Home > The Great Unraveling? > Geopolitical Balance in an Increasingly Unstable World

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting the global geopolitical balance, the shifting of which was already underway. Such shifts in balance often produce new threats and opportunities. 

In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Christine Parthemore joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to discuss how growing destabilization, in part driven by the worsening environmental crisis, is expected to negatively affect security. 

Christine Parthemore is the CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks, as well as Director of the Council’s Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons and Manager of its Climate-Nuclear-Security Project. Christine has extensive experience in addressing a range of security issues, from the implications of climate change to countering weapons of mass destruction, and has done so in the U.S. Department of Defense, security think tanks, and academia.


Laurie Laybourn-Langton
The coronavirus pandemic is impacting the global geopolitical balance, the shifting of which was already underway. As ever, this opens up new threats and opportunities for peace and security across the world, the subject of this episode.

Into the future, growing destabilization, in part driven by the worsening environmental crisis, is expected to increasingly impact on security issues.

To talk these issues through I’m joined by Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks. Christine has extensive experience in addressing a range of security issues from the implications of climate change to countering weapons of mass destruction, and has done so in the US Department of Defense, security think tanks, and academia.

Christine, welcome.

Christine Parthemore
Thank you for having me.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
It’s very good to have you here. Let’s kick off with a question about the coronavirus pandemic. How has it impacted global geopolitics? And moreover, what have been the security implications?

Christine Parthemore
Sure. So on the impact—as you said in your introduction—I think for one, we don’t know the full scale of what’s going to be the impact over time, or just how bad things are going to get, unfortunately. What we do know, and going back to your question, you framed it as sort of amplifying a lot of instabilities and negative trends that are pretty worrisome, that were already underway.

I see most of the geopolitical impacts that we can actually see before us as falling into that category. So, rising nationalism in a lot of countries, increasing public reliance on propaganda and disinformation, and falling into traps where they don’t know who to believe, and are losing faith in their governments to be an honest broker and sort of the key messenger for what public should do in response to crises. These were all trends that were happening before.

Our tensions with Russia, and among the United States, with Russia and China, and among other countries, were already getting worse before. The coronavirus and the way it’s been handled have been, I think, making those relationships even more sour, unfortunately, than they were before.

You see this and things like U.S. leaders, labeling the coronavirus “the Wuhan disease” and other sort of slanderous, inappropriate things like that. So I’m very worried that relations between countries are going from bad to worse.

But, among all of this, one of the biggest things that I’ve been concerned about is how our global institutions and norms have been already strained for years and years. And the coronavirus is, I think, amplifying all of that. Some of it’s very practical, right. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that undergirds the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons and monitors countries to ensure peaceful uses of nuclear energy—a really critical treaty in the international system that just turned 50 years old. They’re going to have a really, really critical review conference this year that’s been postponed till next year as a result of coronavirus.

That treaty system is already strained, so coronavirus is both having these practical impacts and passive. Diplomats simply can’t meet together and military leaders simply can’t have the same conversations with their counterparts around the world that create opportunities for greater shared understanding and cooperation, and allow us to work through problems that our countries have with one another. And in dealing with collective problems, like instability and terrorism and climate change, and these other transnational threats.

On the other side of it, as well, international institutions and cooperation are also undergoing the pressure of the nationalism that, again, we see rising as a result of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the United States is at the forefront of this—threatening to pull out of the World Health Organization.

But you see countries all around the world sort of pulling away from traditional cooperative mechanisms like the WHO. They would normally be used to a greater extent to help get us through these things. I think if you see trust in these types of organizations, including the WHO, continues to decline in the coming years as a result of coronavirus, I don’t think that’s going to create a sort of linear trajectory of things. I’m very worried that we’re going to start seeing some of these international institutions actually shatter.

On the positive side, there is a chance that that could allow the international community, and especially countries that have not been served well, in their development, and peace building, and stabilization goals by the current sort of world order. This may create an opportunity to rebuild some institutions for international cooperation that are even stronger, and better, and fairer, and more just than they were before.

However, we don’t know what that world looks like. It’s a very frightening world to think about. What happens if the world really does pull away from our arms control treaties, nuclear treaties, cooperation on global health threats, etc.? I fear that we’re coming to potentially the edge of seeing what what occurs when those institutions unravel.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
And another one of the threats that you mentioned there was climate change, and presumably other environmental destabilization. How has a focus on the security implications of those issues risen before the coronavirus pandemic over the last few years?

Christine Parthemore
Sure. Unfortunately, it’s taken the world being thwacked already by the effects of climate change for people to get as serious as they need to be about it.

Obviously, there have been champions fighting to draw attention to the climate crisis and address it for decades. But over the last several years—maybe 5-10 years in particular—when you see record setting record temperatures in the Arctic every year, and now, countries like the United States and Russia are behaving differently, in terms of their defense postures in the Arctic, and what they’re saying their rhetoric about this, their sphere of influence in that region, you start to really see these things come together in real life in a way that’s undeniable.

You have military leaders, for example, all over the world now, including many in the network that we run, called the International Military Council on Climate security, who are trying to, even more than has already occurred, draw attention to the security implications of climate change.

Here in the United States, you see regularly, we have leaders from our defense community and our intelligence agencies, who go up to the to our Congress and testify that they’re seeing instability rising on the ground. That long term droughts, or shock floods, or severe natural disasters, are contributing to all these other pressures that are sort of bubbling up in certain societies around the world.

In places like the Lake Chad region, and Africa, all over South Asia, sort of all around the world, you see pockets of where countries and societies are already strained by economic hardship, and political tensions, sometimes ethnic tensions, all of these things. People moving, migration and internal displacement of people.

And then you have the effects of climate change, adding both amplifying those pressures that already existed. Then adding new pressures as well, such as direct effects, like more intense natural disasters, that displace ever more people. The effects can be—not in all cases, but in many cases—we’re seeing all of these pressures just sort of put too much strain on governments to be able to actually address these issues.

So you have places like Nigeria, for example, where their government is struggling to address all of these different demographic and economic and security threats. They’re being hammered by long term droughts and other effects that are indicative of how climate change is altering the world. They just don’t have the capacity. And then you throw Coronavirus on top of it.

Again, I think we’re we’re at the cusp of seeing a lot of governments around the world get very close to losing control, and certainly getting across the line of losing the sense of their population that there are valid, elected governments. That can, again, have even worse knock on consequences of rising nationalism.

It can lead the way for corrupt but charismatic dictators to swoop in and take over authoritarian regimes to come in heavy handed ways. Lots and lots of concerns like that, that I’m very worried might stem from all of these pressures, sort of cooking together in countries. We’re already seeing that and we know that in the future, even if we dramatically curb climate change today, in the future over the next, at least three to six decades is locking in an even worse picture than this.

So looking into the future, then, that worsening picture over the coming decades. How do you see that playing out? Let’s look at that in two ways. In one way in the direction that you mapped out, particularly off the back of the coronavirus pandemic world, in which there is lessening international cooperation. There’s greater competition between states. How would that play out under conditions of gross destabilization and what is the potential alternative to that kind of trajectory?

Sure, so I guess we have to start on the gloomier side and try to end on the more positive note on it.

For the former I think there’s a there’s a lot of analysis and people talking about tensions getting worse, and economic strain, and all of these pressures within countries. What I worry about is that we are collectively, internationally, very skitish about talking about the ingredients for outright conflict occurring.

So there are beginning to be more studies conducted with large data systems and things like that, that show that coronavirus is actually very, very likely creating more pressure in the system in a lot of countries, that could increase the the prospects for internal conflict to occur.

That would be consistent with what we see around the world, in part because when you see internal conflict, and civil wars, and outright just fighting within countries coming up, normally there are international organizations and governments that can come in and try to take the pressure down and defuse the situation.

If all of these sort of forces of normal resilience are overwhelmed by the coronavirus, and other situations, then you might see a lot of conflict sort of bubble up and actually occur where it otherwise might have been mitigated sort of right at the edge, when it’s realized that the things could get very bad.

I’m also very concerned that we might have significant conflict between countries like the United States and others. Tensions with Iran, for example, were already very heightened regarding our pullout of the nuclear agreement, some bad behavior—including military activity in Iraq against U.S. forces on the Iranian side—and lots of tension, lots of activity between our countries back and forth already, when coronavirus hits.

And this is just one example. Coronavirus hits and their leaders are out there saying that COVID-19 is a deliberate biological weapon used by the United States across the world. Again, you see tensions, even in recent weeks, have continued to sort of ratchet up in that situation.

We tend to tell ourselves that things won’t cross that line, into outright conflict. And that, you know, the issues that we have with Russia, for example, aren’t going to cross that line into actual conflict. We’re going to see this sort of low level hybrid warfare—cyber attacks, and intrusions and invasions of other lands, pushing the limits on territorial integrity etc.

I think that we need to open our minds to the fact that things could get much, much worse than that. And I think you see this with India and China as well. The border skirmishes that they’ve had, which have led to death in recent years, those border tensions have been there for a long time.

But there’s a lot of pressure that both India and China are under now. And they’ve really formed the perfect ingredients for those long simmering, but sort of below the surface, tensions to actually boil over into live fire and conflict as people deal with it. So I’m very worried about actual conflict rising, in part as a result of the world’s not reacting well to coronavirus, and just the overwhelming death and devastation that has occurred.

On the positive side… You know, I talk to my team about this frequently, I don’t want a lot of these international institutions and norms and things to diminish and to go away. Or even to just weaken significantly. I think that’s a very, very dangerous world.

The only positive thing that it shows is that with regard to, for example, nuclear weapons, if the systems that we have in place to prevent nuclear catastrophe and nuclear war are weakened and shattered enough, that does require that we come up with a new solution.

And there is a chance that, if we do that, people will come out of the coronavirus—on top of all of these other threats that were already in the system before—and say we really need to pull together as an international community and to develop cooperatives mechanisms that are going to be effective, fair, that leverage current technologies optimally, and that mind people’s privacy and all these other sorts of things.

There is a chance to rebuild when things sort of are torn down. Again, I hope it doesn’t get to that point. But if it does, we need to take whatever chaos and instability and destruction that occurs in the coming years of the world as we knew it before, and really focus hard on building.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Christine, we’ve reached time but thank you so much. It was good to talk to you today.

Christine Parthemore
You as well. Thank you.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
Thank you.