2014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena

Francesco Mancini, Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute, has compiled a list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014. This list will be published in two installments: (1) the top ten issues to watch in 2014 at the global level (below), and (2) the top issues to watch in each region of the world.


1. Regional spillovers of crises
With no political solution on the horizon, Syria’s almost three-year conflict will likely cause more instability and violence in the region. Terrorist attacks will continue in Lebanon, while the economic and social pressure from refugees in Jordan will further drain that country’s limited resources—the United Nations has estimated that Jordan will need $5.3 billion by the end of 2014 for this humanitarian crisis. Regional extremist groups will continue their cross-border operations, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken up arms against Baghdad but also against Damascus.

Another source of concern is Afghanistan, where the drawdown of coalition forces by the end of 2014 and the presidential elections in the spring threaten to increase the level of violence and exacerbate instability across the border into the FATA region of Pakistan.

A third region at risk of a spillover crisis is central Africa. The weak Central African Republic (CAR) government has collapsed, triggering a serious humanitarian crisis, with 400,000 displaced and nearly half the population in need of assistance. Horrible violence has been taking place, and some UN officials have described the situation as ripe for genocide. The crisis is more political than religious, but since Christian militia were the ones who organized revenge attacks against the mostly Muslim rebel coalition Seleka as retribution for killings and looting, religious extremism might be further reinforced in the region. Instability has already spilled over the Cameroon border, and CAR’S porous borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a guarantee for continuing flows of weapons in both directions.

2. Iran-US: BFF?
2014 will tell if Iran’s talk on the nuclear issue can produce tangible results, and it has the potential to redraw the geopolitics of the Middle East. The stakes are high. Some have emphasized the dangers in the Obama administration’s bet, saying a failure in the negotiation could cause a spike in oil prices, or worse: a shift in power toward hardliners in Iran and a consequent acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which could lead to a greater threat of Israeli military strike and Saudi’s search for nuclear capability.

Others, such as Gary Sick of Columbia University, are more optimistic. “Reduced hostility between the United States and Iran could potentially have a constructive influence on virtually every major issue in the region,” wrote Sick. The most obvious is Syria, but other areas of mutual interest include stability in Afghanistan and Iraq; the defeat of al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups; access to new energy sources; and countering drug traffic.

The more likely scenario will be a “messy middle.” Progress may be made on the nuclear side, but many difficult issues will remain open, such as the Iranian support for Hezbollah and its fierce anti-Israel stance. Opposition to a final deal will come from hardliners in Iran and in the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia, so far the closest allies of the United States in the region, will remain the strongest opponents to any deal that would “rehabilitate” Iran and lift sanctions.

3. Elections with Global Impact
In the past year, the world witnessed how the election of Iran’s Hassan Rouhani had global impact, and in 2014, there will be many elections with results that could reverberate beyond their country’s borders, particularly in emerging markets. Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey will all go to the polls (more on each election in the GO’s forthcoming regions article). In all six countries, the incumbent party will have ruled for a decade or more, and all are suffering from frustrated expectations, particularly among the growing middle class. However, only India and Indonesia are likely to see new leadership at the helm.

In Europe, elections for the European Union Parliament will likely produce a record performance of Eurosceptic parties. After years of economic austerity and unemployment at record levels, public pessimism is growing. More Eurosceptics in the EU Parliament will change the conversation in Brussels, but the biggest impact will be on national governments with a growing tendency toward populism and nationalist policies (with possible impacts on important topics like Euro stability, trade agreements, and immigration policies).

Finally, elections in Afghanistan and Iraq are of great concern due to increasing instability in both countries. With the withdrawal of the international coalition and the Taliban still powerful in Afghanistan, and sectarian violence on the rise in Iraq, the leadership in both countries are facing daunting tasks. Elections in Syria, in which President Bashar Assad intends to run and will likely win, will further complicate the negotiation for a peaceful solution in the country.

4. Continuing Social Unrest
Recent years saw huge numbers of people around the world take to the streets to protest their governments and policies, from anti-austerity movements to middle-class revolts, in rich countries and in poor, and this will continue in 2014. The triggers so far are diverse—from revolts against dictatorship in the Middle East to the construction of a mall in Istanbul or bus fare increases in Rio—but the underlying causes are common, and run deep: wide income-inequality, government inefficiency, corruption, high taxes, and shoddy public services. There is the perception that the gap between people and institutions is widening, due to an erosion of trust in governments.

This is true in rich countries as well, where voter turnout has been falling slowing since the 1970s, from more than 80% to less than 70% today. This trend has led some to see democracy under threat. Globally, the Economist estimated for 2014 that 65 countries will be at a high or very high risk of social unrest. The high-risk category grew by 19 countries when compared with five years ago, and the Middle East and North Africa, southern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet countries of East Europe and Central Asia are all well represented there.

5. Disputes in the East China Sea Continue to Raise Tensions
Tensions in the East China Sea have risen sharply in the last weeks of 2013 with the Chinese declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone. The new year will likely see the continuation of China’s aggressive play in the area. And with a more economically confident Japan (The Economist forecasts a 2% growth), this can be a dangerous international tactic. Chinese and Japanese militaries operate in close proximity, and the bigger concern remains the possibility for an accidental escalation rather than a planned attack. China, however, will continue to press hard on its territorial claims, mainly for domestic reasons. As President Xi starts to implement difficult reforms, such as financial reform, anti-corruption, and more transparency in state-owned enterprises, he will need both the Communist Party and the Army on his side. Nationalist rhetoric will help building consensus both at the top and in the public.

6. Toward the End of War on Drugs?
Is 2014 the year that will see a definitive change in how to address drug trafficking? It is unlikely that this year will bring a shift in global drug policy on a massive scale. However, there are signs that states have begun a fundamental shift, and 2014 may set a new tone on counternarcotic policies. Uruguay has moved to legalize marijuana. Twenty US states and Washington, DC have legalized use of physician-prescribed marijuana for medical purposes, and New York has announced it will move to do the same. Washington and Colorado both legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and last August, the US Department of Justice advised federal prosecutors that, while possessing a small amount of marijuana remains a federal crime, it is not an “enforcement priority.”

Last May, the Organization of American States (OAS) published a report suggesting that the Western Hemisphere’s leaders evaluate all possible scenarios—including the potential for widespread legalization efforts—for reducing the corruption and crime that come with the drug trade. And the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Poland, has called on national governments to decriminalize drug possession and sales.

7. Technology for War (and Peace)
The world has already seen cyberspace become a new battleground, and now more than 100 governments have created military organizations to fight battles in the online domain. The hacking war between Malaysia and the Philippines, attacks by the Syrian Electronic Army, the expansion of US Cyber Command, and the growing use of drones in military operations are all evidence of the increasing role of technology in war making.

However, the role of new technology in fostering peace and enhancing conflict prevention and management tools is still a nascent field, and in 2014, we will see more and more experts and policymakers focusing on the possibilities there. New technology will be a dominant theme in peacekeeping, beyond the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for intelligence purposes. The vast proliferation of local initiatives using new information and communication technology for peacebuilding will also receive more attention at global level. And the use of big data for conflict forecasting will begin to provide policymakers with micro-level analysis of trends that, so far, are generalized at national levels.

8. Your Freedom on the Internet
The role of government in the online world will be at center of the debate in 2014. Last year’s NSA revelations will continue to shake public confidence in the United States, and have implications abroad and on American tech companies, which have already lost billions of dollars revenue.

The impact has also reached diplomatic levels. The Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff will host the global “Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance” in São Paulo in April, which will not be a comfortable meeting for the United States as her personal communication was a target of the NSA’s spying program, which she called a “breach of international law and an affront.” The summit will involve national governments as well as representatives from industry, civil society, and the private sector’s International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which currently oversees Internet governance. At the summit, some states will push for more controls of the Internet, and calls for more involvement in the management of the World Wide Web by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) could provide them with opportunities for even more national manipulation.

In 2014, it will be clear that governments have given up the idea of limiting access to the Internet and instead are becoming the dominant players (even more than corporations) in data collection and surveillance of their populations.

9. Migration Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better
Despite high-level discussions about international migration in 2013, no progress has been made to fix the global management of migration. Migration will only increase importance in—and put increasing strain on—international relations in the coming years. Cooperation between Indonesia and Australia, for example, are at a new low after the Australian Navy turned back a boat loaded with asylum seekers early this year. The Syria crisis will only make things worse for Europe, which remains incapable of fixing its broken migration policy, and the chance for migration reform in the United States has faded away. Better integration of migration into the post-2015 development framework is also key to ensuring successful migration management policies and to defusing the tensions that massive population movements can trigger.

10. The Urbanization of Crisis
Alongside the unprecedented urbanization of the last decade, urban fragility has emerged as a central challenge in global security and development. Like the fragile state, fragile cities suffer from rising instability, poverty, and violence and lack the capacities needed to face the magnitude of these challenges.

Some analysts believe fragile and “failing” cities mark “a new frontier of warfare,” whether situated inside a war-torn state or a largely peaceful one. Forty-one of the top 50 dangerous cities in 2013 are in Latin America, while one-third of the world’s city dwellers live below the poverty line. In fact, according to the report of the United Nations High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, “Cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost.” 2014 will see a growing effort to better understand drivers of urban violence and adapt traditional conflict prevention and peacebuilding tools to the urban context. Urban management and municipal governance is becoming increasingly critical issues for human, national, and international security.