Chances for Peace, the second decade
THE WORLD faces immense and unavoidable security, climate and economic
tests. In the effort to meet them, the second decade of the 21st
century is crucial.
The next thirty years, until the mid-2040s, will be hugely challenging
in the effort to establish worldwide peace and security. A combination
of deepening socio-economic divisions and accelerating environmental
limits, especially the impact of climate change, represents an
unavoidable test. What are the underlying reasons for the predicament
and what needs to be done? Will it be possible to move to a more
equitable, emancipated and low-carbon world, and if so, how? A new
report from the Oxford Research Group seeks to answer these questions,
and argues that the second decade of the 21st century is the vital
period for effecting change.
The report, entitled Chances for Peace in the Second Decade: What Is
Going Wrong and What We Must Do - is rooted in a historical
perspective. During the superpower "cold war" from 1945-90 there were
many "proxy wars" waged in the global south that killed more than 10
million people. At the same time, the nuclear arms-race peaked at over
60,000 nuclear warheads, with many nuclear accidents and dangerous
crises along the way; it was more by luck than wisdom that the world
survived without armed nuclear catastrophe. The cold-war era also saw
massive expenditure on the military, diverting resources and attention
from much more important human needs. Even now, there is great peril
in nuclear proliferation, even if it is less that of tipping over a
precipice into all-out disaster and more of a slippage towards “small
nuclear wars in far-off places”.
The cold war ended in the late 1980s. The west's security attitudes in
the 1990s were captured in the incoming CIA chief R James Woolsey's
comment that the United States had slayed the Soviet dragon but now
inhabited a jungle full of poisonous snakes. When that “jungle” bit
back (including with the 9/11 atrocities), the only response to be
considered was to crush that part of it in an all-out “war on terror”.
The result in the 2000s was the appalling loss of life in the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the al-Qaida idea retained its potency,
not least in south Asia, northern Africa and the middle east. In the
process, the west lost the will to put tens of thousands of "boots on
the ground"; instead, it is now moving into an era of “remote control”
in which armed drones, special forces, private military companies,
intense expeditionary warfare and rendition all play a part in keeping
the lid on threats to security.
Yet it is now clear that the challenges facing humankind stem from
much more substantial drivers of change: the inability of the global
economic system to deliver socio-economic justice, and the failure of
both political and economic systems to respond to environmental
limits, especially the potentially disastrous consequences of climate
The financial crisis of 2008 made only a marginal dent in conventional
economic wisdom. The orthodoxy is still that the west may have a few
years of austerity, with a little bit more financial regulation to
patch up the system, before a vigorous return to the old ways in which
upcoming countries play a leading role. It sounds plausible, but
leaves out the basic inability of the system to deliver fairness.
Free-market capitalism is rooted in difference, and always produces
plenty of losers. But the disadvantaged on the margins, who are in the
majority in so many countries, are also today much better educated,
have greater access to communications than ever before, and are far
more likely to resent their exclusion and react against it.
In practice, this might be expressed in the Naxal rebellion in India,
social unrest in China, protest from the much better educated and
knowledgable youthful Arab generations, or even recourse to radical
and sometimes brutal faith-based movements. The response from the
powerful might be to seek to maintain control, whether within or
between states; but this is guaranteed to produce yet more resentment
and anger. Meanwhile, environmental limits encroach remorselessly;
and, in the case of climate disruption, accelerate steadily.
The end result, at least on present trends, recalls Edwin Brookes's
dystopic future expressed in the 1970s: of “a crowded, glowering
planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force
yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes…”.
That is the negative scenario. The Oxford Research Group report tries,
in a very tentative way, to suggest some positive outcomes. In the
simplest of terms, the way ahead is straightforward - though
translating the obvious into the actual is far from easy. Severe
climate change has to be prevented by a rapid transition to low-carbon
economies, with the main carbon-emitters of the global north having to
decrease carbon outputs by 80% in less than two decades. The lesser
emitters must be enabled to develop along economic paths that are
truly sustainable, aided substantially by the northern states that
have been responsible so far for the great majority of emissions.
Such an environmental transition has to be paralleled directly by an
economic transformation to a far more equitable and emancipated
system, both transnationally and within states. For the global south,
this involves much greater debt-relief and the linking of trade with
development in a manner similar to that advocated by UNCTAD in the
1960s but never implemented - a genuine "new international economic
order". Technological innovations may well help, not least in adapting
to the level of climate change that is already inevitable; and a rapid
transition to versatile renewable-energy sources, often seriously
localised, can enhance economic autonomy.
The sheer size of the task is enough to induce a feeling of profound
powerlessness, but this needs to be met head-on with a sense born of
combined hope and history.
Thirty years ago, in the early 1980s, there was a palpable fear of
nuclear annihilation and doubts whether the world would make it to
1990 - yet we did. Thirty years before that, some far-sighted
politicians sought European economic cooperation as a means of
preventing a third European civil war. The European Union has many
problems, but a Franco-German conflict is now almost inconceivable.
There are numerous recent examples where warning-signs have been
heeded and steps rapidly taken. The shock of the Cuban missile crisis
in October 1962, for example, helped stimulate a raft of arms-control
treaties later in that decade; and the discovery of the Antarctic
“ozone hole” in 1983 led to the Montreal convention to control the
pollutant causes of ozone-depletion.
The equivalent for climate change - the "canary in the coal-mine” -
might well turn out to be the increasing incidence of severe weather
events. But dynamic responses to environmental limits and the
socio-economic divide will come fast enough only if these are
underpinned by enough new thinking. If prophecy is “suggesting the
possible”, then bring on the prophets and their movements!
There are, fortunately, quite a few of these around already. Britain
alone has many pioneers, among them the New Economics Foundation's
"great transition" project, the "transition towns" movement, or even
the delightfully named "incredible edible Todmorden" (based in an
innovative west Yorkshire town) and its many offshoots. The work of
the Centre for Alternative Technology is as imaginative as ever, and
Oxford Research Group's work on "sustainable security" does its best
with modest resources to take on conventional security thinking.
On a worldwide level, many economic alternatives already exist - from
the small and startlingly different (such as self-managing communes or
industrial zones) to vast associations such as the cooperative
movement with around 950 million members. The former have many
opportunities to grow, while the latter are fully embedded in many
societies yet still full of potential.
An earlier column in this series proposed that the hundred-year period
between the mid-20th and mid-21st centuries is proving crucial to
humanity's future, by testing our ability to contain and avert two
risks of self-destruction: the production and use of weapons of
gargantuan destructive power, and the wreckage of the global
environment and distinct societies within it (see "A century on the
edge", 29 December 2007).
On the eve of 2013, more than two-thirds of the way through this
pivotal century, the picture is mixed. Those terrible weapons were
unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the very start of the period,
but so far there has (again, by luck more than wisdom) been no
repetition. The risk remains, however - alongside that of
environmental destruction and of deep economic divisions.
In addressing these dangers, the early decades of this century are
key. The chances are with us, and much of the knowledge is there too.
But we are nearly into the third year of the second decade and time is
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at
Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's
international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on
global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly
briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re
Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global
Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is
on twitter at: @ProfPRogers