Interview with Dan Smith

Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Dan Smith SIPRI

SIPRI is well known for its data analysis on military expenditure and on arms exports. In these fields, what are the key trends? Are they all negative or is there some reason for optimism?

Dan Smith: One of the most recent updates in the database that we’ve done is on international arms transfers. It shows that in the last five years the volume of the trade has increased by a little bit over 7% compared to the previous 5-year-period. And compared to 2003-2007, it has increased by over 20%. So, what is actually going on is that there has been a quite considerable increase in international arms trade over the past several years and actually the rate of exoneration is slowing down a little bit. Saudi Arabia has replaced India as the largest arms importer in the world in the last five years. I think, Egypt is in third place and the United Arab Emirates is also in the top 10. So it is no surprise that the Middle East is the fastest growing region for arms imports in the world. The biggest arms exporter by far is the United States, it has actually increased its market share during the last five years which probably reflects that Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states have been importing so much. That’s the basic trend in the arms trade and it is not particularly comforting.

In military spending, the most recent year we have consolidated data for is 2017. That was the highest level of military spending worldwide since the end of the Cold War – the highest level in almost 30 years. And there are enough plans for increasing the military spending, for example amongst NATO European countries and also of course the US, to expect that that increasing trend will continue when we get the consolidated data for 2018. There are one or two areas where military spending is not increasing so much: Latin America is one, but overall again, it is a negative trend.

Grafik größten Waffenexporteure
© SIPRI Arms Transfers Database (11.03.2019),

The number of armed conflicts has increased quite dramatically during the 2010s, but now it seems to be decreasing slightly. So, then one can take other perhaps more qualitative indicators: the states of relations between the US and Russia over nuclear arms control is particularly bad. The states of relations between the US and China has also very negative aspects, especially the trade war. They may be resolving that at the moment, but there is clearly a degree of adversarial content to their relationship which maybe there wasn’t so striking before. At the beginning of 2018 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, which is the closest to the apocalyptic midnight that it had been since the late 1950s. And in January of this year, they left it at two minutes to midnight. So, I think one would say that while the bad news is that we can see all of these risks and dangers, the good news is they didn’t really get worse during 2018. And then there is the rare bright spot of better US-North Korea relations. I think that was a major improvement.

How will these trends in military spending will evolve in the near future?

Dan Smith: I think that probably military spending will continue to increase for the moment, partly driven by the NATO and US decisions. I don’t think that Middle Eastern arms imports and military spending are going to come down anytime soon really, so I think those trends will continue. We have two contradictory trends at the world level: On the one hand you see the United States, Russia and China, all now led by Presidents and administrations which are willing to put concerns of international law and international cooperation to one side when it suits them. And on the other hand you see – partly in reaction against that, but partly in a long-term trend - a strengthening of the idea of international cooperation and the importance of international institutions: The United Nations have a strong and effective leadership now. And these two contradictory trends are battling it out. What we would really like to see, is the leaders of the great powers be committed to having effective institutions and to building an increasing cooperation between them. I think that in the next two or three years we will make it to a tipping point one way or the other.

You’ve mentioned the US, Russia and China. What role do you see for the European Union and its member states in this constellation?

Dan Smith: I think that there is pressure on the EU and on the European members of NATO to be increasing their military spending. From some perspectives one can understand that, because of the worries that have been generated by Russian behaviour in the Crimea, in Eastern Ukraine and just at the end of last year by seizing Ukrainian vessels in the sea of Azov. One understands why that generates anxiety amongst public and politicians believe they need to respond to American pressure by increasing military spending. But the EU is an institution which is built on the principle of cooperation and I think it’s essential to understand now that increasing cooperation is a central component of real security. I don’t foresee that anytime very soon armed force is going to be unimportant as part of preparation that states make for their security. But if states continue to emphasize and over-emphasize the military instrument, then actually their security will be weaker because the big security challenges which the world faces can only be resolved by cooperation.

For example, in cyber space, where there are enormous challenges to security, they come in part from governments, but in part from just groups of hackers, or from the activities of commercial rivals spying on each other. Because we are an increasingly cyber-dependent society, we are an increasingly cyber-vulnerable society and in virtual space you can only sort out these issues through cooperation. It can’t be done by one government alone, however sophisticated its own cyber infrastructure is.

The other obvious set of challenges has to do with climate change and all other forms of environmental deterioration. It’s clear already that this has an impact on security and one can only see that increasing across the next ten, twenty or thirty years. And unless we learn better habits of cooperation, we are not going to have a good way to resolve those issues when they arise, let alone address the core problems of industrial development and how that generates climate change.

We would love to see German and the European Union advocating for multilateralism. Who would be good allies for us?

Dan Smith: First of all, the obvious ones like Japan, Australia, Canada and so on. But I think there are also plenty in the global south including those who are themselves threatened by climate change. And I don’t just mean the small island states. There are just over 1 billion people living on coastal plains below 5 meters above sea-level and their well-being is going to be challenged really quite seriously as sea-level rise continues. And the sea-level rise which poses an existential threat to the small island states also poses something of an existential threat to those low-lying coastal areas. Some states will be able to handle the problems relatively well, but others need a huge amount of support and cooperation to deal with their issues: Indonesia and Nigeria come to mind immediately. So it is very clear that this is a global threat. And the Paris Climate Agreement and indeed the agreement of the SDGs showed that it is possible to win governments over to supporting collective actions to meet common goals to respond to a global problem. That is why there is certainly no reason to lose hope. But Europe persistently approaches the global south and their diplomatic and political representatives in a way that doesn’t take those countries seriously. It still brings a kind of semi-colonial attitude towards them: “We are richer and know better and are here to help you” instead of a “We are all in this together – how can we work together?”. And the first attitude inevitably generates amongst many countries in the global south a sense of: “Well, how much money have you got to offer us? Put some 100 billions on the table and then we’ll talk”. And we need to get around that, because it isn’t only money which is the issue here. It is to do with resources, but it is also to do with development strategies, it is also to do with working together and it’s also to do with how trade and trade relations are worked out. It goes much further than development aid. And I don’t think that anybody has got a really viable answer to these problems at the moment.

We are now 1 degree warmer on average compared to pre-industrial times. It is pretty sure that we get to 1.5 degrees warmer in the next 15 to 20 years. And unless we do something, it is then pretty sure that we move on to 2 degrees and beyond that to 3 degrees. That is the track that we are set on now, in fact even beyond 3 degrees. There is an enormous amount of change needed and there should be some humility with which this is done. This is not about a German foreign minister or chancellor or a French president launching a global initiative for everybody to come to Berlin or to Paris and to sit down for three days. This is about a long-term process of institutions working together. There are things which the EU can do just by itself, but there are things where what the EU wants to achieve can only be achieved if it’s in a good conversation with the African Union and other regional organisations. And there are some things which it can only achieve if it is doing this through the UN, both on the Security Council, where Germany is a member now, where it starts its first presidency of its current Security Council membership today, but also in the General Assembly and with influencing and support of the other policy agencies in the UN. The UN is a really complex international institution and nobody designed it to be exactly the way that it is, but it is now effectively led at the top and it does have some effective leadership at other levels. It is probably more straightforward to be working with it now than it has been for much of my lifetime.

Grafik Anteil an Großwaffen der 10 größten Exporteure
© SIPRI Arms Transfers Database (11.03.2019),

Where is the UN is taking over especially promising roles?

Dan Smith: During the last two years, the Security Council started to take seriously that climate change is a threat to security. This has an impact on their peace operations or peace support activities in different places. It is looked at in Iraq and Somalia and Central Asia and in the Lake Chad region, most obviously. And I think the UN needs to continue with that work and I hope that Germany uses its current membership in the Security Council to push it forward. There is also a small institutional home for these issues now in the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. These are small steps, but they are essential steps to getting the assessment of the impact of climate change on security questions and indeed on UN peacekeeping operations and peace support. And to getting it mainstreamed into the work of the major global institutions. As that happens, it will filter down to other governments, for example governments that are in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This discussion is also being taken up in the African Union and although the African Union is also a sometimes slow moving institution, it is an important one in Africa. Therefore, I think that getting the awareness of the link between climate change and security into their thinking is a very important step.

Can you explain how climate change is or will be affecting conflict and peace?

Dan Smith: Well, first of all I think that you can’t tell the story of what happened in Egypt in 2011 without talking about the spike in world food prices which was caused by climatic change in other countries far away, like China, Australia, Canada or the US. You can’t talk about the armed conflict in Syria without making some reference to the drought. There was a drought for four to five years before the conflict and about 600.000-800.000 people had to leave their farms and homes in rural areas and came to the cities. That is not the full explanation of the Syrian Civil War, certainly no explanation of the atrocities and the use barrel bombs and nerve gas. But it is part of the story of how and why Syria fell into this crisis. Syria has got a lot of experience with droughts, its average is to have a drought every other year. The problem with this one was that there wasn’t any relief, it was drought, drought, drought - every year. But if you look at statistics, you’ll see that Lebanon and Jordan also experienced the drought. But they didn’t fall into civil war. Drought is part of the story, but not the whole story. And then there’s a similar thing with Yemen. You can’t tell the story of how Yemen has got to where it is, without thinking about the fact that for the past 50 years it’s been using far more water than has been replenished and the rainfall has declined with climate change. About six years ago the Yemen Ministry of Water said that most of the low-level conflicts over access to farm land in Yemen were to do with access to sources of water. And that is part of the background against which you have to understand the Huthi uprising, the fragility of the Yemeni government and then the decision by Saudi Arabia to intervene. And there are other cases, e.g. in the Indian subcontinent.

If you look ahead, I would particularly look at the issue I just mentioned, which is that the sea-level rises. If governments can develop a physical infrastructure and the organisational infrastructure so that the challenge of the rising sea-level and of flooding from the sea is reduced, that’s great. If they can develop disaster readiness plans so that if the worst does happen, then people are looked after, that’s also great. But one suspects that many governments will be unable to do so. Now, if they’re not able to do it, it’s not that therefore there will be war. But therefore, there may be a lot of aggrieved people who feel that they have been sold out, whose life chances have been almost literally washed away. And if you start with a total of 1 billion people living in endangered coastal plains, it is only a fraction of 1% who might be recruited into politically or religiously extremist organisations, who have a programme to achieve change by violent means and that seems to be the one way in which somebody can make sense out of his life.

I think there is the possibility of the security agenda being completely overwhelmed and chaotic by the time we get to the late 2030s and into the 2040s. And I think the preparation against that has to be long-range and has to be in advance, because it is never to soon to start. But of course, the difficulty and one that people need to bear in mind is that there is a truism in disaster relief: If disaster strikes like a massive earthquake or a hurricane, you can be sure that recovery will happen. Some people, many people, most people will live through it, they will repair their property, in some countries funds come flooding in to help them. You get on with things, because if you’re alive, that’s what you do. There will be sadness, there will be grief, but recovery will happen. Because it has to. Preparation doesn’t help, because it doesn’t have to. We have to learn and understand that it takes some effort to prepare. It seems obvious to some people, like maybe many readers of your publication, that you have to prepare. But for many, many people – for the vast majority -, and therefore for many politicians, it doesn’t seem obvious.

A Norwegian politician was once asked in public why governments seem to be so bad at preventing armed conflicts and his reply was, because he’d never heard of a politician who was re-elected on the basis of telling his or her constituents that they’d manage to prevent a war that might not have happened in a country far away that none of their constituents have ever heard about.

Everybody can see that conflict prevention is a good idea: prevention is better than cure, right? And fortunately, we have a Secretary General at the UN now who has a strong agenda of prevention of violent conflict. But it will always take that effort. It will always take going that extra mile to have the preparations in place to prevent long-range risks from actually happen.

This brings me to my last question: In some newspaper articles one sees people calling for a new peace movement, but that is not what we are seeing at the moment. What we are seeing is a strong new movement to fight climate change. Actually, it originated in the city where you live now, in Stockholm. One could say that this new movement to fight climate change is like a modern peace movement, because what they are demanding is cooperation. How do you see this new movement? Are you hopeful that they will be able to change something?

Dan Smith: I was very active in the peace movement in the 1980s. And I see something similar happening, but this is a social movement, it’s not just about one particular issue. What is interesting to me is that Greta Thunberg, the teenager who started with the solo protest in front of the Swedish parliament, has talked very much about climate justice. And so she and the movement have included the idea of fairness in society, fairness between countries as well as the importance of combatting climate change. That is because, first of all, the effects of climate change will of course be felt worse by the poor. It will always be the poor who will be hit hardest. Secondly, because you need a certain fairness in how both the mitigation of climate change and adaptation to its unavoidable effects are organised and how they are funded. Most of those countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change did almost nothing to generate the problem. The problem is generated by European, American, Russian, Chinese and Japanese industrialisation. Thus, bringing fairness into the idea of climate justice is essential.

I’d say that the impact of climate change upon human security is potentially so enormous that indeed a climate change movement is per definition a movement for peaceful relations. Both because you can only resolve the problems of climate change through working together, which requires peaceful relations between those who are doing it. But secondly, because it is a movement to prevent some of the serious sources of armed conflict of the future from becoming real.

I agree with those people who said that the Paris Climate Summit of 2015 was the biggest peace conference there had ever been. Yes, I think the connection is very close and very tight. What the durability of this movement is, we will see. Movements tend to get very excited, lots of people get very engaged and then kind of run out of steam. Greta Thunberg herself probably will not run out of steam. She looks like the kind of person who will remain focused on this for a long time to come. And I think that that’s probably inspirational to a lot of her peers, to a lot of people from that age cohort and also to older people, who should also be joining in.

I thought it was great when the school strike happened, and I had a look out of my apartment that morning at a time when usually you see loads of schoolkids walking by and I just couldn’t see any at that time. Suddenly, there was no school kid rush hour. I think that’s really great. I think that what Theresa May said about how they should get back to school and concentrate on their work, that’s just close to being brain-dead.

Obviously, we need to get more done more quickly both to take on climate change and to adapt to its unavoidable effects. So, let’s hope that the movement keeps going. My advise, sage and old as I am, would be just be sure to have a pace which is sustainable. One of the things which I noticed in the 1980s was that very often the greatest enthusiasts who wanted to go out knocking on all the front doors in their neighbourhood every night, to persuade everybody that Britain shouldn’t allow the cruise missiles to come, they couldn’t sustain it and they gave it up. The ones that did something each month or every couple of month, they were the ones who were still going 10 years later. If you want a sustainable environment go about it at a sustainable pace. Human sustainability is as important as every other kind.

Thank you very much.