Each February, leaders, policy-makers, thinkers and practitioners in the field of security, broadly defined, get together at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich for a three day international conference. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, Germany’s then Chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened her speech by reflecting on the world’s entry into a new geochronological age – the Anthropocene Epoch.
She explained, “This means that we are living in an age in which humankind’s traces penetrate so deeply into the Earth that future generations will regard it as an entire age created by humans.” She briefly touched on different human impacts on the environment and then said, “All of this has implications for global security and for the issues that are being discussed right here, right now.”
You know, it is easy to understand how it gets to be a drag, having to think about things in new and different ways.
If you have been working on international development over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, in a government, or inter-governmental agencies, or non-governmental organisations, or switching among them, you will know what I mean. First there was development, then you had to add gender and human rights, then environment, and then conflict and peace. Wouldn’t it be great to get back to working just on development? And those folk over there could work on environment or gender or peace and conflict if they want and, you know, just get on with stuff.
Likewise, there are complaints and doubts within the humanitarian community about how their work is complicated by the people who want them to think about development and peace as well as simply meeting immediate human needs.
But watch out. As they say, people who are wise: be careful what you wish for.
In various governments among the traditional donors of international development assistance, things are beginning to unfold that could lead to a distinct narrowing of focus, leaving much of development and peace out of the picture and concentrating on meeting humanitarian emergencies.
This blog post is about one reason – an environmental reason – why that is deeply problematic, why it is essential to grasp the nettle and think about the full range of problems that confront peace and development today. Just one reason among several. The argument swings on the big changes in human impact on the environment that have unfolded since about 1950.
I hope my levity does not make it seem as if I am dismissing the human reality of the horrors we have witnessed in 2022 or downplaying the seriousness of the events and their implications. But it is the way I express my assessment of the year in a brief interview filmed and disseminated as part of SIPRI’s Peace Points series.
It has been a year of war, crisis, the impact of climate change, growing hunger in poorer countries, and increased cost of living everywhere – rich and poor countries alike. And it came on the back of three years of pandemic for most of the world and a fourth year for China.
There is no point in sugaring the pill. The upshot is that this has been a bad year for peace and security . The only way we can figure out how to deal with all of that is to face it head-on with eyes open. Here’s the film.
The bright spot is that more people are paying attention. That’s the starting point for something better.
In the last couple of months I have been writing and posting articles based on the material assembled for the policy report, Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Riskthat SIPRI published in May and first launched at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Now, with not a little sigh of relief combined with a real sense of achievement, SIPRI has published the research on which the policy report is based.
It is published in four parts.
Part 1, which I had the honour of being the lead author for, is entitled ‘Elements of a Planetary Emergency’.
Part 2, led by Cedric de Coning, is ‘Security Risks of Environmental Crises’.
Part 3, led by Geoff Dabelko, is ‘Navigating a Just and Peaceful Transition’.
And Part 4, led by Melvis Ndiloseh and Hafsa Maalim, is ‘Enabling an Environment of Peace’.
It’s a pretty chunky read – 277 pages and, for those who like to keep count, 1648 endnotes with the supporting references. The five lead authors were backed by a team of about 30 researchers and guided by an international advisory panel.
At the close of 2022, perhaps some of us risk feeling overwhelmed. It is crisis, crisis, crisis all over the place: hunger, biodiversity, energy, economy, supply chains, mental health, security, migration, cost of living and climate. If we manage not to turn away from all of them, it is all too tempting to focus on one or two, either as the magic key for solving the whole lot, or because that’s all the mind can handle.
The uncomfortable fact is that these crises are connected and interacting. The aim of the Environment of Peace initiative that SIPRI set going in 2020 is to understand and explain how those interconnections work, and show how knowing about them can be turned to advantage as we find inter-connected solutions.
Probably the full research report is not everybody’s cup of green tea. But the policy report could be. I didn’t have a hand in writing it so I can contentedly say it is extremely well written and clearly presented and super-well worth the read. And for those who want to explore more deeply or check out the underlying evidence and analytical foundations, the full research report is there for you.
War is not glorious. As we see this year in Ukraine, Ethiopia and almost 50 other continuing wars and armed conflicts, people are killed and, some of us, ordered to kill. People are maimed, terrified, forced into hiding and flight, and traumatised. Even without what are known as war crimes – such as torture, kidnapping, killing civilians whether close up or from long range – war is, as a US Civil War General said, hell.
And after the war? The effects of destruction are lasting because the natural environment is all too often another casualty of armed conflicts.
2022: the year of insecurity – Ukraine, Taiwan, Ethiopia, happening against a background, as my last blog post set out, of record military spending, with refugee numbers already at a record high. It is tempting to think that this means we need to junk woolly thoughts about human security and suchlike and get back to old-style basics, in which security lies in a strong defence, in power, to be blunt, and more of it than any adversary has. It’s what is called realism in the study of international relations and the realist temptation today seems strong.
It is the direction in which the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan seem to be pushing us. A return to realism, hardening up NATO against Russia, though it’s worth acknowledging that the demand to get Western policy ‘back to realism’ is a long-standing idea . But why ever and whenever, it’s all about recognising that, if you get into trouble, only the exertion of power will get you out and that’s how it’s been for thousands of years.
Mm-hmm, except that 2022 is also the year of climate change: drought in China and Europe, floods in Pakistan, both in the Horn of Africa, unfolding in a context of several other aspects of serious environmental deterioration, as my last blog post also set out.
And since this means that the mix of challenges on today’s security horizon is not only complex and worrisome but also unprecedented, it suggests there is a need to think hard about what we mean by security – the security of whom or what, and against what – and, indeed, to be ready to rethink.
Global insecurity today is shaped by the combination of an environmental crisis, in which climate change is prominent but by no means the only element, and a darkening security horizon. These twin crises are linked: each worsens the other so steps to address them can and should also be linked.
Nature and peace: damage one, damage the other; protect one, enhance the other.
To identify possible remedies for the global malady, we need to understand the intersection of problems and issues. But it may be useful to begin by looking at the components. After all, insecurity is not just one thing, nor is the environmental crisis. There are diverse indicators of each.
This is the year when we face the reality of a dark horizon for global security. War in Ukraine since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its not-so-stealthy takeover of parts of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has escalated with the Russian invasion in February. Meanwhile, confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan has intensified and there are approximately 50 other active armed conflicts worldwide.
At the same time, in case anybody has forgotten, this is the year of climate change – the worst heatwave on record in China, a once in 500 years drought in Europe, complete with the re-emergence of hunger stones in major rivers for the first time in centuries, drought and record heat in India, massive flooding in Pakistan, drought and surging food insecurity in the Horn of Africa…
The twin crises of security and the environment add up to a planetary emergency. The heavy events of 2022 on both the security and the environmental sides of the equation are symptoms of deep, underlying problems. The further problem is that the two crises are linked: each feeds the other.
And behind them is a third problem, in that governments and international organisations alike lack adequate mechanisms and instruments for addressing these environmental and security challenges.
Western commentators on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war are frequently using the term, ‘quagmire’ – a bog, swamp or morass, from which, once you have entered, it is between hard and impossible to get out, as every move you make to free yourself sucks you deeper in. The term was widely used in the 1960s about the USA’s war in Vietnam.
As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out in one of his commentaries on the war, the term has a closely related partner – escalation, which might seem to a state stuck in a quagmire like the only way out. Both terms have a history and have considerable currency when analysing the problems and risks big states face in wars with smaller states.
But there is another metaphor from the time of the Vietnam War and all those arguments and debates, which I find even richer – the six-sided box. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has taken his country into a box from which it is hard to see the way out. And that is bad news for everyone.
Well, yes, of course it is. All that is needed to start the process is that Russia, which started the war with its invasion, decides not to continue and pulls back.
That’s all that’s needed to start a peace process. But much more will be needed to sustain it and generate a real peace in Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine. Much more and many years and the process will always be fragile.