SIPRI Yearbook 2019: Nuclear weapons and other key trends

The SIPRI Yearbook 2019 is now available on line. It registers key data in the world of peace and security in 2018 and establishes some of the basic indicators that let us track and assess the trends. It is not a comfortable picture.

You can get a quick take on it from my shorthand overview below and/or from the latest short film in our Peace Points series.

Good news amid the bad

Bluntly put, the trend of recent years has been pretty negative.

It’s not uniformly awful; it never is.

In 2018, there was a new détente on the Korean peninsula and the opening of talks between the USA and North Korea; there was a concerted effort to limit the violence in Yemen; Eritrea and Ethiopia reached a peace accord  after two decades of conflict; and the peace settlement in Colombia between the government and FARC was sustained despite a change of government

The number of nuclear warheads worldwide fell by 600 to 13,865 (compared to 65,000 plus at peak in the mid-1980s).

Screenshot 2019-06-17 at 11.11.42

Arms control

But arms control has crumbled. Last October, the US announced its impending withdrawal from the INF Treaty that banned ground-based intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe. Russia followed suit in February.

The NewSTART agreement on strategic nuclear weapons, which is responsible for almost all the reduction in the global nuclear warhead total, runs out in 2021. So far there is no discussion about prolonging, renewing or replacing it. Meanwhile, all nine nuclear-armed states are upgrading their arsenals and the USA and Russia seem interested in strategic doctrines that contemplate how to use nuclear weapons and win a nuclear war.

In a further blow to arms control and non-proliferation, in 2018 the USA pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and re-imposed economic sanctions.  And this year, some of the new positive momentum left the relationship between the USA and North Korea as the Hanoi summit in February failed to produce agreement on denuclearisation.


Geopolitical confrontation has deepened . The US-Russian relationship is fractious while the US has opened a trade war with China. In 2018, it levied tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products; China’s retaliation targeted US goods worth $110 billion.

In the Gulf, rivalry between Iran and the anti-Iran coalition of interest that includes Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the USA, has reached a truly dangerous point. The US is claiming it has the evidence to show Iran carried out the recent attacks on shipping in the Gulf but has not shown it. Until the facts are beyond dispute, it would be wise to withhold judgement. Frankly, recalling the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons in 2003, we need to be aware we have come to a place where we may well have been before.

Screenshot 2019-06-17 at 07.55.56

Climate change and environment

The five warmest years on record are the five most recent. One forecast suggests that by the 2040s, what are currently regarded as unusually hot summers will be the average in Europe. An October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (summarised here) concluded that average global temperatures will rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times some time between 2030 and 2050. A May 2019 report from another inter-governmental panel showed how climate change drives or exacerbates loss of biodiversity. Mass extinction is well under way. And climate change worsens the impact of another environmental disaster of our time – air pollution.

Challenges of the new normal

As environmental changes unfold and establish a new normal, the foundations of statehood and society will in some and maybe most parts of the world start to face challenges of unprecedented depth.

The ground is shifting beneath our feet. We have seen enough in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and parts of Central and South Asia to know that climate change can contribute to social and political instability, exacerbate existing conflicts, and make peacebuilding harder, generating a growing risk of insecurity and violence.

Furthermore, worldwide chronic hunger is rising again after a long period of steadily falling and now affects over 800 million people—11 per cent of humanity. The main identifiable drivers of this are violent conflict and climate change. As they interact, they will profoundly damage human well being, health and security.

If national and international responses to these challenges are slow and inadequate, as they have been so far, the international security agenda risks being overwhelmed.

The pushback against multilateralism

It is an oddity of contemporary international politics that there is no strongly status quo power. China, Russia and the USA all challenge and seek to modify aspects of the world order. For China as a rising power and Russia, given its perception that it lost out badly in the decade after the end of the cold war, this is easily understandable. What is more striking is that the USA appears to oppose, or be disgruntled by and alienated from, some of the key international institutions and norms it had a major role in shaping and from which it has long benefitted.

As a result, there is less clarity than only a few years ago about whether the rules and norms of the international system will be respected. The three great powers display a taste for only selective respect for multilateral institutions. That makes international politics less predictable. And so the tensions and confrontation that, as always, pockmark world politics entail more risks of serious consequences than before.

Pushing back against the pushback

It is a truism that today’s major problems cross boundaries and require cooperative solutions. And it is a truism because it is true.

We need a new and improved architecture of arms control and disarmament. We can only meet the challenges posed by climate change and other environmental deterioration if we meet them together. And there are plenty of challenges I have not touched on, such as regulating cyber space, where the same is true.

The problem is that an unprecedented need for increased cooperation is met by a declining appetite.

It may be inevitable that great powers choose when to be bound by international law and when not. If so, it should be equally axiomatic that medium and lesser powers will consistently tend to favour multilateral approaches and attempt jointly to press them on the great powers. It remains an open question which of these tendencies – which push – will prevail. But it is clear to all with eyes to see that working together has become a matter of survival. 



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