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Last Updated: 11/16/2005
The Prospects for Peace and Security in the 21st Century
Martin Lees

"Those of my generation who have been struggling in the international system for two or three decades cannot claim to have achieved a world to the measure of our hopes. I fear that, in spite of the undoubted progress made, we will leave to our successors a difficult and dangerous world which still suffers from abiding poverty for millions, injustice and threats to peace. You will have to face, directly or indirectly, the challenges and problems which we will leave in your care..."

I have chosen a bold topic for my talk: “The prospects for peace in the 21st Century.” Those of my generation who have been struggling in the international system for two or three decades cannot claim to have achieved a world to the measure of our hopes. I fear that, in spite of the undoubted progress made, we will leave to our successors a difficult and dangerous world which still suffers from abiding poverty for millions, injustice and threats to peace. You will have to face, directly or indirectly, the challenges and problems which we will leave in your care.

We are living indeed in interesting times. A wide range of critical international issues is under active debate as the world community begins to recognize the scale of the challenges ahead. To mention only a few issues now the focus of attention: progress has now been made after many years on debt relief for the most disadvantaged countries; agreements have been reached to increase the flow of Official Development Assistance and a debate is in progress on development finance; the Doha Round of trade negotiations is limping along; the report of the Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change is under consideration; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference has been held with little success; the Millennium Development Goals are under review and the perennial issue of UN reform is under discussion.

This unusually intense ferment of international discussions reflects the widening realization that the world faces serious threats to peace, security and sustainable development and that these cannot be resolved without new approaches. As Einstein observed: “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it: we must learn to see the world anew.”

There is, in consequence, an intense and deep public concern about the state of our world, about relations between peoples and ethnic and religious groups and about the prospects for a stable, peaceful world for future generations.

In this short lecture, I wish to present a wider, more coherent perspective of world affairs in the hope that you will refine your thinking about the changes now in progress and the more profound transformations which you will face during your careers.

For this reason, I felt that I should look beyond day-to-day dramas and events to examine the broader, longer-term issues of the 21st Century. Of course, no one person can describe the world of the future. In this brief presentation, I will be forced to simplify and to generalize.

  1. I will first present an overview of some key aspects of the world economy to provide a general context;
  2. I will identify some of the major trends and issues which will define the challenges to peace and development in the 21st Century.
  3. I will then briefly review some of the fundamental transformations in progress which are re-shaping the world.
  4. I will conclude with some suggestions concerning strategies and lines of action which can contribute to achieving a more peaceful, secure and successful world, including the role of the United Nations.

I will start with an X-ray of the present state and prospects of the world economy as a backdrop to the survey of major trends which follows. First a few facts to give some perspective:


Over the 50 years to 2000, Gross World Product increased from $6 trillion to $41 trillion, (in constant dollars of 1998.) Of this total, the US contributes around $11.7 billion and China $1.7 billion. The world economy is expected to grow in 2005 at around 4.3 percent, but this general figure conceals important differences: the US grew at around 4.2 percent, the EU at 1.6 percent, Japan at 1 percent and China at around 9.5 percent in 2004. These differences in performance are leading to the accumulation of major financial imbalances which are unsustainable.

In spite of this surge in wealth and income, around 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day, in extreme poverty. (One key objective of the Millennium Development Goals is to halve this number by 2015.) Over 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 per day - within a global population of around 6.4 billion.

Again, overall figures hide some important facts: between 1981 and 2001, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide fell from 1.451 billion to 1.101 Billion. During this same period, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in China fell from 61 percent to 17 percent while in Africa over the same period, it rose from 42 percent to 47 percent. In India, some 390 million people live in extreme poverty, on less that $1 per day.

A recent in-depth study by Branko Milanovic, a lead economist at the World Bank, has analysed the issue of global economic inequality from several different perspectives. Two conclusions stand out, as paraphrased by Professor Thomas Homer Dixon: “inequality between the world’s rich and poor people has been rising for a very long time and has stayed high in recent decades” and “ we now live in a world without a middle class: over 77 percent of the world’s people are poor, while nearly 16 percent are rich which leaves less than 7 percent in the middle.” Professor Paul Rogers cites the following figures to give a longer-term perspective of the widening gap between rich and poor: in 1960, the richest 20 percent received 70 percent of world income, while in 1991, this had risen to 85 percent. Conversely, the poorest 20 percent obtained 2.3 percent of world income in 1960, but this fell to 1.7 percent in 1991.

To give a telling regional example from the late 90s: according to Larry Summers, then US Treasury Secretary, “Latin America’s economic success in recent years has not been associated with a reduction in inequality. The pressing economic problem for Latin America is to create an environment in which all people have a chance to benefit from growth.” According to ECLA some 15 percent live in extreme poverty, 150 million on less than $2 per day, and the gap between rich and poor widened in the 90s.

Confronted by these high levels of poverty and widening inequality in an increasingly wealthy world, what are we doing about it? In 2004, Official Development Assistance reached the level of $79 Billion, which is however, less in real terms than in the 70s. (And, this figure is inflated by some specific factors, such

as the weakening of the dollar, the inclusion of some reconstruction expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan and of some elements of debt relief.)

The recent engagements at the G8 meeting at Gleneagles, if carried through in practice, would add around $50 billion to ODA by 2010. We should not discount the tremendous political efforts which produced this agreement, or the immense surge of public and NGO support which was mobilised.

However, in relation to the scale of the world economy and to the intensity and urgency of the development issues confronting us, the flow of assistance is small. We should also consider the effects of Foreign Direct Investment, but 75 percent of this flows to only 10 developing countries, including China which received $62 Billion in 2004: the effects of FDI to accelerate development in the poorest countries are therefore important but limited.

Another key factor driving the global economy is of course, trade. And this is particularly important to stimulate progress in developing countries. It has been calculated that a 1 percent increase in Africa’s share of world exports would be worth five times its share of aid and debt relief. However, Africa’s share in world trade has actually fallen over the past 40 years from 5 percent to 1 percent. In comparison, China’s share in world trade is 6.6 percent and rising fast.

To give another perspective of the trade issue: it is estimated that annual government subsidies to agricultural producers in rich countries amount to about $1 billion per day: The average cow in the European Union earns $435 in subsidies: in Switzerland the figure is around $1,500. In comparison, the GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa is around $467 per year. It has been calculated that the full removal of rich country barriers to developing country exports by 2015 would result in an increase in their GDP of 0.6 percent, but this would be concentrated mainly in around 12 developing countries.

I hope that this overview provides a useful context of where the world economy is today. Let me now outline some issues for the future:

Prospects for the World Economy

I will identify here, two key factors affecting the future prospects of the world economy which are most relevant to the purpose of this talk:

First, there are dangerous imbalances in the world economic system at present and these are increasing steadily. Over the past decade, the US economy has maintained a comparatively high rate of growth, providing a stimulus to the world economy as a whole. This is reflected in a high and growing US current account deficit of around 6 percent of GDP, around $700 billion per year, and increasing external indebtedness in consequence. This is widely considered to be unsustainable.

As consumer spending constitutes some 80 percent of US GDP, it is commonly said that the US consumer has been driving the world economy. But the US consumer is becoming concerned: in spite of overall growth of the economy, median household income has been flat for the past five years. Only the top 5 percent of households experienced average real income gains, the other 95 percent were either flat or falling. At the same time, income inequality is near all time highs while some 46 million people have no health insurance and 37 million live below the poverty line. These problems are gradually sapping the confidence of the US consumer and, in addition, household saving as a proportion of disposable income has fallen from 7 percent in 1990 to -1 percent now. We cannot rely on the US consumer to stimulate demand indefinitely!

Another important facet of the fragility of the US economy – and thus of the world economy as a whole – can be sketched as follows. At the end of the Clinton Administration, the Congressional Budget Office was predicting an accumulated budget surplus of $5.6 trillion over the coming 10 years, to 2010. This positive situation has been transformed in a few years. If Bush Administration policies are successfully implemented such that the tax cuts should be made permanent and the planned changes made in the structure of Social Security, current estimates are for an accumulated deficit of around $5 trillion over the coming ten years, a huge reversal. Thus US national indebtedness is growing fast, and over 50 percent of this debt is owed to foreigners. It is widely held that the current rate of growth of these “twin deficits” is unsustainable. It is significant that Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, assigns a 75 percent probability of a dollar crisis in the coming three years.

Second, profound transformations are in progress in the world economy, and in the world community as a whole. First, and perhaps most widely recognized, is the rapid growth of the economy of China and its emergence as a major focus of power and influence. Although the Chinese economy remains modest in global terms, around $1.6 trillion per year, it is growing fast, around 8 percent per year and current plans imply that it will double in the present decade to 2010 and again in the decade to 2020. This implies the possibility of an additional three Chinese economies to be added to the global economy. The implications for international markets for energy and resources of all kinds, and for the global environment are enormous.

In addition, India is now beginning to move ahead and so also is Brazil. It is common to speak of the emergence of the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China – but there are substantial differences between them, particularly Russia. The emergence of these and many other new economic actors has huge implications for example, through added demand for resources, through the addition of hundreds of millions of new consumers to world demand, and through intense added competition from millions of new, low cost workers. And although these workers may start with relatively unskilled manufacturing jobs, it is already evident that, through education and training, they are becoming increasingly skilled, able to compete with the traditional industrialized countries in the provision of goods and services of increasingly high value added.

Differentiation has also taken place steadily as some countries prove more effective at competing in international markets and adapting to the new demands of an integrated global economy. The old categories of East and West, North and South and developing and developed are less and less relevant.

It is also the case that some countries – and major groups within countries – simply do not have the capability to compete in the intense and difficult world economy. They are increasingly excluded and, by virtue of this exclusion, are unattractive as a focus for international investment and trade, creating a vicious spiral. Thus, one consequence of the growing force of globalization is an increasing polarization between those countries who can participate and those increasingly excluded and alienated. This poses major challenges to the preservation of international cooperation, world peace and security.

Thus as globalization proceeds across the world, new patterns of competition and trade are developing with the emergence of new forces and centres of power. This was well expressed by Kofi Annan: “In today’s post cold war world, trade, commerce and technology have reconfigured the global balance of power equation. Market forces and large corporations in many ways have a bigger impact on peoples’ lives than governments or regional or international institutions.”

We are thus living at a time of significant vulnerability and massive transformation in the patterns of economic relations and power within the world economic system. We cannot simply assume that we will muddle through indefinitely.

The East Asia Financial Crisis in 1998 demonstrated, to the surprise of all, that a systemic crisis could suddenly arise and spread across the world. Besides the evident complexity of the world economy, there has also been an immense increase in its scale, for example: between April 2001 and April 2004, daily global turnover in traditional foreign exchange markets increased 57 percent, to $1.9 trillion, while daily turnover of complex derivatives grew by 77 percent, to $1.2 trillion. Twenty years ago, the major economic powers could meet at the Plaza Hotel in New York and agree on measures to manage currency relationships: they could not do this today.

We are in fact confronted with one central issue for the future. Is it today realistic to believe that the complex, decentralized and massive global economic system can be guided or even influenced by the concerted action of the key countries as in the past? If not, we must accept that the future evolution of the world economy is already beyond our influence and control.

The continuing stability and growth of the world economy – which are fundamental to peace, security and world development – are not, in fact assured.


I will now look ahead and review the trends, issues and relationships which will affect the prospects for peace and security in the future. Looking forward into the 21st Century, we can see a number of positive trends and potentials which can create a better world. We also see others which will create major threats to peace and progress unless concerted and effective action is taken to counter them.

This leads me to make an obvious but important point. The future is not pre-ordained and inevitable. It is, in large part determined by human choices and actions. We can in fact to some degree, choose our future. Historians will be surprised that it took us so long to realize that we must reach out - before it is too late - to the underprivileged peoples of the planet and work together to achieve a more equitable and secure world of peace and progress for all. This can provide hope and opportunity and release the potential of millions of people across the world.

We do have the capacity to do this: In fact, humanity has never had such vast capacities for positive change. It is not simply a question of resources: We have seen how vast resources can be rapidly made available for war. It is a question of

priorities, organization and will. Thus, we should not view the future with fatalism or pessimism but with realism and commitment. As Margaret Mead said: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

However, I must stress that the passage of time itself is a key factor. Problems which may be manageable today may reach a scale and intensity if left unchecked which will render them insoluble in years to come. It is perhaps the most immediate contradiction we face that, in our present world of confusion, disagreement, short-term focus and delay there is an urgent need for a vision of the common future, for clear and concerted leadership, cooperation and early action.

For my present purposes, I will identify six key trends and issues here which will affect the prospects for peace and the lives and well-being of millions of people in the 21st Century. These are:

  1. Demographic growth.
  2. First of course, is demographic growth which is a central driver of change. This will have immense repercussions for all countries and peoples in the 21st Century. Although birth rates are falling in many parts of the world, we are still adding some 80 million people each year. In the half-century from 1950 to 2000, world population increased from around 2.6 billion to around 6 billion. In the next half century to 2050 it will rise to around 9 billion where, hopefully, it will stabilise. The vast majority of this increase will take place in developing countries. In comparison, the populations in a number of developed countries are in decline.

    It is, in my view, remarkable how little interest and attention these simple but fundamental facts receive, even though they will have the most critical implications within the lifetime of our children. In this connection it is instructive that, in the current 10th Five Year Plan for the Peoples Republic of China, preparations are already being made to prepare for an increase in the Chinese population of 300 million people by 2050.

    We must not only recognise the implications of population growth in absolute numbers but also the imperative that living standards should attain decent levels for all. This challenge has been phrased by Christopher Flavin as follows: “Humanity must achieve a new balance with nature while continuing to expand economic opportunities for the billions of people who lack a decent standard of living.”

    In the course of our reflections on world peace, we must consider how – and if - this challenge may be met. In my view, it demands a profound re-orientation of human purposes - away from a culture of materialism and everlasting growth towards what Alan Durning has termed, a culture of permanence. As Edward Abbey pointedly wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell!”

  3. Environmental Constraints and Competition for Resources
  4. Tightening environmental constraints will also play a key role in determining the prospects for peace and progress. The growth of population puts immense pressure on the environment, especially where it is associated with and amplified by abject poverty. It forces the use of vulnerable lands for agriculture to produce the food essential to life and it leads to their rapid degradation – in Haiti for example, half the arable land is already lost. And, the population is expected to double in the next 30 years. In this context, eco-migration is currently estimated at around 20 million per year: in Mexico, some 900,000 people are forced off the land each year by desertification. Arriving in vast urban areas, they are obliged to compete for jobs with an estimated 900,000 young urban Mexicans, also in desperate search for employment. Migration, which increases competition for scarce resources can also be a major driver of conflict.

    According to the World Resources Institute, “Halting the decline of the planet’s life support systems may be the most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced.” FAO estimates that we are losing some 126,000 square kilometres of tropical rain forest annually, what Darwin called “primeval forest undefaced by the hand of man.” The immense importance of forests was simply phrased by Chateaubriand: “Forests precede civilisation: deserts follow.” Even the vast oceans are no longer immune to the depredations of man. The decline of fisheries and the destruction of coral reefs are only two indicators of the processes at work.

    These few examples demonstrate the pressures which are now impacting on world environmental systems resulting from the increase of population and rising levels of consumption to date, and they indicate the scale of the problems to come.

    It is already evident also that competition for essential resources, such as water or oil is increasing significantly: such competition historically has been a potent driver of conflict.

    In relation to water, nearly 25 percent of the present world population has no access today to safe drinking water. According to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, nearly two thirds of the world population will be affected by 2025. Not only is the quantity of water in question as water tables fall, aquifers are depleted and lakes shrink, but water quality is also threatened by increasing contamination from pesticides, nutrients from agriculture, industrial pollution and human waste. It is estimated that the Yangtse river absorbs some 40 million tons of pollutants per day! The consequences for health worldwide are already grave: some 25,000 people die each day from water-related disease.

    In regard to oil, by 2035, it is expected that world energy use will almost double. The demand for oil would increase from some 80 million barrels per day to around 140 million. That is to say that the energy industry must discover, produce, refine and market 140 million barrels every 24 hours!

    But the industry is now finding less that 40 percent of the oil it needs to make up for its current level of production. Since 1995, the world has used averagely over 24 Billion barrels per year but has found only 9.6 Billion barrels per year of new oil. (Paul Robert: The End of Oil. Richard Heinberg: The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.)

    It is thus unwarranted to assume, because we have doubled oil output in the past, that we can necessarily do it again. Although price effects and technological innovation are important factors, we must recognise finally that we live in a non-linear world.

  5. The Impacts of Climate Change
  6. Another environmental trend of profound importance is the increasing impact of global warming and environmental change in large regions of the world, giving rise to drought and flooding and to increased risks of epidemic disease. As a consequence of sustained drought, some regions which have supported human life for generations may become unable to do so, giving rise to migration and conflict. As the major cause of climate change has been the growth of the economies of the industrialized countries, the impact and mitigation of climate change increasingly raise intense issues of equity and responsibility in the conduct of international affairs, besides their evident practical implications.

    On the impact of climate change on the poor, the World Wide Fund for Nature presented the issue as follows: “Climate change effects are particularly harsh on poor rural societies which are more directly exposed to drought, floods and biodiversity loss. Thus, unless poverty reduction strategies include climate change mitigation and effective long term conservation of forests, river basins, coral reefs and mountain areas, poverty is very likely to grow even more and lead increasingly to security issues.”

    (It may be interesting to note that, in a recent poll, 94 percent of US citizens felt that the US should make more efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, 73 percent felt that the US should participate in the Kyoto Protocol, and 52 percent believed that there is a scientific consensus on the nature of global warming.)

  7. The consequences of persistent inequities and deprivation
  8. As I indicated earlier, it is a sad commentary on our civilisation and values that, although Gross World Product has expanded to $41 trillion in 2000, vast numbers of people still live in poverty. And, the divide between rich and poor is growing both internationally and within many countries, both developing and developed.

    The intensity of the consequences of extreme poverty can perhaps be most clearly seen in the field of health where the present situation is truly tragic. Some 240,000 people die each month from HIV Aids, 165,000 each month from malaria and 140,000 from diarrhoeal diseases.

    In most fields, it is the poor and underprivileged who suffer most immediately and acutely from the consequences of environmental degradation. They cannot buy their way out. This was clearly demonstrated to the world in observing the impact of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. The rich can manage their lives to a large extent so as to avoid the consequences of environmental degradation while the poor may be desperate to meet their vital human needs for food, land, shelter and safe drinking water so as to achieve a minimum level of health and human security. They may be condemned knowingly to destroy the very ecological systems on which they depend so as to meet their immediate needs, regardless of the long term consequences. Such inequities and tensions create the conditions in which lawlessness, violence and conflict can all too easily arise.

    It is encouraging that the Millennium Development Goals have established targets by international consensus on the critical issues of poverty and deprivation, for example, addressing the eradication of poverty and hunger, reducing infant mortality and reducing the spread of HIV-AIDS, of malaria and of other major diseases.

    But we must note that, as globalization proceeds, there are also worsening inequalities in income, wealth, job security and opportunity within and between countries, and these are provoking increased frustration and alienation. Like most complex phenomena, globalization has diverse effects on different participants. The issue is not whether globalization is, on balance, positive or negative: it is what measures must be taken to ensure that the adverse effects are limited and that the benefits are fairly and widely distributed in an increasingly interdependent world.

    A recent book by Professor Amy Chua, “World on Fire,” analyses such issues in detail and from a very practical point of view. She explores the linkages between the opening-up of markets through globalization and liberalisation, the concentration of wealth in the hands of “market dominant minorities” often of an ethnic nature, and the advancement of democracy.

    She raises profound questions about the concentration of wealth and the risks of intensifying ethnic resentment and global violence as globalization continues. And she explores the practical difficulties inherent in seeking to advance both rapid liberalization of markets and rapid democratization at the same time.

  9. Arms Expenditure and Proliferation
  10. We are also aware of another very serious threat to peace: the diversion of vast intellectual, financial and physical resources to the development and production of armaments and the widening availability across the world of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. The threat that nuclear, biological or chemical weapons may be used by terrorists has the most profound implications for policy and cooperation in the future. It is all the more unfortunate that the recent Review Meeting on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty did not produce significant results.

    When I was a student at Cambridge some forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear annihilation was real. The balance of terror between the superpowers was maintained by a policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, each side having the capability to destroy the other many times over. The end of the cold war in the early nineties thus represented for millions across the world, a crucial turning point and the profound hope that the central threat to world peace and to the future of humanity had been overcome. We also hoped for a major ”Peace Dividend”, that is to say, that a substantial proportion of the massive world military expenditures of around $800 billion per year could be re-directed to reducing world hunger and poverty and building a more secure future for all. We were disappointed.

    Global arms expenditures are now again approaching this level and indeed, we may see a further escalation on two fronts: one the development of small tactical nuclear warheads aimed at “busting” underground bunkers and two, the weaponisation of space towards “full spectrum dominance.” This is a real prospect. The Strategic Master Plan of the US Air Force of 2000 states that: “To maintain space superiority we must have the ability to control the ‘high ground’ of space. To do so, we must be able to operate freely in space, deny the use of space to our adversaries, protect ourselves from attack in and through space and develop and deploy a National Missile Defense capability.”

    A space commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld just prior to his appointment as Secretary of Defense concluded more succinctly: “Every medium – air, land and sea – has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different.”

    A further aspect of the growing focus on military options in the United States was clarified by Robert J. Lieber of Georgetown University: In the 60’s, the US spent 1 percent of its GDP on the non-military aspects of promoting its interests overseas, such as the State Department, Foreign Aid, the United Nations and information programmes. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, this has declined to 0.2 percent” As pointed out by Michael Ignatieff, this approach “may earn fear and respect but it will not inspire by force of example.”

  11. A Decline in International Solidarity and Cooperation
  12. At a time when the world community is confronted by the need to achieve concerted action in the face of these very real challenges to the future of us all, we can identify another adverse trend in recent years: a decline in the solidarity of the world community. This is due to an increasing polarization between cultures and religions, coupled with an increasing sense of exclusion and alienation in a world in which the benefits and opportunities available to the rich are all too evident