Reforming the Global Security Architecture

By Thomas Greminger, Francois-Xavier Priollaud and Sundeep Waslekar

In June 2019 Nobel Peace Laureates Mohamed ElBaradei, Leymah Gbowee, Denis Mukwege and Jody Williams and social thinkers Anthony Grayling and Sundeep Waslekar came together at the Normandy World Peace Forum in Caen to issue the Normandy Manifesto for World Peace. They warned: “The risk of a war by accident, incident or intent remains a distinct possibility … we face the risk of human extinction”. In January 2020 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by Albert Einstein and has a dozen Nobel Laureate scientists on its board, proclaimed: “Civilization-ending nuclear war – whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication – is a genuine possibility”, echoing the concern of the Normandy Manifesto. In similar vein, in March 2022 UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared: “nuclear war is back within the realm of possibility”.

Such repeated warnings of the existential risks facing human civilization were issued against the background of two currently ongoing cold wars. The one between the United States and Europe, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, is clearly evident, with Ukraine being its most visible flashpoint. This cold war extends beyond Ukraine, however. Germany has decided to begin rearming itself, renouncing the effective freeze on its military expenditure since 1990, while Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has openly warned that he is placing his country’s nuclear arsenal on high alert. We are now in a situation where 2,800 Russian and US nuclear warheads are on hair-trigger alert, ready to strike their targets within 15 minutes of a decision to launch them. 

The second ongoing cold war, between China and the United States, has disappeared from the newspaper headlines, but is raging in full force nonetheless, and is increasingly extending beyond a possible flashpoint in Taiwan. For example, Australia has ordered nuclear-powered submarines, while in Japan prominent voices have expressed their support for stationing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.

These two cold wars have been in the making for more than a decade, although people have awakened to their reality only after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since December 2007 the world has faced three major crises: the 2007-2009 global financial meltdown, the coronavirus pandemic, and the ever-increasing impact of climate change in the form of floods, droughts, heat waves, and forest fires. Major world governments responded to these crises with quantitative easing, instead of diverting wasteful expenditure to emergency needs. Global military expenditure increased from US$1,500 billion in 2008 to over US$2,000 billion in 2022 (in constant dollars). In the last 15 years, scientific and technological know-how has been used to develop lethal autonomous weapons and hypersonic missiles that can determine their own trajectories, making them impossible to detected with radar. During this period the military use of artificial intelligence increased substantially, opening the possibilities of cyber wars and disguised attacks on nuclear weapons command-and-control systems.

Is the mad race to develop advanced weapons taking place because most world leaders are afraid that the two cold wars will spill over into something much, much worse? Emmanuel Macron said in one of his French presidential election speeches that the world is facing “le grand rabougrissement” (“the great disorder”). Is the fear of such disorder causing such an extreme form of insecurity  that we feel the need to cling desperately to our roots by embracing hyper nationalism, abandon our trust in others, and equip ourselves with ever-increasing numbers of the most modern and destructive weapons? Will “le grand rabougrissement” eventually lead to la grande Guerre du vingt et unième siècle – the Great War of the 21st century? 

The greatest challenge facing us is to prevent these two cold wars from sliding into a great war of human extinction. It is naive to believe that the future use of nuclear weapons will be limited to attacks using tactical weapons on a few cities. A future world war will involve the use of thousands of missiles each carrying multiple nuclear warheads. In a matter of hours large swathes of humankind will be annihilated, while those who survive the initial attacks will be even more unfortunate, dying a slow and painful death from radiation sickness and a nuclear winter. Preventing such a great war must therefore be our main priority. Among other things, this will require us to rebuild the global security architecture that has been increasingly fragmented by the two cold wars, and particularly by the war in Ukraine.

We immediately need an end to the war in Ukraine. We call upon the parties to agree to a ceasefire and end the humanitarian tragedy where millions of innocent men, women, and children are being killed, maimed, or displaced. Once a ceasefire is in place, talks must be held on building a sustainable peace architecture in and around Ukraine. At the same time, however, we should not forget the wars in the Middle East. We therefore also call on the conflicting parties to immediately end the wars in Yemen and Syria.

Once a ceasefire is in place in Ukraine, it will be necessary to convene an innovative European security dialogue to build a new security framework for the continent that takes into consideration the security concerns of all relevant stakeholders. The best approach would be to implement a Helsinki II process, drawing on the lessons of the successful Helsinki process of the 1970s. It will also be necessary to empower the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with effective conflict-prevention and -resolution mechanisms.

At the global level, we must reinvigorate the UN and its ability to resolve conflicts between the great powers. It will be necessary to examine if the power of veto in the Security Council is a useful device or an obstacle to the maintenance of global peace and security. The UN has made significant contributions to social and economic development, ranging from eradicating polio to raising awareness of global warming. However, it has failed in its primary objective of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Syria and Ukraine are only the latest testaments to what has happened to the vision of the UN’s founding fathers. Even when the UN is able to play a role in making and building peace, this mostly occurs in developing regions. The organisation has demonstrated no capacity to resolve conflicts involving one or more of the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council.

Together with institutional reform, we need to agree on a time-bound action plan for the phased elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, chemical, and lethal autonomous weapons. We also need global agreements on restraining the application of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and cyber technologies to weapons of mass destruction.

Any hope for reforming the global security architecture will depend on the political will of the P5 countries. It is an urgent need of our time to engage these countries in the discourse on the need to build a robust, resilient and reliable global security architecture for this century. We could begin begin this discourse with discussions among experts and then gradually expand it to include states’ political representatives.

In light of this urgent need, it is worth noting that the P5 countries generated hope in the first week of 2022 by declaring their opposition to nuclear war in a joint statement. At that time, the Russo-US strategic stability talks were under way and Sino-US strategic stability talks were being considered. We thus began 2022 with an ounce of hope – but within a few short weeks the Russian invasion of Ukraine turned that hope into despair. However, the unfortunate deterioration of the last months should not prevent us from creating a soft infrastructure of ideas for a reformed global security architecture. The alternative is to allow the two cold wars to trigger an incident or accident that could end human civilization.


Thomas Greminger is Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and former Secretary-General of the OSCE. Francois-Xavier Priollaud is Vice President of France’s Normandy Region. Sundeep Waslekar is President of the Strategic Foresight Group.


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