The International Security Prospects for 2008

RUSImotifThe fragile state of order that currently exists in the international system is one of the key themes that policy institutes and governments will need to urgently address in 2008. 

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI

The first days of 2008 provide a chilling indication of some of the trends we can expect for the rest of the year. The electoral violence in Pakistan and Kenya reflect struggles for power in an ever less structured international system. In Pakistan an electoral campaign has focussed the struggle between modernisation and Islamic radicalisation; in Kenya between tribal loyalties and effective political management. Both of these societies matter greatly to the rest of us. If Pakistan implodes it will have a major effect on South Asia – with its borders into Afghanistan, the other ‘stans’ and Iran. If Kenya slips into ethnic civil war it will have a fundamental impact on ethnicity and tensions to its west in Uganda and the Great Lakes region, and to the east in Somalia and the Horn of Africa – an area that naturally impacts on the Arabian peninsula. It is not in itself the violence that makes Pakistan and Kenya so significant. Their importance lies rather in the fact that there is so little to prevent or restrain political meltdown, and the stakes that are now thrown into the hazard by it.

That there seems to be so little order in the current international system is one of the key themes that both policy institutes and Western governments have to address with some urgency. And the coming year is likely to throw up many more examples of near political meltdown in sensitive areas – in the Middle East, in central Africa, in Zimbabwe, central Asia, perhaps even again in the Balkans. The most important players all have their attention currently focussed elsewhere. The major powers have elections and choices to make in 2008 and it is not clear how they will emerge from them.

The US presidential elections are the most significant for a generation. The world, and large parts of the US public itself, look at least for a new competence in US global leadership whatever political colour it takes, but there will be nothing but sound and electoral fury coming out of the US until well into the summer of 2009 when a new Administration is bedded in. Russia will not be a willing partner in helping the US to re-orientate itself. The Russian presidential elections in March are likely to mark the road towards a constitutional Putin putsch that will confirm his ascendancy in re-building a different sort of Russia; not the weakened Russia that had no choice but to acquiesce in the face of some clumsy Western attempts in the 1990s to reshape the world order.

Elections in Taiwan in 2008 may well spark renewed hostility from China and raise the temperature across the Taiwan Straits, though for once sport can be a restraining factor with the Olympic showcase in Beijing in August. The Straits are not the most key Asian security issue, any more than are the Olympics, but their handling will be indicative of a deeper security conundrum. With their burgeoning economic demands and environmental pressures both China and (for different reasons) India have high stakes in international order; but not particularly in the one they see around them. No stable international system can avoid dealing with the interests of these two giants of Asia, but the vigorous engagement of the US, Russia or a pre-occupied Europe in trying to square this Asian security circle is likely to remain somewhat tepid for the next year at least.

Order is not only down to the great powers, of course. The underlying conditions also matter, and the next year is already witnessing the global economic system battening down ahead of some stormy weather. The global economy will not provide much flexibility for governments to be expansive and may encourage powerful protectionist tendencies. Contemporary capitalism – now financially driven more than product driven – is essentially self-regulating. It creates great prosperity but it cannot be politically directed, it cannot be made to be essentially equitable, and it punishes regional instability by simply ignoring it; nimble investment flows elsewhere. The global economy is sensitive to any threat of resource shortage, but it is essentially indifferent to political crises or breakdown. Even in the Middle East, long term international investment has still been far less than it might otherwise be if the region had been regarded as more stable.

Nor are the international institutions in a good position to offer a great measure of order or regulation. The African Union is struggling for credibility; the UN remains in the throes of stop/start reform; the European Union has still to gain popular legitimacy for its Reform Treaty. The World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank, all struggle to keep up with the dynamics of self-regulating market capitalism which have been unstoppable for the last twenty-five years.

So the big questions for 2008 remain: what are the mechanisms for international order in our contemporary world; and can anyone legitimately and efficiently operate them? More to the point in London; what does all this imply for UK security policy? There appears still to be a public appetite for the UK to play an active role in the promotion of global order, and a good self-interested economic case for doing so. But the best instrumentalities of UK power in pursuing this aim are not so clear. The Armed Forces are fully committed and struggling with the allocation of their own resources. The next year or two will have to offer them some opportunities for reconstitution and re-building. Internal security challenges will be no less worrying. The terrorist threat to the UK has not yet peaked and will probably change character again in the coming years. No matter how outward-looking the Government wants to be, there will be powerful pressures towards security introspection in London in the coming year. The UK has still to conduct a public and thorough discussion of what its national security strategy should be, and what sort of country the UK now aspires to become. Easy enough to say, but this country, too, will begin an electoral cycle during 2008. The date of the British general election may be uncertain – any time from autumn 2008 to autumn 2009 is entirely possible – but the politics leading towards it, like death and taxes, are inescapable.

Election campaigns provide good times for bad policies. We may see a lot of that in Pakistan, Kenya, in the US, in Russia, and in a number of European countries, not excluding the United Kingdom.

Michael Clarke

See also: Strategy and Fortune: British Security Policy in Transition

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