Managing foreign policy crises has become a recurring challenge for U.S. presidents. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been one hundred twenty occasions in which a threatening development overseas triggered a period of intense, high-level deliberation about what the United States should do in response (see the list of U.S. foreign policy crises from 1989 to 2019). This equates to an average of fifteen crises for each four-year presidential term. Although the stakes varied from crisis to crisis, each required the president to decide––usually in pressured circumstances and with considerable uncertainty about the risks involved––whether the situation warranted sending military forces in harm’s way to protect U.S. interests. On more than forty occasions, the president determined that it did. While most of these crises were eventually resolved with little or no lasting impact on U.S. interests, some festered and became more difficult and costly to address at a later date. Not surprisingly, former presidents and their senior advisors have often looked back at a particular crisis with regret at some of the choices that were made.
It is unlikely that foreign policy crises will become any less frequent or vexing for future U.S. presidents. By most appraisals, the world is entering a more turbulent and crisis-prone era. Recent actions by the United States, particularly by the Donald J. Trump administration, have contributed to this turbulence as well as to the perception that the United States may no longer be as committed to playing an active role in some regions. Such uncertainty could encourage some states and actors to test the United States’ resolve; others, hedging against U.S. disengagement, could adopt policies that are inadvertently destabilizing.
The most worrisome challenge for the United States in the future would be a crisis involving another major power, risking military escalation and even war. Such confrontations have become more likely in recent years as U.S. relations with China and Russia have deteriorated and tensions have risen in several disputed areas. A serious U.S. confrontation with either power would at the least deepen mutual mistrust and animosity, just as similar crises did in the early days of the Cold War. This outcome would have profound implications for world order, particularly on the prospects for cooperation on pressing global challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and public health threats.
The risk that relatively localized events overseas could rapidly expand into much larger, even global, emergencies is also increasing. The world’s primary operating systems are now so tightly coupled that even relatively minor disruptions or shocks from geopolitical events are likely to reverberate widely and rapidly. Preparing for and managing these disruptions before they unleash a dangerous chain reaction has thus become a real concern for U.S. policymakers.
Virtually every U.S. administration––certainly those in recent years––has aspired to be more proactive about managing foreign policy crises. Despite the best of intentions, however, U.S. policymakers continue to be surprised by threatening developments overseas, reacting in a belated and ad hoc fashion. This track record does not suggest that similar efforts in the future could produce better results. It is vital, therefore, that the United States devote more attention and resources to preventing potential crises from arising and being better prepared to manage them when they do. For the last ten years, the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council on Foreign Relations has closely studied how to accomplish this task. This report represents a distillation of CPA’s findings and recommendations.
The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for its generous support of the Contingency Planning Roundtables and Memoranda.
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