Armed conflicts are waning but new threats are on the horizon

Recent high-profile reports reveal the next generation of challenges that we must prepare for

Terrorism has decreased worldwide, as has the number of nuclear warheads. However, the projected consequences from environmental damage could include food and water scarcity and mass migration. These are the key findings from several high-profile reports published during the past month on the future state of international security.

The studies, authored by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), the EU, the Munich Security Conference, and the US National Intelligence Council, inform forecasting and policy and provide governments with insights into the effectiveness of their defensive and proactive countermeasures. Although each of these organisations has a slightly different focus, they all examine the spectrum of threats and highlight the most likely and impactful near-term risks. “These reports collectively matter, as they are the primary sources that feed mainstream media and to a degree governments as well,” says Dr Jeffrey Kaplan, a renowned terrorism expert who is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest and a non-resident fellow at Trends Research and Advisory in Abu Dhabi. “They are accessible, and in general do some fine research.”

The 52nd Yearbook from Sipri notes that while the number of armed conflicts increased in 2020, the number of fatalities from these wars fell significantly. The report suggests that ceasefires in Libya and Syria are a sign of some form of resolution to come in the near to mid-term future. The Stockholm-based organisation estimated military expenditure increased year on year in four of the world’s five regions and totalled a little less than $2 trillion. But the inventories of nuclear warheads in the world continued to decline, as the US and Russia dismantled more of their retired warheads. In fact, the nine nuclear-armed states jointly possessed an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the beginning of 2021, which marks a decrease from the 13,400 weapons that Sipri found these states to have possessed at the start of 2020.

The theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference, an annual global forum attended by international security policy experts and high-level decision-makers, was “Between States of Matter: Competition and Co-operation”. This topic informs much of the report that came out of the conference. “Western countries continue to exhibit a lack of joint action on crucial global issues and saw continued attacks on liberal-democratic norms,” it states. Although the transatlantic alliance has been re-invigorated, the attendees stressed that Europeans need to assume a greater role and responsibility in their neighbourhood at large. Competition between different political systems is a concern, but that competition does not exclude co-operation, especially when it comes to global challenges that transcend boundaries. “In all countries surveyed, the destruction of natural habitats as well as climate change and extreme weather phenomena are perceived as top risks, [as well as] the risk of current and future pandemics.” The Munich Security Index, based on a survey of 12,000 people across a variety of countries, showed that global risk perceptions are highly diverse and contingent on the environment of the region.

Herny Lenayasa, a Samburu man and chief of the settlement of Archers Post tries to scare away a massive swarm of locust ravaging an area next to Archers Post, Samburu County, Kenya on April 24, 2020.

A locust plague fueled by unpredictable weather patterns up to 20 times larger than a wave two months earlier is threatening to devastate parts of East Africa. Locust has made already a devastating appearance in Kenya, two months after voracious swarms -some billions strong- ravaged big areas of land and just as the coronavirus outbreak has begun to disrupt livelihoods. In spite of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, international experts are in place to support efforts to eradicate the pest with measures including ground and aerial spraying.

The Covid-19 pandemic has competed for funding, hampered movement and delayed the import of some inputs, including insecticides and pesticides.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called the locust outbreak, caused in part by climate change, “an unprecedented threat” to food security and livelihoods. Its officials have called this new wave some 20 times the size of the first.

Photo: Luis Tato for The Washington Post

The US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2040 Report claims to “provide an analytic framework for policymakers [as they] prepare for an array of possible futures”. This year’s edition, the seventh of its kind, asserts: “The next 20 years will [see] major demographic shifts as global population growth slows and the world rapidly ages.” It predicts that environmental degradation is very likely to exacerbate food and water insecurity, particularly in underdeveloped countries, which will then lead to global migration. Global Trends 2040 also believes societies that are increasingly divided among identity affiliations will face increased potential for conflicts. It also noted that the ongoing US-China rivalry, termed “competitive co-existence”, is likely to become more intense.

The EU Terrorism and Trend Report focuses on characteristics and features of terrorist attacks and arrests in European countries. In 2020, there were 57 reported terrorist attacks either completed, failed and foiled, a one-third decrease over the previous year. The attacks led to the deaths of 21 people and the arrests of 449. Islamist terrorism “remains the greatest threat to the European Union”, the report notes, although most of the perpetrators were lone actors who used guns, knives and vehicles to target their victims in a random manner in public places. In contrast, attacks by right-wing extremists have increased. Many of these militants are young in age, even minors, and are often radicalised by a transnational online community.

What is quite evident from these reports is that countries are dealing with a broadening spectrum of threats that include an increase in non-military threats. New security threats have been "securitised" in both discourse and practice. Securitisation refers to the process by which specific problems are constructed as security issues. In addition, a "deepening" of security is occurring. That means that the security agenda considers as quintessential certain "referent-objects" other than the state; referent-objects are entities that are threatened and need to be protected, such as individuals, social groups and the planet Earth. Structural trends in international security are multiple and multidimensional. “All of the reports cover different areas of security and have very different focuses of concern,” Dr Kaplan notes. “But what is striking is the broad agreement that the situation at the moment, in security terms, is actually relatively stable.”

In other words, at least in the short term, there is some positive news regarding world peace.

Published: August 3rd 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: August 4th 2021, 12:16 PM
Kristian Alexander

Kristian Alexander

Dr Kristian Alexander is a senior fellow at Trends Research and Advisory in Abu Dhabi, where he is the director of the International Security and Terrorism Programme