Error message

The next administration is sure to face unforeseen and disruptive crises such as unknown diseases, natural disasters or sudden shifts in the world’s strategic landscape, panelists said at the U.S. Institute of Peace “Passing the Baton” conference on Jan. 10. Where these challenges will arise is uncertain, according to a retired general, a World Bank leader, a homeland security expert and a think-tank scholar. Attempts at forecasting threats are helpful, they said, but most critical is to improve protocols for crisis response and ensure underlying strength for recovery. 


History suggests “we will fail miserably” in being prepared and predicting accurately what kind of “strategic surprise” the Trump administration will face, said retired Army General Jack Keane. In the second of three panel discussions in the day’s events, he flagged areas he would watch.

“Preparing to prepare is the best hedge against uncertainty.” – James Carafano, vice president, Heritage Foundation

Russia and China, for example, are growing powers seeking to upend institutions that have reinforced global security since World War II, and they are likely to increasingly challenge American alliances. Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure by non-state actors who can’t be deterred by counter-strikes also should be expected, he said.

Former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem recalled thorough briefings by the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush, only to be confronted almost immediately with an unforeseen threat—the bird flu virus. 

“That’s what going to happen to the Trump administration,” she said. Kayyem’s concerns focus on a catastrophic natural event such as a mega-storm that will challenge the way Americans live and think about how to protect their communities. To date, the response to such disasters has been to rebuild with a few improvements, in the way New Orleans fortified levies after Hurricane Katrina. In a catastrophic event that makes clear that the same will only happen again, rebuilding may not be feasible.

'Belt of Trouble'

World Bank President Kristalina Georgieva sees a “belt of trouble” running through central and north Africa and into Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “From here, there is the potential source for a shock,” she said, not only from the condition of fragile states, but also from more frequent droughts that could ignite mass migration. In the developed world, another economic meltdown combined with other crises could disrupt the world economy, she said. 

Process planning of the type Keane called “dull as daylight” is the best response to facing unknowable risks, the speakers said.  He urged the next administration to prepare a national security policy map that is actively used throughout the government to drive planning and looks ahead like military planners do in preparing to meet a range of enemies on various fronts. James Carafano, who heads the defense and foreign policy team at the Heritage Foundation, cited General Dwight D. Eisenhower: Plans are useless but planning is everything. “Preparing to prepare is the best hedge against uncertainty,” Carafano said.

Kayyem said Homeland Security’s crises will probably involve domestic events. With ties to 50 states and 250 major cities, the department faces what she called issues of governance, such as getting local officials sufficiently focused on preparing for incident response and determining what will be handled federally or locally. She cited the response to the Boston Marathon bombing as an example of good preparation for the unknown: The attack was not predicted but the city’s hospital were ready to disperse and treat the 300 wounded. Resiliency, the ability to withstand shocks and recover, requires investment, she said. 

The World Bank is getting better at anticipating and managing risk, Georgieva said, calling fear of financial crises “the new normal.” The bank must be ready to inject resources where needed at the first sign of trouble, she said. 

Carafano said there is bipartisan agreement that the peace and stability of Europe, Asia and the Middle East are all vital to the U.S. and that the first job of the next president is to prepare for unpredictable events emerging from each. 

“You don’t get credit for two out of three,” he said.

Related Publications

Q&A: Will U.S. Strikes on Syria Change Conflict’s Course?

Q&A: Will U.S. Strikes on Syria Change Conflict’s Course?

Friday, April 7, 2017

By: USIP Staff

The United States launched its first air strikes against forces backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the country’s civil war began six years ago, in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 80 civilian men, women and children. Elie Abouaoun, who is director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is based in the region, examines the strategic implications, and USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who has worked for nearly 30 years on humanitarian crises and areas affected by conflict, comments on the factors that prompted the U.S. attack.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism; Global Policy

Violent Conflict and Vital Interests: Keeping Focus

Violent Conflict and Vital Interests: Keeping Focus

Thursday, February 16, 2017

By: Fred Strasser

Over the next decade, the United States can expect to face complex foreign challenges from terrorism, insurgencies and internal conflicts fanned by external sponsorship, but the threat of conventional state-on-state wars, including direct assaults on the American homeland, have significantly diminished, according to retired Lt. General Douglas Lute, the former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Global Policy; Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Civilian-Military Relations

China’s Kashmir Policies and Crisis Management in South Asia

China’s Kashmir Policies and Crisis Management in South Asia

Thursday, February 9, 2017

By: I-wei Jennifer Chang

China’s policy on the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has a significant impact on regional stabilization and crisis management efforts in South Asia. Beijing also plays an important third-party role in helping deescalate hostilities between the two countries. This brief discusses the evolution of China’s Kashmir policies over the past several decades and examines Chinese cooperation with the United States during periods of crises between the South Asian rivals. 

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

'Political Peace' Is Possible, Says AEI President

'Political Peace' Is Possible, Says AEI President

Friday, January 13, 2017

Arthur Brooks, an economist and musician who is president of the American Enterprise Institute, said the cause of the current U.S. political rifts has been misdiagnosed and outlined a prescription for achieving “maybe the most elusive kind of peace of all around the world today.” In a presentation at Passing the Baton, a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace that was co-sponsored by his think tank and four others, Brooks declared, “Political peace is possible.”

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy; Fragility and Resilience

View All Publications