Group 1—Risk in international security

Chair: Professor Roger Bradbury

There is a strong sense that risks in international security are the most potent risks of all because such risks threaten the existence of states. And the threats to one state can cascade, engulfing neighbours. We’ve seen this most recently with the Arab Spring—instability in Tunisia cascaded across the Maghreb and on to Egypt, Syria and Iraq. But we’ve also seen it throughout history, for example with the collapse of the Roman Empire and subsequent Dark Ages. A collapse of national security can result in a failed state, a collapse in international security can result in a collapse of civilisation itself.

Today the risks have grown and changed and entangled—and become global in scale. To the traditional risks of war and pestilence, and perhaps the weather, we must now add the planetary risks inherent in the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch and the risks of disruptive technology inherent in the looming ‘technology singularity’.

The international order, already under stress from traditional strategic competition among the major powers, must now try to cope with these novel 21st century risks. We now live in a world where the risk of thermonuclear war is not the only major risk. Lethal pandemics, runaway global warming, ocean acidification, famine and cyber war—to name only a few—must be added to our risk calculus.

Questions to get you thinking

  1. Do we need nation states? There is a lot of chatter within the commentariat that states are so 20th century, that states are the problem and not the solution to today’s international security challenges, that state sovereignty gets in the way of resolving complex planetary problems, and that some sort of pooled sovereignty—perhaps an extension of the EU model—is needed to address planetary risks to international security.
  2. Do we need international organisations? On the other hand, there is also a continuing line of realpolitik commentary that many international problems are the result of the abject failure of international organisations—think of Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Libya, COP—and their inbuilt ‘designed-to-fail’ structures.
  3. Will we see entanglement of risks? Water security, food security, war and population displacement could make a tidy package in places like the Mekong and the Nile, while pandemics, urbanisation, corruption and poverty will sit happily together in places like West Africa, Brazil and Indo-China.
  4. Will we see emergence of novel risks? Great power rivalry and the driving need to maximise economic growth to outcompete rivals may create new planetary risks—black swans. India might wish to undertake unilateral geoengineering in the Indian Ocean to restore the failed southwest monsoon, or China and the US might so interpenetrate each other’s internet of things that neither’s can be reliably stabilised.

Recommended reading

Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockström J, Cornell SE, Fetzer I, Bennett EM, Biggs R, Carpenter SR, de Vries W, de Wit CA, Folke C, Gerten D, Heinke J, Mace GM, Persson LM, Ramanathan V, Reyers B, Sörlin S (2015) Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347 (6223) DOI: 10.1126/science.1259855.

Osterholm MT (2014) What we’re afraid to say about Ebola. The New York Times, New York (12 September 2014).

Rees M (2013) Denial of catastrophic risks. Science 339 (6124): 1123.

Sagarin RD, Alcorta CS, Atran S, Blumstein DT, Dietl GP, Hochberg ME, Johnson DDP, Levin S, Madin EMP, Madin JS, Prescott EM, Sosis R, Taylor T, Tooby J, Vermeij GJ (2010) Decentralize, adapt and cooperate. Nature 465: 292-293

Taleb NN, Treverton GF (2015) The calm before the storm: Why volatility signals stability, and vice versa. Foreign Affairs 94:86-95.

Hsiang SM, Burke M, Miguel E (2013) Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict. Science 341 (6151) DOI: 10.1126/science.1235367.

Manyika J, Lund S, Bughin J, Woetzel J, Stamenov K, Dhringra D (2016) Digital globalization: The new era of global flows. McKinsey Global Institute.

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