The independent resource on global security

A breakdown in cooperation puts us all at risk

'Warlords, ganglords and militias', The State of the World Atlas, pp 100–101.
'Warlords, ganglords and militias', The State of the World Atlas, pp 100–101.

Earlier this year, I took on the task of writing the introductions to two surveys of the contemporary global landscape. One was SIPRI Yearbook 2020, our annual review of armaments, disarmament and international security. The other was a far broader, if less analytical, project: the 10th edition of The State of the World Atlas.

This edition of the atlas is my fifth since 1999. Much has changed since its predecessor was published in 2013. Seven years ago, the recovery from the economic and financial crises of 2007–2008 was in full swing. Democracy was growing, and trends in peace and conflict and in human health looked positive. In the intervening years there has been much to celebrate: the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, recognizing that social, environmental and economic development are inseparable and interdependent and the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change, among many others. But my assessment in both books this year was less upbeat.

Drafting introductions to the two books, more or less simultaneously, was enlightening. The SIPRI Yearbook focuses on peace and conflict, security and insecurity. The State of the World Atlas includes those but also much else that forms the context. I saw how similar trends are manifesting themselves in different areas. There are the impacts of climate change—both within and beyond the field of security; the gradual shifts in economic and geopolitical power; and, perhaps the most striking and arguably the most worrisome of all, a trend against cooperation in many spheres. This trend poses a serious threat to our capacity to rise to current and future challenges, as well as to the fruits of decades of extraordinary progress.

A great disengagement?

Signs of failure to pull together, as societies and as a global community, are hard to miss—from the growing number of armed conflicts and shrinking number of peace operations, to the crisis in arms control, to the toxic trade war between the United States and China and the seemingly relentless accumulation of wealth by the world’s richest, even as economic shocks have blighted the lives of ordinary people since 2007. 

On the ever more visible climate crisis, wealthier countries continue to obstruct progress on ‘loss and damage’ assistance to the most vulnerable countries, and the USA has given notice that it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement—potentially in less than a month from now—despite being the world’s second-biggest (and historically the biggest) emitter of carbon dioxide. 

As I have noted in successive editions of the SIPRI Yearbook, none of the world’s three leading powers seems fully committed to the international status quo. China, Russia and especially the USA have all flouted international norms and undermined multilateral agreements and institutions, either by their own actions or by failing to condemn the actions of others. 

Other key beneficiaries of the status quo have done disappointingly little to try to counteract that negative influence from the big powers. The European Union (EU), whose success owes so much to cooperation and respect for international law, is pre-occupied with Brexit and bitter divisions over migration and the handling of asylum seekers. However, the EU, China and Russia have all so far continued to support the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the so-called Iran nuclear deal—and the assessments of the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite the USA’s withdrawal. We should not forget that the situation is not uniformly bad and that many cooperative institutions continue to function well.

Bordered solutions to borderless problems

There is a certain irony in the fact that this assault on international cooperation, this retreat behind borders, comes at a time when the most critical challenges we face are effectively borderless. Climate change is an obvious example. Global supply chains link consumers to environmental destruction and human rights abuses—and make them vulnerable to shocks—happening far beyond their own countries. Cyber espionage, disinformation and online radicalization have proved virtually impossible to stop at the border. None of these problems can be addressed effectively by countries going it alone.

Offshore finance is another telling example. In The State of the World Atlas I have devoted four pages to the Panama and Paradise Papers, two data leaks in 2016 and 2017 that gave a glimpse of the harm being done by secretive, untransparent offshore financial flows to jurisdictions offering minimal taxes and maximum anonymity. Among the trillions of dollars finding their way to these havens are the proceeds of organized crime, conflict and corruption, as well as legitimate profits, being hidden from the authorities of the countries where the money was made. All of these activities can weaken, and even destabilize, states.

The State of the World Atlas maps how individual countries responded to the Panama and Paradise Papers leaks. These responses ranged from punishing the media who reported the news to, in the best cases, legislation to try to stem the flow of money offshore. But the reality is that any attempts to intervene face almost insurmountable difficulties because in today’s international system, money has no borders. It can move between jurisdictions much faster than official investigations can. Only comprehensive international cooperation and a new legal framework will be effective.

The new realism

When states flout international law with impunity, violate norms, break agreements or abandon treaties, the damage done goes beyond the acts themselves. Cooperation depends on having confidence in how partners will act in the future. 

Maverick nationalism often plays well in domestic polls, and unpredictability may offer some temporary, tactical advantage. But ultimately it is a losing strategy. The idea that any state can prosper today by going it alone is a dangerous fantasy, one with consequences for all of us. 

Indeed, if the past century of international affairs offers one lesson it is that cooperation works. Its benefits for peace, prosperity and progress far outweigh its costs in terms of limiting each state’s freedom of action. In short, cooperation is the new realism.

The Stockholm Security Conference

A first step in reinvigorating cooperation is to discuss common challenges; to share insights, experience and perspectives; and to jointly explore potential ways forward. 

That is one aim of the conferences that SIPRI convenes each year—the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development in May (co-convened with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs) and the Stockholm Security Conference in November.

The 2020 Stockholm Security Conference takes place next month, with the theme ‘International Cooperation: Navigating the Way Ahead’. Thanks to COVID-19, we have had to organize it online. But just as positive developments so often come out of crises, this offers the opportunity for a far larger and more diverse group to take part than has been able to in previous years. I hope you will join us.


The Stockholm Security Conference will take place online on 17–20 November 2020. Click here for more information.

The State of the World, 10th edition, by Dan Smith is published today by Myriad Editions in the United Kingdom and in February 2021 by Penguin Books in the USA.


Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.