Geopolitical instability

Although geopolitical instability has varied over time, climate change, competition for scarce resources, state fragility, and ideological conflicts all threaten to increase instability in the coming decades. This will have important implications for global trade, migration, governance and even population growth, as well as human wellbeing.

While research suggests a long-term decline in interstate warfare and deaths from violence since the 1950s1, one in four people on the planet now live in fragile and conflict-affected states or territories 2. The actors in these conflicts are not clearly defined, but include individual acts of violence and terrorism, terrorist groups, warlords, mercenaries, militias and cartels. This makes resolution almost impossible to reach. Added to this, battles are no longer fought in conventional warzones alone, or even in civic contexts, but also in cyberspace.

Recent and ongoing instances of instability include the crisis in western Sahel across multiple borders, gun violence in the United States, armed conflict and unrest in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mexico's 'Drug war'. Worldwide displacement of people is at the highest level ever recorded, undermining the stability of nation states with large populations both leaving and arriving.

Countries such as Russia, Syria, Iran and Liberia have been destabilised to some extent by heavy trade sanctions, rebel insurgencies and infectious diseases in recent years. The Islamic State gained strength and strongholds in Iraq, where sectarian conflict persists following US withdrawal. Furthermore, fractured opposition, corrupt leadership and power struggles continue to jeopardise the possibility of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and North Africa. Where profits from mineral and hydrocarbon extraction are concentrated in the hands of elites, such as Congo and Mozambique3, this could potentially lead to violent conflict in future and disrupt global supply chains.

Last updated: 9 November 2015

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Current trajectory

Between 2008 and 2015, the average Global Peace Index (GPI) country score deteriorated 2.4%, highlighting that on average the world has become slightly less peaceful. However, this decrease in peacefulness has not been evenly spread, with 86 counties deteriorating while 76 improved. MENA has suffered the largest decline of any region in the world, deteriorating 11% over the same period. Since 2008, the total economic impact of violence on the global economy has increased by 15.3%, from US$12.4 trillion to US$14.3 trillion, which constituted 13.4% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014. 1

Resource scarcity

  • According to Ban Ki-Moon, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled since 1990 by the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, minerals, oil and gas. Sometimes this is caused by environmental damage and the marginalisation of local populations who fail to benefit economically from natural resource exploitation. 1
  • Historically, oil-producing countries are more likely to attract military support from another country during a civil war, often to preserve oil prices on international markets. This was the case in UK’s military intervention in the Nigerian Civil War between 1967 and 1970 and could possibly explain the lack of intervention in Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Rwanda in 1994. 2 
  • Fueled by soaring demand from the growing Chinese middle class, Myanmar’s largest jade quarries, in the war-torn northern state of Kachin, have long been a source of bloody conflict and drug abuse. The industry was worth as much as $31 billion in 2014, almost half of the Southeast Asian nation’s entire GDP. According to Mike Davis, Asia director for Global Witness, “Tens of billions of dollars are in the hands of a rogue’s gallery of military hard-liners, army companies, proxy tycoons and major drug lords.” Caught in the middle are thousands of ethnic Kachin miners and their families, who have fallen victim to an epidemic of heroin addiction, prostitution and H.I.V. that festers around the dangerously unstable earthen pits where they toil. 3

Non-state violence

  • In November 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks killing more than 130 people across Paris in a single day, the fall of a Russian plane which killed 224 people, and suicide bombs detonated in Beirut, killing at least 37 people. Cities around the world have heightened security measures in response. 
  • Experts believe we are likely to see more system-level disruptions (e.g. attacks on oil pipes, power grids, IT networks and food supply) as a high-impact way of expressing dissent. 
  • In 2014, retailers like Staples Inc. and eBay, as well as health care firms (Community Health Systems), financial firms (JPMorgan Chase & Co.), and entertainment companies (Sony Pictures) were targeted by cyber-attack.1  
  • During the 2012 conflict between Israel and Gaza, more than 44 million attempts were made to bring down Israeli state websites.2  
  • The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first time in history in which the Internet was a major battlefield. This was the first time that we see an armed conflict be supported by large anti-state cyber-attacks.3 Similarly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) runs approximately 50,000 social media accounts and sends out 100,000 tweets per day to recruit members. This highlights the increasing role of hyper-connectivity in prolonging conflict. 4

State fragility

  • Today, more people have been displaced from their homes than ever before. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million in 2013 and 37.5 million a decade ago. This increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Furthermore, the risk of human trafficking and death by drowning increases significantly as people get more desperate to leave their home countries. 1
  • In Foreign Policy’s Fragile States Index 2015, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya were among the countries to worsen most dramatically from 2014 to 2015. Ukraine experienced large-scale protests that would topple a corrupt government in 2014 that ended with the eastern part of the country in the throes of a civil war that killed more than 6,000 people and displaced 1 million. The war has also severely impacted Ukraine’s economy. Most of the mines and factories in the country’s East have shut down due to fighting. Annual inflation climbed as high as 60% in the early months of 2015, and the country is dependent on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to pay its bills. The IMF predicts the economy will shrink by 9 percent in 2015. 2

Implications

  • Over the next 35 years, population growth, reduced access to fresh water, climate change and declining arable land will place mounting pressure on global food and water security. The greatest pressure will be on those countries least equipped to deal with these challenges, increasing the risk of both inter- and intra-state conflict. [14]

  • Cross-cutting, slow-burn, systemic challenges, such as climate change, widespread illicit trade, the management of the oceans (including a more accessible Arctic), Internet governance, international cooperation on space missions, and the enhancement of human rights, may prove more intractable when the prioritisation of domestic economic and social concerns undermines the ability of states to coordinate and implement policy remedies. 1

  •  Women and children are often the worst affected by conflict, particularly through sexual violence and displacement. They are largely responsible for dealing with the aftermath of conflict: providing essential shelter, food and water for their families and rebuilding communities. 2

  • Organisations need to identify and monitor their level of exposure to an increase in geopolitical insecurity and manage any risks. Strategic discussions about long-term resilience should consider not just the manifestation of geopolitical instability, but also the causes of it such as inequality and environmental change.

  • Global supply chains mean that natural, humanitarian and political disasters in any part of the world can influence the raw material extraction, production and transportation of products, and so have a significant global economic impact.

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