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Council on Foreign Relations Publishes Annual Conflicts to Watch for 2021

North Korea’s nuclear program tops Corporation-supported survey ranking 30 potential overseas conflicts by their likelihood and potential impact on U.S. interests, as assessed by foreign policy experts


The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has published its thirteenth annual Preventive Priorities Survey, a ranking of 30 ongoing or potential conflicts that could require U.S. troops to be deployed in the year ahead, as assessed by U.S. foreign policy experts.

The Corporation-supported survey – which only ranks those contingencies where U.S. military force could plausibly be employed – aims to help the U.S. policymaking community determine which conflict prevention and crisis preparedness efforts require more attention and resources than others.

North Korea’s nuclear program ranks as 2021’s top threat, moving ahead of a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, the top threat in both 2019 and 2020. Rising to a top-tier conflict for the first time since the survey was conducted is the threat of a severe crisis between China and the United States over Taiwan.

 “Every U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War has had to manage, on average, fifteen foreign crises in each four-year term,” writes Paul B. Stares, CFR’s General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, in the survey report. “Because some contingencies clearly pose a greater threat to U.S. interests than others, both preventive and preparatory efforts should be apportioned accordingly.” The survey results, adds Stares, are intended to help policymakers who “have limited bandwidth to focus on the future when managing the present” prioritize their attention and resources.

Top-Tier Risks in 2021

Likelihood: High; Impact: High

  • North Korea’s further development of nuclear weapons or ballistic missile testing, precipitating heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula

Likelihood: High; Impact: Moderate

  • Increasing violence and political instability in Afghanistan, resulting in the collapse of the peace process
  • Continued violent reimposition of government control in Syria, leading to further civilian casualties and heightened tensions among external parties to the conflict
  • Accelerating economic collapse and political instability in Venezuela, leading to further violent unrest and increased refugee outflows

Likelihood: Moderate; Impact: High

  • Intensifying political and economic pressure from China against Taiwan, leading to a severe crisis with the United States
  • 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 highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • Russian interference or intimidation against a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), resulting in heightened military tensions
  • A mass-casualty terrorist attack on the United States or a treaty ally directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization

Download the survey report and learn more about these potential conflicts using CFR’s global conflict tracker.



TOP: A man watches a news program showing footage of North Korea's missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on January 1, 2020. (Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)