From a security perspective, 2021 was a challenging year, with a pandemic, worldwide economic collapse and escalating tensions from the Middle East to Asia. Last year proved that the world’s security crises are no longer a form of threat or challenge that states can solve alone or through their regional alliances, but rather these crises can be solved — or better managed — through global cooperation. Thus, 2021 crystallized the need for more cooperation and unity, with de-escalation and diplomacy being the main tenets.
The crises that dominated the international agenda and are likely to continue in 2022 can be divided into three categories: Global, regional and domestic. On the global level, the competition between the US and China, and even Russia, was reflected in several areas in the world, most obviously in the crises in Ukraine and Taiwan.
On the regional level, the Ethiopian civil war, which left thousands dead and forced more than 2 million people from their homes, presented a wider security threat. If Ethiopia, a major source of human trafficking and illegal migration, stays in this state of conflict in 2022, it is likely that the region will face a severe humanitarian issue: Refugees and illegal migrants seeking shelter in neighboring countries. Another regional challenge appeared on the Palestinian front. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian resistance group Hamas escalated drastically in the first few weeks of May 2021, leading to concerns that the conflict could pose a threat to Middle Eastern stability.
On the other hand, last year we also saw that the internationally fueled civil wars in three Middle Eastern countries — namely Syria, Libya and Yemen — seemed to be frozen in place. The civil wars in these countries have become battlegrounds for external powers, mainly the US and Russia, to assert their global leadership. Due to the pandemic, however, the global and regional actors in these civil wars shifted their focus to their own countries for a period of time. The question now is how the situations in these countries will evolve in the post-pandemic era.
Among all the global and regional crises, the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan became the most important development of 2021, presenting both a security challenge to some regional countries and an opportunity for others in the region.
While regional conflicts dominated security analyses throughout 2021, new non-traditional security issues also required international cooperation, including climate change and COVID-19 and its new variants. The US’ return to the landmark Paris Agreement — a climate treaty aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions in more than 180 countries — and the COP26 summit in Glasgow, which brought global leaders together to address climate change, were the two most important developments. It is obvious that climate change poses climate-related security risks and makes existing political, social and economic challenges even more complicated for states.
The pandemic has proven to be another security challenge that not only revealed the inequalities between countries, but also within countries. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on countries that lack access to vaccines. Moreover, security analysts warn that the world should be prepared for more variants to emerge.
Lastly, cybersecurity issues appeared as new challenges, particularly the assassination attempt with drones that targeted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and the cyberespionage software Pegasus, which topped the international agenda. Cybersecurity threats cause economic hardships and sometimes even cause internal political chaos.
Overall, climate change and the pandemic remain the most prominent non-traditional security challenges faced by countries worldwide. In the past few years, security and economic issues have become increasingly intertwined. Also, some existing traditional security threats, such as civil wars and illegal immigration, continue to test the capabilities of states. Thus, the complexity of contemporary security threats has had an important impact on the agendas of regional and global states. The importance of cooperation has acquired increased prominence when it comes to dealing with threats that bypass states’ physical and political boundaries and challenge the functioning and social integrity of societies.
The year 2021 underscored that climate, health and economic challenges could trigger societal and political crises, which in turn pose risks to regional security and stability. As a consequence, the issues of climate change and the pandemic are likely to again take center stage this year.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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