“What is the state of the world?” my colleague asks as we enter 2022. I’m still not sure whether to count my answer as optimistic or pessimistic.
While the years from 2015 to 2019 were marked by a distinct worsening in world security – which I traced each year in the Introduction to the annual SIPRI Yearbook – it was different in 2020. That was the year when things didn’t get worse.
All right – now, how to characterise 2021? That was the year when things didn’t get better.
A new US President
In many quarters, the election of Joe Biden as US President was expected to make a huge difference. Expected or hoped – maybe hope got in the way of thinking it through. In the Introduction of the 2021 Yearbook, I explained at some length why it would make a difference but not a huge one. The explanation boils down to two things.
First, the USA isn’t so powerful any more that a change in President makes a huge difference, even when the previous one was as different and often weird and frequently irresponsible as Trump. If you want to be pedantic you could say it is a big change from Trump to Biden but for exogenous reasons, it couldn’t make a huge difference.
Second, while Biden won the vote, it was clear that Trump’s policies and attitudes were far from dead in the water in the USA. Trump won the second most votes of any US presidential candidate ever; only Biden has won more. It was a clear victory in the popular vote but a narrow one in the Electoral College; in the end, the result came down to not many thousands of votes in a few key states, just like Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton. Events in 2022 have only confirmed that reading, not least the extraordinary spectacle of so many Republicans rallying round Trump’s lies about the election result and refusing to take a firm stance against an attempted political coup on 6 January when a mob stormed the Capitol. The result is that whatever Biden wants to do on the international stage, he is all the time having to look over his shoulder at politics at home.
War, peace and security
So for those two big reasons, the difference the new President could make was less than many had expected, other things remained the same or worse, and it played out as a year when things didn’t get better. The tragedy of war continued to afflict too many countries, the pandemic continued with serious economic and social impact on ordinary people, the pressure of climate change and the environmental crisis continued to build. On the other hand, arms control was rescued before total breakdown hit (and there Biden’s arrival did make all the difference), awareness of the dangers of climate change continued to build and, despite mutual hostility on many issues, China and the USA agreed to cooperate in mitigating global warming. And on the other hand again, tensions built over China’s growing pressure on Taiwan and Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine.
I go into the issues and and try to sketch out some of the main lines of concern and possibility in this film.
Climate, environment and Stockholm +50
In 1972, governments met in Stockholm for the first high-level UN conference on what was then called the human environment. In June 2022, there will be a 50th anniversary conference. SIPRI will launch its report, Environment of Peace, the week before.
Seen through the lens of what is happening in the natural environment, from pollution many kinds through sharp declines in biodiversity and biomass to the impact of climate change, the world we live in is the one that the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was convened in order to avoid. According to the UN resolution that authorised it, the purpose was “to limit and, where possible, to eliminate the impairment of the human environment.”
Which hasn’t happened.
Here is a second film that goes into some of the issues and the links to the issues of peace and security that we explore in the Environment of Peace report later this year.