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US Priorities in a Changing World

Earlier this week the non-partisan US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released its Preventative Priorities Survey 2018. To prepare this, the CFR interviewed thirty foreign policy experts to determine the 30 most-likely conflicts which could have an impact on the U.S. in 2018. While it is largely an advisory document prepared for the US, it provides an indicator of where the US, as the largest military power will be spending its time, military and diplomatic resources in the upcoming year.

The survey identified the eight high-priority conflicts out of the thirty for the US. These include conflicts with high impact to the US but moderate likelihood of occurring such as a war with North Korea, a stand-off between Russia and NATO, either a cyber attack or a major terrorist attack on the US, conflict with Iran, or being sucked into a conflict in the South China Sea. The remaining two have a high likelihood of occurring but with moderate impact to the US including conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

As this list is largely based on expert’s opinion, it is highly subjective. On reflection a year from now, we could see some taking precedence and some not having flared up at all. A cursory look at last years list shows how quickly priorities change in this rapidly evolving strategic landscape. This report reflects two significant changes from last year with the downgrading of potential conflicts in Turkey and Libya. The new entrants to this list include potential for conflict in the South China Sea, and the escalation of conflict between the US and Iran, or one of its allies.

The one major risk which the survey does not examine, is the understanding which America has of its own place in the world admidst this rapidly-evolving landscape. A report published by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a wing within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, at the beginning of the Trump Administration predicted an inevitable denouement of American dominance in the international sphere, and with it, potentially the end of the rule-based system. This conclusion has been reached by several others prompted mainly by economic factors but also by the rise of other countries, particularly China.

To address this decline, the US in the past year has retreated from the international system by not signing onto multilateral efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement. Additionally, it has made historic allies nervous about their support in the context of growing aggressiveness by countries such as Russia and China. As Paul Stares, the director of the committee that prepares the Preventative Priorities Survey suggests that the “U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today, and that has caused profound unease”.

In my opinion, America coming to terms with its own identity is its most significant priority. Balancing the (successful) domestic rhetoric of making America great again with the international landscape is becoming increasingly complicated and cannot be sustained in the long-run considering the inevitable and fast-approaching decline of US power.

Rather than withdrawing and continuing to misplace its confidence in an assumption of continued supremacy, the US must work to consolidate its position to remain a vital player in the soon-to-be multi-polar world. Signs of withdrawal not only weaken the international system, and allies, but also make room for new players to come in and reshape the international system. How the US manages its decline will be most significant global issue of this century.

Image Credit: CC by America/Pexels

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