The Changing International Framework and Regional Security




A lecture by Dr. Mohammad Sabah AlSalem AlSabah in the Fourth Plenary Session of the 7th IISS Regional Security Summit - Manama Dialogue

December 4th, 2010 - Manama


Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim.

Thank you, John, and I am terribly sorry that our session will be at the end of such a long day, but I promise you that I will be as brief as possible.  When John called me and said that he wanted me to participate in this IISS Manama Dialogue and to be in this session, I was wondering what I could say about the title.  ‘The changing international framework and regional security,’ what does that mean?  I asked him, ‘John, what does that mean?’  He said, ‘You can talk about anything you want.  You can give us the macro picture of events,’ and that reminded me about a story of a businessman.

He owed a huge debt of $120 million to a bank, so he hired a financial consulting firm to help him reschedule this debt and solve this problem.  After a couple of weeks, the financial advisor came to the businessman and said, ‘I solved it.  After a lot of hard work and analysis of market trends, I found a solution to your problem.’  The businessman said, ‘What is the solution?’  He said, ‘Just deposit $10m each month and, by the end of the year, you will have $120m.  Voilà.  That’s it.  I solved the problem.’  The businessman said, ‘Okay, but how can I get $10m a month?’  The consultant said, ‘Those are the details.’  I will give you the macro picture and will leave the details for Kevin [Rudd] to fill in.

It has been said that our region is immune to change because of its culture, religion, historical experiences and the relative homogeneity of the population, but I think that could not be further from the truth.  If there is an absolute constant in international relations, then it must be the constant state of change in the international environment, with the exception of course of one fundamental constant, and that is the hospitality of the Bahraini people.  Khalid [bin Ahmed], thank you very much for your hospitality, and to [H. M.] the King.

I thought I would look at the last half‑century and see how trends are changing and what we should expect during the next period in our region.  I can identify four main areas.  The first is a change in the centre of global power.  As you will recall, 50 years ago, after the Second World War, we had a bipolar world of the US and the Soviet Union.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we entered a uni-polar world, where the US was the indispensable nation, the only player on the block.  That reality is now being increasingly challenged, not for a return to the bipolar but on to a multi-polar system.  We have seen this in different areas In the economic area, since the financial crisis that took place two years ago, we have seen a fundamental shift in the way people think about the new architecture of the international financial world.  We see a serious call for revamping or even doing away with the system that governed international economic regulations for the past 50 years, and that is the Bretton Woods system.  Now people are talking about restructuring Bretton Woods to enable new countries to assume their apparent power and responsibilities.  We have started to hear about the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – as an emerging engine of growth.  Thanks to China and India.  If it were not for the growth in India and China, I think the world’s economic growth would be flat on its face.  China was invited to be on the steering helm of the IMF and the World Bank, and India was given a vote of confidence by President Obama, during his last visit, when he called for its admission as a permanent member of the Security Council.  That is a fundamental change from what we have been seeing over the past 50 years.

Again, we are seeing new players coming to the field.  Saudi Arabia is now being considered, and rightly so, as one of the 20th most important countries in the world, in terms of economic and political powers.  The participation of Saudi Arabia in the G20 reflects that.  We also see that increasingly the call is being made to rethink the prominence of the dollar as the international reserve currency.  People are now talking about going back to an idea that was made about 80 years ago by John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economics, when he recommended the establishment of a currency called the ‘bancor’ to replace sterling as the international reserve currency.  Now we see the Chinese calling for the abolition of the dollar as the reserve currency.  We even see the president of the World Bank, an American, calling for a return to the gold standard.  That means the prominence of the dollar and importance of the American economy is now being questioned and challenged.  This is something that we would never have thought of taking place in the past 50 years. Again, we are seeing new players coming to the field.  Saudi Arabia is now being considered, and rightly so, as one of the 20

It is not only in areas of economics that centres of power have now been moving, but also, with a great deal of success and joy – as Abdullah [bin Zayed] mentioned in his presentation today – Qatar challenged the US in the organisation of the World Cup, and won that competition.  I think Abdullah was very modest not to mention that he was quite instrumental in that, and that the UAE was in fierce competition with Germany to host the IRENA.  Guess who won that competition?  The UAE did.  In that sense, there is a new recognition that small countries, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, are punching way above their weight.  This is also a recognition of the new reality, which was not the case over the past 50 years.

The second area of change is the perception of global threat.  If you ask anyone from the security community what the principal threat was in the past 50 years, immediately they would say ‘a nuclear showdown or war, with the aftermath of a nuclear winter, and the existential nature of the threat for life as we know it’.  That is not the discussion anymore.  It is not about nuclear war.  In any security or international organisation, the first threat facing humanity would be environmental degradation.  We have heard the horror stories about what will happen to humanity if this continues, and the impact of global change on countries and people.  There are predictions that some countries will just submerge, and will not exist in 50 years.  Others are talking about major climatic changes that may wipe out a large number of people, following natural disasters.

We start talking about environmental disasters as the principal cause of international threats.  We talk about the issues of disease, HIV and malaria, which are also posing international threats.  Lastly, we talk about terrorism and unconventional warfare as another form of global threat that we never talked about in the past 50 years.  These new kinds of threats were not in existence half a century ago.  We have to think about them.

The third change that I see is what I call the ‘movers and shakers’ of policies.  Fifty years ago, the principal instrument of change had always been governments.  Governments basically control the political process through organised political groups and media, within the framework of print press.  This is not the case anymore.  More NGOs are now dominating the field.  There are more social cyber‑networks.  As my good brother [] Khalid is always reminding us, we know exactly where he is at any period of time.

If you allow me to throw out some statistics.  After the establishment of the UN in 1946, we had 41 NGOs.  In 1992, that number had increased to 700.  Now, we have 3,200 NGOs in the UN itself, which is a 78% increase over the past 18 years.  I would like to just remind you that 40 years ago, when the Pentagon Papers were published, for those of you old enough to remember, that publication produced very little international reaction, if any.  The ongoing WikiLeaks saga is truly another story.  It is only a click away.  Anyone in the world, whether in a desert, on an ocean or in a cave somewhere, can have access to this information and even comment on it.  I will not dwell on this much, but leave it for the Q&A.
The last point I would like to mention, and this is something I truly believe in, is the demographic time bomb, the dynamics of demography.  Truly we are approaching a massive collision of tectonic plates in demographic dynamics.  We have declining population growth in the so‑called North.  A common phrase is ‘the Dying North’, with the low birth rates.  At the same time, we have a rising population growth in the South, or the developing world.  These two tectonic plates will eventually collide, which will produce some massive eruptions.  Let me just give you the latest UN figures.

Let us compare the two continents of Africa and Europe.  The population in Africa is 1,033m.  It is expected that this population will be 2,000m by the year 2050.  Forty years from now, the population in Africa will almost have doubled.  The current population in Europe is about 733m.  After 40 years, it is estimated that the population would be less than this.  As a matter of fact it will be 691m.  That is a drop in population by almost 6% and a reduction in the number of people living in Europe.
These numbers make us worry, because we have to find an equilibrating element to balance population against resources globally.  Migration was the instrument to re-establish this equilibrium.  Does migration continue to achieve that balance?  I am sorry to say it does not anymore.  Europe was quite hospitable to migration from different parts of the world, but that created a backlash, as we have seen in the increasing literature of xenophobia and other types of policy issues.  Even some prominent politicians from countries that are very well known have started talking about the death of multiculturalism.  In that sense, migration, which was the equilibrating factor, will not be there to balance these impacts.  Here we must be conscious about how that will impact the environment in the next 50 years.
What would be the impact of this change in the centre of global power – the change in the instrument of influence, the nature of threats and the dynamics of demography?  How are these changes going to impact regional security?  Those are basically just details.  I gave you the bigger picture.  Thank you very much indeed.

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