The independent resource on global security

Global security norms and institutions: struggling with new and old uncertainties

Recent editions of the SIPRI Yearbook have pointed to persistent contemporary trends that define and shape developments in global and regional security, armaments and disarmament. These trends underpin a more dynamic and complex global security order where established powers will continue to face constraints, new power centres will emerge, and traditional norms and institutions will struggle to cope with current and future security challenges. SIPRI Yearbook 2012, which will be launched on 4 June, is no exception in this regard. As always, it has been a pleasure to read the various chapters of the Yearbook as they have been developed and edited. The wealth of knowledge and analysis contained in this year's edition provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on the events of 2011, and the implications for global security.

Constraints on established powers

An important and continuing trend in 2011 saw established powers in the world system—especially the USA and its major transatlantic allies—face constraints on their economic, political and military capacities to address global and regional security challenges. These constraints were primarily imposed by budget austerity measures in the wake of the crisis in public finances experienced throughout most of the developed world.

At the same time, uprisings and regime changes in the Arab world drew international attention and responses, including the United Nations-mandated and NATO-led intervention in Libya, which facilitated the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. In Syria, violence continued unabated despite escalating sanctions and other punitive measures, with well over 5000 people, mostly civilians, reportedly killed in 2011. Thousands more lives were lost to armed violence in other parts of the world as well. 

To help bring peace to unstable parts of the world, more than 262 000 peacekeepers in 52 operations were deployed around the world in 2011. The widespread support for and expansion of traditional peace operations over the past decade are also facing constraints in the years ahead. Moreover, the world’s major donors to peace operations—predominantly the advanced economies most badly affected by the global financial crisis—are largely looking to cut back support to multilateral institutions and to focus instead on smaller and quicker missions. This will undoubtedly have an impact on the design and implementation of future interventions in armed conflict around the world. 

Continuing emergence of new powers and non-state actors

A second major trend evident in 2011 involved states around the world outside the traditional US alliance system building greater economic, diplomatic and military capacity to affect regional and, in some cases, global security developments. The remarkable growth in military spending in China, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia is only part of the story. States and state-based regional organizations are not alone in gaining in relative influence and impact. In-depth tracking of armed violence around the world reveals the destabilizing role of non-state actors in prosecuting conflicts and engaging in violence against civilians. 

Unfortunately, the global community has yet to fully grapple with the ongoing structural changes which define today’s dynamic, complex and transnationalized security landscape—changes that often outpace the ability of established institutions and mechanisms to cope with them. It will certainly take time for established and newly emergent powers to reach an effective consensus on the most important requirements for international order, stability and peace, and on how to realize and defend them. 

Major global or regional interstate wars appear unlikely in the near term, but the international system is nevertheless vulnerable to disruptive shocks arising from localized and intensive warfare and interruptions to the flows of people, capital, commodities, technologies and information that help sustain modernizing and stable societies. 

Further, SIPRI research increasingly draws attention to the role of non-state and quasi-state middlemen in the supply chain—brokers, shippers, banks and other financial institutions, scientists, and others—who may knowingly or otherwise play a part in the proliferation of materials, technology and know-how related to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, particularly with respect to so-called intangible transfers of technology.

Struggling norms and institutions

The established powers’ diminished capacity to shape the terms of discussion and implement preferred responses, combined with the diffusion of power to other players in the international system, contributes to a third important trend: struggling norms and institutions. Multilateral organizations tasked with promoting and enforcing norms for stability and security continue to face difficulties in generating the political will and financial resources needed to meet their mandates, and gaps remain which require new or more effective mechanisms.

At the level of high politics, institutions must continue bold reforms that more fully take into account the emerging power relationships among states at the global and regional levels. Expansion and reform of the UN Security Council would be a welcome move towards better reflecting the emergent realities of hard and soft power in the world today, but such measures seem unlikely given the understandable reluctance on the part of the current five permanent members to dilute their influence. Instead, it appears that members of the Security Council will look to regional organizations for political buy-in and, increasingly, material support for action. 

However, such ‘outsourcing’ would be more effective if regional organizations—such as the African Union, the Arab League, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and others—significantly reformed their decision-making structures and improved their capacities for cooperative action in such areas as preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, countering crime, border surveillance, disaster relief, disease surveillance and developmental assistance.

It is also clear that a far greater focus will need to be placed on less militarized solutions to the security challenges ahead. Perhaps most crucially, many of the most important security challenges in the years ahead will not readily lend themselves to traditional military solutions. Instead, what will be needed is an innovative integration of preventive diplomacy, pre-emptive and early-warning technologies, and cooperative transnational partnerships. 

As important as these steps are to take, it will certainly not be easy to create a new framework for relations among the world’s powers, rebalance military and non-military resources, reform institutions and respond to the influence of non-state players. Nevertheless, the rapidly transforming global and regional scene will not wait. As a result, the world is likely to continue to face a lengthy period of uncertainty and a diffuse range of unmet and potentially destabilizing risks and challenges for security, armaments and disarmament. 


SIPRI Yearbook 2012 will be launched on 4 June 2012.