How a conflict could lead to a perfect storm

The world is in parlous condition. A violent conflict could quickly escalate out of control into a perfect storm, in which a local conflict becomes a major regional explosion. The risk is of low probability but high impact. The likelihood can be made even lower if the international system and its major actors remain watchful and ready to respond quickly. For that readiness to be real, we need to think the risk through.

My purpose with this unusually long post (be warned) is not to put up an offering of gloom or foreboding. The point is to think the risk through so that it never comes to pass.  I want to contribute to this with some reflections on four things:

  • what the risk is – the sort of event or series of events that might unfold;
  • why it exists – where it comes from;
  • how the risk could materialise;
  • and what can be done to mitigate it.

The nature of the storm

Looking ahead over the coming two to three years, the prospect that has me worried is an armed conflict in a poor or middle income country – such as in West Africa, central Africa, or Southeast Asia, but I’m not ruling out other regional possibilities such as parts of the Middle East or the Caucasus – that spills across the border and destabilises not one or even two or three governments, but five, six or seven. I am thinking not of hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees and displaced people, but of tens of millions. I am thinking of not one Darfur but three simultaneously and all in the same region.

Why is there a possibility, even a small one, of such a nightmare unfolding?

Foundations of risk

There are at least five components to the answer.

Conflict trends

I wrote about the first in my post of 15 January. Whereas, despite appearances, the last 15 years have been an era of growing peace, that may be changing and a deterioration may be coming. What has been gained in the past 15 years is not immediately obvious to most people because the international news media have covered armed conflict in poor countries much more fully and vividly than ever before and inevitably focus on the tragedies. The media have largely ignored as less newsworthy the quiet progress that many countries have registered, which has reduced the annual number of wars from 56 in 1990 to 34 in 2007. But the positive trend has plateaued out and many conflicts have been restrained rather than resolved – they are still there, capable of exploding into action, as happened, for example, in Georgia in August 2008.

Climate change

The second factor is the social consequences of climate change. This is taken up in a report I co-authored for International Alert, A Climate of Conflict, published at the end of 2007. Tracing the causal links is unavoidably a matter of speculation but  there is enough evidence from West Africa, Darfur and South Asia to indicate that the effects of climate change could interact with other parts of the social reality (such as poverty, bad governance and lack of infrastructure) to produce a serious risk of armed conflict. A Climate of Conflict identified 46 countries with a combined population of 2.6 billion people where there is this risk of armed conflict, and a further 56 countries with a combined population of 1.6 billion people where there is a risk of political instability for the same reason.

There are, of course, still plenty of people who are sceptical about the reality of climate change, and there are reasons for that since there have been plenty of exaggerated claims. But although the hard science of climate change is still in its infancy and many of its projections are vague or contestable, and although like any science its findings can be distorted for effect in headlines and slogans, what has been happening to global climates over the past two decades is consistent with the mid-range climate change projections and is not adequately explained by any alternative theory. For a non-scientist, the safe bet is that climate change is happening now and the knock-on social consequences are beginning to unfold already.

Economic crisis

The third element in the risk of a perfect storm is the economic crisis. How deep or long it is going to be, we do not know but that its impact is global is incontestable. There are three main ways in which it has an effect on these issues:

  • Shrinking demand in rich countries will mean less export income for poor countries.
  • The crisis in the finance sector means there is less investment capital available and many companies have already put aside major investment plans until loans are more easily available again; when that happens, investment projects in poor countries are always the first to get chopped.
  • Less demand for labour means that labour migrants cannot find jobs so their families at home receive much less in remittances (the money workers send home to look after their families).

On top of this threefold hit on income from reductions in exports, investment and remittances, there is the possibility that overseas aid will be reduced and rich countries may be less able to mobilise very large sums of money to meet sudden needs such as in a humanitarian crisis. All this means that poor countries, many with a history of recent violent conflict and already feeling the effects of climate change, have shrinking economic resources with which to meet growing challenges.


In poor countries where there is a high risk of armed conflict , the system of power is often shaped by the elite making sure it can capture and hold as large a share as possible of all resources and assets including power.  Retaining its own privilege predominates over any idea of leadership that is based on public service. This means that reactions to crises tend to be driven by the same kind of motives that operate in ordinary times – that is to say, on the basis of how to exploit them to the utmost for securing wealth and power. 

This instinct of power is often effective for the elite, though not always, and is almost always counter-productive for the majority of the population. It is not just a lack of resources but also these deficienies in government that explain why international action is so often essential for containing crises and, sometimes, ultimately resolving the issues at stake.

Bad neighbourhoods

There are several regions around the world where conflict issues are inter-connected across national boundaries, so that conflict and crisis in one country will always have an effect in the others and may even contribute to violent conflicts starting in them too. This bad neighbourhood effect keeps tensions simmering and risk of violence real even in periods of apparently peaceful relations.

The storm rising

The risk of a perfect storm, in sum, is based on a combination of a likely negative change in conflict trends, the impacts of climate change and the current global economic crisis, the record of bad governance in many poor countries and the problem of conflict and crisis crossing state borders and bringing other countries down too. But this is not all.

What happens if the riots in Greece before Christmas, sparked by a policeman shooting a teenager and reflecting a deep anger with a failing system, turn out to be emblematic of Europe in the coming couple of years? In recent weeks I have been reading about fears of social unrest in eastern Europe and fears of political violence in France. And sure, these fears could be politically motivated scaremongering – but then again, the riots in Greece did indeed happen and, much more peacefully, four months of winter protest have forced the government of Iceland to call elections in May.

The economic crisis means that European governments are already focusing much harder on domestic economic problems than they were a year or 18 months ago. Were social unrest to escalate in Europe it would absorb virtually all the political attention and energy of European governments and the EU. It is quite likely that most governments would simply be out of the picture as far as being available  to offer timely assistance to head off a perfect storm in Africa is concerned. If the economic crisis goes as deep and lasts as long as many expect, and especially if it is accompanied by a social and political crisis as some fear, there will not be much surplus political energy, if any, for responding to global problems.

And that’s not all. The good news in all this is that the Bush administration of don’t cares and can’t do’s is gone. But President Obama and his new foreign policy team also face plenty of challenges. Winding down the USA’s engagement in Iraq is not going to be as easy as critics of the Iraq war hope. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration promises more engagement, not less; the first military action authorised by the new President, after all, was a missile strike in the border areas of Pakistan. Both the toxic endgame in Iraq and the continuing and hellishly difficult commitment in Afghanistan are likely to make US public and political opinion more than a little wary about new interventions and engagements. On top of this, of course, the Obama administration must also focus hard on policy and action for economic recovery. The problem of a lack of surplus energy with which to address global issues that are not obviously among the top items on the political agenda may be just as real in the US as in Europe.

And it is during that period when a crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or violence in Cote d’Ivoire or Nigeria, or a new breakdown of relations in Sudan, or a contested election in any one of two dozen countries – it is during that period when such developments are waved off by already over-stretched political establishments in the US and Europe that the components of a perfect storm will form, interact and explode.

Risk mitigation

And that makes clear the key to mitigating the risk of a perfect storm. It is to ensure that there is adequate political awareness of the risk so that, as the warning signs emerge, energy is put into addressing the problem – early enough action based on keeping a watchful eye on danger signs.

And the way to do this is by discussing the risk, disputing its components and foundations, moving from the general risk to specific cases, inventing scenarios, disproving them and replacing them with others, and discussing the best response. It probably doesn’t matter much whether the discussion produces consensus about where the risk is to be found, what it entails and what to do if it materialises. It just matters that there is a very, very widespread discussion .

In her book, The Unthinkable, about how people respond to disaster, Amanda Ripley shows that people are capable of acting in the weirdest ways during a disaster. Quite often, desperately searching for the best way to respond, the mind simply picks the wrong one among a range of options and decides on doing nothing instead of fleeing. People have sat still as fumes or rising water consumed them, they have sent a few more emails or looked for a thriller while leaving a building hit by an aircraft, they have finished their drinks while the smoke billowed round them in a bar.

The first phase of response is denial. Preparing for disaster by knowing about the risk and having outline ideas of what to do is one way of shortening and for some people pretty much eliminating the denial phase. It also helps make the deliberation phase as short as possible so people can get to the third phase – action – in time to save their lives.

I found the book fascinating not only for what it described and explained about responses in disasters such as crashes, fires, 9/11, Katrina and so on. But also for what it implied about social response to unexpected events. If I took a single conclusion from the book it was a simple as the old truism, forewarned is forearmed.

If enough of us talk about the risk of a perfect storm both vividly and realistically enough, if we point out the ways that through political and economic support at quite modest levels the worst problems can be headed off, then I think we can bring the risk level down to effectively zero. All that’s needed is that there is some political awareness and some energy available for the task.

3 thoughts on “How a conflict could lead to a perfect storm

  1. Hope and change are a lot to ask for. what economic policy speech would you give if you were Obama? This is an inspiring adaptation from David Korten’s speech, taken from his new book, Agenda for a New Economy, put to music with photos and animated text. You can get the source Chapter as a free download and enter your own message to the Nation in the blog. Well done!

  2. Great post, Dan.

    I agree 100% about the need for improved shared awareness in policy communities about the risk of a cascading failure on the ground triggered by any one of the drivers you cite.

    One point I’m curious about – are there any instances in which we can demonstrate real success in conflict prevention – not so much preventive deployments a la Montenegro, but successfully tackling underlying drivers before they flare up? I realise that in a sense this is an impossible question since it relies on a counterfactual, but I think that advocacy in this area would be easier if we were all able to point to some good examples of what we’re talking about working in practice.

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