CFR Survey: Disruptive Cyberattack a Top Concern for 2020

December 18, 2019

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The threat of a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, including electoral systems, is the top-ranked concern for the second straight year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) twelfth annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS). The survey identifies potential conflicts for the United States in the year ahead. A confrontation with Iran or an altercation with North Korea are the two highest-rated overseas threats.

The survey, conducted by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA), asked foreign policy experts to rank thirty ongoing or potential conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring or escalating in the next year and their potential impact on U.S. national interests.

“Perhaps indicating rising anxiety about the state of the world, respondents had more fears for 2020 than in any PPS in the past decade. Of the thirty concerns, only two were judged as having a low likelihood of occurring next year. This is why the PPS is critical in helping to direct efforts by policymakers,” said Paul B. Stares, CPA director and General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention. 

This year, a mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland replaced tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a top-three concern. In total, thirteen conflicts were considered significant risks:

Impact: High 
Likelihood: Moderate


•    A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, including its electoral systems
•    A mass-casualty terrorist attack on the United States or a treaty ally directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization
•    An armed confrontation between Iran and the United States or one of its allies over Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and support of militant proxy groups
•    A severe crisis on the Korean Peninsula following the collapse of the denuclearization negotiations and renewed long-range missile testing
•    An armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam)
•    A severe crisis between Russia and Ukraine following increased fighting in eastern Ukraine and/or a major military clash in contested areas
•    Deteriorating economic and security conditions in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), resulting in increased migration outflows from the region

Impact: Moderate 
Likelihood: High


•    Intensification of organized crime–related violence in Mexico
•    Increasing political instability in Iraq exacerbated by underlying sectarian tensions and worsening economic conditions
•    Escalation of violence between Turkey and various Kurdish armed groups within Turkey and/or in Syria
•    Continued violent reimposition of government control in Syria leading to further civilian casualties and heightened tensions among external parties to the conflict
•    Increased violence and political instability in Afghanistan resulting in further advances by the Taliban insurgency and potential government collapse
•    Intensifying economic crisis and political instability in Venezuela leading to further violent unrest and increased refugee outflows 

View the full results and prior surveys at www.cfr.org/pps.

A new paper by Stares, Preparing for the Next Foreign Policy Crisis: What the United States Should Do, makes recommendations for improving U.S. preparedness for future crises, and CPA’s Global Conflict Tracker plots ongoing conflicts on an interactive map paired with background information, analysis, and news updates.

To learn more or to request an interview, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or communications@cfr.org.

The Preventive Priorities Survey was made possible by a generous grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

CFR’s Center for Preventive Action seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention. Follow CPA on Twitter @CFR_CPA. Follow Stares on Twitter @PaulBStares.

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