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Introduction, Dan Smith
An overall perspective on 2016 finds a balance between negative developments and the continued functioning of the international system. However, the year ended with clear grounds for concern that the balance sheet seemed to be tipping towards the negative amid growing unease about the durability of key parts of the international security architecture.
Conflicts in the Middle East continued to generate humanitarian tragedies and large-scale movement of refugees, and violent conflict continued in several other parts of the world, most notably Africa, Asia and to a lesser extent Eastern Europe. Developments in North Korea’s nuclear programme contributed to international political instability with potentially serious knock-on effects. On the positive side, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement entered into force in November 2016, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal began implementation on time in early 2016 and the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to start negotiations in 2017 on eliminating nuclear weapons. Progress was also made on work to monitor the unfolding implementation of the UN’s Agenda 2030 for international social and economic development. A major contribution to the positive side of the balance sheet in 2016 was the peace agreement in Colombia.
Nonetheless, virtually all the major global indicators for peace and security have moved in a negative direction: more military spending, increased arms trading, more violent conflicts and the continuing forward march of military technology. Existing multilateral and bilateral arms control agreements and processes are also under challenge—not least due to the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the United States—raising questions of global concern and potentially epochal scope. Were the great gains in peaceful relations since the end of the cold war now being reversed? Would the return of strategic competition between the major powers have negative implications for managing increased conflict risk? These uncertainties, combined with political developments in Europe and the USA— especially the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and the election of Donald J. Trump as US President—seemed to reveal a much decreased commitment to international institutions and a renewed emphasis in several key states on a narrowly defined national interest.
The scale of the challenges facing humanity has been summed up in the proposal to adopt the label of ‘the Anthropocene’ for the current era, thus designating it as one in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. It is disconcerting to note that such cooperation risks becoming more elusive than it has seemed for most of the time since the end of the cold war, at a time when it is more needed than ever. Experience has shown that international cooperation can work. But is the international cooperative urge as persistent as the problems it needs to address?