The conflict horizon

The last two decades have seen a growing global appetite for peace but unless concerted, informed action is taken the next two could bring darker times

Dan Smith
12 May 2014

Peace is the big, under-reported, good-news story of the 20-plus years since the cold war ended. There are fewer wars than in the 1980s. There have been more peace agreements and an increasing proportion of them endure for longer.

Good. Because the next 20 years will make the last 20 seem like a rehearsal for the real thing.

This essay begins by looking at the good news, raising a sceptical eyebrow and then looking at rising long-range pressures, before sketching seven pathways for renewing the growth of peace.

War in decline

Data gathered and organised by the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research reflect the decline in the number of wars.[1] This map shows which countries were experiencing armed conflicts in 2012 (red) and which others had experienced armed conflicts at any time from 2000 to 2011 (pink).

map of world.jpg

Published 10 or 20 years ago, it would have had far more countries in both colours. The headline number is approximately 30 armed conflicts in 2010, compared with 50 in 1990. And, as the Human Security Report found, wars are on average less lethal than in the 20th century.

This has not come about by accident. Christine Bell’s authoritative study On the Law of Peace found 646 peace agreements reached from 1990 until the end of 2007. There have also been more peacekeeping operations.

peacekeeping missions.jpg

Along with this, there has been significant and sometimes massive international spending on trying to build firm foundations for peace in war-torn countries.

Beneath the headline

The problem is not just that while 30 wars are better than 50 they are still far, far too many. Consider:

1. The growth of peace has slowed. The number of armed conflicts fell steadily from the mid-1990s for a bit over a decade but has now stopped. Whereas there were 30 wars in 2010, Uppsala recorded 37 in 2011, with the number falling back to 32 in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. It’s too soon to talk about a new, negative trend but the old, positive one seems spent.

2. Ending the fighting is not the same as building peace, although it’s a necessary start. In many cases peace agreements and the accompanying international apparatus have suppressed the violence but not addressed the main causes of conflict. Accordingly, the risk of a re-eruption is there. Without a peace agreement the chance for building peace probably doesn’t exist but the mere fact of reaching one does not guarantee further progress. One of the best indicators of a risk of violent conflict is simply recent violent conflict.

3. Building peace needs sustained international support, which is proving harder to come by. The decline in the number of UN peacekeeping missions reflected in the graphic is partly because some have successfully ended. But it is also symptomatic of a reluctance to spend on new ones.

Annual UN peacekeeping expenditure is around $9 billion—tiny compared with global military spending of over $1.5 trillion and not large alongside development aid of around $120 billion. But austerity makes spending decisions at the margin much more sensitive. Many governments sense (and several express and fuel) public resentment at spending on issues “over there” while at home hospital wards close and rivers break their banks.

4. Other kinds of violent conflict also undermine security. As the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 emphasised, the violent conflicts that are addressed by formal peace agreements and UN peacekeeping operations are only part of the conflict picture.


The annual figures from Uppsala also cover armed conflicts that look just like ordinary civil wars except that the government isn’t a combatant.

armed conflicts_0.jpg

Beyond that, there are other kinds of violent conflict, especially related to large-scale criminality—whether gangs’ control of deprived urban areas or heavily profitable trafficking in illegal narcotics, other contraband and people—which kill many and threaten the lives and well-being of others.

Yet, allowing for scepticism, the overall picture remains relatively positive. A great deal has been learned and—for all the failures, missteps and sometimes catastrophically misguided political agendas—the world is in a better place than it could well have been.

Rising pressures

Balancing that sense of achievement over the past two decades must be awareness of rising conflict pressures affecting the next two. Projecting schematically on the basis of what we know:

• challenges to the established order will arise in the name of democracy, or regional or national autonomy, or faith and cultural identity or securing the basic conditions of life;

• some will take on international dimensions because of big powers’ interests and security concerns, and

• many will be chaotic, multi-sided, not necessarily openly political—or a confusing (to an outsider) amalgam of crime, politics and business.

Every conflict will be unique but they will have three things in common:

• They will contest how, by whom and for what ends power should be held and used;

• whether they escalate will depend on whether systemic vulnerabilities have eroded the society’s capacity to manage conflicts peacefully, and

• if they escalate, ordinary people will suffer.

These are the foreground factors. More fundamental are the systemic factors which enhance the risk of conflict.

1. People and where we live

The elephant in the room is population. For at least the past 200 years, since Thomas MalthusEssay on the Principle of Population was proceeding through its six editions, there have been people arguing that there are too many of us already and any more would mean disaster. It hasn’t been true yet and many progressive people instinctively shy away from the assumed politics of such an argument.

There are nonetheless important issues of demography, resource consumption and inequality which can only be grasped by addressing the numbers:


World population passed the 1 billion mark in 1810, doubled in the following hundred years and, another century on, has risen to about 7 billion. The 2030 projection is 9 billion. After that, forecasts diverge between continued growth, adding 6 billion more by 2100, an approximate steady state and a modest decline.

Where are we all to live? When the global total reached 1 billion, just 3 percent—30 million people—lived in cities. Today the world is 50 percent—3.5 billion—urbanised. That proportion is expected to approach 70 percent by 2030; world population goes up by a 100 million a year and the city population by 125 million.

This is a demographic shift of unprecedented scale, yet urbanisation per se is not necessarily bad. Cities have many problems but their emergence and growth is strongly associated with growing literacy, a deepening culture, increased co-operation and social mobilisation for progress on political rights. Urbanisation is however also associated with increased output—urban concentration being economically much more efficient—and that means increased consumption of natural resources.

2. Natural resources

Bar the occasional spike in oil prices, natural resources became steadily cheaper throughout the 20th century. The rich world’s growing wellbeing and successful cases of economic development such as South Korea were predicated on that downward trend in the price of basics.

Prices declined because of greater efficiency in resource extraction and use. Technological innovation has been part of the story but so too the west’s boundless determination to extract. What needed to be done to keep the oil flowing and the mines working—whether co-opting elites or naked coercion—was always done.

Today, things are different. Prices are on an upward curve. The pay-offs from technology, co-option and coercion are declining, environmental change is increasing costs and demand is rising—not least from China, India, Turkey and other fast-growing economies. A McKinsey report calmly summed things up in 2011: “That benign era appears to have come to an end. The past ten years have wiped out all of the price declines that occurred in the previous century.”

Benign for some.

Resource Futures, a major 2012 report from the Chatham House think tank in London, foresees a continuing increase in demand, and thus rising prices and competition between the major consumers, till 2030 at least. That also means increasing supply difficulties and sharpening competition for access to key natural resources.

3. Inequalities

Last year, a high-level UN panel reported on world development after 2015, concluding that it was not only right but possible to eliminate extreme poverty—conventionally defined as living on less than US$ 1.25 a day (in 2005 prices)—by 2030. According to the World Bank, 1.22 billion people were living below that line in 2010, which meant the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the poverty rate in the least developed countries had been met.

This is a big decrease in the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and in the absolute number—down from 1.9 billion in 1990. But if the line is just raised a little to $2 a day, hardly lavish, 2.6 billion people live below it. While natural resources are consumed globally in abundance, 35 percent of the world’s population is consuming very little.

This concern is no longer a monopoly of the left: it has become the staple diet of institutions with a social conscience like the Ford Foundation, circulating via the World Economic Forum to the International Monetary Fund. Deepening inequality[2] is one of the most worrying features of our age and has profound implications for prospects of peace and conflict.

A recent Oxfam report calculated that the 85 richest people in the world owned as much as the poorest 3.5 billion. There are bundles of other killer statistics to drive the message home.


In countries where inequality is sharpest, all too often it is in symbiosis with systemic corruption of the governing system. One symptom is the scale of resources locked away from use for the common good through tax evasion.

tax evasion.jpg

Attempting to assess conflict risk leads one to ask: what will happen if there is a day of reckoning?

4. Climate change and nature

For the past 20 years there has been a consensus that global policy on climate change should aim to keep the increase in average global temperature to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels before 2100. This seems a fading dream. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report of last September, the first instalment of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, estimated the range of increase as 1.5 to 4C, with climate models apparently pointing towards +3C.

Even if we slam on the brakes, the consequences of yesterday's greenhouse-gas emissions will keep unfolding for two or three decades. The consequent changes in our natural environment will have social, economic and in many places political effects.

The issue here is not about climate change causing war. There are still people arguing this case to and fro, including no less a luminary than Lord Stern, but the whole debate is beside the point. It is fixated on armed conflict defined as open war between two organised parties. This is a real threat, of course, but it is only part of the insecurity which people in many countries face. The recent report from Working Group II of the IPCC included a chapter about insecurity, where the issues were bluntly summarised:[3]

Human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes (high agreement, robust evidence). Human insecurity almost never has single causes, but instead emerges from the interaction of multiple factors. Climate change is an important factor in threats to human security through a) undermining livelihoods, b) compromising culture and identity, c) increasing migration that people would rather have avoided, and d) challenging the ability of states to provide the conditions necessary for human security.

As climate change continues, there will be more slow-onset pressures such as droughts, shifts in the timing of the monsoon in parts of south and south-east Asia, and hotter summers and wetter winters in temperate zones. Sudden shocks—extreme weather events such as hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones—will also become more frequent and severe.

These will put pressure on four strategic systems essential to human life: water supply and therefore food security, energy supply and natural-resource chains. It is not that life will become impossible, though some areas will become functionally uninhabitable. Rather, these systems will become more vulnerable, more costly and more complex—it is already happening.

Beyond this, the Stockholm Resilience Centre addresses what may happen as human activities transgress the planetary boundaries of sustainability, not just in climate change but in degradation of the biosphere, ocean acidification and six other critical areas.


The safe zone, inside the circle, is the world we know. As we start to transgress the boundaries of sustainability, we get into unknown territory—in particular, we don't know what happens if we cross all those frontiers.

From the perspective of conflict risk assessment, the important questions are:

• what challenges does climate change pose for a society?

• what capacity is there to respond (adaptability and resilience)?

• what happens if that capacity is insufficient to protect the common good? and

• what if the elite cannot even protect its own interests?

The challenge from nature is a challenge for governance and our social, economic and political institutions. As the basic conditions of life become more difficult, in those countries where inequality is greatest and conflict-management institutions weakest, the risk of conflict will be greatest.

Trends and interlocking risks

In short, the risk of violent conflict is elevated where there has recently been violent conflict, where there are deep and growing inequalities, where basic needs are not met (or where the prospects of continuing to meet them are weak), where authority is based on arbitrary power rather than the rule of law or where institutions to address conflicts fairly are weak or non-existent. Where all these factors apply, violent conflict is likely to be endemic—if not as civil war then predation by armed militias or oppressive governments or large-scale crime.

Unless there is dramatic change in how economies are run, population growth and fast-paced urbanisation will further drive demand for natural resources across the next 20 years. Amid rising prices, there will be growing competition for access and there is an unmistakeable risk of big-power rivalry. An international institutional framework however exists to contain just such rivalry and reduce to negligible the risk of disputes turning violent.

Yet things are changing. Whether that institutional framework will withstand the fall-out from the crisis over Ukraine is uncertain. It will always be against each big power's medium-to-long-term interests to get involved in violent conflict with the ally of another, let alone with another big power. But short-term imperatives can undermine long-term interest. Even so, the greater risk of violent conflict arises in areas where local access to natural resources is disputed and the institutional framework for handling resulting conflicts is inadequate or corrupt.

Facing this future, many states have little option but to ignore it. Near-term challenges leave them with limited capacity for a broader and longer focus. In any society, however, an over-focus on crisis-management, even if born of necessity, gets in the way of discussing the world we want. Yet if sudden shocks, such as extreme weather, are the new norm, will international co-operation and donors old and new emphasise funding for immediate humanitarian emergencies? And what happens to resilience when the social fabric is (sometimes literally) washed away?

Ways forward

Only connect, wrote EM Forster, albeit in a wholly different context.[4] Intertwined risks require combined responses based on co-operation. This cannot mean one party telling the other what to do—writing the strategy papers and not quite transferring the know-how—but mutuality between willing partners. Approached this way, managing the risks is possible. Here, in conclusion, are seven pathways to peace:

  1. Central in this effort of linkage and co-operation is addressing the impact of climate change. Carbon emissions must be cut but the consequences of the past two centuries will be with us for a long time, even if we do manage to change our economic ways. Adaptation is crucial and must be conflict-sensitive, building resilience.
  2. To achieve this requires that inequality move to the centre of the development agenda (as it may, for a while at least, be arriving at the centre of the global economic agenda). Enhancing equality rather than merely alleviating poverty should be the global goal.
  3. Natural-resource management is equally central. For as long as governments are unable to manage their natural resources, they will be pushed around by big powers and corporations. For as long as populations are unable properly to participate in doing so, they will be pushed around by whoever controls the state. Sustainable, conflict-sensitive, climate-proof resource management is by definition equitable and participatory.
  4. To get to grips with these issues, communities, organisations, individuals and societies as a whole need to get to talk about gender. The dominance of competitive, aggressive and violent models of masculinity is part of what puts social peace at risk. Ignoring gender is not an option and putting it in a box marked “greater women’s participation” is not the solution.
  5. What determines the quality of response to many risks is the strength of institutions, especially local ones, whether formal or informal. These are the social and political resources that make it possible to manage conflicts, whatever their sources. Not every local action is right and nor is it enough. But intelligently shaped and properly supported local action is essential and national and international institutions need to improve their ability to support it.
  6. While sustainable peace cannot be built purely from the top down, the state is also indispensable. Long-term stability cannot be imposed but it has to grow at the top as well as to the top—multiple actions, multiple actors, multiple levels.
  7. Development strategies should incorporate the recognition that peace is as central as economic functioning, that growing the modes and institutions which sustain peace matters as much as productivity growth. As conflict pressures grow, how global and national economies work must reflect that imperative.

To address the changing mix of conflict pressures, we need to reshape our approaches not just to peacebuilding, seen as a niche activity, but to development understood as the condition for general improvement in human well-being—progress, in short. These are major challenges but the successes—real, even if limited—of the past two decades mean we are better prepared than before to face those challenges.

[1] All graphics come from my State of the World Atlas (Oxford, New Internationalist & New York, Penguin, 2013).

[2] See Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century  (Harvard University Press, 2014) and the reactions it is generating among economists and commentators of different persuasions.

[3] NB: For readability, the quotation omits the internal references to where in the working group’s report each statement is explored and supported.

[4] Howards End (1910), chapter 22

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