In the 1990s the world entered into a relatively peaceful period due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing détente of Cold War tensions. Military spending, nuclear armament, and the global arms trade all entered into a decline that lasted until 2010. International institutions such as the UN simultaneously entered into a period of diplomatic productivity, which fostered more stable peace agreements and cooperation. But since 2010, pressures from climate change, competition for natural resources, shifting balance of power, have contributed to the end of the global peace dividend and the weakening of the international community. The upsurge of military spending and the global arms trade have given rise to a new form of hybrid warfare that combines interstate and intrastate warfare, both elongating and worsening armed conflicts. Here are the key takeaways from a panel at the World Economic Forum Davos meetings this past January, which discussed strategic geography and the global arms market. In the 1990s the world experienced a peace dividend. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War precipitated a détente of global tension in which armed conflicts, nuclear warheads, and military spending all decreased. As the threat of nuclear war abated the United Nations was able to spend more time and resources on peace making. Consequently, the international community learned how to sustain peace agreements, decreasing the 50% fail rate of peace agreements to 20%. In 1990 the world was armed and warring. World military spending, led by the United States, equaled 1.5 trillion dollars. There were 70,000 nuclear warheads worldwide. Fifty armed conflicts were ongoing, and the global arms trade was booming. By 1995 the world looked a lot brighter. Military spending fell to 1.1 trillion dollars. Peace talks led by the UN convinced the new states armed with soviet nuclear weapons to give up their missiles. The arms trade evened out. This untold good news story continued until 2010, by which time armed conflicts had fallen to 30. This peace dividend was precipitated by the détente of tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. As the threat of world war decreased military spending and the creation of nuclear warheads also decreased, allowing the UN to spend more resources on peace making. During this time diplomatic productivity increased sharply and the international community was able to more reliably sustain peace agreements long term. In 2010 the pressures of climate change and the changing balance of power worldwide ended the peace dividend. The rising pressures of climate change have fostered fundamental disagreements among world powers that are exacerbated by shifting balance of power. Climate change pressure exacerbates domestic and regional instability by highlighting rising economic inequality. As necessary resources become scarcer, the inability of poorer nations and individuals to obtain them will highlight economic inequality. Water scarcity in South Africa, for example, highlights how the rich can pay for water, while the poor cannot. Changing balance of power has damaged the international community. The international community is built upon global leaders, especially the United States, staunchly defending the validity of the international community. Some world leaders, however, have shown little respect for the institutions that are the cornerstone of the international community. The weakening of international institutions has led to a breakdown of the diplomatic productivity achieved during the peace dividend of the 1990s. Corruption is endemic in both domestic governments and international institutions. Although endemic corruption is not necessarily the cause of diplomatic breakdown, it could contribute to unrest in combination with rising inequality and the increased transparency caused by improving technology and connectivity. The face of conflict today is changing. The distinction between intrastate and interstate conflict is disintegrating, leading to the combination of illicit arms and the industrialization of war. Intrastate and interstate conflicts have begun to bleed together. The combination of illicit arms, which are endemic of intrastate conflicts, and the industrialization of warfare, which is endemic of interstate conflicts has forced actors to fracture into smaller groups. The increase of actors makes peace talks much more complicated, elongating conflicts. At the same time the industrialization of these conflicts unleashes much more extensive damage throughout the conflict. The solution to the mixing of intrastate and interstate conflicts lies in preventing them in the first place. Once the mixing of intrastate and interstate violence has begun they are by nature almost impossible to end completely. Instead, third parties must take early action to prevent the conflicts. Also, the international community must work to decrease global inequality, which feeds the grievances that build the armies. The distinction between peace and war has disintegrated. As new forms of warfare such as cyber warfare and terrorism have become prevalent and are difficult to place in the context of existing norms. International institutions, such as NATO, however, were founded on these norms and were designed for a global system in which peace and conflict are distinct. As such, institutions such as NATO are in norm crisis and are in need of norm leaders.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.