Notes for the openSecurity discussion, Oslo, January 10, 2012

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
31 January 2012

Because of the combination of multiple financial crises, the Arab Awakening the Occupy movement and other rapid developments, today’s discussion is radically different to any such meeting five years ago.  This opening contribution will just try and sketch out some thoughts on current global changes and trends under four headings – economy, security, environment and, finally, choices.

Economy.  The late colonial and early post-colonial period from 1950-80 saw the western/southern sectors of the world system run on the basis of variably mixed economies, with strong elements of social welfare in the wealthier states, while the Soviet bloc continued with central planned economies.  The 1960s and early 1970s saw moves through UNCTAD to get a degree of planning into world trade, linking improvements in terms of trade for the global South to enhanced development prospects.  These included commodity agreements with buffer stock arrangement and compensatory finance, tariff preferences, the Special Drawing Rights link and schemes for regional industrialisation in the global South.

These trends culminating in the proposal for a New International Economic Order in 1974 included an ambitious Integrated Programme for Commodities backed by an $11 billion Common Fund.  The NIEO was floored by the stagflation that followed the 400%+ rise in oil prices in 1973-74. The late 1970s saw, instead, powerful moves towards free-market economic organisation boosted by the election of Thatcher and Reagan at the end of the decade.   The 1980s saw the rise of the free market including wholesale privatisation, financial deregulation and the Washington consensus in which these approaches were imposed on debt-ridden third world states.

The 1986 ‘Big Bang’ in the UK spelt further deregulation. The free market view was hugely boosted by the collapse of the centrally-planned Soviet bloc, the growth of ‘turbo-capitalism’, especially in Russia and the embracing of elements of the free market by China.  In spite of the subsequent and dire socio-economic problems in Russia in the 1990s and the temporary phenomenon of the anti-globalisation movement at the end of that decade, there was a consensus that the free market was the only way forward, with this conviction integral to the US view of the New American Century.

The initial crisis came in 2007-08 focused on the toxic sub-prime mortgage market in the US and over-reach by European banks, the context being wholesale hubris backed by out-of-control quants and minimal financial regulation.  The rapid expansion of credit default swops and unsustainable but traded collateral debt obligations contributed to numerous bank failures.  These were prevented by copious government support leading to ever higher state indebtedness, but there was an assumption by 2009 that the worst of the crisis might be over, even if state debt levels would mean protracted austerity.

The optimism was based on the assumption that BRICs, especially China, would continue to grow rapidly and lift the rest, but such growth was dependent on export markets which were stagnating.  By 2011, financial crises were back with a vengeance especially among the Eurozone states leading to multiple demonstrations across Europe and, eventually, the growth of the Occupy movement.

This movement is essentially from the perceived margins within the west but must be put in a global context in which two elements are core.

  • One is that the mixed economy era of 1950-80 actually delivered higher rates of global economic growth than the subsequent thirty year to 2010.
  • The second is that the more recent period may have delivered patchy growth but has singularly failed to deliver socio-economic justice with the result that wealth has become more concentrated in around 20% of the global population – a trans-global elite including perhaps 300 million or more living in China, India, Brazil and other elements of the South.

The poor are not getting poorer (although malnutrition has doubled in the past 40 years) but the welcome success of educational improvement in the global South means that far more of the majority on the margins are aware of their own marginalisation.  This was one sub-text to the start of the Arab Awakening with Morocco, for example, having 140,000 unemployed graduates in a population of 10 million.  More generally, we have the phenomenon of “differing discontents”, ranging from the Occupy movement in societies moving into relative austerity, through to radical movements across the global South that may be rooted in political, ethnic, religious or other identities and may draw support from far more marginalised populations.


Security/Military.  Addressing all the major aspects cannot be done in a short presentation,  but four issues may be mentioned:

  • The current ‘control’ paradigm, or ‘liddism’ has experienced some degree of reversal with the experience of the “War on Terror” especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
  • The attempt to regain control after 9/11 may seem to have failed, with the withdrawal from Iraq and the impending drawdown in Afghanistan, but the growing use of armed drones, Special Forces, and so forth avoids ‘boots on the ground’.  Furthermore, in some circumstances air power is making a comeback (e.g. Libya).
  • Even so, the decade since 9/11 amply supports the idea that developments in technology and societal organisation make it easier for the weak to take up arms against the strong.
  • Yet the power, influence and adaptability of the military-industrial complex remains, and is a potent force in maintaining the supremacy of force.


Environment.  The 1983 recognition of the damage to the ozone layer was the first clear-cut indicator of potential anthropogenic effects on the entire global ecosystem.  That danger could be limited, albeit with a considerable time-lag, because the causal agents were few and could be easily substituted.  Climate change is far more serious with its causes fundamentally embedded in modern economies and therefore requiring a radical economic transition to bring it under control. 

Climate change is accelerating, not least because of two positive Arctic feedback loops - the albedo effect of melting Arctic sea ice and the potentially much more important release of methane from fossil carbon locked up in permafrost.   Even more important is the recognition that climate change is asymmetric in its impact, with the tropics and sub-tropics likely to be far more affected than the oceans and many temperate regions.  On present trends, the tropics and sub-tropics support the majority of the world’s people and food production, but climate change will seriously undermine the ecological carrying capacity of croplands resulting in increased marginalisation, social unrest, political instability and migratory pressures. 


Choices.   The combination of a socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints is at the core of the security dilemma in the coming decades and, on present trends, indicates a fractured and insecure world unless there are fundamental changes in the global economy and polity.  In its most simple presentation it is a choice between two futures.  One is the maintenance of the status quo, benefiting the 20% at the expense of the majority, which may be attractive in the short-term and in keeping with current elite attitudes, but leading to deep insecurity and instability and ultimately unworkable.  The other is a transition over the next decade to a more equitable and emancipated world focused on a low carbon economy.  The most urgent action in achieving the latter has to be taken by old industrial states, but coupled with enabling developing economies to evolve societal organisation that delivers improved well-being with sustainability. 

In reality it is not such a stark choice but more of a movement towards one option at the expense of the other, but this is impeded by political leadership:

  • not willing or able to regulate the free market,
  • cemented in old thinking on security (the “control” paradigm), and
  • unable to embrace the radical action needed to avert climate change.

Against this is an impressive amount of new thinking, especially on the nature of the required socio-political, economic and technical transitions, coupled with numerous examples of change already under way.   Even so, the ‘point  of recognition’ - that phase in political evolution when the need for transition is recognised and acted on - may be some years away.  The sooner it comes, the more peaceful and successful can be the transition.  If prophecy is “suggesting the possible”, then its key role is radically to shorten that phase.   In exploring alternative security paradigms openSecurity can contribute in no small way.

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