Will President Trump face major foreign policy crises next year?

Will President Trump face major foreign policy crises next year?
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Offering “peace and prosperity” is usually a winning formula for a sitting president seeking a second term. While President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE can point to a strong economy in the United States, he cannot be optimistic about the state of the world. At least, that is the conclusion of the latest survey of policy experts by the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations that each year takes stock of current and prospective conflicts around the world.

Since the Council on Foreign Relations began polling experts 12 years ago, there has never been such a high level of anxiety about risks to the United States from ongoing or potential conflicts. Of the 30 crises identified as being plausible in 2020, close to half were assessed as being dangerous enough to trigger the use of the United States military. Only two of them, moreover, were judged to have a low likelihood of happening next year.

Topping the list is the fear of a highly disruptive cyberattack on critical American infrastructure, including its electoral systems. Respondents are clearly worried that the election in 2020 could be targeted by hackers or deliberately manipulated by a foreign power, much like what happened in 2016. The number of cyberattacks targeting various types of American infrastructure is certainly on the rise, and this year is set to outpace last year for the number of recorded cyberattacks. These cyberattacks have caused significant harm and disruption to many American municipalities across the country. There is good reason to believe that electoral systems are at risk in 2020. Ballot boxes have been hacked in the past, and efforts by Congress to pass any election security legislation have largely failed.


Thankfully, the United States has not suffered any other serious terrorist attack near the scale of 9/11, yet a mass casualty terrorist attack ranks as the second highest rated concern next year. The continued turbulence in the Middle East, uncertainty about the strength of the Islamic State, and the growing capacity of individual terrorists to carry out mass casualty attacks all likely contribute to this fear. The two greatest risks overseas are a potential armed confrontation with Iran and a severe crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Both these simmering crises could erupt at any time.

Iran has demonstrated with a cruise missile strike on a Saudi oil refinery that it is willing to attack an American ally, and may be emboldened by limited reaction to repeat similar actions. Domestic unrest in Iran could prompt its leaders to precipitate a distracting crisis abroad. Meanwhile, the possibility that Iran might decide to ramp up nuclear enrichment is also real, now that the Iran deal struck with the Obama administration to constrain such activity appears dead. If so, relations between the United States and Iran will no longer be tense. They will become outright hostile.

Relations with North Korea are on a similarly worrisome trajectory. North Korea indicated that the United States could expect a gift, which is likely the test of a long range missile, if the negotiations to relieve international sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization collapse before year end. Any provocation by North Korea designed to elicit concessions by the United States would then likely cause a return to the very dangerous situation that took life in the early months of the Trump administration.

The conflicts across Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine are also cited as likely to deteriorate next year. Closer to home, the outlook is hardly any better, with criminal violence in Mexico still on the rise, and the economic and political crisis in Venezuela showing no sign of abating. Meanwhile, worsening conditions in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as Haiti, all represent new sources of concern, not just for their immediate humanitarian consequences, but also in driving more immigrants to seek a better life in the United States.

Trump might feel confident that he can handle whatever comes his way. He has, after all, managed more than a dozen international crises on his watch. But his predecessors will be the first to remind him that he has yet to face a truly pivotal crisis in which war with a foreign power or a major new military commitment is on the line. Given the dangerous possibilities lurking ahead in the new year, Trump must not count on his luck holding.

Paul Stares is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep Peace.”