The independent resource on global security

Introduction. The world of security and peace research in a 40-year perspective



I. Introduction

II. From East–West confrontation to what?

III. From armed blocs to multifunctional, ‘human’ and active security

IV. From arms control treaties to security building—with or without a rule book

V. Conclusions


Read the full introduction [PDF].


In its 40 years of existence, SIPRI has witnessed a shift from the clear-cut bipolar confrontation of the cold war to a much more complicated strategic environment. No simple formula such as North–South or West–West confrontation, a new US ‘empire’, or the identification of human categories like terrorism or Islam as ‘the’ enemy can be either intellectually or morally satisfying.


Notions of danger and security have also become more complex over the past 40 years, shifting away—in particular—from any sense that armaments are the core of the problem. A wider spectrum of trans-state, intra-state and personal violence has taken the place of state-to-state conflict, and the salience of ‘human security’ threats such as epidemic disease and natural disasters has grown. Non-state actors of all kinds have gained in power, as security menaces but potentially also as contributors to solutions. Different levels of security response, from sub-national through national and regional to global, need to be integrated and correctly



In general, there has been a shift in preference towards ways of tackling threat and risk that are active, cooperative and interventionist even when not actually ‘pre-emptive’. All regional security organizations now exhort their members to build up their military capacities for benign uses such as peace missions. The assumption increasingly seems to be that it is not arms and armed forces that are bad in themselves, but their use by bad people for bad purposes—if these terms can be defined—that must be prevented.


Considering the scale of change in the substantial security environment, institutions like the UN, NATO, the EU and the OSCE have proved remarkably long-lived and adaptable. New ones have arisen in many regions to join them. Patterns of institutional action have, however, changed in a way that has blurred old divisions between security providers and those dealing with economic or other ‘civilian’ topics. The security importance of the latter is now better understood in the contexts both of complex crisis management and peace-building, and of tackling non-traditional threats like terrorism and proliferation. Organizations that can work in several dimensions at once, and can mobilize both resources and legislative powers, have an inherent advantage in this light (but also have special problems of governance).


In the cold war, disarmament and arms control work was carried out in discrete institutional frameworks; its main successes came in the form of binding international legal instruments, including provisions for follow-up and monitoring. This process peaked around the mid-1990s; latterly, the ‘treaty method’ has come under fire from the USA and has shown some real weaknesses in terms of coverage, enforceability and enforcement. While the idea of universal constraints on dangerous objects or transactions is not dead yet and may mutate into new forms (such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540 on weapons of mass destruction), the control of weapons has proceeded more actively on various other fronts. Alternative methods include:


  • voluntary and unilateral cuts in forces and weapons,
  • enforced disarmament such as that imposed on Iraq,
  • qualitative or ‘soft’ constraints on the way that military resources are used,
  • weapon restrictions with a humanitarian motivation,
  • international cooperation to control exports and transfers of sensitive goods and technologies,
  • multi-element ‘package’ approaches to persuade individual states to refrain from or surrender dangerous capabilities.


Various mixtures of such measures have brought solutions for some individual WMD-related problems and may yet solve others, but they work best when applied on a basis of clear international norms and in a setting of institutional cooperation. For a single country to act as judge and executioner raises questions of legitimacy and, as the past few years have shown, of effectiveness. Ultimately, all multinational institutions have more in common with each other than they do with unregulated national action in pursuit of the same goals. All face essentially the same challenge today: to preserve their self-belief and to keep building cooperative approaches in the face of hecklers and offenders from both outside and inside their ranks.


In the brief space of the four decades since 1966 the world has witnessed positive transformations, not only with the end of the East–West confrontation but also, for example, in South-East Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America. There are also depressingly many instances of conflicts that have got no better or got worse, and of good causes that have not advanced at all. One thing that has not changed or has only become more obvious is the importance in security affairs of transparency, exact information and rigorous analysis. In today’s world, actions need not only be well intentioned or inherently good, but must be shown and understood to be good in the face of the continuing profound diversity of world opinions. Progress in dealing with that challenge will be one key to how global security fares over SIPRI’s next 40 years.


Alyson J. K. Bailes (UK) has been Director of SIPRI since July 2002.