The independent resource on global security

Introduction. Trends and challenges in international security



I. Introduction

II. The early 21st century environment

III. Threat identification and threat hierarchies

IV. Other dimensions of global security

V. Envoi: back to the United Nations


Read the full introduction [PDF].


The new security debate triggered by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 remains short of a solution. Heightened awareness of the deadly threats facing even the most advanced societies has not led to a new sense of global community—partly because of the lack of truly global authorities that could combine the necessary broad competence with the consistent enforcement of remedies. Carefully considered, the new sense of insecurity does not reflect a net increase in threats and conflicts, where real progress has been made since the end of the cold war. It arises rather from the correct perception that terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and ‘rogue’ states can pose asymmetric threats even to the strongest nations—combined with an incorrect assumption that the sources of these threats are always interlinked.


The decision of the USA to defend its eminence as sole superpower by actively seeking out, striking and, if necessary, anticipating those who would threaten it has dominated global security perceptions for the past 18 months. Concerns about how much further the USA will go in this direction are felt by friends at least as much as foes. The EU, the USA’s main counterweight in the economic field, is not yet (and will not soon be) able to offer a balance or alternative in the field of security.


Attempts to forge a common security-building agenda even among Western partners are dogged by real difficulties in defining international terrorism and the nature of the associated threats and remedies. Regarding weapons of mass destruction, the goal of non-proliferation is easier to define, but the establishment of threat hierarchies and consistent remedies more problematic. (The complications posed by the existence of both authorized and non-authorized nuclear weapons states, in the context of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, do not help, and a similar mentality must not be adopted on chemical and biological weapons.)


Broader policy challenges arise from the need to integrate the many non-military, ‘human’ dimensions of security, and from the risk that certain protective actions may undermine what they are protecting (e.g., the economy and human rights). A correctly balanced policy should mobilize all relevant state actors, and also the private sector.


There is a need to re-balance active and ‘positive’ methods of security building—naturally more common since the end of the cold war—with measures of restraint, including a revitalized arms control agenda. Action alone is risky, uncertain, costly and potentially discriminatory: restraint needs to shake off its inflexible, unproductive image. Counter-terrorism is a good example of the need to match active (preferably transnational) measures with internationally recognized and universally binding standards, lest an equation of might with right leaves the world at the mercy of future emerging powers. Heightened awareness of terrorism should also be used to refine conflict management policy.


The unique route taken by European integration to suppress and sublimate security problems has been much debated this past year, mainly by its critics. The ‘European way’ is successfully incorporating Central Europe, taking charge of the Balkans and even influencing Russia—yet Europe lacks a coherent, collective response to the US-defined ‘new threats’ and a sense of its own global mission. The USA cannot seriously want Europe to ‘re-nationalize’, and the EU cannot ignore US concerns either if the Atlantic link is to survive. European coping strategies are currently a mix of band-wagoning, role division, efforts to create a counter-pole, and hopes that the US storm will blow over. It is too early to assess the prospects of future rift or convergence but worth noting how many other regions of the world have chosen the EU as their model.


The year was a poor one for progress in combating poverty, famine, disease, pollution and climate change, although the Johannesburg Summit signalled some rapprochement between leaders and critics of globalization. Shrinking and sub-optimally distributed world populations are a problem to watch for the future, warning us to stop short of counter-terrorist measures which would undermine multicultural societies. A Polish proposal to look afresh at the UN’s political principles and instruments for addressing global security is well worth considering, if only to let other regions and nations join the debate.



Alyson J. K. Bailes (United Kingdom) took over as Director of SIPRI in July 2002. She was previously a member of the British Diplomatic Service for 33 years, ending as British Ambassador to Finland in 2000–2002. Her other diplomatic postings include Budapest, the British Delegation to NATO, Bonn, Beijing and Oslo and she spent several periods on detachment outside the Service, including two academic sabbaticals, a two-year period with the British Ministry of Defence, and assignments to the European Union and Western European Union. Her main analytical interests are politico-military affairs, European integration and Central European affairs. She has published a large number of articles in international journals on these subjects as well as on Chinese foreign policy.