The independent resource on global security

1. Introduction. International stability and human security in 2017


Introduction, Dan Smith

I. Nuclear weapons in international politics

II. International tensions and shifting dynamics of power

III. Human security and insecurity

IV. The prospects for international institutions


Read full introduction here [PDF].

Global security has deteriorated markedly in the past decade. The number, complexity and lethality of armed conflicts have increased, and there has been prolonged and shocking violence in large parts of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. The world total of forcibly displaced people is over 65 million and has been climbing sharply in recent years. Further layers of complexity exacerbating human insecurity are the internationalization of what often start as purely internal conflicts, the nexus of criminal violence and the activities of a multitude of armed groups, and the impact of climate change.


International transfers of major weapons have increased and global military spending has stabilized at a high plateau. Although the number of deployed nuclear warheads has continued to decline, the measures that achieved these cuts are under threat: Russia and the United States have accused each other of infringing the 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty); and, although it is being implemented, the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) expires in February 2021 and there are no current talks on extending or replacing it. 


The global nuclear non-proliferation picture is mixed. North Korea has joined the ranks of nuclear weapon-possessing states, despite major international efforts to prevent it, while the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed with Iran has thus far been regarded as a success. The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in July 2017 generated considerable opposition from the nuclear weapon states and their allies, while for supporters it offers a potentially decisive opportunity to restart progress towards complete nuclear disarmament. However, long-standing and deep philosophical differences remain regarding the relationship between nuclear weapons and international security. 


International tensions and shifting dynamics of power were also to the fore in 2017. The ailing relationship between Russia and the USA—fuelled by, among other things, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and engagement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as allegations of Russian interference in Western domestic politics—ended any likelihood in the medium term of Russian integration with the West. Other significant areas of international tension included the South China Sea, the East China Sea, China–India tensions, reignition of the India–Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and intra-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) tensions with Turkey.


Beyond tensions between dyads of rivals or within specific geographic zones, there is a bigger picture of shifting geopolitical and geostrategic relationships and power dynamics. Neither the bipolar global model of the cold war era nor the unipolar model following its end is useful for explaining what is happening now. While it is clear that change is under way, it is not clear what the outcome will be.

Dan Smith