different. But, you know, let’s just not forget—and no one in this room, or in our virtual room, or in New York has forgotten—that, you know, 90 percent of the Russian army that invaded Ukraine was killed or wounded by Ukrainian forces supported by Western forces.
So really, the question is the waiting game for Ukraine to hold. They’ve had some success in the Black Sea and Crimea, degrading Crimea as an operating base for the Russians. And really, honestly, maintaining strengthening solidarity in the United States and Europe to support Ukraine for the long term, because that’s what it’s going to take. And it’s not purely a military—a set of military options and policies, but also economic ones. And here, the long term requires not only international support but also meaningful economic recovery efforts in Ukraine as Ukraine’s defenses get better and it just becomes more possible.
CHANG: Thank you for that, Lee.
Paul, let me get you to talk a little bit about what you refer to as the hardy perennials. You talk about cyberattacks always being sort of in that second-tier zone. Give us an update, if you will, on that, but also how it may play into the number-one concern, which is that of domestic terrorism, and how misinformation can play a role in that.
STARES: Well, as Mike indicated at the outset, the hardy perennial for the first ten to fifteen years of the exercise has always been mass casualty attack on the U.S., another 9/11. And last year was the first time that just didn’t even appear in the survey. But others have remained. You mentioned North Korea. They have not been idle in terms of their capabilities to deliver long-range nuclear weapons. And many of you know they’ve reached agreement with Russia to supply Russia with weapons to fight Ukraine. Their rhetoric has continued to be very bellicose and concerning to neighbors. And so we can’t essentially take our eyes off North Korea, or to do so at our peril.
The other hardy perennial is a cyberattack or mass casualty—a major disruptive attack on critical infrastructure. Always hard to evaluate, but it always—is always up there. And I think if you talk to any professional in this area, they always maintain that this is a real concern. And I think it becomes—the aperture sort of widens somewhat when you think of the number-one concern. I think this is where you were leading. And that is the growing polarization in this country, political polarization, the possibility of political violence, domestic terrorism. And I think, you know, we can speculate why so many foreign policy experts pick this as the number-one concern. There’s obviously the threat to life and liberty within the U.S., but I think they are also concerned about the possibility of foreign powers, adversaries, whether they are states or nonstate actors, fomenting further dissension, further division within the U.S. through manipulation of social media, disinformation, and so on. So that’s definitely one.
I think there’s a larger concern too that if we are distracted by internal turbulence around the elections that other players might take advantage of that to pursue their agendas in ways that are also threatening to U.S. interests, and take the opportunity to do things that, frankly, would be very destabilizing. I think that’s the other one. And then there’s the sort of broader concern that it’s very difficult to advocate for democracy and the orderly transfer of power abroad when, you know, you face difficulties of doing it at home. It just makes it much harder for us to advocate for those kinds of policies. So I think that probably explains why there’s so much concern.
CHANG: Mary Beth, I saw you nodding your head when Paul was talking about foreign intervention, essentially. But I also want you to address—so feel free to jump in on that. But also want you to address this idea of the border surge of migrants, which is also top tier and number three in ranking in this PPS. You mentioned that you were at the border talking to asylum seekers looking at the motivations of whether they were climate migrants or fleeing political instability, sort of where we are on that crisis as well.
LONG: Well, great. And thank you. And thanks for catching that I was nodding my head. (Laughter.) You know, I think there’s an underlying, I think, reality that we all are not recognizing. Everybody knows that 2024 is going to be very contentious. But as we as we all know, regardless of what political side you’re on, we’ve had Russian and Chinese involvement in our elections throughout our history. And in our last presidential elections, they were severe at multiple levels. And there’s been really no consequences for that. And it’s almost impossible to protect against that.
So what Juju and Paul were talking about regarding foreign involvement, whether it’s saber rattling or even security actions by the Chinese, taking advantage in Taiwan, or the Russians making moves abroad, that’s very important. But there will be attempts across the board, not just with the usual Chinese and Russians involvement in our elections, but I’m sure the Iranians and others will certainly try to make hay, so to speak, while we—one of our liberties are, you know, freedom of speech, and we’re open to propaganda and diverse voices. And they will take full advantage. So there will be a lot of agitation and attempting to divide the sides.
I think, and this dovetails with the border issue, I was down on the border. And when I was in CIA and also at DOD we spent a lot of time on border issues. And was down at an invitation of a friend of mine who works on DHS issues. And I think there’s no secret, and as Paul brings out, you know, border and the humanitarian aspects of it and the security aspects have catapulted as a concern. I think part of that is security. I think part of that is economic. I think part of that is political.
But number one, the poverty and the desperate nature of the immigrants, and the concept by most of the people who are moving in our direction that this was a(n) unprecedented and perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity for them and their families to get across the border—because the border, whether we like it or not, is perceived as being open. And that’s the result of our policies. And it has been a tremendous strain on both Americans, but the Mexicans and the transit states as well, and a horrible strain on the states. If you speak to the state governments, it’s going to have an impact not only on those people economically, but politically, I think, in the next election, so 2024.
The other thing that’s sort of glossed over, I think one of the reasons why border and those—and those concerns have risen in our—in our concern are the huge problem that we’re facing with fentanyl and other illicit activities that are not only occurring on the border, but I think the border is thriving. You can’t spend a day at the border without seeing evidence of going, whoa, that doesn’t look right. And if you speak to our border personnel there, they’re simply overwhelmed with the sex trafficking, or what appears to be trafficking of persons, including children and females unaccompanied. We have a huge problem that’s congressional inquiry level of lost children once they come into the country. Horror stories of, you know, upwards of 100—almost 200 children who had an adult come and say, yes, I’m the uncle, the cousin, the grandfather, or the uncle, whatever. And 200 of them going to the same address, none of which has been investigated.
We’ve got a huge, huge illicit activity problem. And a problem which no one really wants to talk about, and I’ve not heard mentioned much anywhere in Washington, which are the fighting-age males that are coming across who look pretty good, actually. Saw photos and some films of—you know, most of the people who show up at the border look pretty, pretty tough. You know, we’ve had a long journey. Some of them show up in great 501s with new backpacks, and they don’t speak English. And we visited some folks who were Afghans, a whole group of them, who came either from or through Syria. What the heck?
You know our government can’t get our Afghan allies out and into the United States effectively. And here is, you know, people who are Afghan fighters, who apparently were deployed into Syria, somehow popping up on the Mexican border. So this domestic terrorism that I think Paul refers to, I think a lot of people divert to U.S. born—U.S. homegrown stuff. But I think maybe part of the concern also reflects a concept of who have we been letting in? I think our secretary of DHS, the secretary talked about the got-aways. And how many, perhaps combatants, have we allowed in as part of our immigration policy on the border? And I’ll stop there. Thank you.
CHANG: Thank you. So I just want to note something you pointed out yesterday, Paul, that Afghanistan and Pakistan have dropped to top three—I mean, sorry—tier three in this list, which is quite something given that your survey began post-9/11 and with all those policies. David, obviously, refugee crises are your—what IRCs mission is. You operate in some fifty-plus countries. Give us a sense of your thoughts on not just the border crisis here, but throughout the world, the humanitarian crises?
MILIBAND: Well, the border “crisis,” quote/unquote—the border, quote/unquote, “crisis” is unusual in that it’s happening in a rich country. Most crises are happening in poor countries. So the twenty countries, for example, on our watch list speak to 85 percent of global humanitarian need and global humanitarian need is 300 million people. So the concentration of crisis is actually growing in poor and lower-middle income countries. So the—you know, the Sudan example, twenty-five million people in humanitarian need a long way from the U.S. Seventy-five percent of refugees are in poor or low-middle income countries, not in rich countries. That number has slightly changed because of the Ukraine refugee flow, which is unusual in depositing six million or so refugees into Europe.
In the in the nicest possible way I hope I can say to this American audience, I’m always conscious that I’m a foreigner here, that I’m here thanks to your generosity and willingness to put up with me. It’s very nice of you that you didn’t put Britain on your risk list this year. (Laughter.) But in the nicest possible way, I want to say to you, you’ve got to decide whether you do want to manage your border, quote/unquote, “crisis.” And I say that because there is a lot of experience around the world of how to manage large flows of people.
Germany didn’t get everything right in 2015-16, but it processed one and a half million asylum claims in the space of six to nine months. Five years later, two-thirds of the people were speaking—of the adults were speaking German, the kids were in school, they were distributed across the country in an organized way. The Ukraine influx—again, it’s different. I recognize that. But in the space of a weekend Europe decided that six million Ukrainians would have three years residence, three years of work permits, three years access to welfare benefits. And they decided to manage that process.
And that isn’t just about having a big heart. (Laughter.) I’m a great believer that the biggest myth of all is that you have to be cruel in order to manage your border. Actually, all the evidence is that cruelty incentivizes the people smugglers and actually empowers the people smugglers. I run a humanitarian organization. I don’t want a disorderly border. That’s not actually in the humanitarian interest. The humanitarian interest is in an organized, regulated, legal set of arrangements that distinguish it between those people who have a right to stay and those who don’t.
Steve Rattner and Maureen White got a piece in the New York Times today showing that half a million people are rejected at the border in the U.S. system, because they don’t have grounds to stay. And I do think that the choice in the modern world—and this is a big choice for Europe, and Europe hasn’t gotten this all right at all—you can either have—the choice is not whether people tried to come or not. They’re going to try to come. I mean, the European figure is that annual average income in Sub-Saharan Africa, across the whole Sub-Saharan Africa, is twelve to fifteen times below the European average. So they’re going to try and come. The question is not whether they try to come or not. The question is, is there an organized, legal, regulated, planned approach to the movement of people or is it disorganized, unregulated, unsafe, and unplanned? That’s the choice. And it seems to me absolutely fundamental that as a policy question that is put center stage.
CHANG: Quite clear why you were the youngest foreign secretary of U.K. in generations.
MILIBAND: It may be why I lost elections. (Laughter.)
CHANG: Let me let me go to Lee. Lee, you know, I’d be curious your thoughts. And obviously, feel free to talk about what—anything on this list that you’d like. But this idea that the lack of domestic tranquility sort of weakens our power to project national interests globally, your thoughts on that? And, again, you know, anything—any topic on the list.
FEINSTEIN: You’re such, such a gracious moderator, thank you. (Laughter.)
I wanted to say two things. I’m happy to answer that question. But I also wanted to talk a little bit about the overlap, I think, between the two reports, which otherwise are, you know, more or less in parallel spaces. But I think to the point—well, first, I think, Paul, your report reflects, as you talk about it, it’s crowdsourcing. And it reflects what the foreign policy elite sees as the main problems. And that’s often very much at variance with what the public sees as a problem. And what I’m really struck with is the fact that the border shows up in a Council on Foreign Relations report and that concern, obviously, registers very, very highly with the American public, is really interesting.
And I think it’s really important. And I think it creates a real opportunity for the Council, but for all of us, because, clearly, David, I loved your points, we need to have a conversation in the country about how we’re going to deal with this problem. Because there is agreement that it is a serious problem. And it—and it now begins to cut across partisan lines and even blue-red lines. So I think that this is actually a real opportunity as well as an imperative.
And to, Juju, your first question, I would say it’s not only that it makes it harder to talk with credibility about, you know, values, and goals, and interests that the United States has—and they’re real and, you know, in democracy and rule of law, and things like that. But there’s also the demonstration effect. And, David, I will apologize to you for sounding like the hegemon but, you know, what the United States does does have a big impact globally. And so when the United States is disorderly, and when there’s a substantial percentage of the United States that believes that the last election was fraudulent, and when there’s violence in the nation’s capital, it’s—you know, to our adversaries, there’s a sense of schadenfreude. But to our friends, it’s a sense of, oh my God, if it could happen there, it could happen here. And that’s very serious.
MILIBAND: But can I just follow that with a point for you? And, again, I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh. But if you are in the government outside the United States, you’re not doing your job if you don’t hedge against some very dangerous outcomes in the U.S. in the next year or two. And those are dangerous for current conflicts. For example, for Ukraine. I mean, if you’re European you’ve got to have on your scenario plan that in the space of thirteen months you could be on your own when it comes to supporting the Ukrainians. I mean, that’s—you’ve got to hedge.
And all around the world people may not be reading this report, although obviously we hope they do. You hope they do. (Laughter.) But they’re hedging against what they perceive to be the danger that America goes into a completely different cycle, not just between its national and its international responsibilities but also in terms of who it considers its allies to be and who it considers its enemies to be. And that is everywhere at the moment. Every policy planning staff is working that through. Every military is thinking that through. And it’s going to grow in the run up to November the eighth, or whatever the date is.
CHANG: I’m trying to be mindful of the clock. And we’re going to start Q&A at 1:15. So let me just ask a quick question to Mary Beth and to Paul before we go to Q&A. And that is—and I’ll let you duke out who’s going to take the two minutes. Mary Beth, I think when I was going through your CV and noted not only that you’re a first-generation college graduate, but then you went on to get multiple graduate degrees, one of which was in Taiwan. So I wanted you to address the China question because it’s bisected in the list with South China Sea and then, you know, China writ large, with the Taiwan elections on Saturday. Give us a quick update. But also, Paul, you’ve written no fewer than nine books on foreign policy, emphasis on prevention. And this is called the Preventative Priority Survey. Give us a quick view on that. And then we’ll go to questions.
Mary Beth, let’s start with you.
LONG: I’ll do a quick thirty-second. Just as a point of order, my study in Taiwan and subsequent study in China actually was part of my undergrad program. But I just want to make sure I’m not misrepresenting myself. And I thoroughly—
CHANG: That would be me misrepresenting you. (Laughter.)
LONG: I thoroughly ascribe to what—to our U.K. guest. And I actually think it’s worse than that. I think the one thing that our allies have learned is that it’s no longer election determinant. They need to start hedging their bets because they’re not sure where the U.S. population is going. And that’s going to be a number of elections. So they’ve got their foot in many camps.
But on China, and I’m—I think we’re—I wish we could talk all day on just China alone. But there is a lot happening. And Xi Jinping has made some very important steps in the last couple of months that Americans need to take note of. And those are huge changes in what the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, have done to sort of change the wording of their—of their instructions, of their—of their propaganda, of their sort of modus operandi. And that means putting Xi first. Xi is the party. Xi is the future of China. Xi is the person and individual around whom things will be decided and enforced.
And while China has problems, I think oh woe to us not—to underestimate what China is willing to do to confront the U.S., number one. Oh woe to us, while our allies are hedging their bets, to make them choose between doing things with China and doing things with us. Because there will be consequences there, particularly economically, that we cannot address. And we’ve got to make some pretty tough decisions. And Taiwan needs to make some tough decisions.
They’ve got elections coming up. They’ve not done enough for their own security. I think their eyes are just now beginning to widen of the possibilities that Xi Jinping has been clear. At the hundredth anniversary of CCP coming up in a couple of years, he will have regained the former—the former empire. And Taiwan and other places stand directly in the way of that. And the one thing that Americans don’t do well is take Xi at his word. And we should.
Over to you, Paul, I apologize for going a little over.
STARES: Well but, you know, there’s a reason why Taiwan is considered in the tier one set of priorities. Were conflict to occur across strait, it would have profound implications for the rest of the world, particularly economically, but within the region too. And that is clearly one of the most serious concerns.
In recent months, I think people have become a little more sanguine that with this sort of recent effort to improve U.S.-China relations, that we may have figured out a kind of modus vivendi to manage the Taiwan problem. And if we get through the election—and remember there’s quite a time between the election and the actual inauguration. I think it’s in May, I believe. And so there’s a lot of opportunity for things to potentially go wrong during that period. But I think most people believe that we can—we can manage this.
I’m still concerned, however, about stuff that comes out of nowhere. (Laughs.) We saw this last year with the balloon incident, and the potential for other incidents in the region. You know, tensions have been pretty high in the South China Sea around the Philippines in recent months. I’m always concerned that events in another part of the region could metaphorically bleed into cross-strait tensions. And we don’t pay enough attention to how—sort of the possibility of what I call horizontal escalation from other areas.
So, you know, I think we have to really ensure that we don’t take our foot off the gas in terms of trying to prevent a major escalation of tensions and potential conflict across the strait. And I’m, frankly, a little skeptical that—I welcome it—but this notion of improved military-to-military communications, the talk of guardrails. All desirable things to do. But they are no substitute for real trust-building initiatives between the United States and China. And only through that, I believe, will the risk of conflict really be reduced.
And that’s what we got to focus on. We can’t just talk about, you know, improving the level of communication between military officials, or exchanging cellphone numbers, or whatever. Because that—when you’re in that situation, it’s already—we’re already in dangerous territory. So I want to do more what we would call upstream prevention to avert the possibility that we’re ever in this situation.
CHANG: Let’s hope it’s more than an ounce of prevention.
Let’s go to this room. I’ll look for questions in the room. Go over here. We’ll take you, since you’re closer to the microphone.
Q: OK. Thank you very much. Joanna Weschler.
Much of what we were talking today about is dangers that are actually likely to occur in the U.S. So I would like—which isn’t normally the case here. I wanted to ask the three American speakers among you all to perhaps comment on what the one foreigner said about the part—(laughter)—about the fact that perhaps cruelty for pragmatic reasons is something that the U.S. should abandon. (Laughter.)
CHANG: Who would like to tackle that one?
FEINSTEIN: Well, in fairness, I don’t think that—I’ll jump in. I don’t think that’s what David said, exactly. I think what he said was cruelty isn’t necessarily what’s required to manage a border. And I do think that, you know, again, I’m going to try to be rosier about this. I just returned, more or less, from the last decade in the American Midwest. And so, I’m into moderation at the moment. (Laughter.) And I actually am—I actually do believe that the fact that elites and the public equally recognize this as a problem creates an opportunity to address it.
And, David, I think, if I read correctly, you have a really interesting project in Arizona which kind of gave an example of how more effectively the influx of migrants can be handled at the border. And I think, you know, probably almost everybody in this room can trace their own backgrounds in some way or another either to very unwelcome entries into the United States, or the opposite. And so I think that there’s a real basis here for some cooperation, not even, you know, bipartisan cooperation, but cooperation across different sort of sociological groupings, geographic groupings. Because I think everybody recognizes that this is not going the way it should.
CHANG: Lee, thank you. Not only Midwestern moderation, but the Lugar-Hamilton bipartisan moderation is clearly your jam. (Laughter.)
So let’s go to another question here, front row.
Q: Marc Rosen (sp).
My question to David Miliband, you mentioned Ukraine and you said that there should be contingency planning in the event that the U.S. moves to a policy of sort of isolationism on Ukraine in the next thirteen months. But—I am a strong supporter of NATO, as I’m sure most people in this room are, and also support for Ukraine. But would it not be a good thing for Europe to take the real leadership here on Ukraine, given all of the other pressures the U.S. is facing around the world, with Taiwan, with the Middle East, et cetera? And would it not be a good thing for Europe to say, we’ll bear the responsibility—the financial and military responsibility—of supporting Ukraine?
MILIBAND: Well, the majority of finance, if you put together the military and the non-military, is coming from Europe at the moment. It’s a well-kept secret that actually Europe is the major funder. But Europe can’t do it without the U.S., because of the military—the superordinate military role. I mean, the U.S. defense budget, I think, is now $900 billion a year, $950 billion. Just by comparison, the U.K. is the joint largest defense budget in Europe, is 65 million euros, or 75 million—it’s 60 million pounds. So the pound isn’t worth as much as it used to, but it’s sort of $80 million. So you get a sense of the U.S. military is ten-plus times the U.K. military.
So I think that to say that Europe has to conceive of how it’s going to manage the situation without the U.S. is a diplomatic way of putting what will be a very, very—an almost unmanageable situation, but they’re not going to be able to literally deliver the level of support. The finance is the easy part, in the end. It’s a wide range of military and other support that I think goes—it’s beyond the European capacity. I mean, it’s also worth saying the current administration, I think, have done a good job in rallying NATO and another opinion, or at least NATO and other action in defense of Ukraine. And they don’t want to give up that role. They see that as an important part of America’s global role. So I don’t think Europeans can wrest that away from America.
But it’s obviously a bipartisan point in the U.S. that you want Europe to do more. Actually, what you should also be pushing for, if I may say, so is Europe—including the U.K. for these purposes—Europeans to do more together, because the whole is less than the sum of the parts when it comes to European military capacity. And if there was actually more jointery, more integration, it would actually help. One good thing is that there’s been a European argument, partly sponsored by the Brits over the years, that you had to choose between European foreign and security policy and NATO foreign and security policy. Ukraine has brought the EU and NATO much closer together. And I think that’s a really good thing.
STARES: Just quickly. The potential for a U.S. shortfall in support for Ukraine explains why there’s this sort of recent interest in using the 300 billion (dollars) in seized Russian assets to it then, so.
CHANG: Lee, let me go to you and, obviously, if you want to comment on this, the U.S. funding for the Ukraine war effort, you should. But I know there’s a question in D.C. as well, and you’re going to take us to that.
FEINSTEIN: OK. In the back, yes. (Laughter.) Please state your name and affiliation.
Q: Welby Leaman with Walmart.
I wanted to focus on one of the three goals of the center. It’s to prevent, to defuse, or to resolve, I think is the language, these conflicts. Focusing on the middle one, defuse. What strategies for defusing the first of these risks are identified in your work? So much of the focus on this, including in CFR meetings, has been on prevention and on resolution, using both political, and legal, and broader cultural tools, that in some ways are the opposite of the language that we use when referring to defusing other types of things—trust building, bringing both sides to the table, compromise. So what is available to us in this regard?
STARES: So you’re talking about the potential for increased political violence, domestic terrorism in the U.S., as I understand you. So the way I typically look at things, so the range of possibilities is essentially a forensic approach. I look at motive, means, and opportunities. And in each of those categories, there are things we can do. In this case, in terms of the motivation, much more can be done to avoid incitement and fomenting division and polarization, a very strong message on this from the White House I think is starting to appear now. In terms of the means, sort of ensuring that at access to weapons, critical materials used for explosives, restricting this access of people, particularly with extremist views, to having access to these guns and weapons and materials is very important.
And then the opportunities. You know, we can look at the political calendar over the next twelve months and we can already anticipate the places where violence could happen, whether it’s during the primaries, the conventions, the voting booths, other key milestones in the electoral calendar which if there were violence or terrorism around those it would have a major amplifying effect. And we can do things in advance to reduce the risk of that occurring. Increasing the security level. The FBI has a way to designate certain events as, I think, security—national security events. And when they do that, it kicks in a whole level of protective measures to reduce the risk, just as whenever the president visits and gives a speech anywhere, you know, the Secret Service, FBI ramps up. So we can do that throughout the election system.
And it’s beyond the elections, as I think January 6 event showed, that we also have to be mindful. So there’s a lot we can do. Individually, there may not seem a lot, but collectively I think that they can make a real difference.
CHANG: OK, we want to take a virtual question. I guess we’ll—
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Rachel Bronson.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you so much. Thank you for this terrific presentation as well. It’s a pleasure watching it online. I wish I was there.
In about two weeks, we’re going to be announcing the 2024 on the Doomsday Clock, which gets into these kinds of discussions on the threats and the threats you see. And I wonder, a lot of what we’re talking about now are proximate, defined as such, and require our attention. But how much—how should we be thinking? I know how, I think, we’re thinking. But how, in your reports and as a group, should we be thinking about the changes behind all of that? The international changes, the fact that we have so little global governance, that we’re seeing huge technological changes even in nuclear weapons, but climate, disruptive technologies, AI. All of these kinds of behind the scenes, and we’re going to be managing the symptoms that we’re talking about. How do you all put that together as you think about these real challenges and these proximate challenges, which have consequences on so many lives? How do you put that together with some of these big and enduring challenges that also seem to be getting worse?
MILIBAND: Rachel, I think that’s a great question. And I’ll just answer one part of it, which is that in our report we highlight not just conflict, but why is there conflict? And one of the things we pull out is the overlap between conflict and climate crisis. We talk about climate crisis deliberately, not just climate change, because in fourteen of the twenty countries on the watch list, they are also in the top 25 percent of countries for climate crisis vulnerability. In other words, the climate crisis is here now, if you’re looking at significant parts of East Africa, if you’re looking at significant parts of the Sahel, actually if you’re looking at Afghanistan as well.
And that is a long-term secular trend, exacerbated by the fact that these high vulnerability countries are also the last in the queue, the last in the line for receiving funding for adaptation to the climate crisis. So the farmers in Somalia are the last to get stronger seeds that help them survive the drought. And that is a fundamental trend here. So your point, you’ve got to look across the horizon, I think is a really important point. I’d also—just half a point. The connected economic world means that when interest rates reach 5, 6, or 7 percent here, they’re reaching 15, 20, 25 percent in even more exposed parts of the world. So the ripple effects from trouble in the richer parts of the world has devastating consequences much further afield.
CHANG: Yeah, I was on the ground in Guatemala in the dry corridor, where so many of those climate migrants are at the border but started in the hills of Guatemala. Does anyone else want to take that, or we can go to our next question here in New York.
STARES: I can just quickly add on.
CHANG: Please, yeah.
STARES: David is exactly right. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve just completed a series of regional assessments of the impact of climate on political instability in certain regions. But in addition to climate, there’s obviously demography and demographic change. There’s the impact of technology. I don’t have to tell you, Rachel, about the concern that many people have about AI and strategic stability and nuclear weapons, another big factor. You could also point to trade issues and future trade, because trade has been a—I think, a broadly pacifying influence. And if it starts to sort of fall apart or the level of integration across borders starts to fray, that that could also have an effect in terms of political stability as well.
CHANG: Thank you. In New York, a question? Yes? I see a hand.
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
I am tempted to ask the citizen of the island state that formerly was part of Europe about this strange relationship with Rwanda. But more broadly—(laughs)—I think the question on the refugee and migrant flows goes to an issue of whether or not all of the other pre-preventive actions that we are often urged to take—development aid, liberalized terms of trade, and such—whether there is any really solid evidence that those make a difference in effecting a tranquil society in all of the developing world, or whether that is so far removed from consequences that we really can’t make that argument to our public that those are investments important to make.
MILIBAND: Well, I can give you a very brisk answer to that, in three parts. One, we do know that countries which develop reach a stage when they stop exporting people and start importing people. And that the turnaround figure is around an annual average income of $11(,000) or $12,000 a year. So that’s the turnaround point, from memory. Secondly, the conflict drivers are different. And the weakest instruments that we have in the political policy—in the policy toolkit are about nation building and stabilization. They’re the weakest tools. We have not bad—some not bad tools about peace building and peacemaking at a very micro level. But when it comes to conflict-affected states, it’s a very weak toolkit. That’s why you’ve got more than fifty civil wars going on around—civil conflicts going on around the world.
Third and final point, on the receiving end—and this is something for you to think about—as the ambassador thinks about how to exploit this political moment when the elites and the people both concerned about the border. I promise you, you will not sort out your refugee asylum problem if you don’t also sort out your immigration issue. They’re different, but they are related. And we’ve got lots of experience of this in the U.K., which is still part of Europe even though it’s not part of the EU, I should point out. We haven’t changed our geography even though we’ve changed our political links. (Laughter.) But unless you decide what you want your legal immigration system to be, your asylum-seeking and refugee process is going to end up bearing an impossible share of the load. And so the two go together, in that sense.
CHANG: I’m sure we’re going to continue our tease the Brit session, but let’s go to D.C.—(laughter)—for another question.
Q: Hi. Alison Minor at the Brookings Institution.
I think that one of the helpful things about this survey is not just to confirm the issues that are top of mind for everyone, the three that we’ve been discussing, but also to highlight those tier-two crises or potential threats in the survey. And I know that David spoke to the potential consequences from the tier-three threats, if those all proliferate. But I’d be interested in the panelists’ thoughts about how we’re handling the tier two crises, either that kind of crisis in general, the moderate impact moderate likelihood, or some of the specific ones that are listed in the report. So I think that’s Turkey and violence with its neighbors, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, and China-India. Thank you.
CHANG: Go ahead, Mary Beth.
LONG: I’ll jump in real quickly. First, just as an overall issue, I think if you speak to most national security folk, all of us have sort of acquiesced to a real change in the world. We used to be able to sort of bifurcate issues and deal with Iraq, deal with Afghanistan, deal with China not only as a security issue but sort of as an isolated—and hybrid threats has now become actually something that has been talked about for a long time. And the fact that everything happens at once, I think, is going to become a norm. And so we’re going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time. And there’s a little bit still of the mentality, and our infrastructure, actually, is sort of designed to one thing at a time, one process at a time. And that is no longer going to fly.
And that’s what our allies and our foes are really dealing with. And I think the real problem is, if you look at the tier one and the tier two, the tier two, a lot of the—a lot of the—Iran is a perfect example, Yemen is a perfect example—swap over into tier one. And it’s the failure of having addressed Iran, for example, not only its nuclear proliferation but its hegemonic aspirations in the region, its meddling. This has exploded, really, in the last fifteen years. Has pushed Houthis, had catastrophic effects on Lebanon, has had important implications for Syria and North Africa. So our failure to have addressed the tier-two issues, there are some places where I think there’s—where there’s some opportunities.
Erdogan goes back and forth between his willingness and his openness to have a closer relationship with the United States and Europe. But he’s a little bit of a moving target, depending on his situation. But there are opportunities there to work with him. And there are opportunities with a lot of the tier-two countries to at least avoid exacerbating the problems. When David was speaking a little while ago about immigration, I’m of the opinion is we made the decision on immigration. We have laws regarding immigration and coming into our country. We have chosen to ignore them, or to change them, or to collapse the idea of having something that’s organized and maybe doesn’t say yes to everybody, is somehow a bad thing and makes us bad people. No, it makes us organize and actually focus. But we’ve walked away from that in our policies and our practices.
Our immigration problem in the southwest border, we were warned decades ago by the Central American countries that this was going to happen, in part because we’re exporting a lot of our illegal immigrants from our prisons back to Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries, where they were forming gangs which eventually became a threat to the state and pushed out legitimate citizens into climate change, but also violent refugees, I would say. So from a—from a second-tier standpoint, our failure not to address those, in many respects, as the underlying instigators or exacerbators of the tier one, it will be problematic for us if we don’t figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time.
CHANG: Thank you, Mary Beth.
I see the sands going through the hourglass, so I just want to ask David to address tier three, because nine of the top ten on emergency watch lists for the IRC are tier-three issues. I want you to just address that for us, if you can.
MILIBAND: Yeah. So the most important for us are the least important for America. That’s the source of—(laughter)—that’s the danger. And I think that Mary Beth’s bandwidth problem—I think she was saying in her last answer, the beginning of her last answer that there’s a real bandwidth and organizational issue in the—in the way—the sort of chokepoints that exist in the U.S. system. I think that’s a very profound point. We feel that a lot. Everything down to the length of tenure of the ambassadors and the extent to which they’re allowed out of their own missions. That’s a massive thing and fragile and conflict states.
One area where I think the U.S. could use its influence—and I’m going to D.C. tomorrow, and I think the administration are getting on to this in quite a big way—the multilateral institutions led by the World Bank could be real game changes, at least on the humanitarian development side in these fragile and conflict states, where your own bandwidth is most—is challenged to a great extent. That’s going to take a big reform drive in the World Bank, not just at the top level of the personnel where you’ve appointed a great person, Ajay Banga, to be your—to be not yours—the head of the World Bank. (Laughter.) He takes on all of our push. I was just seeing if you’re still all listening. (Laughter.) He’s your nominee, but he’s now our—he’s now a global citizen for these purposes.
But we’re pushing very hard. The World Bank is going to have to have a massive change in its operating model and culture if it’s to get to grips with the way to work in a fragile and conflict state when government is incompetent, in conflict, where it’s writ doesn’t run across the country, where you have to have a totally different relationship with civil society if you’re to have action. But U.S. drive in the multilateral system is, I think, a neglected aspect, and becomes even more important at a time when your bandwidth is challenged at the domestic front.
CHANG: We are very close to 1:45, which will end our session. But I just want to tell everyone this session is on the record. Obviously, our panelists knew that. Also, this conversation and the transcript—(laughter)—at least, we hope our panelists knew that. This conversation and transcript will be available on CFRs website, as well as the 2024 Preventative Priorities Survey.
But I just want to give the last word to Paul, who obviously authors this idea of prevention being—an ounce of prevention being worth a ton of cure. So give us a sense of what, you know, optimistically we can strive for.
STARES: I’m glad you asked that, because, you know, it’s easy to read this and go, oh my God, you know, what are we in for for the next twelve months? You know, buckle down. And there are definitely good reasons to be worried about the future. But I don’t think we should be captive to our fears. The future is certainly not preordained. You know, you can look back, you know, on 2023 and think of it as all doom and gloom, but there were some bright spots. Which gives me some hope for the future.
You know, U.S.-China relations did improve over the year. China did broker a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It’s going to be tested, obviously, in the coming months. You had Greece and Turkey reach a, you know détente over the disputed areas of the Aegean. Very important. That was on the watch list last year. And the South Caucasus, we saw this terrible expulsion of on folks from Nagorno-Karabakh, but we’re now seeing a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So things can happen. There is human agency. We’re not prisoner of events. And I think if we keep our eye on the ball and try to be a little forward-leaning, a little proactive on certain things, we can make the place less conflict-prone and safer for everybody else.
CHANG: Thank you so much for that note of optimism after giving us a gigantic list of things to worry about. (Laughter.) Mary Beth, thank you to you and Lee in D.C., for our audiences both in D.C. and New York, and of course, David Miliband, thank you for letting us use you as the butt of our jokes. (Laughter.) So thank you. (Applause.)