On my second day in Belgium, the Atlantik-Brücke conference, a Canada-Germany conversation, got underway and was immediately quite interesting.  The opening session had two speakers that provided broad surveys of the world’s crises, and I was struck that there seemed to be some comparisons that did not work for me.  Why? Because some crises are harder than others and that we can focus on three dimensions of each crisis so that we can compare apples and oranges: the degree of difficulty of the actual policy problem, the stakes, and the level of consensus among the key players.

I recently argued that Russia is fundamentally an easier problem than the IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh challenge because we don’t have to do state/nation-building in the Baltics or in Poland/Romania.  Indeed, one of the attendees recently visited a Baltic Republic and found that the Russian-speaking populations get it–that they are better off where they are now than in a potential frozen conflict or a Greater Russia.  We can still do more to assuage/reassure/bribe the Russian-speakers to drain those three Baltic countries of any sea in which little green men-fish can swim (yes, mixing metaphors), but the problem then becomes mostly of improving the credibility of the NATO deterrent.  Not easy, especially with German resistance, but not impossible.

But Russia involves higher stakes–nuclear war, existential threats and all that.  IS/whatever is not those things.

Which, of course leads to a two-by-two:

I need to find a low, low case, but you get the idea.  China is harder than anything else because there is greater complexity than Russia: economic  entanglements, military growing, territorial challenges with many neighbors, Taiwan, etc.  And the stakes are pretty high.

The consensus dimension is the only one that can change and the only one that can be changed via diplomacy and effort, but also shapes how hard this stuff can be.  China is very difficult since getting the Japanese and South Koreans to work together can be quite difficult.  Iraq and Syria is not as difficult right now–there is consensus among enough countries to get the cooperation that is needed.  If Assad gains an upper hand in Syria, consensus might be difficult to maintain.

Anyhow, if you have any suggestions for comparing the various challenges facing the US/NATO/the world,  comment below.