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When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention
How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention
Op-Ed / Global

When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Originally published in World Economic Forum

Is a more connected world a safer and more resilient one, or is it more brittle and fragile? It all depends on how we organize our defense. But the failure to stem the rise of terrorism over the past 15 years suggests we’ve not got it right. How can we restructure our defense systems to take into account the immense changes taking place, and the blurring distinction between war and peace?

An Out-of-Date Model

Today’s defense model is one of state-centric centralized defense. Each state is expected to protect its citizens against external threats by deterring state-to-state aggression and by intervening in those states whose failure provides a safe haven to non-state enemies.

States are also expected to protect people against internal threats; they do so through increased police and military presence in our cities, and through ever-expanding digital mass surveillance to detect anomalous behaviours and identify potential threats.

A Thin Line Between War and Peace

This model is not working. Whether it is little green men in Crimea or cyber-attacks, the line between war and peace has been blurred, and in a world no more structured by an ideological divide, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the enemy is a more effective way to wage war than confronting it head on.

As for failing states, 15 years of costly interventions should have taught us the limits of military intervention: foreigners may help but they can’t substitute for locally driven state building.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age...

Lastly, finding the needle of terrorism in the haystack of law-abiding citizens is proving to be a frustrating pursuit, which at worst could turn democratic countries into police states, and at best, generates many false flags and will never guarantee complete success, even if the record of security agencies is better than often alleged.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age and the increased connectivity.

A New Approach to Defense

What we have at present is the worst of both worlds: traditional centralized systems are inefficient at identifying and correcting local vulnerabilities, but connectivity increases vulnerabilities because it accelerates and multiplies the psychological, political and in some cases physical impact of an attack on any part of a system. This is very different from the terrorist attacks of the seventies, which were not a threat to our societies.

What, then, should our new approach towards defense look like? That’s not an easy question to answer, but whatever model we end up with needs to take into account five important points:

The enemy within

Internal fragilities are a greater risk than external threats. By any objective measure, terrorism and external aggression are low risks to our personal safety, but they exacerbate our pre-existing sense of vulnerability. The biggest risks are the political upheavals that such a sense of vulnerability can trigger and that malevolent actors can exploit.

We can’t let fear win

Communities brought together only by fear are vulnerable because fear destroys trust, which is the foundation of any long-term human community. A much greater effort is needed to foster a positive sense of common purpose. Civic organizations and public debate have a critical role to play in strengthening the fabric of society from the bottom up.

Cities will supplant states

Physical proximity is becoming more relevant as a counterweight to the anonymity of globalization: in an urbanized world, cities are likely to become increasingly important as political units and standard bearers of identity. Over time, they may become more relevant to our security than states, provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure effective sharing of data.

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level...

The changing nature of warfare

Top-down provision of security, based on the Weberian model of the state enjoying a monopoly on the legal use of force, is ill-suited to the growing diffusion of power, including lethal power, which multiplies the capacities of individuals to wreak havoc in a society. Attack is becoming much cheaper than defense, especially, but not only, in the cyber world. We should not be surprised if this makes asymmetric warfare the most rational way of conducting war, which would generate increased instability.

The power of devolution

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level, empowering individuals to protect themselves against cyber-attacks through point-to-point encryption, and empowering cities to strengthen local connections among its citizens, making it more difficult for outsiders to launch attacks. Devolving power to individuals and to lower levels of government will also deprive enemies of targets whose value resides in their symbolic value as centres of great power, reducing the advantage of asymmetric attack. Nuclear warfare, but also cyber warfare, will be less likely if there is no target of strategic importance.

A Brave New World

The implications of this transformation will inevitably be gradual but they will be far-reaching.

Nuclear weapons for instance, are the ultimate expression of the traditional centralized state system: they need its resources to be developed, they require extreme concentration of decision for the threat of use to be credible, and they require similarly structured enemies for the threat to have a target. Their elimination – essential for the long-term survival of humanity – is unlikely to come from a decision to abolish them, but it may eventually happen through an evolution of political structures that will make them irrelevant, for lack of resources, centralized decision makers, and targets.

At the strategic level, the evolution of the world towards ever-bigger building blocks – the US, China, Europe, Russia – ­will be reversed. The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous because the stakes are just too high when a change occurs at the top. But now the era of the big state is coming to an end.

At the same time, the world has benefited enormously from the economies of scale of globalization and from the dynamism brought about by diversity. Individuals, cities must be connected, but the connections are unlikely to replicate the pyramidal model of traditional federalism. The European Union will need to adapt to that new situation if it wants to stay ahead of its time.

More likely, in a flatter world, interoperability and communications between smaller entities will be achieved through a multiplicity of issue-specific arrangements that will balance democratic and technical legitimacy: think of the evolving governance of the internet.

The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous...

At the operational level, just as “know your customers” has become an obligation for any law-abiding bank, know-thy-neighbour is likely to become a feature of tomorrow’s societies. If applied to big entities such as mega-states, or even mega-cities, it could destroy anonymity, which has been an essential dimension of freedom, and could make our societies oppressively Orwellian.

However, if there is a multiplicity of political entities, allowing us to choose our neighbours, and if we can protect privacy through robust encryption, that risk will be largely eliminated. Freedom will be ensured less through separation of powers and more through a juxtaposition of multiple powers.

Why Decentralization Makes Sense

The present experience with increased flows of refugees pouring into Europe provides the best example of the value of decentralization. When human beings are just part of a statistic, they can easily be perceived as a threat. When they acquire a human face, natural human empathy reasserts itself, as has been the case in many German small towns welcoming refugees.

Decentralized defense will operationalize that intuition: the abstraction of the nation feeds dangerous nationalism; the empowerment of individuals connected by proximity strengthens the fabric of a resilient and open society.

Three people walk through a sand storm in the Bakassi Camp for internally displaced persons of Maiduguri, north-eastern Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISISGROUP/ Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention

With climate change’s impact on peace and security set to grow in the years to come, Crisis Group has stepped up its analysis of the links between climate and conflict, helping shape climate policy at the highest level through cutting-edge field research and wide-ranging outreach.

Crisis Group has long seen climate change as an integral element of its research and advocacy aimed at stopping or mitigating deadly conflict. Nearly two decades ago, to name one example, we published a path-breaking report on water and conflict in Central Asia. Hundreds of people each month still read the report in English or Russian on our website.

Since 2020, we have made notable progress toward a new goal: to become the go-to source of analysis and pragmatic recommendations for decision-makers on the intersection of climate and conflict. We have published several original reports and briefings on climate-related topics – on resource politics in the Sahel, herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria and the Nile waters dispute, for instance – backed up with increased use of multimedia tools like videos, graphics and podcasts. We have also deliberately ramped up our use of scientific evidence to examine how climate change connects to war and peace in the 21st century. If we have one central finding, it is that while climate change itself does not cause conflict per se, resource governance – how people in power manage access to land, water and other parts of nature’s bounty amid climate change – can increase or reduce the risk of violence.

A polluted river near Kipushi mine, Haut Katanga, DR Congo, July 2019. CRISISGROUP/Hans Hoebeke

Our first step forward was to make climate one of the three pillars of our new Future of Conflict Program, launched in January 2020. Two months later, supported by the Global Challenges Foundation, we organised a two-day virtual workshop on climate change and conflict. The workshop brought Crisis Group staff from across the organisation together with leading experts from Adelphi, the Center for Climate and Security, the Clingendael Institute, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the University of Texas at Austin to discuss the state of research in the field, assess Crisis Group’s added value as a leader on peace and security issues, and help set priorities for our new workstream’s agenda.

A Crisis Group virtual event on 16 April 2020, “Beyond Paris: Climate Action, Security and Governance”, convened Paris Climate Agreement architect Ambassador Laurence Tubiana, Director of Agence Française de Développement Rémy Rioux and our Chief Economist and Future of Conflict Program Director Tarek Ghani for an in-depth discussion of climate policy’s future. Tubiana emphasised the growing human displacement by extreme weather. Rioux described his agency’s efforts to address resource competition in the Sahel and water scarcity in the Middle East. Ghani highlighted our research on how climate change had exacerbated herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria and international tensions along the Nile River.

While many regard climate change as a long-term threat, millions of people are already exposed to severe climate hazards today.

In November 2020, Ghani briefed the Global Challenge Foundation’s Climate Governance Commission on a peace and security agenda for climate action. He noted that while many regard climate change as a long-term threat, millions of people are already exposed to severe climate hazards today, whether they live in semi-arid locales where desert is encroaching or along low-lying coastlines as sea levels rise. An effective global response requires not only understanding how the latest climate science informs conflict risks but also dedicating funds to help these people adapt their ways of life and help governments manage resources wisely so that intensified resource competition and violent conflict do not emerge.

Cutting-edge Research

In line with the vision developed for our new workstream, we have stepped up publication on climate-related subjects.

In April 2020, we published the briefing The Central Sahel: Scene of New Climate Wars?. It argues that climate change has certainly contributed to transforming agro-pastoral systems in the Sahel, as drought and erratic rainfall push herders into farmlands in search of pasture. But the direct relationship sometimes posited between global warming and dwindling resources, on one hand, and growing violence, on the other, does not help policymakers formulate appropriate responses. To ward off conflict, they must instead situate the climate component among the political choices governing access to resources. To help diffuse the briefing’s messages to a wider audience, we accompanied it with an opinion piece in The Africa Report. Our analysis was picked up by The Continent, a pan-African weekly newspaper, which summarised the briefing’s central argument in a dedicated piece. Al Jazeera and The Guardian both referred to the briefing and its main contentions when they published their own analyses of the relationships between climate and conflict in the Sahel.

Ending the conflict [in Nigeria's North West] requires an integrated approach, including greater humanitarian aid and economic development efforts to mitigate climate change’s effects.

Our May 2020 report Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem again drew attention to the complex links among climate change, resource governance and conflict risks. The report explains that violence in the region is rooted in competition over land and water between predominantly Fulani herders and mostly Hausa farmers, a struggle that has been exacerbated by climate change-related environmental degradation. The violence has escalated amid a boom in organised crime, including cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom and village raids, with jihadist groups now stepping in to take advantage of the crisis. Ending the conflict requires an integrated approach, including greater humanitarian aid and economic development efforts to mitigate climate change’s effects. The prominent Abuja-based newspaper Daily Trust gave the report front-page coverage and the most influential Nigerian online news platform, Premium Times, republished the executive summary in full. High-profile mentions in international media included AFP, VOA, Deutsche Welle, Le Figaro, RFI and Le Monde.

As countries around the world seek to move to clean energy, international demand is growing for minerals such as cobalt and copper used in batteries for electric vehicles and other products. Our June 2020 report Mineral Concessions: Avoiding Conflict in DR Congo’s Mining Heartland analysed competition between industrial and artisanal miners as a source of tension in the country’s mineral-rich provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba. Crisis Group analysts profiled the report’s findings in a Financial Times op-ed. Mining Weekly also covered the report.

We published all three of these reports in English and French. Each had been viewed online more than 11,000 times by March 2021.

Hydropower dam on the road from Osh to Bishkek. April 2016, Kyrgyzstan. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Setting the Agenda

On 22 April 2020, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, President and CEO Robert Malley briefed the UN Security Council’s virtual Arria session on climate and security risks. Malley drew attention to climate change’s impact in Nigeria and the Sahel as well as the tensions over the Nile waters among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Without global action, he said, climate change could prove to be a slow-moving version of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In September 2020, Ghani and Malley published an opinion piece in Foreign Affairs titled “Climate Change Doesn’t Have to Stoke Conflict”. In keeping with our research findings, they argued that the ultimate risks to peace and security from climate change depend heavily on how states are governed. In other words, “climate matters when it comes to war and peace, but the politics and policies surrounding climate matter even more”.

Our message reached policymakers at the highest level.

In our December 2020 commentary “Repairing the Damage to U.S. Diplomacy in the UN Security Council”, our UN Director Richard Gowan pointed to the nexus between climate change and security as an area where the incoming Biden administration could focus its energies at the UN Security Council, as part of attempts to improve U.S. relations with fellow Council members.

At the end of 2020, Crisis Group highlighted climate change in its flagship publication “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2021” – the first time a transnational risk made this annual list. We argued that without urgent action, the danger of climate-related conflict will rise in the years ahead. We called on governments in at-risk countries to peacefully regulate access to resources and upon Western governments and companies to provide them with increased support to do so. By March 2021, the list had been viewed over 110,00 times on Crisis Group’s website (in English and Spanish), in addition to the audience that read the original in Foreign Policy. Our message reached policymakers at the highest level: the concept note for a UN Security Council debate on addressing climate-related risks to international peace and security, to be held in February 2021 and chaired by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, refers to our piece to explain the need for such a discussion at the Council.

We continued our efforts to keep climate issues high on the international agenda by including them among our annual list of eight priorities for the African Union in February 2021. Within weeks, 7,700 people had read it in English and French.

Informing the Public Debate

Throughout the first half of 2020, Crisis Group promoted interim steps to resolve the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. After U.S.-facilitated negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan broke down in late February, our 16 March statement “Nile Dam Talks: Unlocking a Dangerous Stalemate” recommended that the three parties pursue an interim deal to cover the first two years of reservoir filling in order to ease tensions and buy time for negotiation of a more comprehensive agreement.

As we stepped up our GERD-related advocacy from May onward, we became the leading organisation providing the media with analysis of the complex negotiations. In June, we published another statement “Nile Dam Talks: A Short Window to Embrace Compromise”, which underlined that all three countries urgently need to make concessions for a deal. To extend the reach of our analysis, we made maximum use of multimedia products, including an interactive timeline of events, videos and a podcast episode. Not counting the significant impact of our broad social media outreach on several channels in support of this new priority, more than 85,000 people viewed these materials from our overwhelmingly professional audience made up mainly of policymakers, diplomats, international officials, academics, civil society activists, businesspeople, researchers and reporters.