State of the World 2005 Trends and Facts -- Security Redefined

“Acts of terror and the dangerous reactions to them are like exclamation marks in a toxic brew of profound socioeconomic, environmental, and political pressures—forces that together create a tumultuous and less stable world.”

progress in global disarmament: 1985-2002 Security concerns are once more at the top of the world’s agenda. But terrorism is only symptomatic of a far broader set of deep concerns that have produced a new age of anxiety. Among these are endemic poverty, convulsive economic transitions that cause growing inequality and high unemployment, international crime, the spread of deadly armaments, large-scale population movements, recurring natural disasters, ecosystem breakdown, new and resurgent communicable diseases, and rising competition over land and other natural resources.

Many of these “problems without passports” are likely to worsen in the years ahead. They are compounded by weak and corrupt public institutions, the lack of recourse to justice for many people, and an uneven process of globalization.

Shared Risks and Vulnerabilities

“Policies that seek security primarily by military means but fail to address underlying factors of instability will likely trigger a downward spiral of violence and instability, and quite possibly a collapse of international rules and norms.”

Today’s security challenges tend to be more diffuse, less predictable, and more multidimensional than those of the Cold War era. Unlike traditional threats emanating from an adversary, they are better understood as shared risks and vulnerabilities. They cannot be resolved by raising military expenditures or dispatching troops. Nor can they be contained by sealing borders or maintaining the status quo in a highly unequal world.

The need for international cooperation has grown stronger, even as new rifts and divides have opened up. The North-South relationship is marred by enormous imbalances of livelihood, wealth, and power. The sole remaining superpower—the United States—has an increasingly contentious relationship with the rest of the world. And the critical structural changes and innovations needed to generate effective global governance, among them proposals to reform the U.N. Security Council or create a much stronger U.N. environmental body, have fallen victim to political paralysis.

Core Insights

Many of the threats and challenges we face cannot be resolved within the traditional framework of national security. Growing efforts to refine and redefine our understanding of security have led to several core insights, which are as relevant today as ever:

  • Weapons do not necessarily provide security.
  • Real security in a globalizing world cannot be provided on a purely national basis.
  • The traditional focus on state (or regime) security is inadequate. If individuals and communities are insecure, state security itself can be extremely fragile.
  • Nonmilitary dimensions have an important influence on security and stability.

Dimensions of Instability

Infectious disease, unemployment, climate change, and other global challenges could cross thresholds or trigger political dynamics that may well render them security challenges. While these strains and pressures do not automatically or necessarily trigger violence, insecurity can manifest itself in ways other than violent conflict, compromising the well-being and viability of society in fundamental ways.

Natural resources are at the core of a number of conflicts. Non-renewable resources such as oil and minerals fuel geopolitical rivalries, clashes with indigenous peoples, and sometimes finance civil wars. Disputes also arise over renewable natural resources such as water, arable land, and forests. The effects of environmental breakdown often reinforce social and economic inequities or deepen ethnic and political fault lines.

Food security is at the intersection of poverty, water availability, land distribution, and environmental degradation, as well as the impacts of factory farming and monocultures. About 1.4 billion people, almost all of them in developing countries, confront environmental fragility in the form of arid or marginal land, poor soil quality, and land scarcity.

Disease burdens can in some cases be sufficiently severe to undermine economies and threaten social stability. Infectious diseases and other pathogens are crossing borders with increasing ease. And AIDS cripples affected societies at all levels, undermining a state’s overall resilience and its ability to govern and provide for basic human needs.

Ecosystem destruction and other human actions are setting the stage for more frequent and more devastating natural disasters. The pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more intense storms, flooding, heat waves, and droughts. The result may be a growing number of environmental refugees.

Lack of employment, uncertain economic prospects, and rapid population growth make for a potentially volatile mix. Youth unemployment is skyrocketing to record levels. And when large numbers of young men feel frustrated in their search for status and livelihood, they can be a destabilizing force if their discontent pushes them into crime or into joining militias or extremist groups.

Indicators of Instability

  • Whereas about 300,000 people were killed in armed conflicts in 2000, as many people die each and every month because of contaminated water or lack of adequate sanitation.
  • World hunger—after falling steadily during the first half of the 1990s—grew again and now afflicts some 800 million people.
  • Desertification puts an estimated 135 million people worldwide at risk of being driven from their lands.
  • Three times as many people—250 million—were affected by natural disaster events in 2003 as in 1990.
  • Given population growth, nearly 3 billion people—40 percent of the projected world population—will live in water-stressed countries by 2015.
  • A 2004 report from the International Labour Organization found that three quarters of the world’s workers live in circumstances of economic insecurity.
  • More than 200 million young people are either unemployed or do not earn enough to support a family.

A Shared Conception of Security

The global North and South tend to view security challenges in very different ways—one focused on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the other preoccupied with issues of poverty and underdevelopment. A shared conception of security among rich and poor can only be developed by understanding that many of the present challenges are in fact common risks and vulnerabilities that require joint solutions.

Achieving greater security will depend in part on meeting traditional security challenges, such as limiting the spread of weapons and resolving conflicts before they become violent. Despite some notable achievements, the 1990s were also a decade of missed opportunities, and now Western countries are increasingly focused on non-proliferation instead of universally-binding measures. World military expenditures have risen to close to $1 trillion a year. Yet the international community’s investment in disarmament, conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and post-conflict reconstruction remains inadequate.

The War on Terror: A Narrow Perspective?

The war on terrorism has caused government policies and media coverage in many countries to once again focus on an overly narrow slice of security challenges and to revert to a stronger reliance on military tools. A number of measures undertaken in the name of anti-terrorism may well perpetuate a cycle of violence. These actions have undermined international cooperation, weakened human rights laws and other international norms, and played into the hands of extremists who thrive on a “clash of civilizations.”

The Iraq war is seen by the Bush administration as the “central front in the war on terror,” yet it has opened a Pandora’s Box of violence and chaos. Rather than striking a blow against terrorism, the occupation has turned the country into a potent new recruiting ground for extremists and accelerated the radicalization of the Islamic world.

The war on terror also threatens to sideline the struggle against poverty, health epidemics, and environmental degradation, draining scarce resources away from the root causes of insecurity. Estimates suggest that programs to provide clean water and sewage systems would cost roughly $37 billion annually; to cut world hunger in half, $24 billion; to prevent soil erosion, another $24 billion; to provide reproductive health care for all women, $12 billion; to eradicate illiteracy, $5 billion; and to provide immunization for every child in the developing world, $3 billion.

The Road Ahead

“If conflict prevention that addresses the core dynamics and structural reasons for insecurity is not forthcoming, then the world will always be confronted by the stark choice of military intervention or doing nothing.”

Humanitarian intervention is now often offered as the solution to the world’s conflicts. But not only will such interventions invariably be carried out by the strong against the weak, they end up elevating the power of military institutions.

There is no need to limit ourselves to dead-end choices, however. There are many social, economic, and environmental policies that can help create a more just and sustainable world and that can turn shared vulnerabilities into opportunities for joint action. Such policies not only make sense in their own right, but they offer the added bonus of creating real security in a way that the force of arms never can.

Redefining Security: Core Principles

At least three core principles derive from a redefinition of security. A new security policy needs to be:

  • Transformative—strengthening civilian, not military institutions.
  • Preventive—addressing the root causes of conflicts and insecurity, not the symptoms.
  • Cross-cutting and integrative—drawing on the strengths and insights of different disciplines and transcending academic and bureaucratic boundaries.

Discussion Questions:
  1. In what ways are alternative interpretations of security (such as "human security") different from the traditional national security approach?
  2. What are the underlying pressures leading to instability and conflicts today?
  3. Why do some states fail? And what are the possible consequences of state failure?
  4. Do rich and poor countries face divergent security challenges?
  5. Do weapons create security? Explain your reasoning.
  6. Is there sufficient funding for important social and environmental programs worldwide? Are such programs affordable?

Further information as well as the references for this material is available in State of the World 2005.