What to worry about this year

What to worry about this year
© Getty Images

Dwight Eisenhower had once famously declared that the urgent is seldom important and the important is seldom urgent. The new administration of Joe BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE will undoubtedly argue that healing our political wounds and bringing the coronavirus under control represent rare exceptions to this rule. The world will not stand still, however, as these domestic imperatives are addressed. The inbox of foreign policy challenges is overflowing, and more are sure to arise. If Biden does not want to be distracted from what must be done at home, he cannot put off what must be done abroad.

Averting a serious foreign policy crisis by sending United States forces abroad certainly counts. Many on the foreign policy team of Biden who served under Barack Obama know from before how events can suddenly coalesce into threatening situations. The crisis in Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State, the Ebola outbreak across West Africa, and the Arab spring turmoil in the Middle East, not least the uprisings in Libya and Syria, all come to mind. So what should they worry about today?

Every year for over a decade, the Council on Foreign Relations surveys foreign policy experts for this purpose. From a list of 30 potential crises that could occur this year, respondents are asked to judge the likelihood and probable harm to American interests. These contingencies are then ranked, much as Eisenhower would have liked, in a way that allows senior officials to focus their critical attention and resources.


Many of the top concerns identified in the 2021 survey do not seem to be on the radar of the new administration. While the Russian cyberattack, the Chinese crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, and the Iranian nuclear plans have all received a lot of attention in recent weeks, the top concern identified by foreign policy experts this year is a dangerous military crisis involving North Korea, triggered by a resumption of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and test ballistic missiles, which is barely talked about. The same also goes for other hotspots, notably Afghanistan, Venezuela, Taiwan, Syria, and the disputed borders of India. All these are viewed as either highly likely or moderately likely to flare up this year.

Perhaps these sources of concern are appreciated but not acknowledged publicly, which is what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would categorize as the “known knowns.” However, the survey also highlighted several other risks that are not so well acknowledged. These include the possibility of further unrest in Ethiopia, a Russian intervention in Belarus, an armed clash between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, and the unraveling of the transition to democracy in Sudan.

Biden and his team must keep an eye on these and other concerns on the horizon. They are easy to dismiss or discount as potential threats, as has happened so often in the past to our cost. The government does not have a routine system for monitoring potential hotspots. The main focus of the intelligence community is on political and military needs in the short term. Nor is there a regular contingency process with all the relevant agencies to coordinate efforts and avert potential crises and manage them should they arise. Senior officials, moreover, receive little training or preparation in crisis management. It is no wonder the United States is often blindsided by events abroad and reacts in a hastily improvised fashion.

This is a fixable problem with the right reforms and investments. But it will not happen if Biden does not think it is important. He must recall what he vowed to do soon after he became vice president in 2009 when he said, “We will strive to act preventively, not preemptively, to avoid whenever or wherever possible the choice of last resort between the risks of war and the dangers of inaction. We will draw upon all the elements of our power, military and diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement, economic and cultural, to stop crises from occurring before they are in front of us.” Let us hope it happens this time, or we could be in for a rough ride.

Paul Stares is the General John Vessey senior fellow in conflict prevention and 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 the Peace.” Follow him at @PaulBStares.