The Crisis-Prevention Directorate

The president's National Security Council staff will increasingly be in the business of predicting the future. A new crisis-prevention methodology and a staff to help oversee it would be ideal.

Three years after the Tunisian street toppled President Ben Ali, Maidan protestors in Ukraine, with dizzying speed, triggered a major great-power confrontation between the United States and Russia. The twenty-first century is prone, it seems, to a particular type of geopolitical crisis: domestic grievances that may have once been parochial affairs—teenagers arrested for graffiti doodles mocking the Syrian president, for instance—can quickly escalate into major international-security challenges. The unpredictable consequences of local conflicts are blurring the firewalls between states’ domestic politics and U.S. national-security interests. As a result, U.S. policy makers cannot afford to underestimate or overlook domestic sources of instability. Whether in Egypt, Mali or Ukraine over the past few years, or in Turkey, Brazil or Venezuela over the next few years, domestic political conflicts around the world have the potential to dramatically reshape America’s strategic landscape. Given the continuing pattern of relatively minor domestic triggers spiraling into major geopolitical unrest, the president deserves some dedicated staff, armed with expert knowledge and cutting edge methods, helping him to predict future crises.

These types of crises are not new. (See: Causes of World War I.) But they have occurred so often on this president’s watch to suggest the need for a new crisis-prevention methodology and a staff to help to oversee it. The president’s National Security Council staff will increasingly be in the business of predicting the future. While those responsible for regional policy in the White House, Pentagon, Intelligence Community and State Department are often forecasting dangerous events—and operating based on assumptions of the likelihood of these events occurring—a separate team should be charged with analyzing the likelihood of domestic crises spiraling outwards, and communicating potential mitigating U.S. policy actions. Imagine a memo in early 2013 that had suggested even a moderate likelihood that over the course of one year, there would be a coup in Egypt and a change of government in Kiev would lead to Russian intervention. These potential scenarios, given their significance for U.S. interests, would have certainly helped to focus U.S. policy efforts on mitigating the political crisis that had been brewing in Egypt since late 2012 or responding to the grievances against the Ukrainian president.

Of course, crisis prevention will never be foolproof, and even the most clairvoyant crisis preventers will not be capable of foreseeing the chain of unpredictable events that often generates crises. Yet the president and his staff have an opportunity to adjust the national-security apparatus to respond to what they have learned on the job, over the past five years: The twenty-first century is witnessing a new type of public mobilization, with a wider swath of average citizens willing to protest. These protests are enabled by new technologies that connect networks of average citizens with a range of grievances, leading to real protest movements championing particular causes both within and across borders.

The Obama Administration has begun working to prevent one particular type of crisis, establishing an Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) to convene senior officials at the Pentagon, State Department and the Intelligence Community in order to review the tools available in identifying, preventing and responding to mass atrocities. The APB has required predictive and preventative thinking by necessity, and has had measured success, particularly in mobilizing the right national-security agencies to respond to recent waves of violence in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan.

At the NSC, a full-time, cross-regional crisis-prevention team should focus on predicting the most-likely future crises and reverse engineering meaningful steps that could reduce their likelihood or mitigate their consequences. A small group of highly talented professionals at the NSC should be relinquished from the daily grind in order to produce quarterly memos to the president outlining a set of potential crises that are both highly likely and highly impactful. The list cannot simply be geographic locations ripe for domestic instability—that list would be too long and unhelpful—but rather, very particular scenarios where likely domestic protests, conflicts and stalemates could negatively impede U.S. interests and potentially trigger unintended and dangerous consequences. The memo would also include steps that the United States could take to decrease the probability that these dangerous futures would occur.