The independent resource on global security

Taking stock of international security

Perceptions of threats to security are both individual and shared. Currently, many share concerns about recent developments in Iran and North Korea, while many also see in the new approach of the United States a glimpse of hope. SIPRIwith its mandate to ‘contribute to an understanding of the conditions for peaceful solution of international conflicts’aims through its annual SIPRI Yearbook to provide a basis on which threats can be assessed and to deliver the most relevant facts for the debate.

In the newly released edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, more than 20 authors from more than a dozen countries detail the increasing threats to security, stability and peace in nearly every corner of the globe. And on top of everything, the effects of the global financial crisis will likely exacerbate all of these challenges as governments and non-governmental organizations struggle to respond effectively. What general global developments are we facing? In what way do recent events indicate where we are heading?

Three key themes emerge from the research and findings in SIPRI Yearbook 2009 which characterize the state of security, armaments and disarmament in the world today: the diffusion and fragmentation of violence; the upward trajectory of military spending, arms production and the arms trade; and the failure of existing mechanisms for reducing the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons and weapons technologies.

Security and conflicts

The international security situation is increasingly characterized by the diffusion and fragmentation of violence, perpetrated by more and more actors, who exact an increasingly dreadful toll on the lives of civilians and render the task of multilateral peace operations and security institutions more difficult and challenging. The situation in Afghanistan illustrates this trend all too well.

While conditions in Afghanistan have worsened, there have been moderate improvements to the security situation in Iraq. A total of 16 major armed conflicts raged on in 2008in places such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, the Philippines, Israel and Colombia – with many gathering intensity. Deliberate violence against civilians by warring parties was increasingly and appallingly common.

Of particular interest in this year’s edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, two of the world’s foremost experts on internally displaced persons (IDPs), Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng, provide an in-depth study on the challenges posed by the mass displacement of civilians as a result of violence. Their analysis details the traumatic scale and impact of violence-related mass displacement, which is an increasingly common feature of contemporary conflict—they report that there are some 26 million IDPs in the world today. They also demonstrate the weaknesses of the international community in responding effectively to the massive displacement of persons as a result of violence.

Relations between Russia and the United States, and between Russia and many of its European neighbours, worsened over much of the past year, highlighted most by the brief but intense conflict between Russia and Georgia in August which left hundreds of civilians and soldiers dead or wounded. The August war, combined with US plans to install elements of a ballistic missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland, undermined Russian–US cooperation on a host of questions, including on global nuclear disarmament and addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indian–Pakistani relations suffered in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November, and 2008 ended with Israel launching one of its most intense assaults in decades against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Military spending and armaments 

Global military spending, arms production and arms trade all continued their overall upward trend in 2008, with global military spending hitting an all-time high of more than $1.4 trillion. This trend was driven primarily by the USA and its decisions and policies related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time of writing, the global financial crisis has not yet had a significant impact on these overall rising trends. Nuclear weapons, while lowering in number worldwide, remain central to the strategic security of their possessors, with some 21 500 warheads in the hands of the known and suspected nuclear weapon states.

Non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control

International institutions and other mechanisms in place to reduce the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons and weapon technologies are struggling to fully meet their goals or adjust to new challenges, even as key non-proliferation and disarmament milestones—such as the May 2010 Review Conference for the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—draw near.

Efforts to stem nuclear proliferation have seen little progress over the past year. Those countries possessing nuclear weapons showed few concrete signs of disarming—indeed many took important steps to significantly improve their arsenals—while those which aspire to a nuclear weapon capability took further steps towards that goal, capped most recently with North Korea’s nuclear test last month. One of the world’s most sophisticated and acclaimed conventional arms control agreements—the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty—was in abeyance throughout 2008 following Russia’s unilateral decision in December 2007 to suspend its participation in the treaty.

Promising developments

The past year also saw some promising developments. One of the most positive was the signature of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Oslo in December by 94 states, including 18 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The CCM prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. In addition, the goal of nuclear disarmament continued to receive senior-level attention and endorsement from high-ranking former officials and serving political leaders in the USA and Europe.

High expectations generated by the election of Barack Obama as US President carried with them hopes for a sound exit strategy from Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan and changes in the way in which the USA engages with the international community. Expectations are also high that President Obama will seek to rebuild transatlantic relations, establish more productive relations with Russia, reach out to the Muslim world and devote more time and energy to improving the security situation in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Pakistan, and relations with Iran.

However, looking ahead, the newly released SIPRI Yearbook 2009 underscores just what a difficult task that will be. The fragmentation of violence in weak states of the developing world appears set to continue and carry with it protracted suffering for civilians and further regional instabilities. The security situation in Afghanistan is likely to worsen before long-hoped-for stability and development can be achieved, with the security situation in neighbouring Pakistan—arguably a more important long-term concern for regional and global security—also raising new concerns. Russia and the USA may be able to improve relations quickly in the coming year, including cooperation on arms control and non-proliferation. Nonetheless, a successful NPT Review Conference in 2010—and progress on disarmament and tightened controls against would-be proliferators—seems far from certain, even as high-profile efforts are mobilized to ensure such progress.

The effects of the world financial crisis will probably exacerbate these and other challenges as key countries find it difficult to muster the necessary political and economic will to collectively address global and regional security problems.

In the face of these challenges, policymakers and strategic analysts require authoritative and comprehensive information and insight across the full range of issues concerning international security, armaments and disarmament. SIPRI Yearbook 2009 provides such a resource.


Dr Bates Gill was Director of SIPRI between 2007–2012.