The independent resource on global security

Oct. 10: Europe’s history offers lessons for today’s security challenges

Göran Lennmarker

Twentieth-century Europe was at several times the most horrific place on earth. Perhaps as many as 100 000 000 people were killed by war and oppression. Two world wars started here. Concentration camps and gulags were used as instruments of utter repression. National socialism, communism and fascism were all European inventions. But Europe has learned a valuable lesson from its terrible failures: that peace, democracy and prosperity must be built together.

In several parts of the world, tense relations between neighbours pose major threats to regional peace and security. The capacity of the international community to promote peaceful solutions will certainly be tested. Sudan’s referendum on partitioning the country risks triggering a terrible war. If the talks between Israel and Palestine do not produce a peaceful settlement and a Palestinian state next year, the Middle East will slide further into disarray and extremists on both sides will be strengthened. Disappointment may cause another war. Fears that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons are also raising tensions in the Middle East. The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be deteriorating, which puts the stability of Eurasia at risk.

The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and NATO have critical roles to play, but in each case as outsiders. Inclusive and cooperative regional solutions will be needed for long-term stability and peace.

In this context, European experiences in peacebuilding through integration may prove invaluable. Strong institutions based on common values are the core of European integration. In my own parliamentary experience working with the EU, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the strong link between human rights, democracy and enduring security has been demonstrated time and again. Within Europe’s borders, this will be important to bear in mind when we seek solutions to the remaining security problems in the Western Balkans and the easternmost reaches of Europe.

European solutions cannot always easily be transferred to other continents. Conditions are different and historical experiences vary. Sometimes memories of colonialism make it harder to listen to Europe. Nevertheless, countries should try. To ignore European experience means to ignore tried and tested solutions to many of the key security challenges of the present: and perhaps repeating avoidable human tragedies.  

Africa needs a stronger security order to prevent and manage conflicts. The founding of the African Union was an important step towards Africa developing an indigenous capacity to solve its own problems. However, outside support will still be needed―from the EU, the UN and others―to deal with the fallout of a possible break-up of Sudan.

With the Middle East peace process at a critical juncture and the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran, this region badly needs an inclusive security architecture. Security for both Israelis and Palestinians and for their neighbours is a prerequisite for peace settlements. If the Gulf region were included, it might be easier to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability. As we have seen in Europe, long-term hostilities do not necessarily preclude the forming of some sort of common security, perhaps also including a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Afghanistan and Central Asia are surrounded by five large countries: China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. All are worried about Afghanistan’s future. If the country descends into civil war or falls under an authoritarian dictatorship there is a high risk that its weaker neighbours will be destabilized. At the same time, mutual distrust between the bigger neighbours is high and none wants to see any of the others gaining too much influence in Afghanistan. The shaping of some sort of Eurasian security system including Afghanistan, the Central Asian states and their big neighbours, supported by the EU, the UN and the USA, is urgently needed to avoid severe tensions.

Globalization requires stronger global institutions. But in the security arena they must be complemented by regional solutions, particularity in these critical regions. SIPRI has monitored, analysed and recorded developments in European security from the height of the cold war through the establishment of a new European security order to the challenges of the present, placing them in an international perspective. It has much to contribute.

In short, while solutions to growing global challenges demands stronger global institutions, work at the global level must be complemented by regional solutions, particularly in these critical regions.  For nearly 45 years, SIPRI has monitored, analysed and recorded developments in regional security, from the height of the cold war to the challenges of the present. Today SIPRI continues to follow the remarkable and positive changes to the European security order, and sees great value in drawing from the European experience—its devastation, its division and its post-cold war promise—to promote inclusive and cooperative approaches to regional security.

About the author:

Göran Lennmarker is the Chairman of the SIPRI Governing Board since 1 September 2010. He is the former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Swedish Parliament, a position he has held since 2006. Lennmarker was elected to the Swedish Parliament in 1991 and has also served as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from 2006 to 2008. Read more here.


Göran Lennmarker is a Distinguished Associate Fellow in the European Security Programme.