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.

I offer a quick and dirty overview of 2020 and the effects of the pandemic in this new, brief video from SIPRI, on the occasion the launching of our 2021 Yearbook, along with some thoughts on where we are in 2021, which I label a year of opportunity.

Key question, of course: Will the opportunity be taken? Answer: We’ll find out. So far, I am not sure.

My introductory chapter to the Yearbook explores how the security, environmental, health and political challenges of 2020 intersected with each other. 

The negatives

There are some bad signs:

  • Despite the economic impact of the pandemic – almost all national economies shrank during the year – military spending rose again in 2020 and stood at a fraction under 2 trillion US dollars.
  • The number of armed conflicts increased again in 2020 to some 54 (compared to 30 in 2010).
  • Although the global total of deaths is well below what it was when the Syrian war was at its height five or six years ago, fatalities rose by 40 per cent in Africa and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen after five years of armed intervention led by Saudi Arabia is overwhelming.
  • There was a return to open warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan and war started in the Tigray province of Ethiopia.
  • The number of nuclear warheads worldwide continued their long downward trend BUT the number of operational warheads increased.

The not so negatives

Even so, there was no escalation in potential flashpoints in the Gulf region, in South Asia and Northeast Asia that many analysts in late 2019 and early 2020 thought might explode during the year. The election of Joe Biden as US President meant there would be more pragmatism and less instability in relations between the great powers. In a number of different settings, perhaps pragmatism was the keyword – not ending confrontation or hostility, but keeping a lid on it, avoiding the worst, stepping back from the edge.

But still some worries

Looking back on 2020, it felt like things could get so much worse. And they didn’t.

So, where next? One big worry is in the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

There is a rather unpleasant trend in global affairs, in which major economic crises are followed two or three years later by an increase in the number of armed conflicts – think oil price shock in the mid-1970s, Asian financial crisis in 1997 and global economic crisis in 2008-2009. One route by which this effect might play out in the years to come is that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing trends of growing inequality, which is an important factor behind increasing conflict risk.

Further, surveys of the quality of democracy using different methodologies agree that it declined during 2020 as a direct result of governments’ responses to the pandemic. The quality of democracy may recover but it is a well-established research finding that imperfect democracies carry significant conflict risk.

It seems like a litany of anxiety but these issues are manageable – not necessarily easily, not necessarily resolvable, but manageable in a damage-limitation sort of a way. The increasingly toxic nature of global geopolitics in recent years meant there was a reduced capacity and willingness to mediate and mitigate conflict hotspots and flashpoints.

If, and it is a big IF, the level of toxin can be reduced, then the capacity to mediate and mitigate will increase. This can happen to some extent without a fundamental shift in relations between the great powers. That is to say, it can happen in a limited way if nothing fundamental changes but some caution and good sense are applied.

Routine cooperation

To go further, to reiterate a pervasive theme of this blog in the last few years, international cooperation has to be given new life. For this, the small and medium powers need to step up in concert with each other. That is asking a lot because most have some kind of allegiance to one of the major powers.

But what is needed from them is not a dramatic new initiative in which they break away from the big power’s leadership. Rather, the most important thing is to strengthen and re-energise routines of international cooperation in and with, for example, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. How governments relate to each other and how inter-governmental organisations work during normal times are a big factor shaping whether and how they can work together in crisis.

The political disputes that festered throughout 2020 about responsibility for the origination of the SARS-COV-2 virus that spread the Covid-19 disease were symptoms of an international body politic that requires care and attention. Whatever issue of international concern is in focus, a healthier body politic with strong norms of cooperation is a pre-requisite.

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