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 CFR’s 2024 Preventive Priorities Survey.
WYNE: OK. Can everyone—can everyone hear me? Oh, we’re good. I think we—and thank you very much for the invitation. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here. And welcome to all of you who are here in person, welcome to all of you who are tuning in online, and thank all of you for braving the weather. This is a great turnout, given the—given the weather that we’re having.
And welcome to tonight’s Council on Foreign Relations Young Professionals Briefing on “What to Worry About in 2024.” We were talking backstage and I was saying I was almost tempted to modify the title of the briefing: “What Not to Worry About in 2024.” I think, soberingly, we’ll have no shortage of topics to discuss.
My name is Ali Wyne. I’m a senior research and advocacy advisor for U.S.-China relations at the International Crisis Group. And we have a superlative panel for you, so I’m going to introduce the esteemed panelists very briefly and then we’ll just—we’ll dive right into a conversation.
Courtney Cooper, director of public policy, WhatsApp. A former CFR term member. A former CFR international affairs fellow.
Paul Stares, the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Center for Preventive Action.
And last but certainly not least, Elizabeth Hoffman, director of government affairs and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a CFR term member.
Again, a really—a really illustrious lineup. We’re going to try to cover as much as we can. I’m going to have sort of a conversation with our panelists until about 6:35, and then we’ll try to get in as many questions from folks who are here and for folks who are tuning in online.
So, Paul, let me—let me turn to you. And congratulations on the—on the publication of the newest survey—I’ll hold it up—the Preventive Priorities Survey 2024. And just before asking you sort of my opening question, just a word about the survey. I would, obviously, commend it to all of you. And it started in 2008, and it’s really—I think for policymakers and analysts alike, it really has, since its inception, become a really important tool for trying to kind of make sense of just a world that seems to be ever more in chaos and ever more on fire. So, Paul, kudos to you.
So on that note, I wanted to start with a little bit of optimism since we’re going to be talking about all that we have to worry about. Two questions for you.
The first is, for folks, you know, who are joining online, for folks who are in attendance this evening who might not be familiar with the Preventive Priorities Survey, or PPS, it started in 2008. Tell us the origin story. What was the impetus for launching the survey? And then maybe give us kind of the high-level overview, sort of the topline findings from the survey.
STARES: OK. Well, thank you, Ali. And thank you all for braving the elements tonight. It’s getting really cold out there, so I very much appreciate you showing up tonight. And for those online, too.
So, in terms of the origins, basically, it began, as you said, back in 2008. And it was really driven by the sense that when policymakers were confronted with a very sort of disorderly world and potential conflicts, it was very difficult for them to really prioritize where to focus finite resources and attention. And often, they would be pulled in one direction and not pay enough attention to something that was brewing over the horizon, something potentially more important and threatening to U.S. interests. So I thought, well, let’s poll or survey American foreign policy experts to get a sense of which potential or ongoing conflicts that could get worse, or which ones were sort of brewing over the horizon and were plausible in a sort of twelve-month timeframe, could get worse, too, or erupt. And you know, which of these were—how likely were they? And moreover, how—what kind of impact would they have, or harmful impact, on U.S. interests?
And so every year we essentially bring together or conceive of thirty plausible contingencies based on an initial public solicitation, and we send out the survey, and experts individually assess them for their likelihood and impact. And then we aggregate the scores, and then we sort them into three tiers of relative priority. And we’ve been doing this, as I say, since 2008. We’ve changed the methodology a little bit.
This year was particularly interesting in that we changed what we had previously included in this initial survey. Before, we had only included foreign or overseas-sourced risks. This year, because of overwhelming public demand that domestic sources of violence and domestic terrorism in the U.S. be included in the survey, we put it in. And this segues to the—to the main takeaways.
I think in terms of what really struck me this year, firstly were three things.
One, a sort of unprecedented level of anxiety about the coming year. We’ve never seen so many conflicts that are ranked so high in terms of likelihood and impact. We have three out of the eight tier-ones, what we call three high-highs: high probability, high impact. We’ve never had that. Totally unprecedented. Of the thirty contingencies that were surveyed, only two were considered low probability. Again, unprecedented. And it just, as I say, reflects, I think, this underlying unease or foreboding about the next twelve months.
In terms of what people worry about the most, number one by far is the possibility of domestic terrorism, political violence around the upcoming presidential election. It was clearly the leading concern among respondents.
Not far behind was the possibility of—and we’re more or less seeing this now—an expansion and an escalation of ongoing conflict in the Middle East out of the Israel-Hamas Gaza conflict, expanding to other areas of the Middle East. As I say, we’re seeing this already.
The third high-high was a surge in immigration—unregulated immigration to the southwest border as a result of criminal violence, political corruption, economic hardship in Central America and Mexico. They were—they were the three, by far, leading concerns.
Not far behind, however, was Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel-Iran, possibility of a major cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure—and of course, the hardy perennial that’s in there every year, North Korea. And I’m actually thinking, from what I’ve been reading over the last few days, that North Korea may be the real—I wouldn’t call it sleeper here, but the one that we actually should be paying a lot more attention to.
So I’ll leave it there.
WYNE: Paul, thank you so much for giving us a lot to worry about, which was—which was your mandate, and I think you’ve delivered. But I’m going to see if we might have some causes for optimism later on in the evening.
Elizabeth, I want to come to you. And I want to focus on—so Paul gave us a really good overview both of sort of kind of the origin story, the genesis of the survey, the principal findings, and gave us, you know, a sense of a range of conflicts and hotspots we need to, you know, watch out for. And I want to draw your attention and ask you about this word, the middle world, Preventive Priorities Survey. So when—at least when I hear the word “priorities,” I think that, obviously, there’s a range of conflicts that should be of concern to U.S. policymakers. And I want to ask you, when you consider the range of hotspots, so—and Paul, you know, gave us a brief overview. We have a war in Europe that’s raging. It shows no sign, at least thus far, of deescalating as it approaches its two-year mark. We have a crisis, Paul, that, as you said, in the Middle East, it seems to be growing or escalating, you know, by the day. We have any number of tensions in Asia which one could all too easily imagine boiling over into conflict. So, Elizabeth, when you survey that conflict landscape and you see that really wherever you turn there’s, you know, causes for concern, is it possible—if you were advising the Biden-Harris administration, if you were advising—going back to sort of your days on the Hill, if you were advising members of Congress, is it possible for the United States to designate strategic priorities—prioritize certain conflicts, prioritize certain hotspots? Should the United States designate priorities? But give us a sense of, again, focusing in on that middle word of the title, “priorities,” is it possible, and should the United States prioritize?
HOFFMAN: Sure. Yeah, I think it is possible. And, look, policymaking is always about tradeoffs. However, with the particular set of kind of high-highs that Paul—you know, high-probability, high-impact that he outlined, I think they’re all interconnected and it’s impossible to untangle these current conundrums. And so I am afraid that a lot of people are tempted to look at this and say, OK, make tradeoffs—again, like you would normally in policymaking—and say, OK, well, you know, prioritize Ukraine, forget about Indo-Pacific right now; or vice versa, something like that. But really, all of these are interconnected.
I think part of what you’re seeing with Russian escalation in Ukraine right now is a result of our own internal politics. They know that, you know, the United States is distracted. We’re entering a campaign season, a hotly-contested campaign season. We’ve got the southern border. You have Israel. I mean, what I worried about as soon as I saw kind of Israel-Gaza happen, I mean, of course horrific and tragic, but the next thing that came to my mind was: Putin’s going to use this. He’s going to use it as a distraction. And sure enough, it’s hard to even find kind of current news on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine these days, even though the situation has gotten so much worse, because the media has shifted attention to Israel-Gaza.
And then, of course, the constant underlying threat of kind of how is China going to react. What does the election in Taiwan mean? And you know, with all of these distractions—again, with the election coming up—are they going to take this opportunity to make a move on Taiwan.
And so I don’t think that you can take any of these things in isolation. I think we need to deal with them as a whole. And frankly, the supplemental package, actually, on the Hill does deal with many of these. It deals with Israel-Gaza. It deals with Ukraine and Russia, with the southern border—although that is very—immigration policy is very, very tricky. I’ve been—I mean, I was on the Hill for a couple of really big pushes for immigration reform that failed, so slightly worrying that that might be what kind of collapses the house of cards. And then, of course, it has some money in there for Indo-Pacific, too.
So I do think that there is a push to deal with this, but I don’t think that policymakers right now are really focused on the urgency. Like, this is urgent. We cannot wait. So, yeah, I just—I mean, that’s my main—my main concern right now, is are we going to act quick enough. Because our adversaries are acting quickly, and they’re taking advantage of the fact that we are kind of sitting on our hands and having these internal debates and discussions. So we need to be a little bit more decisive here.
WYNE: Elizabeth, thank you.
And speaking of, you know, causes for, you know, concern, Courtney, I want to come to you next. And again, I really would urge all of you to read the report in its entirety. I think something that I really respect about the, you know, PPS as an analytical tool is it’s digestible, but it manages at the same time to be, you know, very comprehensive in its coverage and very rigorous. And I think that’s striking. That balance is quite challenging in this information ecosystem.
Courtney, I want to read you a quote just verbatim from the report and ask you to react to it. It’s quite jarring, and I’m just going to read verbatim from the report: Quote: “In prior”—and, Paul, you were saying this in your opening remarks—quote, “In prior years, only overseas or foreign-source risks to U.S. interests were evaluated in the PPS”—the Preventive Priorities Survey. “However, during the public solicitation of contingencies for the 2024 PPS, the level of concern expressed about the risk of politically motivated violence in the United States, especially surrounding the upcoming presidential election, was too great to disregard.” Courtney, pretty sobering assessment. And the fact that, as Paul said in his opening remarks, this is the first time that we have included—and, obviously, in response to this overwhelming concern on the part of those who were solicited. What are your reactions?
COOPER: Thanks, Ali.
Well, as I started my career in national security at the CIA, I was analyzing foreign threats to the United States and didn’t really think I’d find myself looking at something that has risen to the top here, the domestic threat level. Just in terms of it rising to the level of being at the top, I’m not surprised that politically motivated violence has achieved that top spot this year. I mean, I think it’s very top of mind for most Americans when we think about the last presidential contest that we—that we undertook in this country. I mean, we think of January 6 and the insurrection there. And so just knowing, very top of mind also, that with the caucuses kicking off yesterday and the same political figure that was involved in inciting the mobs to go to the Capitol that day, I think it’s very much top of mind for people who are still collectively processing the reality that it could happen here, that it did happen here, the trauma around what they experienced that day and fear that we’re really still seeing a lot of the same conditions that make it possible that something like that could happen again in this coming year.
You know, I think, taking a step back, globally elections are always something that could prompt massive political upheaval and instability; it’s just not something that we’re used to processing here in the United States. For generations, that hasn’t been the case. And so I think, really, changing our mindset to think about how, with where political polarization is today, and tribal politics, and rising populism, and economic inequality, just really thinking about how—and also disrupting technology, misinformation, disinformation. There’s so many factors now that are changing dynamics around politics even here at home, and I think that’s just really important to keep in mind.
You know, for most of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, the major—the major threats to democracy came from either, like, militancy or totalizing ideologies like fascism or communism or Islamic extremism. And you know, here, to think about in the current day and age, some, like, homegrown political violence is really just a little bit of, I think, a shock to the system, but something that is just collectively on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
And I will say that we’re not alone, I think, in the United States that is. Looking at the study, there is a number of other places where elections particularly is called out as very high risk around political violence and civil unrest. And I think the ones that I saw in the report are South Sudan, Pakistan, Mozambique, maybe one or two others. But it is just really interesting to think about that being the company that the United States finds itself in this year.
WYNE: Courtney, thank you so much.
And I want to—oh, I’m glad I still have some time. I have a tendency to be verbose, so I thought we might already be at 6:35. So I still have some time, so I’m going to—I’m going to do another round with all three of you. And I want—Paul, let me start with you. And then, Elizabeth, I’ll come to you; and, Courtney, I want to bring you back in.
You know, Paul, you said that the results of this survey in many regards were unprecedented. And all three of you in different ways have touched on this interplay—and it’s an interplay that I think has always been there, but it’s an interplay that I think that this survey in particular places in very stark relief, this interplay between domestic politics—domestic dysfunction, domestic chaos, whatever your preferred verbiage, but domestic currents and foreign policy challenges. Paul, talk to us a little bit about, how did that interplay show up? When you were soliciting comments from foreign policy experts, how did that interplay show up? And what keeps you up at night? What worries you most? As you reflect on the survey that you’ve just published, should U.S. policymakers—should they be more worried about external challenges to national security? Should they be more worried about internal challenges to national security? Or, kind of getting to a point that—or a comment that Elizabeth was making earlier, is it perhaps reductionist to try and sort of separate out the two? Do you have to consider both foreign challenges and internal challenges as inextricably intertwined? Give us a little bit of a sense of that interplay.
STARES: Sure. Well, I think it would be great if we could sort of drill down a little bit more about what do we think is really of most concern here to foreign policy experts. Remember, these are not, you know, domestic law enforcement people; they are foreign policy experts we’re polling. And you know, we should maybe encourage others to give their views, too. But as I see it, there’s the obvious—you know, the threat to life and liberty at home—and we can kind of take that for granted, but what else bothers foreign policy experts here? And I can think of several.
One is the possibility that—and this really touches on, I think, what Elizabeth was saying—the foreign actors, nonstate/state, could foment further divisions within the United States through social media, disinformation, fake news, et cetera, et cetera. So there’s the possibility that they see an opportunity to really generate yet more division within the U.S., so that’s an obvious one.
I think another one is the possibility—again, I think this is where Elizabeth was leading—that they could see the U.S. distracted—we’re dealing with turbulence inside the U.S.—and take advantage of that. You know, we can think of a number of possible areas of the world where malign actors may say, hey, this is a good time to act, and so that’s one.
A third is this longstanding U.S. goal to promote democracy and human rights around the world. And I think the real problem, you know, if we go through another season of considerable turmoil, potentially a contentious transfer of power again, certainly widespread violence, our ability to advocate for these very things will be, you know, really challenged. It will be seen as, you know, hypocritical or contradictory or whatever. It will just be so much harder for us to do that. And if you think of the importance of that, then the implications are profound.
So that, to me, is where the interplay is, I think, between the domestic and the foreign.
WYNE: Thanks, Paul.
Elizabeth, I want to come to you and just have you react to a point that Paul made, and it’s a point that I think you were making in your opening remarks, this concern that amid sort of U.S., again, sort of dysfunction or sort of internal preoccupation that certain competitors/certain challengers might view this sort of—might discern a window of opportunity; whether it’s between now and November of this year, whether it’s between now and January of 2025 or beyond, that certain actors might perceive a window of opportunity. Which of those actors worries you most, kind of in the spirit of the title of this panel? Which of those potential actors worries you most? And what might they do? What should we be thinking about in terms of scenario planning?
HOFFMAN: Really, they all do. I’m having a hard time, again, just because—I mean, I was jotting down some notes as people were talking, and again, the more people say, the more the interconnectedness of all of this really strikes me. Like, the turmoil here at home, you can’t separate kind of what Russia and China are doing from that. You’ve seen news come out recently—and I defer to Courtney on this point—but, you know, that China is really ramping up kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the social media sphere, which, you know, we’ve seen protests that have—that have turned increasingly violent related to Israel and Gaza. I mean, Russia, the reason they supposedly invaded Ukraine was, you know, to cleanse a Nazi regime. So you’re seeing the kind of different threads here all connected.
And on the immigration front, too, I mean, kind of the weaponization of immigration. I mean, this is straight out of the Russian playbook. They send, you know, I mean, basically, chartered planes full of Afghans, vulnerable people from conflicts around the world, have sent them to Belarus to then go into the EU. You know, Finland has just had to shut their border because Russia was doing the same thing. And you know, so this is kind of using what’s happening at our southern border to then sow doubt in should we fund Ukraine, which also takes down, obviously, the Indo-Pacific and Israel-Gaza along with this. These are all just so kind of woven together.
And I think what makes this really difficult is that as Americans we don’t like to think of foreign powers having influence over us like this. Like, we are Americans. We’re strong. We’re—you know, people can’t deceive us. It's human nature that—you know, and I think that’s why people had such a visceral reaction to kind of the foreign interference in, you know, the 2020 and the 2016 elections, because we don’t like to be—we don’t like to think we’re being fooled. We don’t like to think we’re being manipulated. And I think that a challenge is how can we talk to the American people about what is happening with elections, how information is being manipulated by foreign powers, because it very much is in a way that I don’t think that people appreciate without kind of insulting their intelligence and making them feel like, well, you’re just—you got tricked by Russia, you got tricked by China. I don’t think people are going to respond well to that. But at the same time, we need to educate, you know, voters in Iowa, voters in Nebraska, people that aren’t typically kind of consumed with foreign policy that this is real, this is happening, and how do you guard against it.
WYNE: Thanks so much, Elizabeth.
And you—I don’t know if you—this was probably unwitting, but just as you were talking I said I’ve got to bring, you know, Courtney back into this conversation, as you were concluding your remarks. So, you know, when you reflect on, you know, your career in the intelligence community and now in your current capacity, you know, wearing your tech hat, how can Americans build up greater resilience against whether you want to talk about misinformation, disinformation from abroad, how do we build up greater resilience? You know, one of the—just as sort of a—as a brief comment, you know, one of the experiences that I have that I’ve been having increasingly that I find sobering is, you know, when I talk with, you know, friends or colleagues or others, the sense that a lot—it seems like more and more individuals, they’re just—they feel that they’re so deluged with misinformation or disinformation that they just kind of throw their hands up and say: I can’t discern the truth. I can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. What to do? I mean, how—in this kind of information ecosystem with the kinds of technological platforms that we have that competitors and others are coopting for their own purposes, how do we build up greater resilience here at home?
COOPER: It’s hard.
WYNE: And you only have—
COOPER: It’s hard. (Laughs.)
WYNE: You only have a few minutes. You only have a few minutes. (Laughs.)
COOPER: You know, I’ll say there is no silver bullet, unfortunately, in this space, and I think it’s going to require really a protracted effort here. It’s going to require a multifaceted approach between government agencies and cybersecurity experts and technology companies to really tackle this problem in concert with one another. And you know, the extent to which it’s going to affect most Americans will vary, right? Cyberattacks and cyber intrusion, related to the election or whatnot, could take many forms. It could be as simple as something more acute, like disrupting water systems or hospitals, which we’ve seen in the last month. Or it could be something much more sweeping, like affecting election outcomes—and more than that, just even the affecting of election outcomes, could even just be the sowing distrust in the systems and the capability of the United States’ people to handle this. So I think that is as grave of an outcome.
On the good news side, I think we’ve seen a lot of progress in the last four and eight years since we really came to terms with this threat, I think, in the 2016 election. There has been a ton of research and intelligence analysis around threat actors and methods and means, and there’s a lot of good work that’s gone into standing up government agencies and centers to help combat this problem. So the Foreign Malign Influence Center now presents a whole-of-government capability for analyzing these threats across all intelligence agencies. And so in concert with all departments and agencies, and really focusing USG effort on this is really important, along with cybersecurity experts.
In the tech community, we have a really important role, and I think we’ve seen a lot of cooperation in the tech space with government. In my short time in the tech space, I’ve seen a massive mobilization of resources and attention around safeguarding elections, and that’s both around really preventing abuse with the way we design systems but also thinking about educating consumers and users of technology. And that’s around misinformation and disinformation, and virality of content. And so we have a lot more tools than I think we had in our toolkit a few years ago. And even just the recognition in tech platforms of the kind of threats that are out there, there’s a lot more introspection about what we could do to safeguard our systems, and really recognizing what is content that’s generated by some global threat actors and what isn’t, and how we can really proactively tackle this. Because no tech company wants to be in the news. They want to be part of the solution; they don’t want to be part of the problem on this issue because it is such an important one for our democracy.
WYNE: Well, you’ve started making me feel a little bit better, which is good, because I told you at the outset—I said I was going to see if we could think of some green shoots and some causes for optimism. So you’ve started us in that direction.
We have five minutes left to think optimistically before we begin worrying again. I told you that was my promise. So what I want to ask is kind of a lightning round. We have about five minutes left just for the opening part of our conversation. I want to ask each of you—and, Paul, I’ll circle back and start with you—there’s a lot to worry about. Read the report. It’s an excellent—an excellent sort of summation and analysis of the various litany of conflicts and hotspots to worry about. What are—geopolitically, geoeconomically, or otherwise, are there perhaps underappreciated causes for optimism? Any kind of silver linings? Any green shoots that might, even if partially, offset some of the causes for concern that you document in the report?
STARES: Right. Well, there were some, I think, welcome developments last year that perhaps don’t get the attention.
The biggest one, of course, was I think this broad rapprochement in U.S.-China relations. We’ll see how this lasts with the interregnum in Taiwan, whether—that things could get off-track again. But there’s clearly a commitment now, I think, at the highest levels to creating some kind of modus vivendi between the U.S. and China. And, Ali, you could talk more authoritatively about this. So that’s one.
The role of China in brokering rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that also will probably be tested—(laughs)—in the next few weeks and months. But that’s an interesting development.
And I continue to hold out the possibility that China might play, along—perhaps along with India, a positive role in brokering some arrangement on Ukraine. Maybe this is way wishful thinking for me.
Another area, you know, we saw terrible conflict in—even if it was relatively brief—in the South Caucasus, the Nagorno-Karabakh expulsion of Armenians from that enclave. But we’ve now seen what seems to be the possibility of a peace arrangement or a treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan that might bring stability to the region. Again, this may be wishful thinking.
Finally, Greece and Turkey. You know, the two prime ministers, or president and prime minister, met a few weeks ago and professed undying love for each other—(laughs)—and that was in last year’s PPS, the possibility of conflict.
So there are some things out there that we can, I think, look to and possibly build on in the—
WYNE: We’ll take them.
Elizabeth, some causes for optimism? And then, Courtney, you get the last word. And then we’ll open it up to questions from all of you. Elizabeth, give us some silver linings.
HOFFMAN: Yeah. I think actually the causes for worry are also the biggest causes for optimism, right? Like with Russia and Ukraine, if we give the Ukrainians what they need we have the ability to really handicap the Putin regime, defeat—like, authoritatively defeat Putin, which sends a very strong message to dictators around the world that, you know, we’re serious and would weaken kind of a big adversary.
Israel, Gaza—I mean, after—some of the biggest breakthroughs in negotiations have come after conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. So I think that there’s potential to really push forward, you know, the two-state solution and all that has been dormant for quite a few years.
So this could be the catalyst that really could push some serious progress in that arena. And on immigration as well, you know, like I said, over the past fifteen or so years I’ve witnessed a couple of really major efforts to push forward immigration reform and it’s always, you know, broken down and been held hostage by entrenched views.
And maybe this is—kind of maybe this is the time to really—I mean, our system is badly outdated. It needs to be modernized. So maybe this could be the catalyst that really kind of starts things.
And then on our own elections, you know, I think that what we’ve seen throughout the past eight or so years is that U.S. institutions remain strong and that we still are a democracy. We are very flawed. We’re a work in progress.
I think that that’s—you know, we have to approach this, as Paul was mentioning about, you know, democracy promotion and human rights abroad I think actually that gives us a little more credibility if we approach it with humility and say we’re very flawed but so learn from us. Learn kind of from our mistakes and what not to do. This is how we grapple with these issues.
But, you know, I think you just have to take solace in the fact that, again, we’re still going to the polls in spite of everything that happened and that, you know, our democracy is still holding on.
WYNE: I like the message.
STARES: From your lips to God’s ear. (Laughter.)
WYNE: Courtney, for this—for the opening part of this conversation you get the last word, and then we’ll go to questions from all of you.
COOPER: I’m sorry to say that I think my colleagues have exhausted all of the optimism—(laughter)—that we should have on the panel today, so I will just briefly pour a little water on the other end of the scale even though that wasn’t the question.
WYNE: Fair enough. Fair enough.
COOPER: But, you know, I think this is an incredible report and I know that there’s another—a number of other institutions that have published similar conflicts to watch. This really unique because it’s focusing on U.S. interest—threats to U.S. interests, which you would—which, of course, is top of mind for the U.S. policymaking community.
But others—I know there was one published by International Rescue Committee, Crisis Group, others, I mean, many and that have really shone a light on the huge amount of challenge that’s out there.
A lot of them focus on African countries, others in South Asia. On a panel last week that Paul was on it was highlighted that 300 million people around the world are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. That is a lot of people and unfortunately today our interest is stretched between a lot of different conflicts as are all of our peers and allies around the world.
And so I’m just not confident that a lot of the conflicts really are going to get the attention that they need in the coming year. So I think we’re likely to see more fires, not fewer.
WYNE: Fair enough.
OK. I think we’re just at 6:35 so we’re going to go to the next part of our conversation. This part is on the record so just keep that in mind, and just if you have a question raise your hand, identify yourself, ideally ask a question that ends with a question mark, and if there’s a particular panelist you want to address the question please say so.
Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Thank you. My name is Ian Cocroft. I’m a contractor supporting the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau at the State Department.
My question is sort of alluding to what Courtney said and all of you said—you know, are there any underappreciated causes for optimism. So I guess my question is are there underappreciated causes for pessimism.
You know, there are conflicts ongoing in Sudan. Tension between eastern DRC and Kenya is escalating. There’s ongoing civil war in Burma. And so what are some of these underappreciated conflicts that might not seem to directly implicate U.S. interests? How do we focus attention on those conflicts and what are some solutions?
WYNE: Great question. Thank you.
Paul, do you want to kick us off, and then we’ll do a round robin?
STARES: Sure. Yeah. I’m really grateful that you raise this because, you know, I wrestle with this every year, that one of the kind of inadvertent consequences of this is that the level of attention that’s given to leading issues tends to then sort of depress, if you will, the relative priority given to many of these other conflicts which, frankly, in terms of the level of humanitarian distress is far greater and you mentioned several of them.
Sudan is just—is horrific what’s been going on in Sudan. Myanmar, DRC, and the possibility of conflict with Rwanda. There’s many parts of Latin America too and closer—Haiti—you know, where, you know, there are really serious ongoing conflict and humanitarian distress associated with it.
And so I always try to emphasize that just because we give—we suggest that we have to focus on the big issues we shouldn’t at the same time ignore these other ones and it always strikes me too that many of the areas of the world that were leading concerns for the United States just a few years ago are now in tier three. They’re considered low interest.
One is a favorite of Courtney here, Afghanistan. You know, we had hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting in Afghanistan up to a few years ago. Now it’s considered a tier three priority of low impact to U.S. interests. That’s extraordinary.
You know, we—there’s Haitis out there too and it’s so close it could spill over. Somalia—we still have U.S. forces fighting there. I can think of other. Kosovo—we went to war on Kosovo in the 1990s, and yet they’re all now considered of low impact.
So I worry that the attention that we give to the Ukraines and the Taiwans and North Koreas of the world, which are totally valid, nevertheless somehow detracts from these other concerns and I just want to emphasize that this in no way suggests that we think this is not worthy of the attention of U.S. diplomats and others.
WYNE: Elizabeth or Courtney, did either of you want to come in on this question?
COOPER: Just briefly.
WYNE: Please. Yeah.
COOPER: Thank you, Paul. I can’t not mention Afghanistan now, which I focused on for many years at CIA and also at the White House.
But just to foot stomp that because I think it is really stark that how many years was Afghanistan top in the tiering structure with respect to either terrorism or political instability, and I think because it’s not a key focus now, I mean, there’s really serious humanitarian issues there that I think a lot of really good people in the government and around the world are working to help stem with humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
But just thinking about the plight of women and girls there and thinking about refugee issues and pressure still coming from Afghanistan, thinking about resettlement issues that we have following the drawdown, that we’re still working to resettle and integrate tens of thousands of Afghans that fought by our side, that supported U.S. diplomatic interests while we were there.
So thinking about how much pressure there is still for us to work on these kinds of immigration pathways and support these conflicts that don’t have our attention but in some ways still should have a bit of our heart because of how long we spent working on those issues.
WYNE: No, and, Courtney, thank you for surfacing that issue and just reminding us that it is still very much a live issue.
Other questions, please? Yeah, over here.
Q: Hello. My name is Bennett Hawley. I just graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and William and Mary, and now work at Booz Allen.
This is a question for Courtney. I would just love to hear a bit more about a day in your life and sort of the challenges and dilemmas that you face in your current role, and then also how maybe your perspective on the same issues have evolved as you’ve moved between some of your different positions.
COOPER: That’s a good question.
COOPER: Thank you.
So as I mentioned earlier I’m relatively newer to the tech space. I joined WhatsApp about fifteen months ago. A day in the life, it always changes. I mean, there has been a lot of regulatory pressure on what we hold most dear in WhatsApp, which is guaranteeing your right to secure communications through use of the platform.
So our number-one mission is ensuring the ability for WhatsApp to continue to operate as an end-to-end encrypted service so that people around the world have the ability to communicate securely with anyone around the world without fear of foreign interference or hacking by whether it be cyber criminals or autocratic governments.
It’s something that’s really, really important and really motivating, I think, to the people that work there, my colleagues. So, you know, what we’ve seen in the last year is a proliferation of legislative, I should say, threats to encryption that have popped up around the world.
There was one that just passed recently, the online safety bill in the U.K., and there have been many more, some in India, some in Australia and Latin America, Brazil, I mean, really around the globe and also here in the United States there’s a couple of pieces of draft legislation that could also affect encryption and messaging platforms as well as social media platforms. But there’s also a distinction between the two.
And so really thinking about how do we safeguard that right of users to use this platform and have the security and privacy of communication while understanding also that governments have an obligation to enact reforms and legislation to safeguard their citizenry in the best way that they can.
So really thinking about how do we work with government partners and other civil society groups to think about how to move this in the right direction. How to both protect the service and also comply because compliance with government regulations is also, obviously, top of mind. But, you know, these regulations look different in every market and it’s something that requires a lot of time.
I think that’s kind of the defensive part of the job. The offensive part of the job I would say is some product counsel, and thinking about different innovations that are coming down the pipe way with our platform, and how do we ensure that those product innovations and technological innovations serve our broad customer base and also can land in such a way that they don’t invite greater regulatory scrutiny.
So there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in the tech space with AI and other things and just constant innovations. WhatsApp itself is just growing, one of the top growing apps in the United States so it’s just really exciting to see where it’s going.
But it does require a lot of effort both on the defensive and ensuring that it can continue to operate as the global service it now does.
WYNE: Other questions? I see lots of hands. I think I saw your hand go up first and then we’ll come over here.
Q: Hello, everyone. So my name is Nick DeMassi. Recently graduated from American University and I work at the Treasury Department.
So I have a question for anyone on the panel and that is in terms of this report does it include in any way in the rankings or in the—you know, in any of the calculations there the views that the American public holds about these different conflicts and whether or not the public in the U.S. generally is united on whether the issue is even a concern or which side the U.S. should be supporting.
And if it doesn’t include that do you think that it should because there are some conflicts where the U.S. public is perhaps more unified in how we should respond or whether it’s even a threat and then there are some others where we’ve definitely seen some fissures.
So I’m just curious as to your thoughts on that.
WYNE: Maybe Paul. And then, Elizabeth, I’d love to bring you in as well if you have some quick reactions.
STARES: So this is really just a snapshot of U.S. foreign policy expert opinion rather than the broader public. There are lots of polls out there that survey Americans’ attitudes to foreign engagement in particular parts of the world and that is a better barometer, I think, for what you are looking for.
This is very much, you know, elite opinion and we try to be as inclusive as possible but there is a sort of selection bias here in terms of who is responding to this survey. But you can—there’s many others: the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Pew, some of the others, like, blanking on at the moment. But they’d have broader views, which I think would answer your question.
WYNE: Elizabeth, any thoughts?
HOFFMAN: So I don’t think the American public have been united on anything these days, much less on foreign policy issues. And I have to say what bothers me a bit about the kind of proliferation of polls on some of these issues is that it almost gives political leaders an excuse to, you know, vote however they’re voting or make policy however they’re making policy because they’re, like, oh, well, you know, it’s what my constituents think. This is what my constituents say.
And I just feel like what we’re really missing right now is principled leadership on both sides of the aisle. I don’t leverage that against any particular party. But you just don’t see many politicians now stand up and say, maybe my constituents don’t agree with this but I voted, you know, to do this because it’s the right thing to do and this is why it’s the right thing to do.
And I think with social media, with polling, with kind of 24/7 news, politicians are constantly in this reaction mode and there needs to be some issues—and I think foreign policy is one of those issues because most Americans outside of Washington, D.C. and maybe New York don’t have, you know, substantial time in their day to understanding the intricacies of these conflicts and to—you know, they’re worried about their jobs, about feeding their families, about child care, all of these different things.
So it should be on kind of—the onus should be on political leaders not just to respond to constantly what their constituents are saying particularly on these issues and say, listen, this is what the right thing to do is and this is why I’m voting this way. If you don’t agree with me I’m happy to have a dialogue about that and kind of so we can understand each other’s points of view.
But that’s not happening enough these days and I really hope that, again, on both sides of the aisle that we can see politicians that kind of lean into that. And maybe it costs some people their jobs but I’d argue that’s a risk worth taking.
WYNE: We have about ten minutes left so I’m going to see if I can get to at least two or three more questions. So yeah, over here and then we’ll come over here. Yeah.
STARES: Are there any online?
WYNE: Any online? OK. Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead.
Q: Hi. I’m Daryl with the World Bank and here’s my question directed to Courtney.
So with half the world going to the polls this year instant messaging platforms become really important as conduits for mobilization and misinformation. But in light of that, just thinking about its role then you talked a lot about collaboration with governments. But, you know, the TikTok hearings and some of the other hearings globally have shown that sometimes policymakers can be very much butting heads with tech firms.
And so I want to ask, you know, can and should WhatsApp be the opposite of what is misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and so on so forth, and if it can then what’s its position as a(n) almost supernational entity that, you know, spans borders, considering as well sort of the litany and spectrum of free speech laws globally around the world.
Does this mean tech firms go towards the lowest common denominator, and scrub themselves, and make themselves as politically correct as possible? Or, you know, where does that leave the tech firms in being able to make unilateral decisions and also considering just how fast technology innovates and move forward, for example, the AI deep fakes and so on and so forth?
WYNE: That’s great.
COOPER: It’s an excellent question and a really hard one.
Well, so first I’ll just note two differences. One, on a messaging platform like WhatsApp we’re limited in what we can do from a content piece because it’s end-to-end encrypted and that means that only the sender and the recipient can see the content.
So there really are limits to what we can do in that space. But I will say that there has been a lot the company has done to help contain misinformation and virality in recent years. For example, they enacted forwarding limits because highly forwarded messages can be an indication of misinformation or disinformation, and labeling so people know when they’re receiving information that has been highly forwarding—highly forwarded, and also putting limits on how many times you can forward a message that has been highly forwarded.
So there are structural things that you can do within the platform to help constrain some of these issues like misinformation and disinformation. There’s also been a lot of work around fact checking and promoting fact checkers. We have—you know, we have fact-checking bots like we make available any way to fact check the information within the app, and so those kinds of resources are available to users.
We just launched a new product called Channels in the fall—WhatsApp Channels and it’s a one-way broadcast tool. So it’s very different than private messaging. But, again, we have prioritized ensuring that we have fact checkers on the platform to help at least ensure that there is the availability of authoritative sources of information.
So that’s different than social media companies which I agree there’s a big challenge between what is—you know, how do you regulate this content, how are you working with the government or working to comply with government regulations along these lines.
I will say I think it’s incumbent upon government institutions to really designate what that fine line is on content moderation. I think where companies get into a challenging space is when they’re expected to self-regulate and what is free speech, what is misinformation, and I think that’s a difficult space for a company to be in absent government mandates to do so.
So I think it’s fair to say that we want sensible regulation along these lines but we—you know, companies, I think, are much more likely to be able to comply thoughtfully and responsibly when they are given kind of guidelines within a governing institution on how to do so.
But it is really hard and there certainly will be a lot of focus on this this year, particularly with AI and deep fakes. You’re right. So it’s something that we keep working at. But yeah, we have a long ways to go probably until we get it right.
I think we have time for two more questions. So back here and then over here. Yeah.
Q: Thank you guys very much. I’m Brandon Heiblum from the Albright Stonebridge Group.
If we can agree that there’s a lot to worry about in 2024 I’m wondering to what degree a decrease in the power of U.S. deterrence plays in that, or would you disagree with the premise that the U.S. has lost its ability to deter?
WYNE: That’s great.
Paul, any thoughts? Actually, all of you. I’d be curious to get thoughts from all of you on this one.
STARES: Well, having a credible defense deterrence posture is, I think, for the U.S. critical in trying to, I think, prevent some of the concerns that we face here. I don’t like to put all my chips in the deterrence basket.
There have been so many cases even, you could argue, as recently as the Ukraine conflict in which we have communicated the consequences of Russia invading Ukraine. Yet, it didn’t deter them and we—I think—and there are many other cases and we should sort of try to understand why deterrence has failed on these occasions and, you know, what could we do on the other flip side of the coin to sort of reassure potential actors in a conflict situation from, you know, pursuing this aggressive course.
So there are lots of things here, but I think overall I would never advocate that we somehow pull back and because I think that really would lessen the—our global deterrent posture. So but I’m—there’s always this little voice of could we be doing things slightly different and does this actually perpetuate the problem. Does it create the very thing that we’re trying to avoid.
So I just wouldn’t want it to be the only thing that we rely on for conflict prevention.
WYNE: I think—and you said we have an online question. So I just—I’m just going to—I just want to make sure we get to.
So a quick comment, Elizabeth, on deterrence, and then Courtney, and then we’ll do an online question. Then I think you’re probably the last in-person question.
HOFFMAN: Sure. Yeah, I don’t think it’s failed. I mean, there’s points, you know, where there was serious concern that Russia could trigger some sort of nuclear—I mean, would they use nuclear weapons. Maybe, maybe not. But also, you know, that they might trigger something in Ukraine and that didn’t happen and I think that was because they understood the consequences.
I do think, you know, these various conflicts have highlighted that the U.S. really needs to focus on kind of replenishing stock, on rebuilding our military, because if we are to face a multi-front conflict in the Pacific, in the Middle East, and in Europe that, you know, maybe we’re not prepared. So hopefully this is a wakeup call that, you know, we need to start to do more on that front.
WYNE: Thanks. Thanks, Elizabeth.
Courtney, any thoughts?
COOPER: Sure. I’ll be brief.
I would agree with the premise the U.S. has lost some deterrence capability and I think what I would point to as the main driver of that is what we see now is really seesawing foreign policy based on our election cycle.
And I think in the past—and I couldn’t pinpoint a date that this changes. Probably just been a slow burn. But there used to be a much broader foreign policy consensus and maybe you’d have some changes on the margins, but really nothing like what we’re seeing now.
And so I think—I mean, looking at something as consequential as the negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program that were really a priority of the Obama administration and seeing them undone so rapidly under the Trump administration, I mean, that is just such a stark pendulum swing and really undercuts our ability to be a credible actor negotiating any kind of sweeping deal or compromise, going forward.
And so I mean if I were a foreign actor and I was thinking whether or not I would stake my own political reputation or my own political prowess on a deal or negotiating with the United States, if we are anywhere within scope of the U.S. presidential election I would probably think twice.
WYNE: I think we have an online question and then we’ll do one last in-person question.
OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take a virtual question from Alexis Crews. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: Wonderful. Can you hear me?
WYNE: Yes, we can hear you.
Q: Wonderful. Thanks. My name is Alexis Crews. I’m with the Integrity Institute and formally at Meta. My question is for Courtney.
Courtney, I was one of the people who ran the U.S. 2020 war room for the election and most recently I worked on the governance team with the creation of the oversight board. As someone who used to work at the company and used to create talking points around responsible governance, especially when it comes to legislators proposing, like, regulation for tech companies what does that actually look like?
I’ve always been curious, and we are just running out of time right now and this is extremely timely as we think about the child safety hearing that’s coming up at the end of the month but more so with elections. Just because we have so many global elections there’s been a layoff of hundreds of trust and safety workers.
So I’m just curious. Like, what does smart regulation look like? How can we help you help the company create better policies also to mitigate a lot of threats that come with elections and child safety?
WYNE: Thanks for the question, Alexis.
COOPER: Yeah, thank you for the question.
You know, what does smart regulation look like, I don’t work as closely on the—kind of on the prescriptive U.S. side on working with legislation. So I would say maybe know it when I see it. It’s really difficult because as you point out there’s so many different elements in this space. There’s youth. There’s content. There’s enforcement. There’s encryption. Yeah, there’s law enforcement cooperation. A number of things.
And so I think there’s no one size fits all when it comes to legislation that would regulate any of these things. I would just note—like, you mentioned the layoffs. The trust and safety efforts haven’t stalled.
Yeah, I think tech companies broadly underwent some downsizing in the past year but all of the systems and the trust and safety effort to really make sure that we’re enforcing on content and policies and trying to prevent abuse that work continues. It definitely continues.
So I don’t think I have a perfect answer there. But I appreciate the question and—yeah. Yeah.
WYNE: That’s good, and I was going to say we’re—
COOPER: (Laughs.) I know we’re out of time.
WYNE: No, we’re almost—we’re a little bit over but I promised I would get to you, so close us out. Last question.
Q: I’ll be quick. I’ll be quick.
STARES: Thank you so much. The last question is always the toughest.
Q: Hi. Max Castroparedes from Harvard’s Belfer Center, and my question is for Courtney.
You know, during the Obama administration there were these uprisings in Iran and Twitter was used as a vehicle of getting and supporting some of these movements of the people.
How optimistic are you today or maybe how much communication are organizations like WhatsApp in touch with, you know, senior policymakers, educating them of new technologies, new tools they can use in maybe 2024?
COOPER: Yeah. Sure. Thanks for the question.
Yeah. So when we have new technologies that we’re rolling out like WhatsApp Channels that I just mentioned we do undertake a really broad stakeholder outreach to ensure that all kinds of people using the platform are aware of the technologies and can use them. Not just government but also communities in need, marginalized communities, for example.
About a year ago we rolled out something called WhatsApp Proxy so that in places where the connection is blocked, often because of a state actor that was blocking access to the service to prevent communication, that there are workarounds that people who need to communicate with loved ones or communicate externally outside of the country have other methods to do so.
So I think there’s a lot of efforts happening to make sure that new technologies are getting circulated and that people are aware of them and can leverage them. I mean, there’s a lot of tech out there.
Yeah, there’s so much innovation happening in the tech space especially around AI this year that I think it’s an exciting space to watch and one that we, you know, are working to make sure that these advancements are made known to people who can really make use of them. I think for WhatsApp it’s really marginalized communities and people that rely on that security and privacy of communications.
WYNE: Great. Just a few closing remarks.
First of all, thank you to all of you who joined in person. Thank you to all of you who joined online, number one.
Number two, read the report, the Preventive Priority Survey 2024. Really an excellent report and, Paul, congratulations again on its publication.
And lastly but most importantly, please join me in thanking our esteemed panelists Courtney Cooper, Paul Stares, Elizabeth Hoffman. Really a terrific panel.