Geopolitical conflict is one of the oldest risks known to society and yet a simple explanation of its various causes, impacts, and solutions continuously eludes us. We have acquired a general understanding that the legacy of protracted conflicts in the Middle East during the early 2000s, exacerbated by the global effects of the Great Financial Crisis, created an unstable political climate in many developing countries. This instability has, in the years since, contributed to an atmosphere of xenophobia and protectionist thinking which stoked the right-wing shift in much of the West and elsewhere. Yet, at the time, the multitude of individual geopolitical events in the past decade – the ousting of long-ruling dictators in North Africa and the Middle East, the emergence of Islamic State and Boko Haram, Russia’s expansion into the Crimean Peninsula, Turkey’s failed coup, the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crises, the Brexit vote and election of US President Donald Trump, North Korea’s nuclear weapons boon – came as a great surprise to the majority.
The broad catalogue of geopolitical upheavals and step changes witnessed in the world since 2009 seem inevitable now only with the benefit of hindsight. But we know that even geopolitical shocks and surprises have deep historical roots; geopolitical conflicts almost never occur truly spontaneously. Even with thousands of years of experience with conflict and political change, we can only be somewhat confident in suggesting what the next ten years, or even the next generation, may bring.
Undoubtedly, the status quo is changing now. The ‘global policeman’ model established in the years following the second world war, in which the United States established its economic and military hegemony, has almost entirely eroded. The world is returning to a state of multipolarity, in which developing nations command greater influence over resources, labour, and demand. China’s economic prowess is now inevitable, as is the growing potential for countries like India, Brazil, and Korea to hold sway over the outcomes of global crises. These circumstances are beginning to undermine assumptions of security, allegiance, and surety over long-standing penalty systems. Long-term strategic plans are sinking under the weight of short-term solutions to regional problems. In the coming decades, the world must contend with the unintended consequences of these short-term solutions, such as the run-on effects of proxy-wars and the unhindered development of national cyber arsenals.
For much of the past half-decade, global inequality has been a common cause for civil disorder and social unrest. In the West, these movements have largely gathered around shared frustrations regarding issues of income, social equality, and political postures on issues of migration, climate change, and economic distribution. In developing nations, social unrest movements have sought to curb the power of authoritarian governments, initiate constitutional reforms, or protest strictures on civil liberties. At the beginning of the decade, Occupy Wallstreet channelled world-wide frustrations with the Great Financial Crisis into a global movement and the Arab Spring dismantled almost thirty years of regime structure in the region, creating a vacuum for power and volatility. Given the role that social media has played in highlighting flashpoint issues of inequality, mistreatment, corruption, and disenfranchisement thus far, we can safely presume that the age of protest is nowhere close to its end. Indeed, frustrations will likely only grow if measures are not taken to resolve systemic issues.
With protest and rebellion comes the inevitable rise of insurgency. Global terrorist deaths tripled in the decade since 2010 as state and non-state actors exploited the volatile circumstances that followed the Arab Spring. These groups are difficult to limit given their proliferation in vulnerable regions and a lack of reliable government structures to offer sufficient obstacle to them. The intervention by major powers in these power struggles only contributes to the cycle of destabilisation – Russia and Turkey have made inroads into the Syrian conflict, Iran has backed militia groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia intervention in Yemen is almost half a decade old. These interventions may and will blossom into proxy wars for resources and influence, ensuring that the region will continue to struggle with the same risks that have plagued it for decades.
Finally, the role of technology in future geopolitical conflicts is an issue which cannot be underestimated. Technology contributes to new weaponry and new surveillance and counterterrorist tactics but has also created new stakes for conflict and expanded battlefields beyond physical boundaries. Already, digital technology has contributed to significant changes in the methodology of conflict and protest, which have changed little since the end of the second world war. The true impact of social media on the proliferation of Arab Spring uprisings is still debated, but higher levels of connectivity have undoubtedly allowed for higher levels of communication and shared planning between disenfranchised groups. These networking tactics have also been successfully weaponised by terrorist groups like IS, who use the internet as a tool for radicalisation, recruitment, and propagation of violent messaging. The sophisticated use of digital tools to carry out cyber attacks and cyber espionage by nation state groups – causing power outages, repeating glitches, and critical machinery malfunctions – still exists below the threshold of traditional warfare. Currently, only very limited international deterrence measures prevent the escalation of the cyber threat.
The Centre is engaged in a number of research tracks dedicated to the mutable threat of interstate war, civil conflict, political shift, terrorism, and social unrest. In particular, our work on the future threat of cyber terrorism highlights the understanding that geopolitics and security issues are now irrevocably linked to the disruptive and destructive potential of digital technologies. The threat of unrest and upheaval in some form is an inescapable part of our world order and state structure. Change is an inevitable cause and consequence of conflict, and the world is changing fast.