The independent resource on global security

1. Introduction: International stability and human security in 2020


Introduction, Dan Smith

I. Security issues in 2020: A global overview 

II. The Covid-19 pandemic 

III. The US election 

IV. International cooperation


Read the full introduction [PDF].

Following a sharp deterioration in global stability and security during the last decade, the balance sheet largely remained unchanged in 2020. In a year dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, that conclusion might seem overly optimistic. However, it is supported by the evidence in the 52nd edition of the SIPRI Yearbook.


The broad trends indicate a mixed picture: global military spending continued to rise, but the volume of international arms transfers remained roughly stable; nuclear arms control continued to stagnate and the United States withdrew from the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies, but the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received sufficient support to enter into force in January 2021; the number of armed conflicts increased again, but the global total of fatalities in war fell significantly; and, although geopolitics remained toxic, a balance was largely maintained between potential escalation and restraint in most geopolitical hotspots. Climate change continued apace—2020 was the equal warmest year for which temperatures have been recorded going as far back as 1850—but some progress was made at the Climate Ambition Summit held in December 2020, albeit that the targets and pledges announced appear insufficient to meet the aim of restricting global warming to 2°C.


The Covid-19 pandemic

By the end of 2020, some 82 million people were recorded as having contracted Covid-19 and recorded deaths numbered approxi­mately 1.8 million—although both figures are probably major underestimates. While the pandemic had little direct impact on the conduct of armed conflicts in 2020, it led to increases in psychological stress and domestic violence. The pandemic also had major economic and political effects. It led to reduced economic output in all except 20 countries, reversed three decades of progress in poverty reduction, and contri­buted to widespread deterioration in the quality of democracy. All these effects will in turn have possible future security consequences. 


The US election

The 2020 US presidential election result brought to an end a US administration that had challenged multiple features of the international system. However, there is little reason to think that global politics will swiftly become less con­frontational as US competition with China and Russia will probably continue. Mean­while, there remains considerable support within the USA for the politics and policies of the previous administration. This will cast a long shadow over international relations as other governments ponder how much they can rely on US undertakings and commitments.


International cooperation

The political disputes that festered throughout 2020 about responsibility for the origin of Covid-19 were symptoms of an ailing international body politic. Despite this, many institutions of international cooperation remained vibrant, but simply required greater care and attention. Perhaps what is most important at the start of 2021 is to strengthen and re-energize routines of international cooperation. 

Dan Smith