CFR Survey Ranks North Korea and Iran Among Most Likely and Consequential U.S. Conflicts in 2018

December 11, 2017

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The Council on Foreign Relations' (CFR) tenth annual Preventive Priorities Survey identified eight top conflict prevention priorities for the United States in the year ahead, highlighting armed confrontations between the United States and North Korea and Iran as serious international concerns.

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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. 

This year, eight conflicts were considered "top tier" risks:

  • military conflict involving the United States, North Korea, and its neighboring countries
  • 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, including the Yemeni Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah
  • a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure and networks
  • a deliberate or unintended military confrontation between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, stemming from assertive Russian behavior in Eastern Europe
  • an armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, or Vietnam
  • a mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally by either foreign or homegrown terrorist(s)
  • intensified violence in Syria as government forces attempt to regain control over territory, with heightened tensions among external parties to the conflict, including the United States, Russia, and Iran
  • increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the Taliban insurgency and potential government collapse
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"With the risk of armed conflict growing in the world, the United States needs to make smart choices about where to focus attention and resources to avert potentially costly military engagements. Our annual Preventive Priorities Survey is designed to help U.S. policymakers do just that," said Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention, CPA director, and author of the new book Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace.

Many of the contingencies identified in previous surveys remain concerns for 2018. Of the thirty identified this year, twenty-two were considered risks last year. Among the eight new contingencies in this year's survey are the risks of intensified clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, increased violence and political instability in the Sahel region of Africa, and escalating tensions or extremist violence in the Balkans.

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Two contingencies were upgraded to the top tier this year: an armed confrontation between Iran and the United States or one of its allies, and an armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants.

The 2018 survey downgraded the priority rankings of two contingencies, compared to last year: the intensification of violence between Turkey and various Kurdish armed groups within Turkey and neighboring countries, and the probability of greater violence in Libya.

View the full results and the nine prior surveys at cfr.org/priorities_survey. To learn more or to request an interview, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at communications@cfr.org or 212.434.9888.

CPA's Global Conflict Tracker plots ongoing conflicts on an interactive map paired with background information, CFR analysis, and news updates.

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 Facebook and Twitter @CFR_CPA. Follow Stares on Twitter @PaulBStares.

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