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Topics / Emerging Global Order

CFR Preventive Priorities Survey: 2020

Each December, the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations polls foreign policy experts to determine its annual “Conflicts to Watch” list. The outcome, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York, is a forward-looking list of 30 ongoing or potential conflicts—each ranked by its potential impact on U.S. interests and the likelihood that it may occur.

For policymakers, academics, nonprofit leaders, and other decisionmakers, the list offers global, at-a-glance guidance on the threat landscape and shares insights on how to steer attention and resources in ways that may best mitigate conflict. Unfortunately, in 2020, there was an abundance of worrying trends for experts to sort through. Thirteen stood out as top priorities for the United States:

Impact: High. Likelihood: Moderate

  • A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, including its electoral systems
  • A mass-casualty terrorist attack on the United States or a treaty ally directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization
  • 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
  • A severe crisis on the Korean Peninsula following the collapse of the denuclearization negotiations and renewed long-range missile testing
  • An armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam)
  • A severe crisis between Russia and Ukraine following increased fighting in eastern Ukraine and/or a major military clash in contested areas
  • Deteriorating economic and security conditions in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), resulting in increased migration outflows from the region

Impact: Moderate. Likelihood: High

  • Intensification of organized crime–related violence in Mexico
  • Increasing political instability in Iraq exacerbated by underlying sectarian tensions and worsening economic conditions
  • Escalation of violence between Turkey and various Kurdish armed groups within Turkey and/or in Syria
  • Continued violent reimposition of government control in Syria leading to further civilian casualties and heightened tensions among external parties to the conflict
  • Increased violence and political instability in Afghanistan resulting in further advances by the Taliban insurgency and potential government collapse
  • Intensifying economic crisis and political instability in Venezuela leading to further violent unrest and increased refugee outflows

View the full results and prior surveys at

TOP A woman covers her face as she stands on the outskirts of a town near the Syria-Turkey border, while smoke plumes meant to decrease visibility for Turkish warplanes billow from tire fires during a cross-border offensive, on October 16, 2019. (Credit: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)