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1. Introduction. International security, armaments and disarmament

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Introduction, Dan Smith

What is the balance sheet on peace and security for 2015? Some of the year’s events qualify it as a particularly dark year for international stability and human security. On the negative side of the ledger stand terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria, in Ankara, Istanbul and Paris, in Tunisia, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The background is an increased number of armed conflicts, with notable degrees of escalation in some. There were huge flows of refugees and migrants from conflict-affected countries and increasing tensions between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states and Russia over Ukraine and Syria.

There are also entries on the positive side. First, Iran and the United States resolved their differences and with five other states and the European Union, agreed a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to regulate Iran’s nuclear programme. This removed a major irritant from Middle East politics, even if the deal’s merits were not universally accepted.

A second positive development was agreement at the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Agenda 2030, setting out an ambitious agenda on poverty and peace. Third, in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the international community agreed on ambitious measures to restrict global warming and to increase the ability of affected countries to adapt to the inevitable effects of change.

To assess the year overall, there are foundations for both pessimism and optimism. The statistics on armed conflict suggest a reversal of the two decades of post-cold war peace. In the Middle East and North Africa, the events of 2011 now look less like an Arab Spring and more like the start of a decade of instability and conflict. Events such as the downing of a Russian airliner in October 2015 and the multiple attacks in Paris in November indicate that the violence of the region has no boundaries.

Retaliation for terrorist outrages seems to offer little prospect of ending violence and bringing security. After 14 years of the global ‘war on terror’, the international reach of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has grown. This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: that peace is not being well served by national governments or the array of international institutions, forces and instruments that are currently devoted to enhancing security and international stability. If peace is not actually in retreat, it is certainly under serious pressure.

The international community showed with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement that it has the wherewithal to set ambitious goals and agendas and then gain consensus on them. Hard diplomatic work brought agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme and, on paper at least, on the conflict in Ukraine. It was not so effective in relation to Libya, Syria and Yemen. As ever, over issues where agreement was found, implementation remains an open question. Indeed, a review of 2015 should perhaps end only with a question mark.