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Top conflict hot spots and crises in the world to worry about in 2023

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For many Western policymakers, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the all-defining crisis of the moment. That’s understandable: An open war in Europe of this scale marked an epochal moment on the continent, realigning grand strategy in major European capitals and reinvigorating the transatlantic alliance. Meanwhile, the war’s ripple effects — shocks to supply chains, energy markets and global food systems — have fed into other crises far away, from West Africa to South Asia.

But there’s a lot more to worry about in the world. Two recent studies — one by a think tank, the other by a humanitarian international organization — lay out the challenges that should vex global policymakers in 2023.

The annual Preventive Priorities Survey, released by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), polled more than 500 U.S. government officials, policymakers and academics on the likelihood of certain events transpiring this year and what their impact would be on U.S. interests. It sorted these contingencies into a three-tiered ranking of potential hot spots and crises — at least from the vantage point of Washington.

Intriguingly, the report noted that for the first time since 2008, when the survey of foreign policy elites started being conducted, “the possibility of a foreign terrorist organization inflicting a mass casualty attack on the United States or a treaty ally was not proposed as a plausible contingency.” In other words, “from the perspective of those responding, the 9/11 era is over,” Paul Stares, head of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, said at a Tuesday briefing.

Ukraine sees ‘year of victory’ but Russia has other plans

The seven most pressing threats in 2023 enumerated by the survey are as follows: The advent of “a severe cross-strait crisis” that pulls the United States into a confrontation with China over Taiwan; an escalation in the Ukraine war that sees “unconventional weapons spillover into neighboring countries”; a cyberattack hitting U.S. critical infrastructure; economic collapse and social unrest within Russia because of the toll of the war, leading to a destabilizing spiral; North Korea stepping up its testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles; Israel’s right-wing government taking covert or direct action against Iran’s nuclear program, with diplomacy over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities at a dead end; and the possibility of natural disaster and social unrest in Central America spawning a new surge of migration to the United States.

“Every conversation I’ve had about Ukraine over the course of the year has at some point moved to Taiwan,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a leading think tank. Speaking at the same CFR briefing, Maloney gestured to the widespread feeling of concern in Washington that China is priming itself for an invasion of the island democracy at its doorstep.

Africa’s desperate hunger: Ukraine war pushes Somalia toward famine

This rundown of what’s most vexing U.S. policymakers still misses a whole other world of crisis. Last month, the International Rescue Committee unveiled its annual emergency watch list of 20 countries most at risk of humanitarian calamity. Ukraine, though in the grips of a ruinous war, is only 10th in the IRC ranking. Other countries are in even more dire conditions: At the top of the list are the Horn of Africa nations of Somalia and Ethiopia, stricken by drought and war. Hundreds of thousands of people are already living under famine conditions in these two countries, with aid agencies warning of far greater depredations to come. In Somalia, close to half the population is already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Then there’s Afghanistan, which dropped from the top spot on the watch list only because of the severity of the crises in East Africa. The economic collapse that was compounded by the takeover of the Taliban has immiserated much of the country. The political impasse over Kabul — the Taliban are international pariahs and have their foreign reserves frozen by U.S. sanctions — is only making things worse. “Despite efforts to engage the [Taliban government], a plan to address Afghanistan’s economic collapse has not been agreed upon,” the IRC noted. “With almost the entire population now living in poverty and preparing for another long winter, an escalation in humanitarian need is a risk in 2023.”

The climate news is bad. The climate reality is worse.

As I reported earlier, for humanitarian organizations, the war in Ukraine has been a double tragedy — triggering a cascading series of pressures that impacted poor nations elsewhere, while also leading the entreaties of aid agencies last year to fall on somewhat deaf ears. We knew for months that Somalia faced a devastating epidemic of hunger, but humanitarian officials say the funding and international response has come late.

The 20 countries on the IRC watch list account for some 90 percent of people in the world who need humanitarian assistance, 81 percent of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, 80 percent of those who are acutely food insecure and only 1.6 percent of global gross domestic product. Their precarity is, in and of itself, a reflection of vast inequities that shape the global system.

“Most of the crises in Watchlist countries are not new,” IRC President and CEO David Miliband wrote in a foreword to the annual report. “But the fact that these crises are protracted does not make them any less urgent. The primary reason we are seeing worrying new record levels of need is because three key accelerators of crisis — armed conflict, climate change and economic turmoil — are driving long-standing crises to new extremes. And, in some instances, they are sparking new crises as well.”

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