Future Global Challenges and Norway’s Role

John Tirman, Executive Director of the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge

This memo mainly focuses on structural causes of armed conflict, both current and potential, and Norway’s contributions toward problem solving. 

Political violence and civil wars

While the threat of political violence, or terrorism, is exaggerated by the U.S. government, it remains an unsettling specter to the West and has serious consequences in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Colombia, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In some places, political violence is part of festering civil wars. The insecurity this breeds is serious, even if the actual casualties are relatively low.  And political violence potentially could grow in scale, and directly threaten state stability in some cases. Incidents of sub-state or non-state terror acts worldwide are on the rise (as is violent criminality) in this decade.

For all the attention focused on terrorism in recent years, the processes of radicalization —what makes a person commit violence—is poorly understood.  What seems clear from empirical research is that extremist ideologies, whether “religious” or not, are only part of the explanation.  Other factors include witnessing repeated violence against one’s group (as with an occupying army or state repression); social exclusion and relative deprivation over several years; and a variety of globalization processes and effects (migration, communications and networking). 

While this is an elusive problem for governments, effective state and international responses are available.  They do not include war and occupation.  They do include good intelligence and law enforcement; new approaches to social connectivity to immigrant populations in the West; energy policies that reduce the importance of repressive, oil-rich states; public diplomacy that includes listening closely to people in the global south; multilateral organizations that demonstrate competence on development; and other policies that show equitable concern, respect for traditions, fair play in the global economy, and successful efforts at social inclusion. 

The incidence of civil war has decreased markedly since the early to mid-1990s.  The U.N. and other multilateral organizations have been one key factor in that decrease, and learning from that and applying lessons are in order. Similarly, civil wars, and insurgencies are containable, and resolvable, by addressing directly the grievances of the insurgents rather than branding them terrorists and pursuing military solutions.  While military solutions—defeating the insurgents on the battlefield—can work, they more often do not without addressing core causes. 

Where civil wars have been ended—El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique, Aceh, and elsewhere—a recognition of (not submission to) plausible claims by the insurgents helped to change the discourse, build public support for settlement, and enable compromises to secure an agreement. 

Given the numbers of civil wars that have ended, more attention to post-conflict reconstruction would now pay dividends.  In these “post-conflict” societies, too many weapons and unemployed former fighters remain in circulation; too few public goods are generated and equitably distributed by the peace agreement mechanisms; too much dependence on international organizations is unintentionally fostered; excessive and untimely demands for economic reforms simultaneously with political reforms undermine states’ abilities to respond to needs to stabilize the country; and rancid ideologies of violence—including growing violence against women—are not adequately addressed by IOs and recovering states. 

The last point deserves emphasis.  The most prevalent form of violence in the world is domestic and social violence against women.  This is deplorable, of course, but it also signals a broader social pathology that may be driving other forms of violence, including organized violence “legitimated” by ideologies that situate women in lower ranks and approve repression.  Cultural globalization, a vehicle through which women’s rights and roles have challenged such ideologies, is resisted and sometimes is a motivation for broader militant action against the West.  This entire complex of attitudes, rights, cultural appropriateness, etc., needs closer scrutiny and credible international action.

Human (in)security: food, education, and health

Ideas about “human security” in the last decade or so have tended to be loosely conceived, but we can focus sectorally on certain aspects.  Food security, education, and health are three that rank high.  All three mainly affect developing countries, but health concerns are threats of global scope.  Each demonstrates how human insecurity can be a driver of armed conflict. 

Food security, education, and health (as well as and economic stability generally) were buffeted by the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) and many bilateral conditions on aid that insisted on privatization in the 1980s and 1990s.  Privatization of land and other agricultural assets disrupted traditional farming and animal husbandry.  At the same time, developed countries maintained high barriers to imports from developing countries and dumped subsidized grains, GM seeds, and other products on world food and agriculture markets, essentially undermining local farming.  Nearly 800 million people worldwide are on the brink of starvation. 
Primary and secondary education has been one of the victims of economic dislocations in the global south.  More than 100 million children do not have access to primary education.  Even where it is available, fees or other barriers may prevent enrollment.  Girls are frequently discriminated against, especially in situations of scarcity.  Lack of educational opportunities affects general well-being, prospects for jobs, and community cohesion—i.e., overall social stability.  Of course, if no employment is available upon graduation, then education matters less.   But the availability of otherwise unengaged young men is a key contributor to armed conflict. 

Health systems were also undercut by SAPs, either by insisting that state assets and budgets be reduced, or by pushing privatization. This occurred simultaneously with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and undercut local and national efforts at prevention.  Treatment has been blocked by patent rights and high cost of medications.  These patterns could repeat in cases of bird flu or other catastrophic illnesses; influenza vaccines, for example, are in short supply because they are not profitable.
These are development issues that in acute form quickly become problems of large-scale human misery.  They threaten vast social collapse in the developing world and are security threats as well, because criminality and terrorism thrive in weakened social and political systems.  They tend to reinforce each other: in the case of many Africa countries already, widespread disease worsens food security because of labor shortages.  Lack of education lowers the preventability of diseases. 
A CIA study earlier this decade underscores how HIV/AIDS, if afflicting a certain percentage of a population, could lead to social dissolution and state collapse.  People are unable to work, to farm, to parent, to be productive citizens.  Chronic hunger would also qualify in this regard.  Social dissolution—nearly complete dysfunction in society—would in many cases lead to armed conflict via insurgencies, large-scale criminality, and other forms of political violence.

Rebuilding the public health systems in the developing world is a high priority.  Education policies as a development issue need reeximing (as is occurring) to seek higher enrollments and qualified teachers, no fees, and special attention to girls.  Changing the way the world food system works is more difficult, but ameliorative policies—e.g., not actively undercutting local farming—should be available. 


Human mobility is now accelerated by processes of economic and political globalization, conflict, and scarcity.  More than 175 million people are considered international migrants today, and more than 120 million are internally displaced (nearly 100 million in China alone).  The pace of immigration to developed countries has quickened dramatically in recent years, and now totals more than 8 percent of populations in those countries.

While migration is only rarely a direct cause of armed conflict, it can be an indicator of deeper development problems that themselves contribute to conflict.  The growing scale and urgency of migration, too, suggests that major, persistent dislocations can become security issues as well. 

The scale and changes in migration present several challenges.  First, while some labor migration is welcome and encouraged, the numbers of people migrating from the global south to the industrialized nations is in excess of what can be easily absorbed.  Skilled workers are leaving the developing countries, moreover, further indicating a severe development deficit that is driving this process.  Social integration in receiving countries is problematic, and related concerns about migration and security are growing.  In the developing world, sudden movements of people into neighboring states is exceptionally stressful for the receiving countries, in some cases a contributor to armed conflict.  Forced migration, particularly prevalent in Africa, remains acute; the burdens of forced migration mainly affect women and children. 

Immigration from the global south to Western Europe and North America is stirring severe social tensions that could result in draconian barriers to immigration and affect public attitudes in receiving countries. Simmering belligerencies toward immigrants is manageable at present levels of migration, however stressful in some respects.  But larger-scale and sudden migrations—quite possible, if not likely, in the near future—could be the source of large-scale communal violence and military interventions.

What can stir these dark scenarios?  Processes of globalization are already viewed in the global south as unfair and may be stirring social pathologies as well as sizable and sometimes sudden migrations.  Natural catastrophes like environmental collapse due to global warming, with massive displacement, would increase the scale of these problems dramatically. The only plausible way to avoid these problems is to commit to significantly larger efforts for sustainable development.

Competition between states: growing consumption of energy resources

The economic growth of China and India in particular strains global petroleum resources and stirs competition that could spark inter-state war.  Persian Gulf states are becoming more economically tied to East and South Asia, and this is gradually becoming a strategic relationship as well (military “protection,” arms sales, etc.).  U.S.-Iran tensions and broader disarray in the Gulf and Levant suggest unpredictability, particularly regarding the U.S. role.  The Russian role in production and distribution is also a potential problem if Moscow uses their resources as a political lever.

Competition need not result in armed conflict.  But it already has in the Gulf, if one views its many major conflicts there (Iran-Iraq War, the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq and the consequent war, and the current war in Iraq) as being motivated by control of oil. In the future, there is a looming specter of conflict between the populous and economically vibrant states of Asia.  Those countries already feel compelled to increase military spending, particularly on navies (as indeed China, Japan, and India are doing), a costly choice financially and in diversion of technical resources.  Arms races cannot be said to cause war, but they are usually present in emerging armed conflicts.

There are other worrisome aspects to growth in petroleum consumption, estimated by the U.S. to rise worldwide by more than 40 percent in the next 23 years, mainly due to increases in transportation.  First is the effect on climate change, which is highly unpredictable in effect but almost certainly deleterious.  Second is the effect on the developing world, which will suffer from high petroleum prices.  Both of these impacts can be mitigated somewhat by significantly larger global commitments to energy efficiency, mass transit, and non-carbon energy.  OECD countries in particular must lead the way on these measures; Norway, with its petroleum resources and historic role in promoting sustainable development, can be a leader in this crucial effort.

Energy production and consumption affects nearly every important global issue on the horizon, and problem solving must focus on improved development and use of efficiency and renewable sources.  (Water could become equally significant.)  These issues also signal how inter-state competition and conflict is most likely to unfold.  A pipeline from Iran to India, for example, could be disrupted in several places, not least Pakistan, and be a cause for military action.  Rising prices and competition for energy also affects producing countries in the global south, which can suffer from corruption, poor economic planning, and rent-seeking by bad actors, leading to civil war. 

Norway’s Role

Norway’s traditionally strong role in diplomacy and development are well suited to the problems and tasks outlined above.  Some of these issues—much greater attention to sustainable development and energy efficiency, most prominently—require multilateral action of a very serious kind.  Too much in the U.N. and other such bodies passes as expressions of goals and concern, rather than hard allocation of money and talent.  Single countries acting bilaterally are not going to accomplish what needs to be done.  Working in concert with others is necessary, and searching for problem-solving ideas is also a priority.  Norway’s capacities and skills as a third-party negotiator or facilitator are well known and should be expanded, if possible.  Here I add a few items that address violent conflict that the ministry can take up. Norway could:

  • Advocate within NATO for a global peacekeeping force, in cooperation with the U.N., to intervene where small policing actions could blunt civil wars.
  • Freshly analyze the complex tasks of post-conflict peace building to empower local actors, reduce dependency, address ideologies of violence, and coordinate political development with economic reforms in more flexible ways.  This also requires high-level diplomatic attention.
  • Initiate new fact-finding consultations and public diplomacy on issues of women and violence; fund women’s rights NGOs; build cross-cultural contact.
  • Examine with other major aid donors how economic reform is being pursued through aid conditionality and other pressures that may be counterproductive.
  • Launch (with oil revenues) a new research center on applied research in energy efficiency and link this to development diplomacy.  (The very notion of “development diplomacy” deserves more attention.)  Lead by example in domestic energy use.
  • New commitments to food security, education, and health care are strong indicated. Norway can again lead by example through its development policies, but advocacy by the foreign minister within government and IOs is urgent to bring on the players that can make a difference.  Mitigating unwanted migration and political violence are strong incentives.
  • Small states, even those as influential as Norway, are limited in dealing with large states, or large problems.  Norway might reconsider its multilateralism—such as joining the EU—to enhance its power.
Sist oppdatert: 30.11.2007
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