Peace and security overview of 2020: the year when things didn’t get better or worse

Histories of 2020 will start with the Covid-19 pandemic and there will probably be a lot about the US presidential election. Both the pandemic and the election have big implications for peace and security in 2021 and further ahead. Despite Covid, on the security horizon, 2020 was different from the three preceding years: at last, things didn’t get worse. It doesn’t sound like much but given how badly global security had deteriorated, it was an important, refreshing and much needed change.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get better either. But read on.

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Compound risk, response and prevention: learning to act where problems intersect

The Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development is co-convened annually by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which I have the honour to lead, and Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This year ‘s Forum was held in early May. Like the 2020 edition, it was online. The theme was Promoting Peace in the Age of Compound Risk.

The Forum was big. This post offers some summary reflections about what was discussed and what those discussions tell us about the way ahead.

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The arms control agendas of 2021: some reflections

The extension of the US-Russian New START agreement on strategic nuclear weapons was achieved through the exchange of two sets of diplomatic notes between the respective governments, on 26 January and 3 February. The process was super-straightforward. Both President Putin of Russia and Joe Biden while US President-elect made clear they would each favour extension. The day after inauguration President Biden officially confirmed the position. A few days later, it was done. This was the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Good to have gotten it out of the way (and stupid that the previous administration let it go down to the wire) but now the real work starts.

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Message for the Aswan Forum

This week is the week of the second Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development, on the theme of Shaping Africa’s New Normal: Recovering Stronger, Rebuilding Better. In a couple of months (4–7 May) we at SIPRI together with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs will convene the 8th edition of the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Our theme will be Promoting Peace in the Age of Compound Risk. The agendas meet in interesting ways and a collaboration between the two forums is natural and already began last year. So I was very happy to be asked to record and send a message to participants at this year’s Aswan Forum, highlighting the dovetailing of the agendas and stressing the possibilities of a continuing partnership.

Extending New START

So Joe Biden, as anticipated, has moved quickly to arrange with Russia the extension of the New START bilateral nuclear arms control agreement. Signed in 2010, taking effect in 2011, and due to expire on 5 February this year, the treaty permits extension for up to five years by mutual consent.

The good people at Deutsche Welle asked me the two key questions – “Is this good news?” “Why”? And let me answer them on their 8 o’clock bulletin yesterday evening.

For a more extended discussion, Jan Eliasson and I put out our thoughts earlier this week. In brief, as I argued in my previous post, in a tough period with a complex set of issues, the approach on arms control of the new US President is welcome. He faces some demanding tasks. And the first signs are positive.

Arms control in 2021

There are so many crucial items on the global agenda that one struggles to keep up (though I do wonder whether there really are more now than there used to be or does it just feel that way?). Covid-19 and its economic consequences, the likely increase in extreme poverty and hunger, climate change and the rest of the compound environmental crisis, the attack on democracy in the world’s richest and most powerfully armed state, rising inequality, toxic geopolitics, intractable armed conflicts. And more. This does not seem to be a happy age that we are living through.

In this (rather lengthy) post, I focus on prospects for arms control in 2021. The big challenge is how to make progress against such an unpromising backdrop.

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Mapping the journey of human progress

So if you say progress is real and still possible, and it needs to change so we don’t pay the same high price for it in environmental harm and rising inequality, then there’s a question: what could it – should it – look like? 

Pondering this, I found myself turning to the obvious – at least, obvious to people in my kind of work – the UN’s Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agreed in 2015, the headline goals break down into 169 targets to achieve by 2030. 

The SDGs represent a view of human progress as it could be, towards a better world that is not just imaginable but practicable. They are the aids we need to navigate a safe route on the journey of human progress.  

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Progress – really? Really

On 8 October the 10th edition of my State of the World Atlas is published. It’s a big picture book with graphic presentation of statistics and trends worldwide. And the biggest of the big picture questions is, “Is progress real?” Short answer: yes. 

Yes, I know. Look outside and it’s not pretty. During the last five years we have seen global geopolitics go from sour to toxic, unravelling nuclear arms control, and reducing the appetite for international cooperation to address problems that can only be solved by working together.  The number of armed conflicts is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. Global military spending and the trade in major weapons are both at 30-year highs as well. The impact of climate change is increasing and increasingly dangerous. And on top of that there is the pandemic with its human, social, cultural and economic consequences. Can we still believe in progress? Really?

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Law matters

A UK government minister has acknowledged that the next step in the country’s departure from the EU includes a plan to break international law. That decision that has led the government’s senior legal adviser to resign. As reported in the normally government-supporting Daily Telegraph, it appears he had already contemplated resigning over the government’s fast and loose way with the law.

Not surprisingly, the incident has caused outcry, both about the substance of the case and about the resulting damage to Britain’s international reputation. Bad and sad as that is, there is a bigger issue. This is only the latest example of a seriously worrying trend of disrespect for international law.

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