Big Bets and Black Swans

Big Bets and Black Swans

A Presidential Briefing Book

President Obama has just three years left in office to define his legacy in world affairs. He’s facing a number of critical challenges—the ongoing war in Syria, the Iran nuclear negotiations, an enigmatic North Korea and other significant crises in world affairs.

The president’s advisors are busy devising policy recommendations aimed at grappling with these thorny issues. From these, the president must decide which priorities to pursue and how to best exercise U.S. power and influence to manage and shape the global order.

This book presents a set of policy analysis and recommendations from The Foreign Policy scholars at the Brookings Institution. Designed to provide the White House with innovative and actionable policy initiatives, the book is constructed as a series of memos to President Obama. This year, the memos are divided into five categories:

  • Big Bets are issues where the president should consider investing his power, time and prestige in major efforts that can have a transformational impact on America and the world.

  • Double Downs are derived from the Big Bets from last year's recommendations that the president should redouble his efforts on.

  • Black Swans are those low-probability but high-impact events that can divert the president and his administration’s higher purposes, such as dramatic negative events that he will want to take steps in advance to avoid or to mitigate their consequences.

  • Nightmares are events that look more likely than a Black Swan and could prove particularly troublesome for U.S. interests and the global order, and for which the administration should prepare.

  • Holds are updated policy recommendations to stay the course on approaches suggested last year. 

Table of Contents


  • Reassert U.S. Leadership of a Liberal Global Order by Robert Kagan and Ted Piccone
  • Secure the Future of the Internet by Peter W. Singer and Ian Wallace  
  • Solidify the U.S.-Afghanistan Alliance by Michael E . O’Hanlon and Gen. John Allen (USMC, Ret.)
  • Lift the Ban on U.S. Oil Exports by Tim Boersma and Charles K. Ebinger
  • Strengthen Stability in Africa by Michael E. O’Hanlon


  • Broaden the Approach to Iran by Suzanne Maloney
  • Pursue Regime Change in Syria by Michael Doran
  • Return to the Asia Rebalance by Jonathan D. Pollack and Jeffrey A . Bader
  • Reach Out to Cuba by Ted Piccone
  • Avert Conflict in the South and East China Seas by Richard C. Bush III, Bruce Jones and Jonathan D. Pollack


  • Israeli-Palestinian Violence Erupts by Natan B. Sachs
  • Putin’s Russia Goes rogue by Fiona Hill and Steven Pifer
  • Venezuela Breaks Down in Violence by Harold Trinkunas


  • Korean Crisis Prompts Confrontation with China by Jonathan D. Pollack and Richard C. Bush III
  • Iran Nuclear Talks Fail by Robert Einhorn and Kenneth Pollack
  • Afghanistan’s Presidential Election Goes Awry by Vanda Felbab-Brown
  • Muslim Brotherhood Radicalizes by Daniel L. Byman and Tamara Cofman Wittes


  • Avoid a U.S.-Saudi Divorce by Bruce Riedel
  • Close the Deal on Free Trade by Mireya Solis
  • Manage the Impact of Climate Change by Elizabeth Ferris
  • Deepen Economic Ties to Turkey by Kemal Kirişci
  • Beyond New START by Steven Pifer