Experts urge nimbler global response to crises

  • World
  • Friday, 24 Sep 2010

LONDON (Reuters) - Unidentified attackers detonate a "dirty" bomb in the Strait of Hormuz, in minutes disrupting global trade and shipping and devastating financial markets.

A German trawler collides with a Chinese warship in the newly-opened Arctic. Devastating floods hit a weapons bunker in nuclear-armed Pakistan, raising fears for atomic security.

Would the world's Cold War-era security institutions be up to managing any one of these crises, in which systemic problems like climate change worsen traditional security flashpoints?

Not remotely, experts say. Either too cumbersome or perceived as lacking legitimacy, the U.N. Security Council, the Group of 20 (G20) rich and developing nations and multilateral humanitarian bodies would struggle to make a rapid impact.

Specialists in disaster response say that nations are almost completely unprepared for the likely emergence of so-called convergent crises with the potential to plunge markets and regions into prolonged turmoil.

In these multi-faceted disasters, strains like a shrinking Arctic ice cap, theft of nuclear materials, oil or water shortages or cyber crime would worsen tensions among nations over traditional issues such as trade, territory and resources.

"Old" and "new" tensions would feed off each other, spurring nationalistic stances in world capitals. Losing faith in collective action, nations could blunder towards conflict.

"Diplomatic practice has not kept up with these complex threats," said Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, a non-profit group that seeks to prevent conflict. "We need a new international architecture of crisis prevention and response."

In a news-driven era where local crises can spread globally in minutes or hours, world leaders are still too parochial in their security planning and must be ready to act much more nimbly and closely to coordinate a response, analysts say.

Yet with the exception of progress in tracking pandemics and tsunamis, global crisis management is inadequate "everywhere", said Greg Austin, Vice President for Programme Development and Rapid Response at the EastWest Institute think tank.

He said the kind of warning and response system used by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for pandemics and by Asian nations for tsunamis was needed in the fields of cyber security, energy, water, climate threats and other natural disasters.

Such systems would give nations time to grasp the potential ramifications of emerging crises and act to mitigate them.

The need is urgent, said Chung Min Lee, Asian security specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Imagine a period of just a few years in which you have a succession of crises involving some or all of the following: peak oil, water, resource competition, cyber failure, pandemics, nuclear terrorism. Crisis would flow into crisis," he said.

"There could be massive social and economic disruptions and movements of population as crises spread from country to country. This would overwhelm many governments at their present level of preparedness."

Celina Realuyo, president of CBR Global Advisors, said the problem was exacerbated by the fact that in a globalised world nations were losing some influence to non-state powers including multinational companies, organised crime and terrorists.

The example of militants exploding a dirty bomb at Hormuz may not be the worst scenario, say analysts, for disasters of such gravity would eventually forge a unity of response.

But in crises that gain early momentum in remote areas, the attention of world leaders would be harder to engage quickly enough and tensions would be harder to manage, analysts say.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group risk consultancy, said the global system was less well equipped than it was even two years ago to deal with simultaneous transnational problems.

"At the height of the financial crisis, there was an impressive unity of purpose in coordinating a G20 response," he said. "As the uneven recovery continues, that unity is gone, and only another crisis of comparable scale can bring it back."


Recent crises that have raised potential global or regional complications include this year's heat wave in Russia and floods in Pakistan, last year's H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03.

With larger, more complex crises in prospect, hurried Cold War-style "hotline" consultations between a handful big powers will be inadequate, experts say. But few would relish the prospect of handling the cacophony of a G20 conference call.

One solution, according to EastWest's Austin, is to promote joint exercises in vulnerable sectors. The institute this month proposed that Russia and the United States stage joint cyber war games, to build mutual confidence.

Another idea, reiterated this month by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg at a Geneva meeting of the International Institute of International Relations, is just to continue trying to make existing multilateral bodies more flexible and nimble.

He said no one devising an ideal framework to tackle 21st century problems would choose the "tangle of overlapping, and sometimes inefficient and often outdated institutions which are still acting on mandates established sometimes 50 years ago".

But to completely sidestep existing institutions and abandon any effort at reform would only made problems worse.

(Additional reporting by Peter Apps)

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

(For more news visit Reuters India)

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