“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.
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.
The extension of the US-Russian New START agreement on strategic nuclear weapons was achieved through the exchange of two sets of diplomatic notes between the respective governments, on 26 January and 3 February. The process was super-straightforward. Both President Putin of Russia and Joe Biden while US President-elect made clear they would each favour extension. The day after inauguration President Biden officially confirmed the position. A few days later, it was done. This was the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Good to have gotten it out of the way (and stupid that the previous administration let it go down to the wire) but now the real work starts.
So Joe Biden, as anticipated, has moved quickly to arrange with Russia the extension of the New START bilateral nuclear arms control agreement. Signed in 2010, taking effect in 2011, and due to expire on 5 February this year, the treaty permits extension for up to five years by mutual consent.
The good people at Deutsche Welle asked me the two key questions – “Is this good news?” “Why”? And let me answer them on their 8 o’clock bulletin yesterday evening.
For a more extended discussion, Jan Eliasson and I put out our thoughts earlier this week. In brief, as I argued in my previous post, in a tough period with a complex set of issues, the approach on arms control of the new US President is welcome. He faces some demanding tasks. And the first signs are positive.
There are so many crucial items on the global agenda that one struggles to keep up (though I do wonder whether there really are more now than there used to be or does it just feel that way?). Covid-19 and its economic consequences, the likely increase in extreme poverty and hunger, climate change and the rest of the compound environmental crisis, the attack on democracy in the world’s richest and most powerfully armed state, rising inequality, toxic geopolitics, intractable armed conflicts. And more. This does not seem to be a happy age that we are living through.
In this (rather lengthy) post, I focus on prospects for arms control in 2021. The big challenge is how to make progress against such an unpromising backdrop.