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Geopolitical instability

Climate change, competition for resources, state fragility, and ideological polarisation pose threats to regional and global stability in the coming decades, with implications for global trade, migration, governance and human lives. 

The emergence of demagogues in countries such as the United States, Turkey, the Philippines and India, coupled with the rise of far-right across Europe, points to a resurgence in nationalism worldwide. A new order in which sovereingnty opposes globalisation has the potential to disrupt established trade order, multilateralism and systems of global governance. Fractured opposition, corrupt leadership and power struggles continue to jeopardise the possibility of peace and reconcilliation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Meanwhile, relations between global powers and Russia, Iran and North Korea are increasingly fraught. Global power looks to be shifting eastwards, as illustrated by China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. 

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

  • 1. Human Security Report (2013)
  • 2. World Development Report (2011)
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Current trajectory

The ten-year trend for the Global Peace Index is one of gradual decline, having dropped 2.4% since 2008, highlighting that on average the world has become slightly less peaceful. However, this decrease has not been evenly spread: 75 countries improved while 85 countries deteriorated, with the situation worsening most in the MENA region. Moreover, the global economic impact of violence on the global economy in 2017 was USD14.76 trillion, representing a 16% inrease since 2012.1

Resource scarcity

  • Conflict is closely linked to natural resources. According to the UN, 40% of civil wars over the past 60 years can be associated with natural resources and 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled or financed by natural resources since 1990. Often this root cause is is obscured by more visible drivers, such as ethnic tensions, political exclusion and poor governance.1

  • The UN identifies three types of resource scarcity; demand, structural and supply, all of which will likely be exacerbated by population growth, environmental degradation, climate change and mass migration.

  • Where profits from mineral and hydrocarbon extraction are concentrated in the hands of elites, such as Congo and Mozambique2, this could potentially lead to violent conflict in the future.

Emerging battlefields

  • 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. 
  • Cyber breaches recorded by businesses have almost doubled in five years, from 68 per business in 2012 to 130 per business in 2017. Ransomware attacks alone have doubles in frequency, from 13% to 27%, with incidents like WannaCry and Petya affecting thousands of targets and disrupting large corporations and vital public services across the world.1
  • The Islamic State's (ISIS) effective use of social media to amplify its message and recuit members further highlights the increasing role of hyper-connectivity in prolonging conflict.2
  • New battlegrounds are spilling into conventional conflicts; the 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first time in history in which the Internet was a major battlefield and that armed conflict was supported by large anti-state cyber-attacks.3
  • 1. Ponemon (2017), Costs of Cyber Crime Study
  • 2. Berger & Morgan (2016) The ISIS Twitter Census
  • 3. NYTIMES (2008)

State fragility

  • More people have been displaced from their homes than ever before. An unprecedented 68.5 million peple around the world have been forced from home, among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.1 This represents a significant growth up from the 33.9 million displaced people in 1997, with most of this growth coming between 2012-2015 driven by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Central African Republic and Sudan. As more people are made desperate to leave their homes, so increases the risk and occurence of human trafficking, exploitation and violence.
  • The fragility of western democracies has been exposed by both the widespread dissemination of "fake news" and the alleged Russian interference electrions, notably in the United States and Britain. 
  • 85% of displaced people are in the world's developing countries.

Rise of nationalism & decline in multilateralism

As recent political events have demonstrated, nationalism is surging worldwide and is being correlated with a growing distrust of globalisation, multilateralism and global cooperation. This is already being reflected in major political events illustrated by Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


  • Global supply chains mean that natural, humanitarian and political disasters in any part of the world can have significant economic and human impacts the world over.
  • 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 inter- and intra-state conflict.
  • Should states continue to prioritise domestic economic and social concerns, global challenges, such as climate change, illicit trade, ocean health, Internet governance, international cooperation on space missions, and the advancement of human rights, may prove more intractable.1
  • Another threat to civil rights is the protection and expansion of state power, with implications for minority groups and dissidents (for instance, the Rohingya in Burma and the opposition purge in Turkey following the 2016 coup).
  • 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 - from inequality to environmental pressures.
  • 1. WEF (2018), Global Risks

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