The New Year is always a time for making lists, and presidential inaugurations crank the Beltway list-making machine into overdrive. We’ve got prediction lists, challenge lists, and even foreign-policy-problems-the-president-could-solve-right-now lists. The thing is, the most serious foreign policy challenges are often unlisted surprises.
In 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that demanded intelligence priorities be placed into tiers. They were, and Afghanistan was near the bottom. In 2000, a self-appointed bipartisan Commission on America’s National Interests tried a similar drill. They ended up assigning counterterrorism and democracy promotion outside the Western hemisphere as second- and third-tier interests. In 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”
Why do these lists have such an abysmal track record? Because they tend to focus on hot spots and bad guys — the places and adversaries that make headlines rather than the underlying forces that ignite and inflame conflict. Instead of lists of challenges, the Obama administration should think much more about drivers of challenges, understanding better the forces that are likely to amplify and multiply security threats now and over the longer-term. Think of these drivers as “threat multipliers.” They don’t make the threats. They make the threats more dangerous, numerous, and intractable. In my view, three threat multipliers are critical and deserve much more systematic thought in Obama’s second term: institutional mismatch, climate change, and technology.