The Global Conflict Landscape in 2030: The Imperative of Investing in Security Cooperation
As part of our research project to assess whether the EU is on the right course for 2030, this chapter looks at security. By envisioning three scenarios for 2030 – a status quo, worst-case, and best-case scenario – we aim to ensure the EU is properly aware of the implications of continuing its current trajectory, is prepared for the worst, and understands how to achieve the best.
The three scenarios for Europe’s future security landscape play out around two themes: climate change (specifically, how states respond to the potential of climate change to drive both innovation and conflict) and security cooperation (how the major powers treat multilateral cooperation in security and conflict resolution). In Germany and the EU, climate change is currently treated as the biggest emergent driver of war and insecurity because failing to adapt to climate stress leads to resource conflict, power grabs, mass migration, and the collapse of cooperation. Since the quality of global security cooperation is currently worsening, the EU is logically pursuing unilateral policies in fields that include climate innovation – for example, its Green Deal and decision to create legally-binding climate targets. Playing with plausible variations of the two factors, we suggest that the EU has things the wrong way round. Investments in European adaptability and high unilateral climate commitments will not help reduce conflict. In order to boost international climate adaptation and avoid climate-induced conflict, the EU should invest in global security cooperation.
Let us start by exploring how our first theme – climate change – plays out across our scenarios. In all three, the EU responds to climate pressures by setting itself high legal targets, yet this leads to negative security outcomes under most circumstances. True, in the status quo scenario, the EU is initially protected from security problems thanks to its high level of climate ambition, but not for the expected reasons. Eco-extremists worldwide punish their governments for timidity when it comes to adaptation and point to the EU as an example to aspire to; the EU’s high climate ambitions protect it from criticism but unwittingly spur these extremists to acts of violence abroad, and instability eventually spills into Europe. The worst-case scenario also shows the perils of too much unilateral climate innovation. The EU’s unilateral standard-setting cannot prevent over-adaptation in Asia and the Middle East, causing negative side effects for other world regions as experiments in geo-engineering disrupt the environment. The best-case scenario shows that climate innovation works primarily in tandem with strong security cooperation. Governments begin to think of “climate adaptation” less in terms of goal-setting and more in terms of revamping cooperation in sensitive spheres.
This leads us to our theme of multilateral security cooperation. In the status quo scenario, multilateralism fatigue and a degradation of global security institutions heighten the escalatory potential for old and new conflicts. The EU’s focus on unilateral initiatives initially boosts its resilience. But, over time, its under-investment in multilateral formats leads these global and regional institutions to become sclerotic, allowing violence and insecurity to spread to Europe. In the worst-case scenario, multilateral security institutions like the UN are superseded and give way to regional orders under assertive hegemons. This fuels forms of local adaptation, innovation, and deregulation in Africa and the Middle East – but of an extremely risky kind. By contrast, the best-case scenario demonstrates how severe environmental crises can result in positive developments as global powers reinvigorate security and conflict resolution institutions to deal with them. This indicates that an EU investment in multilateral security cooperation has greater benefits for absorbing the drivers of conflict than unilateral standard-setting and adaptation.
What to Watch Out For – Takeaways for Policymaking Today
In the status quo scenario, European policymakers would probably predict two things for the EU of 2030. First, that investment in initiatives such as the Green Deal and European green transformation will make it well placed to lead globally on the drivers of conflict such as climate change. And, second, that this unilateral investment will significantly allay any future security problems for Europe itself. These predictions are partly borne out by this first scenario. Although the EU is initially spared violent conflict, this is less due to the practical effects of its policies and more because of their signaling effects. In this scenario, citizens worldwide react with anger – and then violence – against governments that take approaches deemed too timid to tackle climate issues. The EU is initially spared this new “eco-extremism,” which mostly plays out in the cyber realm. And yet, the EU’s unilateral progress and its corresponding under-investment in global cooperation is partly to blame for frustrations outside of Europe. Moreover, when it comes to its investment in security cooperation, the EU’s failure to renew its usually inventive, grassroots approach to security governance leaves it poorly placed to address these grievances when they do strike the continent.
In the worst-case scenario, Brussels’ starting point is more positive than in the status quo scenario, in which it was focused heavily on itself. But its good intentions to ensure that its climate policies are more inclusive and cover not only the EU but also its eastern and southern neighborhoods backfire. Its effort at including its neighbors is motivated by geopolitical considerations and forms part of a bid by the EU to promote regional orders as a useful counterfoil to China and the United States, who are polarizing global affairs. The EU fears a hot war between the two powers, possibly triggered by an attempt by China to annex Taiwan. So it is ironic that, in this scenario, there is indeed a Chinese move to seize Taiwan – and, importantly, it occurs precisely because of a growing regionalization of world affairs. In this world order, which is characterized by weak global security cooperation, the United States and China tacitly accept each other’s spheres of influence, and China considers, as it does now, Taiwan to fall within its zone. The EU is relieved never to be asked to take sides between the two; yet it receives help from neither the United States nor China as Russia asserts its own influence in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
What is the best-case scenario – and is it achievable? Our experts foresaw such hoped-for outcomes as states sharing methods of climate adaptation and agreeing on a global approach to other big, shared problems like nuclear proliferation as well as Europeans finally speaking with one voice on such matters in robust global institutions like the UN. This sounds implausible from today’s perspective. Furthermore, the steps taking the world in this positive direction in this scenario often involved “lucky coincidences” – such as a radical or cash-poor UK Labour government dropping Britain’s nuclear capability, leading to greater streamlining of the European presence in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) around the E3 (the format of France, UK, and Germany). And yet, the EU is able to capitalize on these unexpected shifts for structural reasons. In this scenario, it had already invested in international security cooperation, be it the E3 with the UK or more established multilateral bodies. This kind of structural preparation left it well placed to turn climate disruptions into opportunities for adaptation.
The United States and China withdraw from global security bodies despite growing threats to the cross-border infrastructure on which their economies depend. In the absence of fora for mediation, border confrontations and inter-ethnic tensions sizzle. US and Chinese refusal to invest in mutual reassurance spills over into multilateral governance more generally; a lack of cooperation on adaptive technologies leaves weak states vulnerable to extreme weather events and resource shortages. Grievances around the timidity of climate policies, the unequal benefits of foreign direct investment, and excessive resource extraction are given form by new political groups. Organized eco-extremists unleash large-scale cyberattacks on infrastructure from Baku to Berlin.
Talk of a New Cold War
An unreformed and sclerotic UNSC epitomizes ten years of under-investment by the United States and its allies. A cash-strapped US has to choose priority issues, and conflict resolution is not one of them. As for China, its economy quickly recovers from the COVID-19 crisis, and it talks of investing in conflict prevention and mediation tools. In reality, China’s cash investments in global institutions like the UN are primarily geared toward co-opting their upper management into silence. Beijing’s main engagement is in economic standard-setting and investment bodies like the International Organization of Standardization, and it nominates proxies from friendly nations to top positions. China is trying to secure its global web of cross-border infrastructure through such moves rather than peacekeeping. The United States does not counteract this creeping influence because it is keen to reduce its financial burden and is itself increasingly reliant on China’s worldwide network of roads, ports, and hubs.
As China’s economic and diplomatic clout grows, it uses unilateral displays of military force to prove its capability to secure its worldwide networks, testing the readiness and cohesion of its rivals with provocations off the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. A 2022 US-China standoff in the South China Sea ends with both sides backing away. Shortly afterward, China skirmishes with an Indian naval exercise in waters it has claimed for itself and, in what is becoming a pattern, the United States and its allies do just enough to face down China without pushing it to kinetic action. It is a tense environment characterized by frozen conflicts at risk of thawing and latent ethnic tensions. But whenever such tensions look set to explode, China leverages its web of cross-border infrastructure to isolate states one by one. In a typical move, when inter-ethnic tensions lead to confrontation at the India-Pakistan border, China – worried by two nuclear capable powers squaring off – turns off the tap to both, squeezing their reliance on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Growth of Grassroots Eco-extremism
The United States and China refuse to set ambitious climate goals, viewing these as a burden that they cannot afford given the geopolitical stakes. Instead, each seeks the allegiance of industrializing nations across Asia and Africa, prioritizing support for their economic development over global climate standards. This takes its toll. Extreme weather events and a shortage of fresh water and arable land lead to tensions in South Asia and the coastal areas of Africa. In the Sahel, resource shortages contribute to tensions between nomads and herders. And on the Horn of Africa, rising sea levels threaten the livelihoods of urban populations, trapping poor populations in precarious situations and leaving them without the means to move. Crucially, there is no global or regional institution or hegemon with the will or capacity to resolve these conflicts. The response to Hindu-Muslim riots in northern and eastern India is typical: Beijing quickly smothers the social unrest by directing its local service providers to cut off power and the internet; yet it does not address the underlying problem of food insecurity brought about by droughts and flooding.
China cannot keep the lid on this pressure cooker forever. Across sub-Saharan Africa, groups that feel trapped between Chinese market interests and the status-quo-driven self-preservation of their national governments conduct physical attacks on Chinese-built infrastructure. A wave of cyberattacks against Beijing follows and is traced back to hacking centers in Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. Meanwhile, in advanced economies, frustration over the timidity of global climate mitigation measures yields new kinds of civil protest and political extremism. A wave of copycat strikes hits infrastructure – first in China, then in the United States, and finally in the European Union. A globally organized network of “eco-extremist” groups emerges to claim responsibility for this series of attacks. The stricken governments find it impossible to disentangle these radical groups from the governments offering them support. Teheran, Pyongyang, and Moscow, for instance, all feel insecure in a global economy whose infrastructure remains open until one of the bigger powers decides to close it off.
Heavy EU Investment in Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Does Not Suffice
In the early 2020s, the EU not only invests in ambitious unilateral climate adaptation but also signals that it will share its distinctively European technologies and approaches if others sign up to its standards. The idea is that, by exporting its own cooperative approach to climate change, cross-border infrastructure, and resource issues to other governments, it could achieve a more secure international environment. Europe’s ambitious policies initially spare it from the global wave of eco-extremist violence, but – far from having a pacific effect abroad – such policies actually fuel violence as frustrated urban groups across Africa and Asia point to the EU and its Green Deal to criticize their own governments. Meanwhile, environmentalists in Europe grow frustrated at the EU’s timid position on climate geopolitics. At the Conference of Parties (COP)-34 held in Brussels, the EU fails to take a stand as China freezes Taiwan and its few allies – a scattering of low-lying Pacific islands like Tuvalu – out of the UN climate talks. European eco-terrorists unleash cyberattacks on EU institutions and coal-guzzling EU members with close ties to the United States or China, starting with an attack on Poland and its energy grid.
In the mid-2020s, the United States completes its “pivot to Asia”; seeking to bolster friendly states in the East, it scales down its involvement in NATO’s military structures. The US does remain allied to select European states, replicating in Europe the “hub and spokes” set of bilateral alliances it has long had with individual nations in East Asia. Although US power projection continues to offer the EU protection from armed invasion, almost all EU members experience cyber- and hybrid attacks – with Russia the main suspect. Some Europeans respond with “extreme deterrence” in cyber space, but the drawbacks of this aggressive new approach quickly become apparent. Warsaw attributed the cyberattack on its electricity grid to Moscow, but it was claimed by eco-terrorists who had not been active on European soil so far. The incident went on to create splits between those European governments preferring extreme deterrence and those favoring a more cautious approach. In the wake of its very public indecision and lack of cohesion, NATO is downgraded from a collective defense alliance to a coalition of states willing to engage in deterrence against hybrid threats.
Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030
The crumbling of old fora for conflict resolution created a global vacuum, but the EU’s failure to pursue its usually innovative approach to geopolitical tension and social governance meant it was poorly placed to fill it. Finding itself surrounded by political timidity regarding climate ambitions and aggressive extractive strategies, the EU looked inward, focusing on domestic standard-setting and climate adaptation in the hope that it could entice other governments to adhere to its norms. In fact, the EU’s attempt at global climate leadership only fueled violent and disruptive protests in other world regions and rendered governments there even less responsive. The EU soon found itself marginalized and losing its economic clout. But this negative experience did highlight some potential wins that the EU could already anticipate today. Given the difficulty governments worldwide will face when it comes to agreeing on drivers of conflict such as climate change, it is likely that there will be widespread anti-fossil fuel and pro-democratic movements. Our experts felt that the EU was well-placed to shift paths, away from standard-setting power and toward green power, moving from harnessing markets to social movements.
In this scenario, the EU did indeed develop policies that appealed to new social groups at home and abroad, and this gave it new levers in foreign policy vis-à-vis authoritarian countries. It was one of the few powers with the potential to support “human” and “societal security” that were distinct from more autocratic models of “regime” or “state security.” There was significant global demand for just such a security approach in 2030 – or, more accurately, for any approach capable of addressing the root causes of conflict. In our scenario, the UN and NATO were rendered all but irrelevant when it came to conflict resolution, and the EU had an opportunity to become more active. However, this demanded that the EU invest not only in international security cooperation but also in its own defense. Learning from the large-scale cyberattacks it suffered during the 2020 to 2021 COVID-19 pandemic, the EU had an opportunity to develop a robust cyber defense model and to encourage digital security cooperation. But because it failed to invest in security, its leadership role in the field of climate became a liability. Autocratic regimes saw the EU’s appeal to social movements as a threat and did their best to undermine it. Eco-terrorists then turned their fire against Europe for its geopolitical timidity.
In 2030, global security institutions give way to regional orders. Regional powers lay claim to their own geographic and technical spheres of influence with the tacit approval of their peers in other world regions. Inevitably, conflict bubbles up – nowhere more so than in East Asia, where China annexes Taiwan, and Japan responds by becoming a nuclear power. As a result, global governance on pressing problems requiring collective action breaks down. This proves devastating in the field of climate mitigation. In the absence of common international goals, uncoordinated technological innovation and over-adaptation prove worse than collective inaction, ultimately exacerbating the potential for climate-related conflict.
Global Governance Collapses and Is Replaced by Regional Hegemons
Beginning in the early 2020s, China and the United States take an increasingly selective approach to multilateral fora, reducing comprehensive global rules-based bodies like the UN to mere shells. As these global bodies become polarized between the two superpowers, local rivalries between regional powers boil up with the belligerents enjoying tacit encouragement from Washington or Beijing. The situation deteriorates into a fourth Gulf War that is sparked as Saudi Arabia and Israel confront Iran. Its effects radiate out into other world regions. In Latin America, for instance, Brazil comes to the fore as its petro-economy benefits from the Gulf crisis, and it takes an assertive stance in its region, inhibiting environmental protection and human rights governance as well as blocking relevant initiatives on the global level. Soon, the world is divided into familiar, old geographic spheres of influence. These form the basis for new “technospheres,” which experiment around the local mix of resources and geographic features. Semi-developed regions that benefited from the former, rules-based global order respond to the economic hit with drastic deregulation as they try to attract businesses and powerful allies.
Uncoordinated Technological Innovation Exacerbates Climate Conflicts
All parts of the world agree that climate change is the major challenge they face, but they cannot agree on common measures to respond. Each regional technosphere has its own particular “innovation mix” and, freed from any global regulatory oversight, presses ahead unilaterally with climate adaptation and mitigation. The resulting breakthroughs in climate adaptation are uncoordinated and sometimes excessive. As climate challenges grow, hard-hit regions become more risk tolerant, further deregulating and offering themselves to large outside powers as testing grounds for new climate approaches. An American corporation, emboldened by the US withdrawal from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, begins geo-engineering by means of high-altitude stratospheric aerosol injection. Ethiopia offers the Horn of Africa as a testing ground. By 2030, the negative side effects of this climate engineering have created “death zones” in the southern Mediterranean, rendering large areas of the region uninhabitable. Conflicts and refugee flows are largely contained to the region itself, but neighboring powers put up barriers and cut off aid and climate cooperation.
Russia Plays Divide and Rule in Europe
Early in the 2020s, the EU begins investing in cooperative regional orders as a buffer against the breakdown of global institutions. It redoubles its investment in its own neighborhood, ensuring that its Eastern European, North African, and Balkan neighbors can fully participate in its post-Covid recovery stimulus and Green Deal. It fears that they will otherwise be drawn into hostile spheres of influence. But this worldwide regionalization turns sour when China claims hegemony over East Asia and annexes Taiwan in a “Velvet Revolution,” claiming it as part of its regional sphere of influence, while Japan, lacking reassurance from outside partners, chooses the nuclear path. It turns sourer still when an emboldened Russia asserts its own sphere of influence, justifying it by pointing to the EU’s geopolitical assertiveness and brokering a formal division of Ukraine into two separate states. Faced with competition from Russia, the EU not only increases its neighbors’ access to European Green Deal funds but also cuts the usual strings attached. The result is a growth of corruption, kleptocracy, and unresponsive strongmen regimes living off large-scale energy infrastructure projects that Moscow can exploit even further.
Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030
The world was prone to new and more escalatory conflicts as climate and security issues intertwined. The most obvious example was the way unregulated geo-engineering in the Mediterranean led to a whole new class of man-made security problems. But there was also the case of Israel and Iran. Before fighting erupted, there was renewed nuclear proliferation. The belligerent states claimed to be harnessing nuclear technologies for the purposes of energy adaptation but were really seeking new means of defense and regional prestige. Moreover, by appealing to climate goals to legitimize such actions, Israel and Iran provided outside powers like the United States and China with an excuse to pass them sensitive technologies. Instead of focusing on global security governance, however, the EU concentrated on shoring up its own regional stability. It chose an assertive geopolitical approach. Like other powers, the EU linked its climate and security policies in new and instrumental ways. It invited its neighbors to sign up to its Green Deal, supposedly to ensure mutual connectivity and joint adaptation, but really to use them as a buffer to a hostile world.
As a long established regional power, the EU might have seized upon these developments to redefine its global role – using the weakness of the United States and China to establish deeper global security governance. However, it was unprepared. Throughout this booklet, it is telling that most scenarios have assumed the rise of China and have projected a global order structured either around the United States and China or around China alone. That suggests that Europeans rarely consider the eventuality that both the US and China might undergo internal crises and lose power. But in this scenario, that is precisely what happened. Both the United States and China suffered domestic pressures as their civil populations voiced discontent with the effects of climate catastrophe and avoidable conflicts. Reduced in status, the US and China needed support to rise to the occasion. A former spoiler state such as China would have had to behave well in areas in which it claims influence – for example, stepping in to defuse an India-Pakistan confrontation. The EU could have seized such opportunities to support global security cooperation. It did not.
A succession of severe natural catastrophes affects different parts of the world simultaneously. Global superpowers are left looking helpless. Authoritarian governments – including Beijing’s – whose legitimacy lies in decisively resolving problems that require collective action feel especially powerless. China, like the United States, is forced to accept help from rivals. Democratic and authoritarian countries find ways to engage in cooperation formats based on narrowly defined issues, such as that between the EU and China on battery technology or between the US and China on technological innovation. Mutual reassurance in the security sphere paves the way for institutional breakthroughs such as UN-level tech governance and joint climate adaptation programs.
Security Cooperation Appears All But Extinct
The 2020s begin with a high-profile European initiative for a multilateral rapid reaction force for climate catastrophes, which almost immediately stalls due to rivalry between China and the United States. Global security cooperation decreases sharply, and a gap emerges between traditional multilateral institutions – the UN and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – and rival global governance initiatives such as China’s BRI, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, etc. When links are discovered between the US Department of Defense and UN research on geo-engineering, China accuses the United States of “weaponizing the weather.” Meanwhile, the United States accuses China of using its lead role in renewable energies to control key rivers and seas worldwide. Their sparring is interrupted by a set of almost simultaneous catastrophes. Severe wildfires burn in Silicon Valley and huge storm waves hit China’s rim of nuclear power plants from Hongyanhe down to Fangchenggang with spillover effects reaching as far as the littoral areas of India. Then, a massive oil spill occurs in Siberia, which is blamed on the refusal of the United States to designate biological and cultural protection areas to prohibit the use and transport of heavy fuel oils for shipping in the region.
The Big Powers Bind Together
Chastened by these catastrophes, the United States and China seek to reestablish their global reputations by notching up some successes in global governance. This involves cautiously engaging in mutual reassurance in key geographic domains and sensitive technologies. The establishment of “open technospheres” – global commons mixing shared geographies and technologies – turns out to be key to successful climate adaptation. Seeing advantages for themselves, Beijing and Washington sponsor climate-related technological research in all domains: space (using satellite data to monitor temperatures on earth), air (carbon capture), cyber (5G-based smart energy grids), land (AI-driven reforesting), and sea (floating photovoltaics). As solving global problems becomes a matter of prestige for the two big powers, global power hierarchies are eased. Both the United States and China embrace “multi-stakeholderism” in climate governance – the US in order to bring in non-state actors and China in order to insert state-backed businesses into discussions. A more relaxed China-India relationship reactivates BRICS, a group comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, as a more robust tool for shaping global developments.
Stakeholders Rise to the Occasion
In 2030, BRICS demands the reform of the UNSC with the aim of better geographical representation. Measured in narrow terms, this is yet another example of how the EU is losing power to new stakeholders. But Europe is prepared for this. The UK and France trade in their seats among the P5 – the five sovereign states to whom the UN Charter of 1945 grants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council that also include China, Russia, and the United States – for a sole European (UK/EU) seat. Chance political shifts in Europe allow for this trade. The UK elects a radical Labour government in 2024 that drops British nuclear capability on grounds of ideology and cost. And, in 2027, the Green president of France brokers the EU-China agreement on new energy technologies in a constructive exchange that has positive implications for other fields affected by the liberal-authoritarian divide. This global diffusion of power paves the way for a second flagship EU initiative – the establishment of an “International Court for Crimes against the Climate.” China, negatively affected by the Siberia disaster, and the United States, still angry at the Chinese nuclear disaster, lend their support to the initiative, even if their own participation remains open.
Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030
At first glance, this seems an unlikely scenario, rendered possible only by a series of “lucky” coincidences. In it, multiple natural catastrophes were required to hit both China and the United States to make them seek help and trigger change. European policymakers have always had a habit of kidding themselves that states will rise to the challenge in this way as global collective action problems become greater. But bitter experience suggests that the bigger problems like climate change become, the more states and individuals retreat into self-interest, free riding, and symbolic sovereignty. Against this backdrop, what – if any – lessons could the EU learn to work toward this best-case scenario today? The obvious one is that investments in security cooperation mattered. Security cooperation preceded successful climate adaptation. The positive outcomes would have been impossible without previous heavy investment in security cooperation that spilled over into different areas. Although the engagement of more actors in global security cooperation meant that the EU lost relative power in terms of its traditional economic competencies, it was able to advance on new issues.
This scenario spawned three further lessons. First: narrow, issue-based cooperation resolved certain problems but meant that underlying dynamics were not always addressed. Cooperation on technical problem-solving supported the EU’s highly focused green agenda but sacrificed the goal of promoting democracy and human rights. Despite such a sacrifice, the EU was obliged to maintain technical cooperation with authoritarian regimes. Had relations on larger issues like climate change remained untested, they would have presented opportunities for misunderstandings and conflict. Here, too, security cooperation and mutual reassurance mechanisms would have helped. Second: as ideas and global investments flowed into its neighborhood from outside of the EU, its capacity to act there decreased. But the EU was right not to panic and act in a proprietorial manner there. The EU’s standard-setting model was renewed as more actors joined in to shape shared standards. Last: by moving forward on an issue-based cooperative agenda, the EU and United States enhanced their capacity to engage with China. The transatlantic security relationship improved because it moved beyond burden-sharing disputes toward new areas of engagement.
Chapter from the report Building European Resilience and Capacity to Act: Lessons for 2030 published by the Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik on July 2, 2021.