The independent resource on global security

1. Introduction: International stability and human security in 2021


Introduction, Dan Smith

I. Ukraine and the consequences of the war 

II. The broader security horizon in 2021

The war in Ukraine

The international security horizon at the end of 2021 was dominated by intensifying confrontations between Russia and Ukraine, and between China and the United States. Although neither confrontation exploded into warfare during 2021, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 administered a shock to the inter-national system that far outreaches the reverberations of other crises of 2021. This is underlined by repeated Russian warnings that the use of nuclear weapons was not ruled out. The Western response has focused on supplying military aid to Ukraine and applying economic sanctions against Russia.

The consequences of the war will be far-reaching, including a severe impact on global food security since both Russia and Ukraine are major food producers. Euro-pean security arrangements are in flux and global political alignments and strategic preferences will also be affected. Opposition to Russian actions in Ukraine was widespread but not universal, with 35 states abstaining from a United Nations General Assembly resolution in March 2022 that criticized Russia. Several states challenged the West’s assumption of the moral high ground in the crisis. Notably, China, which had reaffirmed its close friendship with Russia in early February 2022, was among those that abstained.


The broader security horizon in 2021

After several years of significant deterioration, international security overall neither deteriorated further nor improved in 2021. Nonetheless, the evidence of persistent insecurity was pervasive. The number of armed conflicts was little changed and by the end of 2021 no significant new peace process had been launched. In August the 20-year Western intervention in Afghanistan ended in failure. Armed conflict in Ethiopia also continued with no effective international initiative to curtail the violence. Global military spending continued to rise, as it has done every year since 2015, and passed the US$2 trillion milestone. The nine states that possess nuclear weapons were all engaged in upgrading their nuclear arsenals. The long-term pressure of climate change and the global Covid-19 pandemic both continued in 2021.


New pathways to international cooperation

The joint US–Chinese statement on enhancing climate action issued at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021 was a welcome sign that cooperation between great powers is still possible on some global issues. Overall, however, the international system is not managing to cope, and the great powers are not focused on responding to the major challenges to human security. A way forward may lie in the UN secretary-general’s 2021 report, ‘Our Common Agenda’, which maps out an approach to the full range of current dilemmas and crises. But to be implemented, it needs support from a large, diverse and sufficiently effective coalition of states, the UN system and regional multilateral organizations, as well as civil society organizations. 

Dan Smith