The independent resource on global security

1. Introduction: International stability and human security in 2023


Introduction, Dan Smith

I. World order

II. A disordered world

III. Laws and norms in question

IV. International security and stability in question

V. International instability, insecurity and the ecological crisis

VI. Cooperation and security


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Global security continued to deteriorate throughout 2023, as it has for the past decade. There were major armed conflicts in Gaza, Myanmar, Sudan and Ukraine; military spending rose for the ninth successive year to its highest-ever level; ecological disruption continued and 2023 was the hottest year for at least 174 years. International stability was under pressure from intensifying confrontation between the great powers. As a result, the entire six-decade-long nuclear arms control enterprise is at risk of terminating.


World order and disorder

The current international order was largely shaped in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II, when many of today’s United Nations member states were colonies of a few declining European powers. The world has changed and, while the international order has evolved in the meantime, it is characterized by considerable continuity. Contestations about the shape of the international order hinge on the relationship between the legitimacy of its rules and norms, and the distribution and exercise of power.


The international order includes principles intended to govern and limit armed conflict but the effectiveness of their implementation is being weakened by division and rivalry among leading powers, as well as by the structure and deep roots of many of today’s conflicts, and the actions of key governments and their leaders.


The UN system aims to provide a framework for international order. The UN is a norms-based organization; this makes inconsistency—as in the West’s response to Israel’s actions in Gaza when compared with the clear-eyed condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—a problem. The effectiveness of international institutions and of international humanitarian law relies on an adequate degree of consensus on normative issues; when that diminishes, so does the effectiveness of the institutions.


Developing the habit of cooperation

The ramifications of the crisis of international order will not be easily or rapidly resolved. The climate crisis is a sphere in which the need for cooperative action is broadly recognized, even though the record is mixed. The broader ecological crisis offers as many opportunities for cooperation as it does for alarm at the prospects if problems are not addressed. The risk of new pandemics is another issue that urgently needs joint action, regardless of what other issues divide the main actors. Trade and freedom of navigation are further issues on which shared interests run deep. On all these questions, it could be possible to develop the habit of cooperation. By recognizing that cooperation is the key element of security, a way may be found for the international order to evolve to meet today’s challenges. 

Dan Smith