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November 30, 2023

The future of multilateral peacebuilding and conflict prevention

By Peter Engelke, Anca Agachi, and Imran Bayoumi

Table of contents

I. Introduction

The multilateral system, defined as the set of rules, norms, and institutions that together constitute the world’s governance architecture, is not static. Rather, this system both evolves over time and, less frequently, is reconstituted by periodic upheavals. Such upheavals usually occur during or after a global crisis—for example, a major power war (1815, 1918, 1945)—or another extended period during which underlying drivers of change allow a reset of the global system. Such changes allow the new system to function for a time until dynamics again shift underneath it. Systems come under strain when they cannot adjust to new geopolitical, technological, sociopolitical, demographic, and (in the twenty-first century) environmental realities.

The current multilateral system, the core components of which were created in the first decade after World War II and then reshaped after the end of the Cold War, is now facing such a period because it bears little resemblance to the world that existed when it was created.

Several drivers of change threaten to erode hard-earned gains that the multilateral system has delivered since 1945. Today’s challenges include but are not limited to rising geopolitical tensions among nuclear-armed major powers, a seemingly inevitable climate catastrophe, technological changes that have the potential to remake every aspect of life, and the increasing powers and capabilities of non-state actors to reshape sub-national, national, and international affairs (for better and for worse). There is a flip side: within each challenge also lies an opportunity for positive transformational change.

These drivers have altered and continue to alter the dynamics of armed conflicts around the world. For example, the proliferation of increasingly capable armed nonstate actors (ANSAs) have reshaped the contours of conflict, furthering the fragmentation of international affairs, and altering how states and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN) have approached conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Understanding the evolution and impact of these drivers on the conflict-prevention architecture should enable key state and nonstate actors within the multilateral system to anticipate change and reform governance approaches.

It is important to emphasize that the post-1945 multilateral system has delivered on two core points, i.e., the lack of systemic war among major powers (in other words, no third world war) and global economic growth—yet there are now, and have been since the creation of the system, many dissenters in the North and South. The postwar system never has eliminated wars and conflicts, which continue to this day (if admittedly not among and between the major powers, which must be counted as a significant benefit of the current system); not all countries and populations have benefited equally from the robust and unprecedented global economic growth since the 1950s; the major powers, including those most supportive of the system (the United States in particular) have not always acted consistently with the ideals that they claim the system embodies; and there is a misalignment of economic and demographic weight on the one hand with political power on the other (by which is meant the distribution of voting power within the system’s core multilateral institutions).

The world is in a critical period, given the system’s rising inability to tackle challenges related to the management of conflict—to its prevention, its outbreak, and its resolution. This problem is reflected in how the United Nations, the principal multilateral institution that is responsible for the management of conflict, assesses its own situation vis-à-vis conflict dynamics in the world today. In Our Common Agenda (2021), UN Secretary-General António Guterres argued that although “investments in prevention and preparedness pay for themselves many times over,” there has been “too little progress on adequate, predictable and sustained financing for peacebuilding” by UN member states. Guterres reiterated these points in a July 2023 policy brief, A New Agenda for Peace, written as a preparatory document for the UN’s 2024 Summit of the Future.1 Our Common Agenda–Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations, 2021, 60,; and Our Common Agenda Policy Brief 9: A New Agenda for Peace, United Nations, July 2023, 11,

Building on this call for action, this report assesses the impacts of structural forces or drivers—otherwise known as global trends and uncertainties—on the future of global governance including the governance of conflict throughout the conflict cycle, meaning conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. Those four core trends and uncertainties (often called “drivers” of change) are about geopolitics, the rise of new actors within the global system, the rapidly changing planet that we live on, and the speed and impacts of technological transformations. Atlantic Council staff utilized a strategic foresight methodology to assess how these global trends and uncertainties might reshape the world a decade into the future, until the mid-2030s. This assessment produced four alternative scenarios, which are stories about what the world in the mid-2030s might look like. Those four scenarios, presented in section IV of this paper, are designed to provoke the readers’ imaginations about what could plausibly occur over the coming decade given the dynamic interaction of the drivers of change identified in this report.

Over an eighteen-month time span, the project team conducted desk research, interviewed outside experts, and convened a series of workshops, all focused on assessing how the drivers of change might shape the future and what the world’s foremost governing bodies, including key multilateral institutions, national and subnational governments, and nonstate actors might do in response. Early drafts of this report were peer reviewed by external experts; their input has been incorporated into the final version.

This report contains the following sections. Section II provides an overview of the key terms, institutions, and norms that undergird the global conflict- prevention architecture. Section III provides a lengthy assessment of the four key drivers that are altering the world, and addresses their implications for the management of conflict across the conflict cycle. Section IV articulates the four scenarios that describe how these drivers of change might reshape the world in the 2030s, with impacts on global conflict and conflict prevention. These scenarios are complemented by a separate assessment of how they may play out in the Sahel region, which was chosen as this report’s regional case study.

The concluding section, section V, asks five big questions of the highest relevance about the future:

  1. How should multilateral organizations such as the UN adapt to and manage a multipolar world?
  2. How can multilateral organizations plan for and adapt to conflict-management challenges brought on by the evolution of Earth systems and emerging technologies?
  3. What will the role of nonstate actors be in this space going forward and how can the UN and other multilateral institutions both leverage opportunities and manage threats posed by nonstate groups?
  4. How can the UN support regional bodies in advancing their conflict-prevention and peace-building goals in line with global multilateralism?
  5. How can the UN, and particularly the UN Security Council (UNSC), overcome concerns that it lacks legitimacy, especially in the Global South?

None of these five questions have simple answers. Rather, as with the scenarios, the questions (and their possible answers) are designed to prod policymakers, experts, and practitioners about the dynamics of global change in the coming years.

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II. A note on definitions, institutions, and norms

A. Conflict prevention and peacebuilding: Definitions

The definitions of conflict prevention and peacebuilding have long been debated within broader conflict studies fields. Their definitions have evolved over time. For example, the release of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace asserted that conflict prevention consisted of four guiding principles: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and postconflict peacebuilding.2 Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, World Bank and United Nations, 2018, 234, Further developments within the UN system included a 2001 report to the UNSC by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which highlighted the need for a “culture of prevention” that both prevented conflict in the near term while working to limit factors that may lead to the outbreak of conflict in the long term.3 “Annan Report Stresses ‘Culture of Conflict Prevention,’ ” New Humanitarian,June 22, 2001,; and Pathways for Peace, World Bank and UN, 234.

Today, conflict prevention is defined by the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) as “[involving] diplomatic measures to keep intra-state or inter-state tensions and disputes from escalating into violent conflict.”4“Terminology,” United Nations Peacekeeping, n.d., It encompasses structural, operational, and transnational components:

  • Structural conflict prevention addresses the root causes of conflict over the longer term and often employs tools rooted in development and economic policy.5Erik Melander and Claire Pigache, “Conflict Prevention: Concepts and Challenges,” in Konfliktprävention zwischen Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, eds. Walter Feichtinger and Predrag Jurekovic (Vienna: Austrian National Defence Academy, 2007), 9-17,; and Barnett R. Rubin and Bruce D. Jones, “Prevention of Violent Conflict: Tasks and Challenges for the United Nations,” Global Governance 13, no. 3 (2007): 391–408,
  • Operational conflict prevention or “direct prevention” refers to management of immediate crises in the short term and often employs diplomatic or military tools or both.6Melander and Pigache, “Conflict Prevention”; and Rubin and Jones, “Prevention of Violent Conflict.”
  • Transnational conflict prevention focuses on risks such as climate change or transnational organized crime (TOC) that undermine security and contribute to conflict.7 The term was coined by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who referenced the illicit arms trade, HIV/AIDS,  and conflict diamonds as examples of transnational risks. See Rubin and Jones, “Prevention of Violent Conflict.”

All types of prevention are dynamic rather than static; thus, global trends and uncertainties will shift the effectiveness of these three types of prevention. Greater multipolarity may limit transnational prevention if states are less able to agree on far-reaching global programs, for example, or it may accelerate the shift of operational conflict prevention from the UN Security Council to regional organizations.8An illustrative scenario has played out in the Sahel, where members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pledged a military intervention if civilian rule in Niger was not restored after the July 2023 coup. See Okeri Ngutjinazo, “Niger Junta Digs In as ECOWAS Ponders Next Step,” Deutsche Welle, August 8, 2023,

Peacebuilding consists of activities that build sustainable peace over time within a society or across them, often in postconflict settings.9 White Paper: Sustaining Peace and UN Peacekeeping, United Nations Peacekeeping, October 2020, It is defined by the United Nations as follows:

“Peacebuilding aims to reduce the risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities at all levels for conflict management, and to lay the foundation for sustainable peace and development. It is a complex, long-term process of creating the necessary conditions for sustainable peace. Peacebuilding measures address core issues that effect the functioning of society and the State and seek to enhance the capacity of the State to effectively and legitimately carry out its core functions.”10“Terminology,” United Nations Peacekeeping.

Several key United Nations reports have provided a definitional foundation, including the Agenda for Peace (1992), the UN Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on Uniting Our Strengths for Peace: Politics, Partnership and People (2015), and the Report[s] on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace.11An Agenda for Peace, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Report of the United Nations Secretary-General,January 31, 1992,; Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on Uniting Our Strengths for Peace: Politics, Partnership and People, A/70/95–S/2015/446, June 17, 2015,; for the full series of reports, see In 2016, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council passed twin resolutions, A/RES/70/262 and S/RES/2282, that focused on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, helping to codify the concept within the UN system.12UN Security Council, Resolution 2282, S/RES/282 (April 27, 2016),; and UN General Assembly, Resolution 262, Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, A/RES/70/262 (April 27, 2016), These documents stressed the need for close coordination within the UN—among the Peacebuilding Support Office, the Department of Political Affairs, and the UN Development Programs, for example—and outside of it, for instance, with the World Bank.

In summary, the definitional debate concerning the terms conflict prevention and peacebuilding is robust in both academia and practice. This report recognizes that these terms are contested and varied in their definitions, but understands conflict prevention to consist of structural, operational, and transnational components while peacebuilding is seen as an encompassing process that seeks to build conflict-resilient nations at all stages of the conflict cycle (before, during, and afterward). The report therefore relies on the phrase “conflict management” to encapsulate the multiple dimensions of conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

B. Actors and institutions engaged in conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities

There are numerous actors at all levels of governance (supranational, regional, national, and local) that are involved in conflict prevention and peace-building processes. These actors span both state and nonstate institutions and organizations. While not exhaustive, this section focuses on several of the most important typologies and influential institutions.

The United Nations is by far the main actor at the global level. Its center is the United Nations Security Council, which is empowered to identify threats to peace, make recommendations regarding how best to restore peace, and authorize nonmilitary and military action to do so. UNSC decisions can take place at all stages of the conflict cycle and within a wide array of responses ranging from calling for dialogue to mandating military intervention.13Paul Romita, “The UN Security Council and Conflict Prevention: A Primer,” International Peace Institute, 2011, Despite the wide-ranging tools available to the Security Council, its ability to act depends on the willingness of its member states to engage, especially those of the five states holding veto power—the United States, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) also can act on conflict prevention: it can hold special or emergency sessions on a wide range of issues and can adopt declarations on peace and disputes.14Pathways for Peace, World Bank and UN. Resolutions and decisions that are adopted at UNGA by a majority of states, however, are nonbinding on member states, in contrast to those of the UNSC.15“Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council,” UN-iLibrary, accessed on November 20, 2023,

At the global level, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund also play critical roles in funding initiatives related to preventing the escalation of conflict, preserving institutions during and after crises, and developing opportunities for refugees within their host communities. The role of the World Bank is primarily focused on structural prevention, achieved through funding development-related projects such as those relating to climate change adaptation and mitigation and demographic change.16“New WBG Strategy Focuses on Conflict Prevention and Partnerships for Peace and Security in Africa,” World Bank Group, February 27, 2020, In 2020, the World Bank released the World Bank Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence, which aligns the institution with making progress toward achieving the UNGA-adopted sustainable development goals (SDGs) while preventing the outbreak of violence.17World Bank Group Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence 2020–2025, World Bank Group, February 27, 2020, In 2021, it approved more than $30 billion for countries and territories affected by these problems.18“Fragility, Conflict & Violence,” World Bank Group (webpage), updated April 27, 2023,

Whereas the World Bank focuses on funding projects that impact structural prevention, the IMF focuses on limiting the potential impact of economic shocks and mitigating their repercussions when they do occur. In 2022, the IMF released its own strategy for fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS), which calls for the advancement of several new policy tools and focuses on developing sustainable fiscal, monetary, and private-sector policy, all of which aim to grow economies and make them more resilient to the potential outbreak of conflict.19“Fragile and Conflict-Affected States,” International Monetary Fund, accessed on November 20, 2023,

There are numerous regional bodies that are critically important actors within specific geographic contexts. Within Africa, the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) emphasizes democracy promotion, early warning and conflict prevention, peace support operations, post-conflict reconstruction, and humanitarian action and disaster management.20“The African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA),” African Union, October 2, 2012, The APSA’s fifteen members include the Peace and Security Council (PSC), which is the African Union’s decision-making body focused on conflict prevention and peacebuilding.21“The Peace & Security Council,” African Union, accessed November 20, 2023,

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are examples of subregional organizations on the African continent that undertake multilateral conflict prevention and peace-building initiatives. ECOWAS maintains its own conflict-prevention framework, allowing its member states to discuss and cooperate on issues of conflict prevention and peacekeeping alongside international partners. The framework aims to mainstream conflict prevention across ECOWAS while building capacity to respond to conflict through the ECOWAS Standby Force.22 “The ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework,” Economic Community of West African States, Regulation MSC/REG.1/01/08 December 10, 1999, SADC consists of sixteen member states from across southern Africa. Though primarily focused on economic issues, SADC sees peace and security as vital to economic success for its members.23“Member States,” Southern Africa Development Community, As such, it has invested in conflict prevention and in 2004, SADC set up the Mediation and Conflict Prevention and Preventative Diplomacy Structure that aims to foster political and security stability across member states.24“SADC Panel of Elders,” Southern Africa Development Community,” n.d.,

A security officer is seen at the opening of the 36th Ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 18, 2023. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Regional and subregional bodies like the AU, ECOWAS, and SADC differ in their political dynamics, resources, tools, and methodologies. While some groups have been able to forge a consensus among member states and make meaningful progress on advancing conflict-management goals, others are plagued by instability within and among member states, limiting their effectiveness. A positive example involves SADC, which has maintained a mission in Mozambique to address the ongoing crisis in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, contributing troops and developing capacity-building initiatives such as skill-development programs and enhancing police services.25“SADC Begins Peace Building Support Programme in Northern Mozambique,” ReliefWeb, June 14, 2022, ECOWAS, in contrast, is an example of a regional institution beset by instability among its West African member states, several of which have gone through one or more coups within the last several years.

Regional bodies within Africa have worked closely with the United Nations to advance conflict management. Collaboration has included coordination between the UN and the AU’s PSC, resulting in practical efforts as in Sudan, where the DPPA has supported AU-led peace efforts.26“The African Union,” United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA), n.d.,

A bottom-line observation is that there is a larger trend in this space: the countries most impacted by conflict are taking a more active role in managing it through regional institutions, as the efforts of the AU, ECOWAS, and the SADC show.

Beyond Africa, other regional institutions have played important roles in conflict management including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the post-Cold War era, NATO has provided stabilization operations in various theaters beyond the borders of its member states, notably in Afghanistan. It still maintains a presence in Kosovo, helping to maintain peace in the Western Balkans alongside the EU, and contributes to a capacity-building mission in Iraq, targeting the broader Iraqi security architecture. The EU maintains military missions across Africa, the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It operates a mix of civilian- and military-led missions working to build partner military capacity to stabilize countries in conflict, maintain peace, and prevent the resurgence of conflict. The EU also funds international bodies such as the UN, giving approximately $1.1 million to the DPPA in 2022.27“Missions and Operations,” European Union External Action Service, January 23, 2023,; and “Multi-Year Appeal 2023–2026,” Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, January 2023, For its part, ASEAN has built a robust sense of trust among its member states, via numerous informal meetings and annual forums, which (arguably) has helped limit conflict within the region.28Drew Thompson and Byron Chong, Built for Trust, Not for Conflict: ASEAN Faces the Future, United States Institute of Peace, August 26, 2020,

Outside of these multilateral and regional bodies, there are two important sets of actors that deserve attention. The first, obviously, are individual states, in particular the world’s major powers. Although the definition of a major power is a highly debated topic, this paper focuses most of its analytical attention on the two states that are widely viewed as the world’s foremost major powers, the United States and China. Russia and occasionally the European Union (as a supranational entity) and India are lumped into the major power category, but the inclusion of each of these entities as major powers is a contested topic among international relations scholars.29For example, see J. Dana Stuster, “Who Are You Calling a Great Power?,” Lawfare (blog), January 15, 2023,

Major powers have important conflict-management functions. The United States, China, and Russia are three of the five permanent members (P5) of the UNSC, and as such hold veto power, which means they are critical to any determination (positive or negative) regarding creation of UN peacekeeping missions. Major powers provide financial, logistical, and occasional personnel (troops) support to peacekeeping operations and broader conflict-management operations.30“Funding the United Nations: How Much Does the U.S. Pay?,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 22, 2023, Outside of the formal UN system, major powers also engage in bilateral conflict-management activities, including provision of development aid and investment funding that contribute to structural conflict prevention. Examples here are development aid provided through the United States Agency for International Development, and infrastructure development funding through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (though these institutions, their funding models, and their purposes admittedly are very different).31United States Agency for International Development, accessed November 20, 2023,; and Yu Jie, “What Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?,” Chatham House, September 13, 2021, Major powers also have intervened directly in conflict situations, with and without UN authorization. For example, after the 9/11 terror attacks, the United States invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter (right to self-defense) as justification for military operations in Afghanistan; later, its leadership of a NATO military coalition was viewed as justified by the UNSC’s authorization of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).32Ben Smith and Arabella Thorp, The Legal Basis for the Invasion of Afghanistan, House of Commons Library, February 26, 2010, Major powers also act as spoilers. The Wagner Group, widely understood to be a Russian state-backed proxy organization, has routinely made peace harder to achieve across the Sahel and is suspected of being linked to several coups in the region.33Jack Detsch, “Wagner’s African Hosts Regret Letting Them In,” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2023,

Beyond the major powers, the world’s middle and emerging powers are important actors in conflict management. The definition of what constitutes a middle power also is contested, with some scholars defining middle powers as states that possess limited material capabilities and assume limited international tasks on the world stage.34Jeffrey Robertson, “Middle-Power Definitions: Confusion Reigns Supreme,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 71, no. 4 (2017), Others define middle powers as states that actively pursue policies of mediation and conflict resolution, and advocate for multilateral solutions on the world stage.35Adam Chapnick, “The Middle Power,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 7, no. 2 (1999), This report views middle powers as countries with reasonable economic or military means, but which often punch above their weight diplomatically. Emerging powers have an analogous standing to middle powers, but generally are regarded as being on an upward trajectory (in demographic, economic, and military senses) toward becoming a major power. The dividing lines between middle and emerging powers are frequently unclear and ill defined. There are numerous countries that fit one or both definitions, and that are engaged in conflict management around the world. Turkey, as an example, played an instrumental and constructive role in brokering an essential grain deal between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, and for years has been involved in managing the ongoing Libyan crisis.36“Ukraine Black Sea Grain Export Deal Extended, UN and Turkey Say,” Al Jazeera, March 18, 2023,; and “Turkey Urges Libya to Avoid Steps That Could Renew Clashes,” Reuters, March 24, 2022, Such powers also sometimes are themselves engaged in conflict dynamics.

Finally, as discussed at length in section III, nonstate actors also play a large role in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This includes two subtypes of actors, those that contribute positively to conflict management and those that do not. Examples of actors falling into the first camp include several major philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, which has funded poverty-reduction programs in conflict-afflicted states around the world. Examples in the second camp include armed nonstate actors such as terror groups and transnational organized criminal groups that contribute to violence, undermining the sovereignty of the states in which they operate and harming civilians. Such groups also often carry out governance roles in the areas in which they operate, owing to weak or nonexistent state capacity. In Nigeria, the militant group Boko Haram collected taxes from the citizens who lived in the areas it controlled, while in Syria, ANSAs provide healthcare for their citizens.37Nathaniel Allen, “How Boko Haram Has Regained the Initiative and What Nigeria Should Do to Stop It,” War on the Rocks, December 24, 2019,; Ann-Kristin Sjöberg and Mehmet Balci, “In Their Shoes: Health Care in Armed Conflict from the Perspective of a Non-State Armed Actor,Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Spring 2023, These groups engage in such behavior to influence communities under their control.

There are several mechanisms that are used by different actors across the conflict cycle. These include early warning systems (EWS), preventive diplomacy and mediation, peace operations, development assistance, and post-conflict mediation reconstruction and recovery. EWS are systems that alert decision-makers to the potential of conflict and increased risks, relying on both qualitative and quantitative data. EWS are employed by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral bodies. Preventive diplomacy uses dialogue and mediation to prevent conflict from starting, escalating, or recurring. The UN secretary-general plays a pivotal role in preventive diplomacy through dialogue and leverage, and the deployment of special envoys. Conflict mediation is increasingly undertaken by a variety of bodies such as UN mediators, individual states, and nongovernmental organizations.

Development aid, targeted at conflict-affected and fragile states, is essential to reducing the potential outbreak of violent conflict and the possibility that conflict reemerges. Aid can be viewed as nonpolitical, but operating in conflict zones requires that aid and development organizations pay close additional attention to how their giving is perceived. Finally, in the post-conflict phase, activities include disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs, which may build domestic capacity to respond to criminal acts and reform the security sector, and which may develop institutions and bodies to work nationally to prevent the outbreak of conflict.

C. Norms within the conflict prevention and peacebuilding process

Two deeply held norms shape the conflict-prevention and peacebuilding fields, those of collective security and state sovereignty. Collective security, enshrined in the UN Charter (and within those of other institutions such as NATO), asserts that aggression can be prevented by collective action, including force, by other states, or at least responded to by collective action should aggression occur.38Lynn H. Miller, “The Idea and the Reality of Collective Security,” Global Governance 5, no. 3 (1999), The UN developed the concept of peacekeeping operations as a collective security pillar starting in 1948 when a UN mediator asked for a small group of guards to monitor a truce between Israel and its neighbors, which was then formalized in 1956 during the Suez Crisis.39Carl Bildt, “Dag Hammarskjöld and United Nations Peacekeeping,” United Nations, 2011,; and Séverine Autesserre, “The Crisis of Peacekeeping,” Foreign Affairs, December 11, 2018, Peacekeeping is by no means the UN’s only role in collective security. Chapter VII of the UN Charter details how the UNSC will respond to threats to peace and acts of aggression, ranging from nonkinetic means (under Article 41, the UNSC may undertake “measures not involving the use of armed force”) to military intervention (under Article 42, the UNSC “may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”).40“Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression (Articles 39-51),” United Nations, accessed November 20, 2023,

Yet despite the benefits of the UN’s collective security apparatus, the concept has never fulfilled its original promise of preventing aggression. States only occasionally have confronted aggressors swiftly and decisively through collective security responses, via the UN and other multilateral bodies. (It is important to note that the reason for this shortcoming has less to do with the willingness of the UN as an institution to engage and more to do with political divisions among UN member states about whether and how to respond.)

State sovereignty asserts that no state should interfere in other states’ domestic affairs, a concept that can be traced at least back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Although state sovereignty has remained a core principle of international affairs since then, there also has long been a debate regarding how to respond to human security concerns, including acts of genocide and other crimes against humanity that occur within states. The “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle is the most famous and fairly recent attempt to blur the state sovereignty norm. Formulated in the 1990s and adopted in 2005 at the UN World Summit, the R2P principle asserts that if a state fails to protect its citizens from crimes against humanity, then other states (if authorized by multilateral bodies) have a right to intervene.41“The Responsibility to Protect: A Background Briefing,” Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, January 14, 2021,; and Jonas Clark, “Libya and the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ ” United States Institute of Peace, March 1, 2011, R2P long has been controversial, even well before the 2011 UNSC-authorized no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya, adopted via resolutions 1970 and 1973 and justified on R2P grounds.42Heidarali Teimouri and Surya P. Subedi, “Responsibility to Protect and the International Military Intervention in Libya in International Law: What Went Wrong and What Lessons Could Be Learnt from It,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 20, no. 1 (2018), Although some saw the Libyan operation as the proper course of action under the R2P norm, others viewed it as justification for an imperialist act of aggression by a group of states, largely Western members of NATO, motivated by their own interests to use R2P as justification to remove Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Not all multilateral institutions that are engaged in collective security subscribe to the state sovereignty norm. For example, the AU was created in part as a reaction against its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which embraced the norm of noninterference in member states’ domestic affairs. This embrace was sufficient to see the OAU credibly accused of ignoring human security concerns. In contrast, early in its history, the AU embraced the norm of “non-indifference” to the suffering among member states’ citizens, signaling that the organization embraced a norm that acknowledged the centrality of human security considerations within its membership.43Tim Murithi, “The African Union’s Transition from Non-Intervention to Non-Indifference: An Ad Hoc Approach to the Responsibility to Protect?,” Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft 1, (2009): 94-95

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The multilateral system and conflict-prevention architectures are under pressure as novel developments and old fractures are reshaping how humanity lives, moves, cooperates, trades, and fights. Strategic foresight research long has insisted that there are multiple geopolitical, economic, social, environmental, and technological shifts underway that collectively are reshaping the global system, including the multilateral governance system. These trends and uncertainties, sometimes lumped together as “megatrends,” have significant implications for peace and security.44On “megatrends” language, see, e.g., Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, National Intelligence Council, December 2012,; and “Welcome to 2030: The Mega-Trends,” European Policy and Analysis System, April 2019,

This report identifies four significant drivers of change that collectively are reshaping the global system now and will continue to do so into the future. These four are: geopolitical shifts, referring to power shifts among the world’s states; ongoing and rising significance of nonstate actors—groups and individuals—that collectively hold significant power within the global system, and therefore need to be accounted for and engaged with by the world’s states; Earth systems changes, including (prominently) climate change; and ongoing and significant technological disruption.

A. Contested multipolarity

Contested multipolarity refers to how shifts in the global balance of interstate power alter the ability of the multilateral system and its core institutions, norms, and processes to keep peace and resolve armed conflicts. These power shifts arguably pose the greatest challenge for multilateral conflict prevention and peacebuilding over the coming decade. Although states always have had competing interests at both global and regional levels, the power shifts described in this section reduce the incentives for cooperation among the world’s major and middle powers. In turn, the prevention of violent conflict will be negatively affected as it always has relied on convergence of those state interests, among other things, to be effective. As a result, these changing power dynamics threaten the effectiveness of multilateral institutions, including but not limited to the UNSC, and their approaches to conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

Increasing rivalry and tension among the major powers, in particular Russia and China on the one hand and the United States and its allies and partners on the other, is of utmost significance. So too is their willingness to support multilateralism and core multilateral institutions. At the same time, regional players such as India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Gulf Cooperation Council states, and Nigeria are becoming more important in their regional contexts and globally, and in turn influencing multilateral norms including sovereignty, intervention, and cooperation.45Mathew Burrows and Anca Agachi, “Welcome to 2030: Three Versions of What the World Could Look Like in Ten Years,” Atlantic Council, December 21, 2021,

Despite slowing growth, China might still overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world by 2035, with accompanying military and diplomatic significance.46Derek Saul, “China and India Will Overtake U.S. Economically by 2075, Goldman Sachs Economists Say,” Forbes, December 6, 2022,; Economist, “Will China’s Economy Ever Overtake America’s?,” September 6, 2022,; and Jonathan D. Moyer et al., “In Brief: Fifteen Takeaways from Our New Report Measuring US and Chinese Global Influence,” Atlantic Council, June 16, 2021, Its emergence as a peer competitor to the United States is reshaping international affairs, including in the hard security domain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was an affront to the UN’s core principles and has severely damaged relations between it and many of the world’s democratic states, while appearing to bring China and Russia closer together (though their relationship was becoming a closer one well before the war in Ukraine). For its part, the United States has been inconsistent in supporting the multilateral system and the UN: examples include initiating the 2003 Iraq War without explicit UNSC authorization; and the Trump administration’s withdrawing the United States from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UN-brokered Paris climate accord, and the World Health Organization (WHO)—though the Biden administration rejoined each of these

The rise of middle and emerging powers in the Global South is compounded by the relative demographic and economic decline of the world’s wealthy core.47The IMF global economic outlook warns of higher cost of living, stagnating growth, and the highest inflation in decades. See “World Economic Outlook: Countering the Cost of Living Crisis,” International Monetary Fund, October 2022,; and Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008). Aging populations, slower economic growth, and domestic political dissatisfaction are disadvantaging North America and Europe relative to more youthful regions. Although many East and Southeast Asian countries face similar if not worse demographic headwinds, the shift of economic power to Asia already has reshaped global geopolitics, multilateralism, and multilateral institutions.48Victor Shih, “How China Would Like to Reshape International Economic Institutions,” Atlantic Council, October 17, 2022,

These shifts explain why the Global South’s middle and emerging powers are increasingly uneasy with the current multilateral system and the institutions that undergird it. Much frustration revolves around the exclusivity and perceived inadequacy of prominent multilateral economic institutions such as the UN Security Council, core Bretton Woods institutions (typically defined as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), and the Group of Seven and Twenty groupings. Enlargement of the BRICS grouping, (referring to the emerging markets bloc that was created in 2009 by Brazil, Russia, India and China, with South Africa joining in 2010) is a prominent and recent example of how this frustration is manifesting itself on the world stage. Prior to the BRICS June 2023 annual summit in South Africa, a reported nineteen nations expressed formal or informal interest in joining the group (that number was later revised to forty countries expressing interest).49Paul Vecchiatto, “BRICS Draws Membership Bids From 19 Nations Before Summit,” Bloomberg News, April 24, 2023,; and “What Is BRICS, Which Countries Want to Join and Why?,” Reuters, August 21, 2023, The bloc voted to admit six new members— Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to bring its total membership to eleven nations.50Carien du Plessis, Anait Miridzhanian, and Bhargav Acharya, “BRICS Welcomes New Members in Push to Reshuffle World Order,” Reuters, August 24, 2023,

Such changes are opening avenues for contestation of the multilateral system, including its institutions, rules, and norms, and are creating novel frameworks of influence and power. A lack of agreement on a unitary alternative could hinder the system’s capacity to reform itself and deal proactively with conflict dynamics.

Implications for structural conflict prevention

China’s rise and its impact on multilateral conflict prevention. Although all the world’s major powers have demonstrated sporadic fidelity to the ideals of multilateralism, China’s rise is the most significant disrupter owing to the increasingly tense competition with the sole superpower, the United States, and China’s expression of its interests in the world.

This claim about the importance of the Sino-American bilateral relationship does not mean that their relationship is the sole driver of change within the interstate system. Nor does it deny other countries’ agency in these questions. Other countries, including several discussed in this section, also are interested in reforming the multilateral system for their own purposes and ends that, in turn, are separate from those of the two major powers. Rather, this claim asserts that the trajectory of the Sino-American relationship is the single most important bilateral relationship in international relations and, as such, has the most consequence for global governance among all such dyads in the world.

China has shown much interest in adapting the current multilateral system to its will and in creating new multilateral governance institutions.51 Bruce Jones and Andrew Yeo, China and the Challenge to Global Order, Brookings Institution, November 2022, Beijing is contesting global governance norms and tenets while increasing its economic and diplomatic weight everywhere. It has created overseas economic investment vehicles such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and has invested in places of strategic interest such as the Sahel, a resource-rich region in petroleum, iron ore, uranium, and more.52Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri, and Irene Yuan Sun, “The Closest Look Yet at China’s Economic Engagement in Africa,” McKinsey & Company, June 28, 2017, China often is accused of crafting so-called debt traps in recipient countries, indirectly limiting (although not eliminating) their political and economic options while increasing their dependency upon China.53James McBride, Noah Berman, and Andrew Chatzky, “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2, 2023, China remains cautious about fundamentally reshaping the conflict prevention and peacekeeping architecture, though it is interested in securing senior political posts for its nominees within the UN system.54Richard Gowan, “China’s Pragmatic Approach to UN Peacekeeping,” Brookings Institution, September 14, 2022,

Implications for conflict prevention institutions

Great power gridlock in the UNSC. Gridlock within multilateral conflict-prevention institutions, especially the UNSC, is a serious institutional risk resulting from contested geopolitics. For decades, the UNSC’s five permanent members have used their veto powers to block decisions or political statements perceived as being against their interests.55“UN Security Council Meetings & Outcomes Tables,” Dag Hammarskold Library, accessed November 20, 2023, More recently, the UNSC has been unable to condemn Syria’s use of chemical attacks against its own population, halt the conflict in Yemen, respond to either the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea or its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, navigate China’s contested claims over the South China Sea, or address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.56Richard Gowan, Minimum Order: The Role of the Security Council in an Era of Major Power Competition, United Nations University, 2018; on the recent conflict in Gaza, see Michelle Nichols, “US Vetoes UN Security Council Action on Israel, Gaza,” Reuters, October 18, 2023, Veto patterns also have shifted: within the UNSC, China has sided more frequently with Russia over the past decade in exercising its veto.57Angad Singh Brar, “The Russia-China Congruence at the UNSC,” Observer Research Foundation, August 1, 2023,; Jolie Myers and Ari Shapiro, “U.N. Chief: Security Council Gridlock Blocks Effective Coronavirus Response,” National Public Radio, June 9, 2020,; and António Guterres, “Secretary-General’s Opening Remarks at Press Conference in Nairobi, Kenya,” United Nations Secretary-General, May 3, 2023,

UNSC gridlock risks the legitimacy and effectiveness of the institution, shrinking its ability to address key issues such as nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction or management of civil wars. The secretary-general (and many other parties around the world) have decried the UNSC’s inability to respond to threats to international peace and security, including to novel threats such as COVID-19, and has repeatedly called for UNSC reform.58Sakura Murakami, “UN Chief Says It’s Time to Reform Security Council, Bretton Woods,” Reuters, May 21, 2023, As Russia’s war in Ukraine shows, the UNSC’s inability to address such crises has meant an elevated role for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), even if that role has been more symbolic than binding.59Shamala Kandiah Thompson, Karin Landgren, and Paul Romita, “The United Nations in Hindsight: Challenging the Power of the Security Council Veto,” Just Security (online forum based at Reiss Center on Law and Security, New York University School of Law), April 28, 2022,

Growing representational gap. Calls for reform of multilateral institutions—especially the UNSC but also the Bretton Woods institutions—to make them more reflective of global power shifts have gone unheeded. Since the end of the Cold War at least, such calls have grown over time, yet the failure to do so appears to be risking the reputations and therefore power of these institutions, even possibly to the point of irrelevance. Such calls are bound to increase over the coming decade, given trends outlined in this section, with India, South Africa, Nigeria, and Germany, the largest states in their regions, currently not represented in the UNSC, likely at the forefront.

The Biden administration’s recent support for UNSC reform suggests at least some potential for change, limited as it may be.60Ignatius Annor, “African Calls for Representation at UN Signify ‘Isolation’: Analysts,” Voice of America, September 28, 2022, Western countries, including the United States, feel pressure to improve relations with nonaligned countries such as India as (potential) important allies and balancers against China and Russia. For example, the September 2023 meeting between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi generated a joint diplomatic statement that, among many other things, endorsed India’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat while reiterating the importance of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—which China views as a forum for these states to coordinate efforts against it.61“Joint Statement from India and the United States,” White House, September 8, 2023, On the Quad and Beijing’s reaction to it, see Bates Gill, “China’s Response to the Quad,” Asia Society Policy Institute, May 16, 2023, Western governments have been concerned by uneven condemnation within the Global South of Russia’s war in Ukraine, as discussed further below.62Howard W. French, “Why the World Isn’t Really United against Russia,” Foreign Policy, April 19, 2022,

Evolving role of peace and security institutions and architectures outside the UN system. Partially as a result of the gridlock within global multilateral institutions, regional and alternative institutions such as the African Union and its African Peace and Security Architecture have expanded their roles and modalities of engagement in conflict management. So too have other subgroupings such as the G20 or ASEAN; while not holding peace and security mandates, they also have emerged as important actors in the conflict-management space (e.g., the G20 as a coordinator on the pandemic recovery).

This development holds promise for regional ownership (“African solutions for Africans”), but also poses challenges. The AU, for example, will have to tackle more conflict prevention and peacekeeping responsibilities even as it faces shortcomings in finances and institutional capacity.63Adriana Erthal Abdenur, “UN Peacekeeping in a Multipolar World Order: Norms, Role Expectations, and Leadership,” in United Nations Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order, eds. Cedric de Coning and Mateja Peter (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013),;  Abdenur’s piece draws on the work of Benjamin de Carvalho and Cedric de Coning, Rising Powers and the Future of Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, November 2013,  as confirmed via interviews as well with representatives from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. There are opportunities for the UN and regional institutions to work more closely together, as was shown for example in 2014-15 by collaboration between the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Economic Community of West African States in Burkina Faso (these institutions deployed a joint early warning mission to the country in hopes of initiating a democratic transition).64United Nations Conflict Prevention and Preventive Diplomacy in Action: An Overview of the Role, Approach and Tools of the United Nations and Its Partners in Preventing Violent Conflict, United Nations Department of Political Affairs, accessed November 20, 2023, 6,

Emergence of coalitions within and outside of the UN. A more complex global landscape is emerging, one that is coalition driven and requiring coalitions that shift according to issue area, both within the UN and outside of it. A more complex landscape will require deft diplomacy aimed at coalition building across different modalities. Western countries will need to engage actively and regularly with countries from the Global South.

A timely example involves voting at UNGA. In 2022, after Russia precluded UNSC condemnation of its actions in Ukraine, UNGA took up the mantle by passing several resolutions affirming the principles of the UN Charter and rejecting Russia’s invasion.65Maintaining a Coalition in Support of Ukraine at the UN, International Crisis Group, March 31, 2022, Yet the resolutions also witnessed multiple abstentions and negative votes by some Global South countries, which point toward how Russia and China have built their own alliances and partnerships through development cooperation, political exchanges, and more. This dynamic underscores the fact that the Global South is not a monolith—countries within the Global South have their own interests within the international system, including as they pertain to conflict management, which inform how they view their relationships with the major powers. A recent International Crisis Group analysis notes that Western countries “should look closely at how to mitigate the effects of the [Ukraine] war on countries outside Europe” if they expect to receive greater support among non-Western states within multilateral institutions.66Maintaining a Coalition in Support of Ukraine at the UN.

Declining good offices role of the UN secretary-general. One of the most important roles of the UNSG is his deployment of good offices, meaning “steps taken publicly and privately, drawing upon their independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.”67“The Role of the Secretary-General,” United Nations Secretary-General, accessed November 20, 2023,; and United Nations Conflict Prevention, United Nations Department of Political Affairs. In an era of intensifying great power competition, the UNSG’s good offices are at risk of carrying even less weight than usual. Major powers like the United States and China as well as middle and emerging powers such as India or Turkey can exert influence over regional and even global events without operating within and through the UN system and the UNSG. Although this always has been true, it is arguable that the trend line is toward more rather than less of it, hence it is a diversion from the past. Indeed, over just the past few years, Guterres’s calls for a global cease-fire during the COVID-19 pandemic went unheeded, his role (and the UN’s more generally) in the war in Ukraine has been limited despite some milestones such as the Black Sea grain deal, and he and his representatives have had little influence on the current situation in Sudan.68“Guterres Calls for ‘Coalition of the World’ to Overcome Divisions, Provide Hope in Place of Turmoil,” United Nations News, September 20, 2022,

Implications for conflict prevention norms

Demise of the standard treatment. The rise of a multipolar world order risks the end of the “standard treatment” of conflict management. The standard treatment consists of mediation to cease hostilities, leading to a unitary peace agreement or framework, enforceable through UN-sanctioned peacekeepers. Behind the treatment’s success, especially the high-level mediation of conflicts, lay the great powers. Great power cooperation was highest during the United States’ unipolar moment in the 1990s, allowing for important treatment successes in the Balkans, Liberia, and Timor-Leste.69As Richard Gowan notes, “major power cooperation had created a framework for a highly developed international conflict management system that—for all its failures—contributed to an overall decline in conflicts worldwide in the later 1990s and first decade of this century. This (with some relatively minor institutional tweaks and reforms) is the conflict management architecture that is still in place today. But the return of major power competition and a range of other challenges over the last decade created daunting challenges for this architecture.” Richard Gowan, Major Power Rivalry and Multilateral Conflict Engagement, Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 8, Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations, December 2021, 9, However, since then the system has lost its capacity to deliver as the necessary underlying support has diminished.

It should be noted that not all states view the demise of the standard treatment approach as a problem. As has been discussed or inferred elsewhere in this report, states have viewed previous conflict-prevention efforts as violations of state sovereignty and therefore have embraced multilateral approaches that are less focused on direct intervention by UN-sanctioned peacekeepers.

Norms contestation. Contested multipolarity has weakened consensus surrounding key global norms. On human rights, China’s growing influence has allowed it to limit criticisms of its own practices at home.70Tanner Larkin, “How China Is Rewriting the Norms of Human Rights,” Lawfare, May 9, 2022, Its growing weight outside the UN system, via the BRI or AIIB, allows China to promote a system of “rights-free development.”71China’s Influence on the Global Human Rights System: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World, Human Rights Watch, September 14, 2020, States with deep ties to Beijing may mute criticisms of China’s record on human rights or even support weakening international norms.72Ted Piccone, “China’s Long Game on Human Rights at the United Nations,” Brookings Institution, September 2018, Such developments impact the pursuit of rights-centric conflict-prevention and peacebuilding efforts. Middle powers also are actively involved in norm contestation and erosion. Iran’s efforts to gain a nuclear weapon are in direct contrast to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the norm of nonproliferation.73Jon Gambrell, “Iran Has Enough Enriched Uranium to Build ‘Several’ Nuclear Weapons, UN Says,” NewsHour, Public Broadcasting Service, January 26, 2023, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, alongside its full invasion of Ukraine in 2022, show Moscow actively contesting the well-established norm of state sovereignty. The actions of both nations not only undermine well-established norms, but also lead to a more volatile and conflict-prone world.

Western states are not blameless: the United States’ 2003 non-UN sanctioned declaration of war on Iraq, for example, undermined the norm against violations of state sovereignty except in cases of clear self-defense. Although the United States presented its case for war in self-defense terms, this claim often rang hollow elsewhere.74For a review of the Iraq war’s origins and consequences, see the collection of essays in “How the War in Iraq Changed the World—and What Change Could Come Next,” Atlantic Council, March 15, 2023,

Other relevant norms also have eroded including the R2P norm. Although NATO countries viewed the Libyan intervention as a successful implementation of R2P, others (Brazil and India, most notably) saw it more as justifying the use of NATO’s power.75Xenia Avezov, “‘Responsibility While Protecting’: Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, January 30, 2013, Brazil proposed a replacement called “responsibility while protecting” (RwP) to limit R2P’s override of sovereignty claims.76Avezov, “‘Responsibility While Protecting’ ”; and Kai Michael Kenkel and Cristina G. Stefan, “Brazil and the Responsibility While Protecting Initiative: Norms and the Timing of Diplomatic Support,” Global Governance 22, no. 1 (January–March 2016): 41–58,

Implications for operational conflict prevention

Restructuring of peacekeeping mandates and deployments. A contested geopolitical landscape may pose challenges for UN-mandated peacekeeping operations.77Gowan, Major Power Rivalry. A separate challenge relates to the cooperation of the host state of the peacekeeping mission. In cases such as Mali, the leaders (in this case a junta) actively limit the ability of the UN mission to operate there and arguably see MINUSMA as a service provider rather than a tool for genuine political transformation and governance changes. Three dimensions are in question: maintaining the political coherence of peacekeeping coalitions where multilateral, governmental (nation-state), and nonstate actors all have an important presence in a conflict setting; maintaining a minimum use of force standard (referring to the long-standing norm of how peacekeepers should use only the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve an outcome); and finally, limiting peacekeeping operations to core missions consisting of “protection, stability, and politics.”78Cedric de Coning, “How UN Peacekeeping Operations Can Adapt to a New Multipolar World Order,” International Peacekeeping 26, no. 5 (November 2019): 536–539,; see also Cedric de Coning, “UN Peacekeeping Operations in a New Multipolar World Order,” Complexity 4 Peace Operations (blog), October 22, 2019, Since the 1980s and 1990s, UN peacekeeping missions have had expanded mandates that include a variety of complex goals that run well beyond their original cease-fire monitoring function. These items include institution and capacity building, election monitoring, and peacebuilding roles, among others, even as their resources have remained the same. Peacekeeping operations have not had enough political support or the resources to accomplish the expanding and ambitious goals set for them, as shown by the recently announced withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the domestic contestation of UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more widely known as MONUSCO.79Richard Gowan and Daniel Forti, “What Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa after Mali Shutters Its Mission?,” International Crisis Group, July 10, 2023,; and Meressa K. Dessu and Dawit Yohannes, “What Do Protests Say About UN Peacekeeping in Africa?” Institute for Security Studies, October 28, 2022,

UN peacekeepers stand guard in the northern town of Kouroume, Mali, May 13, 2015. Kourome is 18 km (11 miles) south of Timbuktu. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

B. State and non-state transformations

During the past couple decades, global economic growth, enhanced access to education, and increasingly ubiquitous technology drove widespread progress in human development including in poverty reduction, hunger and malnutrition reduction, child mortality, and other indicators.80For a comparison of development progress during the 2000s versus 2010s, see Lauren Chandy, “New Insights: Best Decade Ever?: Measuring Success—Comparing the Progress of Global Development in Relative vs. Absolute Terms,” Office of Global Insight & Policy, United Nations Children’s Fund, January 27, 2020, (This claim holds true while acknowledging the uneven, spotty, and sometimes halting nature of progress around the world, as for example occurred during the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the 2020-2022 COVID-19 pandemic.)

During the early 2010s, foresight analysts utilized the phrase “individual empowerment” to describe how individuals were increasingly capable of shaping world events and outcomes.81Marlon Graf et al., : Global Societal Trends to 2030: Thematic Report 3, RAND Corporation, 2015, Individual empowerment was meant in two senses: one positive, in that individuals might become more engaged in solving problems, and one negative, in that individuals might become more destructive, for example through wider access to more lethal weapons. The positive side of this equation has meant, among other things, that aspirations and expectations rose along with fundamental economic and social indicators. However, since the onset of COVID-19, some human development gains have been lagging and even backsliding.82Eduardo Olaberria and Carmen Reinhart, “The Reversal Problem: Development Going Backwards,” World Bank Blogs, April 15, 2022, Economic volatility, a slowdown in global poverty reduction, rising inequality, and ongoing gender gaps continue to frustrate the global sustainable development agenda.83The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, United Nations, July 7, 2022, This turbulence risks increasing popular dissatisfaction and distrust in state institutions, which can fray the social contract, increase the potential for violent conflicts within countries, and make structural conflict-prevention efforts more difficult.

The rise of nonstate groups complements that of individuals. Over the past decades, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, and labor unions have proliferated globally. These have been enabled by the Internet, which also has created groups that exist entirely online, e.g., online gaming communities. This proliferation was not always positive: illicit and criminal networks; armed nonstate actors and paramilitary organizations; terrorist groups; private military contractors; domestic militia groups; and other malignant or misanthropic groups also increased in number. In 2022, according to the ACLED, “nonstate groups were involved in 64 percent of all armed, organized activities globally and perpetrated 76 percent of all violence targeting civilians.”84Clionadh Raleigh, Katayoun Kishi, and Trey Billing, “ACLED Conflict Severity Index: A New Measure of the Complexities of Conflict,” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, January 19, 2023,

The ANSA phenomenon is problematic not just for its scale but also its heterogeneity and complexity. According to Michael von der Schulenburg, a former UN diplomat, ANSAs “are extremely diverse [and] include ideologically, religiously and ethnically motivated groups…; rent seeking groups such as warlords, rebel forces, pirates, clans and gangs; and outright criminal organizations such as transnational crime syndicates, drug and arms cartels and human traffickers.” For these reasons, he argues, “in the realities of most armed conflicts, political insurgents, criminal syndicates and state-sponsored paramilitary often become indistinguishable.”85Matthew Bamber-Zryd, “ICRC Engagement with Armed Groups in 2023,” Humanitarian Law & Policy (blog), International Committee of the Red Cross, October 10, 2023,

Even as states remain the central actors within the international system, individuals and nonstate groups are altering relationships with state authorities, gaining more prominence, and thereby rebalancing the global power architecture. Their rise raises major questions about both the social contract within states and the Westphalian state model that (nominally) has been the premise of international relations for centuries. These questions carry significant implications for designing and implementing conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategies, identifying and engaging key actors, and maintaining common objectives over the longer run.

Implications for structural conflict prevention

(Likely) permanence and significance of ANSAs in conflict-management settings. A minimum of 195 million people live in ANSA-controlled areas, of which some sixty-five million are under the exclusive control of these groups.86Bamber-Zryd, “ICRC Engagement.”   In many cases, ANSAs provide paragovernance activities such as taxation or health services, as was or is the case in the territories controlled by the jihadist group; the terrorist group al-Shabaab; and ANSAs operating in the Sahel.87On groups in the Sahel, see, e.g., Center for Preventive Action, “Violent Extremism in the Sahel,” Global Conflict Tracker, Council on Foreign Relations, last modified August 10, 2023,

Globally, ANSAs are proliferating, posing challenges for multilateral institutions and states. The lack of sanctioned guidelines from the UN makes engagement with ANSAs difficult, including in situations where their involvement might assist peace and security outcomes.88Jeffrey Feltman, “UN Engagement with Nonstate Armed Groups for the Sake of Peace: Driving without a Roadmap,” Brookings Institution, January 15, 2021, The securitization of this subfield, a remnant of the counterterrorism agenda, precludes nonmilitary approaches such as dialogues and training with some ANSAs that might advance peace and security goals, including respect for international humanitarian laws and the safe passage of humanitarian aid.89Lauren Mooney and Patrick Quirk, Toward a Framework for Transatlantic Cooperation on Non-state Armed Groups, Atlantic Council, May 23, 2022,  

Implications for conflict prevention institutions

Defining responsibilities becomes more challenging. As the role of individuals and nonstate groups expands, including by taking on governance roles especially where states are weak, there is a greater need to define operational guidelines for cooperation on the ground. For example, during the pandemic, the Iraqi government’s poor pandemic response gave informal militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, an opening to furnish a pandemic response of their own, thereby helping them to increase their popular legitimacy.90Jarrett Blanc, Frances Z. Brown, and Benjamin Press, “Conflict Zones in the Time of Coronavirus: War and War by Other Means,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 17, 2020, More positively, some actors such as corporations or philanthropies can play some key roles, such as pandemic response or climate financing, also raising challenges for their inclusion, management, and coordination with state authorities.

Implications for conflict prevention norms

Inclusivity in conflict mediation and beyond. Elite mediation processes rarely work if they are not inclusive and representative of larger segments of a population. Individual and group empowerment means that the pressure on multilateral institutions to be inclusive of nonstate actors in their mediation and negotiation processes should continue to increase. Although broader participation means increased complexity and requires careful sequencing of efforts, the benefits are outsized. Women and youth are essential groups in civil society, whose early inclusion in mediation, negotiation, reconciliation, or other peacebuilding processes capitalizes on their unique knowledge and skills, increases the chances of success of the deals reached, and ensures more equitable outcomes.91Veronique Dudouet and Andreas Schädel, “New Evidence: To Build Peace, Include Women from the Start,” United States Institute of Peace, March 11, 2021, More generally, inclusion itself is a conflict prevention tool: inclusion of individuals and groups within all aspects of society (government, economy, etc.) is critical to defusing grievances against other groups and the government.92Pathways for Peace, World Bank and UN, xxv.

Not all nonstate actors are alike, of course, and not all are easily integrated into mediation and negotiation processes. By far the most complex and contested cases involve ANSAs, the groups that possess military and (often) political power in affected conflict zones (and hence cannot be ignored in conflict mediation processes) yet frequently act in bad faith and/or are unsavory actors on the battlefield and among civilian populations. Because of the proliferation of ANSAs in general (and proliferation of the number of conflicts where ANSAs are the central actors), to date there has been no single template for dealing with them in Track 1 or Track 1.5 processes.93Feltman, “UN Engagement.”

Implications for operational conflict prevention

Challenges to exclusivity of UN mediation. High-level, elite peace agreements brokered through UN-sanctioned efforts are becoming more difficult to achieve in isolation, given more complex environments, the proliferation of conflicts, and the proliferation of ANSAs and other nonstate actor groups. There is both an increased demand for mediation and an increased supply of institutions (including nongovernmental organizations) to provide it. The AU, EU, “the European Institute of Peace (EIP), the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), the Dialogue Advisory Group (DAG), the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), and the Community of Sant’Egidio,”94Jeffrey Feltman, “UN Envoys Should Be Conductors, not Soloists: Reflections for the Oslo Forum,” Brookings Institution, June 18, 2019, are just some of the institutions that provide direct or indirect support to mediation efforts. HD, for example, has been involved in mediation efforts in Mali, albeit with limited impact.95“Reducing Armed Conflict in Mali,” Better Evidence Project, Center for Peacemaking Practice, Carter School for Peace and Conflict Prevention, George Mason University, There are many other positive examples of organizations, including non-Western organizations, that have been important mediators in conflicts around the world, such as Cambodia’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Colombia’s El Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP), and Myanmar’s Euro-Burma Office (EBO).96As discussed in Jamie Pring and Julia Palmiano Federer, “The Normative Agency of Regional Organizations and Non-governmental Organizations in International Peace Mediation,” Swiss Political Science Review 26, no. 4 (December 2020): 429448,

A broader consequence of having nonstate actors involved in mediation is the volume of effort. Nonstate mediators, including regular citizens, can engage all parties, including ANSAs and insurgents, in ways that states cannot. Some agreements are arrived at entirely among armed groups. In Burkina Faso and Mali, local truces, formal and informal, among belligerents including ANSAs and violent extremist organizations have been reached, sometimes with little or no outside mediation.97Sam Mednick, “Can Local Dialogues with Jihadists Stem Violence in Burkina Faso?,” New Humanitarian, December 16, 2021, Although often temporary, they can offer communities some stability. While such agreements do little to bolster the legitimacy of broader efforts aimed at national justice and peace, different kinds of agreements serve different purposes, which speak to the need to bolster complementary approaches to resolving conflicts. It should be noted that such peace agreements may have some downsides in that they can further fragmentation, decreasing cohesion and support for the state and entrenching rather than addressing the root causes of conflict dynamics.98A UN DPPA Practice Note on mediating at local level advises UN mediators to assess “the risk that local mediation could displace violence into neighbouring locales. As in all conflict settings, mediators will need to weigh the risks of intervention against the political cost of inaction.” See Engaging at the Local Level: Options for UN Mediators, Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Practice Note, United Nations, September 2022, 6,

These developments mean that the UN’s role will need to change.99Feltman, “UN Envoys.” UN envoys should be “conductors, not soloists,” according to one expert, coordinating roles within mediation efforts.100Feltman, “UN Envoys.”

C. Climate and Earth systems

Climate change is arguably the most important driver of change shaping the long-term future of international affairs. If viewed solely in ecological terms, this trend has a high degree of certainty, meaning that the ongoing carbon loading of the atmosphere and oceans is certain to transform the planet’s ecosystems. For scientists, the uncertainties surround the pace and scale of those transformations, not whether they will occur. Much will depend on the speed with which the global economy decarbonizes. The climate’s transformative impacts on human systems will be far reaching, and if left unchecked, likely will alter the scale, location, and intensity of conflict globally, making planning and execution of global, national, and subnational conflict prevention efforts far more challenging.

Scenarios released by the UN indicate that temperatures will increase in the 2030s above the target of 1.5°C codified in the 2015 Paris Agreement, with the world on track for a 2.4°C to 2.6°C temperature increase.101“IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. Valérie Masson-Delmotte et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 18,; and “Climate Change: No ‘Credible Pathway’ to 1.5C Limit, UNEP Warns,” UN News website, October 27, 2022, Scientists estimate that the world has less than a decade left to dramatically change emissions trajectories before irreversible damage sets in.102Rachel Ramirez, “Historical Emissions Caused the Climate Crisis. But It’s What We Do Today That Will Make or Break It, Study Shows,” CNN World,

Climate change causes or worsens extreme weather events, heat waves, flooding, drought, ocean acidification, and more, which increase social and economic disasters, human fatalities, economic losses, societal fragility, and forced migration.103Total global climate migration could be as high as 300 million in the future, according to some estimates. Abraham Lustgarten and Meridith Kohut, “The Great Climate Migration,” New York Times, accessed November 20, 2023, ﷟ More generally, environmental pressures, especially climate change, will likely increase the number of intraregional migrants from anywhere between 44 million to 216 million, depending on the sustained action to be taken by the international community. The extent of disruption varies regionally and increases with rising temperatures: for example, in the United States, for every degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature the gross domestic product will shrink by 0.7 percent.104Kathleen Maclay, “Study Maps Out Dramatic Costs of Unmitigated Climate Change in the U.S.,” University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley News website, June 29, 2017,

The costs of adapting to a climate-changed world are staggering—estimates suggest that between $315 billion to $565 billion would have to be spent annually by 2050 on climate adaptation efforts.105Candace Rondeaux and Melissa Salyk-Virk, “Calculating the True Cost of Adaptation in Our Climate-Stressed Future,” New America, November 30, 2022,; and Too Little, Too Slow: Climate Adaptation Failure Puts World at Risk, United Nations Environment Programme, 2022, As shown by debates at the recent annual Conference of Parties (COPs) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there have been terse global negotiations about who will pay for climate adaptation.

Climate change long has been regarded by the climate security community as a “threat multiplier” that if unchecked will exacerbate societal, economic, and political fragility, while worsening conflict dynamics.106National Security and The Threat of Climate Change, CNA Corporation, accessed November 20, 2023,; “Climate Change Recognized as ‘Threat Multiplier,’ UN Security Council Debates Its Impact on Peace,” United Nations, accessed November 20, 2023,; and Josh Busby, “It’s Time We Think Beyond ‘Threat Multiplier’ to Address Climate and Security,” New Security Beat (blog), Environmental Change and Security Program, Wilson Center, January 21, 2020, For decades, this community labored to have its assertions about the climate-security-conflict nexus taken seriously within governments, multilateral institutions, and other policymaking settings. That effort has paid off in that this nexus now is widely regarded as an important (if tragic) feature of the global conflict landscape, with serious work done on the topic within multiple institutions around the world.107See, e.g., the body of work at the International Crisis Group, including “Absorbing Climate Shocks and Easing Conflict in Kenya’s Rift Valley,” International Crisis Group, April 20, 2023, For poverty-stricken communities and those in conflict zones, adaptation problems are more acute owing to institutional and governance shortcomings.108Bernice Van Bronkhorst and Franck Bousquet, “Tackling the Intersecting Challenges of Climate Change, Fragility, and Conflict,” World Bank Blogs, January 27, 2021,; and Katariina Mustasilta, The Future of Conflict Prevention: Preparing for a Hotter, Increasingly Digital, and Fragmented 2030, European Union Institute for Security Studies, May 2021, Climate impacts also are expected to be greater for women and girls.109“Explainer: How Gender Inequality and Climate Change are Interconnected,” UN Women, February 28, 2022,

A view of a cracked ground near the Sidi El Barrak dam with depleted levels of water, in Nafza, west of the capital Tunis, Tunisia, January 7, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui

Implications for structural conflict prevention

Exacerbation of instability. Climate change disrupts economic systems and access to critical natural resources, in turn reshaping their governance and allocation in society. These effects undermine food and water security, especially in poor and vulnerable societies, and thereby induce out-migration and conflict. Climate change could exacerbate conflict dynamics and create new escalation ladders, especially in conflict-prone or fragile sociopolitical and socioeconomic contexts, and where institutions are unresponsive to changing conditions on the ground (for example, unable or unwilling to address rising water insecurity). Conflict prevention and peacebuilding institutions will have to develop an improved understanding of these climate drivers, how they map onto conflict dynamics, and how they will alter core processes.110Florian Krampe, “Climate Change, Peacebuilding, and Sustaining Peace,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June 2019, Across poor and wealthy societies alike, climate change might increase existing public dissatisfaction, fray societal trust, polarize citizens, and amplify social grievances.111Krampe, “Climate Change.”

Implications for conflict prevention institutions

Impact of climate change on institutional strategies and operations. Foreign and security policy institutions the world over are struggling to incorporate climate security into their strategic and operational portfolios. Institutions within the conflict management system, including the UN, are in the same situation in that they will have to account for the multiplicity of climate impacts on the peace and security problem set as well as their approaches to assessing the problem.

Much thinking is underway on this front. For example, the UN’s DPPA has attempted to include climate considerations within “analytical and planning mechanisms as well as . . . prevention, mediation and peace-building strategies” through new guidance in areas such as mediation.112“Addressing the Impact of Climate Change on Peace and Security,” United Nations Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, accessed November 20, 2023, Its work in this space is facilitated by the Climate Security Mechanism, a joint initiative of the DPPA, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that works across these programs to provide analysis.113Climate Security Mechanism: Progress Report, United Nations Environment Programme, May 2021,

Emphasis on early warning systems. A climate-altered world will increase the need for robust and thorough early warning systems that provide analysts with timely and accurate information about where climate-induced changes might have the most impact on societies, particularly fragile societies, and on conflict. Such systems therefore can assist in providing analysts with information regarding where and when conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities are most likely to be needed. EWS can help identify how local and regional climates will change (meaning chronic and acute changes in precipitation and temperature, as examples), inform local populations about those changes, and help policymakers adapt planning and investments to help mitigate and adapt, all of which should increase transparency and trust and minimize loss of life and livelihoods. If EWS is applied properly in these contexts, such systems would assist with conflict prevention and its escalation.114Catherine Defontaine, “Setting Up Early Warning and Response Systems to Prevent Violent Conflicts and Save Lives,” World Bank Blogs, February 15, 2019,

There are numerous databases, dashboards, and EWS systems that cover pieces of the climate security equation. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African trade bloc, is an example. IGAD has developed multiple data tools and EWS dashboards that monitor and assess hydrological and climatological conditions in the region.115“IGAD Disaster Risk Management Programme,“ IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre, accessed November 20, 2023,

Yet despite the existence of such tools, there remains a significant amount of work to be done in this space around the world. The complexity and difficulty in building these kinds of real-time EWS systems that track the multiplicity of Earth system changes, map those changes onto all world regions, and then link them to other drivers of conflict—all at a level of granularity that allows analysts to forecast when and where conflict is more likely to occur—is an enormous technical and bureaucratic challenge.

Implications for operational conflict prevention

Complexity of operating environment. Climate change adds an important layer of complexity to international relations, the global system, and governance. As a threat multiplier, climate change is “already increasing food insecurity, water scarcity, and resource competition, while disrupting livelihoods and spurring migration.”116Robert Blecher et al., “Climate, Environment, and Conflict,” International Crisis Group, accessed November 20, 2023,; Bernice Van Bronkhorst and Franck Bousquet, “Tackling the Intersecting Challenges of Climate Change, Fragility, and Conflict,” World Bank Blogs, January 27, 2021, In places such as the Sahel, which contains many agricultural and pastoral subsistence economies, climate disruptions have enormous potential for disruption and deprivation, thus exacerbating tensions over scarce resources.117Beza Tesfaye, Climate Change and Conflict in the Sahel, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2022, Climate will drive more complex crises, which exist when multiple challenges occur simultaneously in the same place.118Emma Schwartz, “4 Facts: What is a Complex Crisis,” Project Hope, July 1, 2022,; and Ulrich Eberle and Alan Boswell, “Floods, Displacement, and Violence in South Sudan,” International Crisis Group, accessed November 20, 2023,

As a result, conflict management institutions will be forced to adjust how they conduct their work. The greater frequency and severity of natural disasters will strain resources for conflict management efforts at domestic and international levels while adding yet another layer of political and socioeconomic complexity to the task. Further, the same trends will make it harder for such institutions to conduct their work, given climate disaster impacts on conditions on the ground.

D. Technological revolutions

Although technological change is an omnipresent feature of the modern world since the Industrial Revolution, the speed and significance of technologically driven change arguably is greater today than at any time in history.119Dan McCarthy, “Tech is Improving at an Exponential Rate. Here’s What That Means for Society,” Tech Brew (newsletter), November 24, 2021, The technologies under development now have the potential to remake society in every way, owing to their unprecedented capabilities, in positive and negative senses.120Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How To Respond,” World Economic Forum, January 14, 2016, The multilateral conflict-prevention architecture is not being spared from these developments.

The impacts of technological development are among the more difficult drivers to forecast for two big reasons. First, only rarely are technological breakthroughs predictable, which means that it is difficult to anticipate when, where, and who will produce a truly groundbreaking discovery. Second, it is almost as difficult to forecast what the second and third order impacts of any new technology are likely to be, for better and for worse.

These caveats aside, several of the key technologies that are likely to influence the future of international affairs and the multilateral system include:

Some types of technological change can scale to near-universal levels, although scaling can take decades if not longer, as occurred historically with the railroad and automobile. The length of universal adoption underscores that technological progress is an uneven phenomenon. Advanced technologies are not uniformly available to all people immediately upon their creation. Quite the contrary: most often, new technologies take much time for universal adoption. The internet is an apt example. The International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) seminal Global Connectivity Report 2022 reported that although two-thirds of humankind uses the internet, one-third remains offline even though the internet has existed for decades. The ITU report asserted that “multiple digital divides [now exist], across and within countries, between men and women, between youth and older persons, between cities and rural areas, between those who enjoy a fiber connection and those who struggle on a spotty 3G connection.”122“Universal and Meaningful Connectivity: The New Imperative,” International Telecommunications Union, accessed November 20, 2023, Access to reliable internet service is a critical component of social and economic development—its availability is so important that it is difficult to imagine how advanced societies now could function without it.

Technological change can be a double-edged sword. Social media, for example, enables nonviolent resistance, democratic protest, documentation of violence, and sharing of information among groups (state and nonstate alike) that are engaged in finding solutions to conflict. But social media also amplifies harmful narratives, facilitates the recruitment of at-risk youth into ANSAs, and further polarizes societies. In the United States, given that some 48 percent of adults get their news from social media at least occasionally, it becomes easy to understand how misinformation can spread quickly and contribute to societal division.123Mason Walker and Katerine Eva Matsa, “News Consumption across Social Media in 2021,” Pew Research Center, September 20, 2021, Technological change therefore presents new risks and opportunities for conflict prevention and peacebuilding.124For a list of technologies to mature by 2032, see Chuck Brooks, “Welcome to 2032: A Merged Physical/Digital World,” Forbes, December 18, 2021,

Implications for structural conflict prevention

Cyber conflict. Cyber conflict is not new, but it is proliferating and scaling: cyber activities are commonly employed by state and nonstate actors alike to disrupt, divert, steal, and to achieve strategic impacts.125Burrows and Agachi, “Welcome to 2030.” Cyberattacks and cybercrime are common and increasing throughout the world.126Charles Griffiths, “The Latest 2023 Cyber Crime Statistics (updated October 2023),” AAG IT Services, October 2, 2023,; and Clare Stouffer, “115 Cybersecurity Statistics and Trends to Know in 2023,” Norton, September 1, 2022, This trend will continue given the relatively low barriers to entry into cybercrime and cyberattacks for bad-faith actors such as authoritarian governments, criminal networks, and terrorist groups.

The UN has supported creation of the Open-Ended Working Group that focuses on developing rules for states and responsible behavior in cyberspace.127Louise Marie Hurel, “The Rocky Road to Cyber Norms at the United Nations,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 6, 2022, However, progress has been difficult given the transference of major power competition into the digital arena. For this reason, managing cyber conflict should remain a key priority area for the UN given the likelihood of increased cyber activity by state and nonstate actors alike.128Our Common Agenda Policy Brief 9, United Nations. To counter the risk of escalation to physical conflict, the UN can focus on norms development, cyber diplomacy, confidence-building measures, and innovative concepts such as “cyber peacekeepers.”129Branka Panic, “Cyber Blue Helmets–Can Cyber Peacekeepers Help Sustain Peace in Cyberspace?” Center on International Cooperation (blog), May 2, 2022,

AI and social media are creating a more contested information environment. Newer technology tools such as AI/ML and older ones such as social media together will alter the information environment, making it both faster and more contested. The significant downside risk is that the pace and content of disinformation (through, for example, AI/ML-generated deepfake videos and other content) will negatively impact conflict dynamics as they will give bad-faith actors even more capabilities to alter and even define the information landscape. This problem has been much in evidence already with just social media on its own, which can be and has been used by various actors (state and nonstate) to create or amplify false narratives that have a direct bearing on conflict dynamics, often exacerbating existing polarization. Nonstate actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), and elsewhere have proven themselves adept at using social media to amplify misleading narratives, contributing to distrust among local communities, insurgents, and the government.130Albert Trithart, “Disinformation Is a Growing Threat for UN Peacekeepers,” International Peace Institute, December 14, 2022,

Disinformation also can be manufactured by state actors. During the Wagner Group’s deployment in CAR and Mali, Russia pushed narratives that were “predominantly pro-regime, anti-French, and pro-Russian” via local proxies such as Radio Lengo Songo in CAR (although not an AI/ML or social media example per se, this case does underscore the importance of state actors using communication tools to spread information and disinformation).131Trithart, “Disinformation Is a Growing Threat.”

Communication runs in more than one direction. Hence, the same tools that are used for disinformation can be employed by good-faith actors to relay accurate information and to counter false and misleading narratives from elsewhere. Social media also can be used to counter disinformation. For example, in West Africa, ECOWAS used social media to conduct training sessions, run online campaigns, enable storytelling, and counter harmful narratives online.132Caleb Gichuhi, Leveraging Technology for Peacebuilding in the ECOWAS Region: Documentation of a Consultative Process, ECOWAS Commission, October 2021, In Ukraine, social media is used to debunk Russian false narratives.133Megan Specia, “‘Like a Weapon’: Ukrainians Use Social Media to Stir Resistance,” New York Times, March 25, 2022,

Implications for conflict prevention and conflict prevention norms

Automation changing the battlefield. Advanced automated systems, driven by AI/ML and remote-sensing capabilities, are beginning to change battlefields. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) have appeared in Ukraine and elsewhere, including in sub-Saharan Africa, either in interstate warfare or in asymmetric contexts (e.g., fighting insurgent or criminal networks.)134Nathaniel Allen and Marian “Ify” Okpali, “Artificial Intelligence Creeps on to the African Battlefield,” Brookings Institute, February 2, 2022, Given the pace of AI/ML development, by the mid-2030s automation could be ubiquitous on battlefields and across multiple warfighting domains.

Automated technologies might increase conflict and instability for several reasons. First, weapons and systems can be deployed without a full understanding of their battlefield impacts or rules for their use. For example, as UAV operators are far from the battlefield, they may become desensitized to their targets. Second, automated weapons could enable all conflict actors, including governments and ANSAs, to assault human rights, as has occurred with automated surveillance systems used by authoritarian countries to control their citizens.135Adrian Shahbaz, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” Freedom House, accessed November 20, 2023, On the battlefield, such systems might have insufficient capabilities to properly differentiate between civilians and combatants, risking poor decision-making about lawful targets.

Implications for conflict prevention institutions

Digital technologies for good. The list of applications of digital and emerging technologies in conflict prevention is extensive and includes the following:136“Technology and Security: Briefing,” Security Council Report, May 22, 2022,; and The Impact of New Technologies on Peace, Security, and Development, Independent Commission on Multilateralism, May 2017,

  • Improving early warning, for assessment of insights and trends as well as response processes to supplement offline engagement, as ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN) did in West Africa.137Gichuhi, Leveraging Technology for Peacebuilding in the ECOWAS Region. The applications are numerous, from the identification of patterns of violence through the use of AI, to improving satellite imaging capacity with the help of better space assets.
  • Facilitating the coordination or deployment of humanitarian assistance, from using geolocation services to monitor Ebola outbreaks138Margaret Monyani, “Technology Can Help Deliver Aid and Services More Effectively–but Can Be Harmful If Users Don’t Know Its Risks,” Institute for Security Studies, September 1, 2022, to the use of drones to deliver critical medical aid,139“Using Drones to Deliver Critical Humanitarian Aid,” United Nations World Food Programme, accessed November 20, 2023, or other assistance in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
  • Assisting with reconciliation and postconflict peacebuilding efforts by “offering tools that foster collaboration, transform attitudes, and give a stronger voice to communities.”140Helena Puig Larrauri and Anne Kahl, “Technology for Peacebuilding,” Stability International Journal of Security and Development 2, no. 3 (2013),
  • Enhancing performance, efficiency, and resource allocation within multilateral institutions, for instance in peacekeeping operations.141“Harness Digital Technology to Protect Peacekeepers, Civilians, Security Council Urges, Adopting Presidential Statement,” United Nations Press Release, August 18, 2021, Powerful AI/ML-based algorithms could improve the quality and speed of decision-making.142Clara Baltay, “Friend or Foe? The Role of Modern Technology in Conflict and Peace,” Organization for World Peace, November 9, 2020,

Institutions will need to assess the potential impact of such technologies on their processes and activities, develop normative frameworks for their use, and integrate them into operations. As with climate change, DPPA has made some initial forays into this space. In 2018, DPPA set up an innovation unit to “test new technologies for . . . conflict prevention, peace mediation and peacebuilding work [and to improve] analytical tools and practices” for more rapid and focused action.143“Getting to Grips with New Tech in Prevention and Peacemaking,” Politically Speaking, UN DPPA online magazine, on Medium (platform), November 22, 2019,

Implications for operational conflict prevention

Digital diplomacy and activism on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic required swift adaptation. Diplomacy moved online, which both limited engagement (i.e., reduced or eliminated face-to-face interaction) and expanded it, given the explosion of meetings online.144Pierre Vimont, “Diplomacy During the Quarantine: An Opportunity for More Agile Craftsmanship,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2, 2020, Women-led peacebuilding efforts adapted to the new digital world during COVID-19 using platforms such as Zoom, Signal, and WhatsApp.145“Connected by Their Phones, Women Peacebuilders Lead COVID-19 Prevention Efforts across Libya,” UN Women, June 19, 2020, Although the post-pandemic world is returning to more in-person engagement, the trends toward virtual engagement are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Digital technologies are changing the face of mediation. Digital technologies can be helpful in conflict mediation, for example by providing better communication platforms to the negotiating parties, increasing inclusivity by helping identify and engage actors who should sit at the negotiating table, especially those coming from historically underrepresented groups such as women and youth, and helping with strategic communications via use of social media to promote positive outcomes and peaceful narratives.146Digital Technologies and Mediation in Armed Conflict, United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, March 2019, As an example, in 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) conducted the “first-ever, large-scale digital dialogue online with Libyan youth . . . [to] inform the UNSMIL-facilitated intra-Libyan dialogue tracks about . . . outstanding security, political and economic issues.”147“UNSMIL Conducts the First-Ever Large-Scale Digital Dialogue with 1000 Libyan Youth Online,” United Nations Support Mission in Libya, October 17, 2020, accessed November 20, 2023, UNSMIL later engaged in additional similar digital dialogues with other Libyan stakeholders.148“ASRSG Williams Conducts Digital Dialogue with 1000 Libyans,” United Nations Support Mission in Libya, January 17, 2021, accessed November 20, 2023,

Convergence of peacekeeping and the digital world. In 2021, the UN secretary-general released a strategy for the digital transformation of UN peacekeeping, with a focus on mandate implementation and personnel safety.149Strategy for the Digital Transformation of UN Peacekeeping, United Nations Peacekeeping, September 17, 2021, accessed November 20, 2023, Two complex matters should be prioritized concerning the nexus between peacekeeping and emerging technologies: protecting civilians from AI-related and other harm that can infringe upon their human rights; and building internal capacity and collaborations to ensure data integrity and internal network protection against activities that can undermine peacekeeping operations and with them, the credibility surrounding the UN mandate.150Eleonore Pauwels, Peacekeeping in an Era of Converging Technological and Security Threats, United Nations Department of Peace Operations, April 2021, accessed November 20, 2023,

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IV. Scenarios

This section presents four scenarios based on the trends and uncertainties discussed in section III. Each scenario is a plausible story of how the drivers of change might combine to shape the world over the next ten to fifteen years. This section is not a prediction: none of the scenarios are offered as the most probable future outcome. The reader should regard all of the scenarios as equally plausible.

Directly following these global scenarios is an assessment of how the four scenarios in this section might play out in the Sahel, a region that illustrates many of the challenges resulting from the interplay of the driving forces outlined in this report. If the peoples and communities of the Sahel region are to have a positive future, then the various actors involved—multilateral organizations, national governments (within and outside of the Sahel), subnational governments, and nonstate actors—will have to come to grips with these forces, despite the many pressures that these drivers will bring. As a result, the Sahel region was chosen as a case study precisely because it offers a complex and important illustration of where conflict dynamics may be headed over the coming decade and where the possibilities might lie for finding solutions.

Scenario 1: Major power clash

The world in 2033 is dominated by the rivalry between two powerful countries, China and the United States. Throughout the late 2020s and into the early 2030s, China continued in its quest to displace the United States as the world’s hegemon. To date, it has not succeeded. China’s economic slowdown, which started in 2023, has continued (admittedly, it still grew at rates typical of a mature economy). Added to this problem has been China’s demographic winter, which has limited the country’s rise and prevented it from becoming a true global hegemon. China’s struggle to displace the United States did not mean smooth sailing for the formerly sole superpower, however. Through the 2020s, the United States struggled to lead given ongoing turbulence in its domestic politics, which hampered both its reputation abroad and its ability to act boldly economically or diplomatically when it most counted.

Locked into an increasingly adversarial relationship yet being unable to achieve economic or military superiority over the other power, both the United States and China pursued aggressive policies oriented around the recruitment of new allies and partners. China focused much of its effort on other authoritarian countries, conveying influence through the export of technologically infused goods and services and infrastructure investment (though the Belt and Road Initiative was pared back owing to domestic concern in China about its debt). The United States took a different route, focusing more on democratic states through diplomatic, political, and economic means. America remained committed to its partners but failed to mount a major effort to win over partners beyond its sphere of influence. Both nations were cognizant of the flawed optics of military support and stayed away from directly providing arms within their spheres.

In a fashion parallel to the Cold War, the United States and China eventually settled into a state where each had a defined grouping of countries that it considered within its own sphere of influence. And as occurred during the Cold War, both countries chose noninterference over confrontation within each other’s sphere of influence.

The strategic competition between the United States and China split the world’s nonaligned states into two groups. The first were states that were of strategic value to one or both countries, countries that both major powers saw as valuable for different reasons, for example as important trading partners, for key natural resources, or simple geography. In these countries, the United States and China aimed to limit the ability of the other nation to intervene. Key regions here included: the Great Lakes Region of Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of Latin America.

For states within this first group, the conflict prevention and peacekeeping equation proved to be a difficult one. These states were nonaligned, but at the same time they were also seen as strategically valuable to either major power (and sometimes both). Hence, UNSC resolutions for peacekeeping missions in these countries tended to be vetoed by either the United States or China, which were reluctant to watch the other power fiddle in what each saw as something it alone valued. Some affected states received peacekeeping and peacebuilding assistance from regional bodies such as ECOWAS. Many took bilateral aid—economic, military and otherwise—from wherever they could find it. In many cases, they leveraged the two major powers against one another, as had occurred during the Cold War.

The second group of nonaligned countries offered minimal strategic value to either the United States or China and were treated accordingly by the major powers. In these nations, the United States and China were less willing to invest, seeing efforts as unlikely to result in a major payoff. Yet these countries’ lack of perceived strategic value also had an upside. Both the United States and China showed a willingness to cooperate on peacekeeping missions in these countries, precisely because they were perceived as having a lower strategic status. Both countries had other motives too. The United States wanted to avoid the optics of a unilateral intervention and China remained committed to its principle of sovereignty promotion. This meant that despite the ongoing rivalry between two of the P5 states, the UNSC managed to continue to function in a core role, which was the authorization of peacekeeping missions, as occurred for example in the Sahel.

The world’s conflict zones were not only in those areas that were nonaligned with the major powers. Conflict occurred in areas of the world that were within the two powers’ spheres of influence. For states that the major powers deemed within their spheres of influence, in cases of intrastate or interstate conflict there was no possibility of both the United States or China authorizing a mission at the UNSC. This meant that the United States and China, plus whatever allies and partners they could muster, dealt with instances of conflict as they saw fit and on their terms. Not all of this was post hoc conflict resolution and peacekeeping. At least some of their actions focused on the prevention of conflict within or between states they viewed as partners, which meant employment of social and economic development tools and extended diplomatic overtures.

The clash between the major powers had other consequences. China continued its investment in alternative multilateral institutions, including the AIIB and the BRI (which, despite hiccups, survived as China found that the money it poured into the initiative paid diplomatic dividends around the world). These efforts were designed at least in part to advance China’s goals and priorities outside of the UN system. At a certain point, the AIIB and the BRI hit their limits and began transitioning from efforts to gain new partners to shoring up support among existing ones.

Yet China also regarded the UN as an important forum for maximizing its influence and legitimacy around the world. China acted within the UN when it could and where it saw opportunities, shaping the institution to its will as best it could. This included placing Chinese nationals in leadership positions within the UN, for example as envoy for the Great Lakes Region. There was some concern that Chinese nationals in these roles represented the interests of the Chinese state rather than working on behalf of the United Nations (unsurprisingly, this narrative was pressed hard by the United States). There was little proof that Chinese nationals did this any more than other UN executives.

China approached UN peacekeeping operations differently than it did in the 2020s. It shifted away from deploying specialized, highly skilled troops for support and logistical operations to supplying more soldiers on the front lines of peacekeeping mandates. China’s motivation for increasing its blue helmet presence was the same as for its other interests within the UN system, namely, to boost its profile within the institution and increase goodwill among affected states in conflict regions, and within the UNSC and UNGA.

The United States continued to be an important funder of UN peacekeeping operations and offered specialized assistance in myriad forms. However, as it always had, the United States shied away from sending foot soldiers, worried as ever of the optics of it losing troops in multilateral peacekeeping missions abroad.

Finally, and paradoxically, there was some halting progress on the provision of global public goods. Perhaps the most important was that both the United States and China saw making progress on climate mitigation goals as a means to boost their economies through technological innovation and show the world some diplomatic leadership in the process. As such, both countries find ways to cooperate within the UNFCCC. Cooperation around key emerging technologies, however, continued to prove difficult to manage as both the United States and China sought to isolate the other from first-mover development. Recognizing the large strategic value of technology, neither nation was willing to share or collaborate in this space. This competition had knock-on effects as both sought to restrict or eliminate the others’ firms from competing in foreign markets.

Scenario 2: Networks of power

In the mid-2020s, another global pandemic accelerated cooperation within the international system. Although this second global pandemic, coming so soon after COVID-19, portended public health, economic, social, and even political disaster, its impacts were far less severe than feared owing to the willingness of key actors, state and nonstate alike, to build networked approaches to solving the problem. Within a few years after the pandemic’s onset, this unprecedented global cooperation inspired action in other fields and toward other problems such as climate change and even conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Now in 2033, the world is in a different and better place than it was in 2023.

In the early 2020s, few would have argued that such a change was in the offing, given the myriad obstacles to effective global governance: rising tensions among nuclear-armed powers, including the major powers; the slow return to robust economic growth after the COVID-19 pandemic; the debt challenges overshadowing much of the world (rich and poor countries alike); conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, and the Sahel; the democratic world’s ongoing struggles; and swiftly changing Earth systems.

Underneath these real problems, however, there were some countervailing and promising signals. Although democratic deficits were real, reflecting disenchantment with government and fears of the erosion of the social contract from AI-driven unemployment, there was at the same time a growing willingness among citizens to engage on these problems through civil society and within their democratic systems. This spirit animated younger generations, especially Gen Z, who were just entering the workforce and politics. Their activism coincided with rising engagement from nonstate actors—NGOs, firms, and philanthropies—and even from some governments and multilateral institutions. This engagement was sporadic rather than systematic and extended only to a few policy arenas. But some leaders had come to realize that partnerships across and among different stakeholders had been successful in responding to public health challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance brought together research and technical health institutions, foundations, private-sector partners, individual states/governments, and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and WHO.

This was the setting when, in 2026, another global pandemic arose, this one an easily transmissible version of a deadly avian flu. As this pandemic began to sweep around the world, leaders from the public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors all understood the need to act swiftly and in coordinated fashion. Much of this interest in a speedy and coordinated response was owed to experience from the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of it also was owed to the preexisting desire to engage in cooperative and networked action to address problems. The result was an upwelling of interest in leveraging resources and skills from wherever they could be found. Governments acted fast but not alone, finding willing partners in pharmaceutical companies to develop new vaccines, tech companies to employ their AI/ML capabilities for everything from contact tracing to big data analytics, social media companies to combat disinformation, and philanthropies to provide significant financial support. Citizens around the world also engaged, understanding the important roles they had to play in combating the disease and in maintaining social coherence and solidarity in the face of yet another crisis. The flu itself helped in one critical sense: it was a far deadlier version of a common communicable disease, and which had a much shorter incubation period than COVID-19, factors which dramatically reduced the impacts of disinformation surrounding it.

There was a critical international response to this latest transnational threat. Through its public health institutions, most critically the WHO, the UN played an important if traditional role as a leading research and convening organization. Yet the timing also appeared right for the UN to invest heavily in the secretary-general’s 2019 call for networked and inclusive multilateralism. As was the case with national governments around the world, the UN’s institutions rapidly augmented their engagement with state and nonstate actors of every kind, including national and subnational governments (e.g., municipalities and regions), philanthropies, the private sector, nonprofits, academics, and grassroots citizens’ groups. It worked on everything: humanitarian funding to mitigate the deadly pandemic’s impact; vaccine development and (eventual) distribution; and community engagement. Critically, in this fluid crisis, other international actors engaged in similar fashion. Regional multilateral institutions such as the African Union responded likewise, as did the various global groupings of states—the G20, G7, BRICS, and others.

As was true of the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, the trajectory of this flu was swift, global, and deadly—but also mercifully short, ending by 2027. Although this pandemic left a grim trail of death in its wake, there was one silver lining. The demonstrable success from widespread collaboration not only left behind a new cooperative spirit—building upon pre-pandemic roots—it also demonstrated that inclusive and networked multilateralism could work in practice. This time, there was enough political, economic, and demographic heft to make a difference, with not only policymakers sensing a true shift but private firms, philanthropies, subnational governments, large nonprofits, grassroots groups, and ordinary citizens as well.

The UN continued to accelerate and invest in its convening, mediation, and consultative capabilities, deepening and extending its partnerships with institutions of all kinds at global, regional, national, and local levels. Moving to a more networked model becomes the central focus of UN reform.

The UN’s thematic aperture expanded as well, extending beyond public health and disease to the panoply of issues confronting the world, including conflict. Growing inclusivity and diversity of actors created flexibility in approaches to conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding. Localization of mediation efforts, for example, became more common, as did the development of frameworks for engaging with ANSAs, or at least those deemed legitimate and supportive of basic human rights.

By the mid-2030s, the world’s problems were far from being solved. Yet there were at least new approaches and a new willingness to experiment and cooperate, and that mattered enormously. Civil society groups formed and sprang into action around the world, some with great success, others far less so, some good, some not so good. In many places facing conflict or recovering from conflict, the state was more of a hybrid entity, sharing governance responsibilities with mixtures of citizen and paramilitary groups, private-sector firms and philanthropies, and nongovernmental organizations. In the Sahel, for example, coalitions emerged to address various crises. Solutions became more ad hoc, localized, and harder to scale. Yet the emergence of nonstate actor coalitions, which included good-faith actors that were empowered by the new conditions, was slowly reshaping power dynamics in the region, leading to new social contracts and, quite often, new hope for the people who lived there.

Scenario 3: Fragmentation

Looking back from the year 2033, it is clear that the world has been unable to grapple with the myriad problems that it has faced for a decade and even longer. Many of these problems were well known in 2023, when analysts were talking about a polycrisis, a term coined for the interplay of multiple crises that heightens the collective impact.151Kate Whiting and HyoJin Park, “This Is Why ‘Polycrisis’ Is a Useful Way of Looking at the World Right Now,”  World Economic Forum, March 7, 2023, Over the 2020s and into the 2030s, a combination of factors prevented the world from arriving at workable solutions to any of its major problems. Although hardly the only cause, a massive and worsening ecological crisis, still unfolding, has been a central and unpleasant driver of this change and an unwelcome part of the world in 2033. Unfortunately, there are few workable political mechanisms for dealing with this crisis and many others. The global system has fragmented.

The centrifugal forces that were at play in the early 2020s continued to erode the multilateral system through the middle of the decade. US-China tensions, always at the limit, never boiled over. Nor did tensions between Russia and the US-led NATO over Ukraine. Yet those relationships also did not get better, which hampered governance efforts across all manner of global challenges. This situation was worsened by ongoing strife within the US-led system of alliances revolving principally around geoeconomic policies. The Biden administration continued to press allies and partners to comply with its increasingly punitive measures aimed at China’s tech development, for example, targeting exports of semiconductors (chips) and chip-making equipment. Combined with unrelated US legislation that subsidized and even mandated some domestic manufacturing in areas such as chips and Greentech, the Biden administration found itself having to negotiate constantly with disaffected allies and partners. Reflecting a gloomy mood, The Economist magazine ran a New Year’s 2025 issue titled “Globalization is dead .”

Low global growth, combined with ongoing shockwaves from Russia’s war in Ukraine on global food security, for example, impacted poorer countries especially. Poverty and inequality within and among countries remained stubbornly high during the 2020s and into the 2030s. To make matters worse, tech transfers from the rich to the poor world also slowed down, the result of an increasingly zero-sum tech development environment. With it, the pacing of high-value-added service industries in the Global South was reduced. The upshot was that human development indexes faltered in the 2020s, and diplomats at the UN spoke in hushed tones about the sustainable development goals, deeming them all but unattainable.

Yet none of this was even the worst of it. In 2027, just as the world breached the 1.5°C threshold set by scientists as a climatological tipping point (and formally acknowledged in the Paris Agreement), a devastating El Niño event developed, worsening what had already been bad conditions around the world. This event, coupled with ongoing carbon loading of the atmosphere and reductions in aerosol pollutants (ironically, such pollutants had helped to slow atmospheric temperature rises), brought extreme conditions to much of the world, outweighing even the worst of the already-hot years of the early- and mid-2020s. New temperature records were set everywhere, from Alaska to the Indian subcontinent to South America, while the seemingly unending list of record drought and flooding got even longer. Fire became a default condition for much of the world, as forests began to dry out and even die back, as happened in the vast Amazon basin.

The predictions that the climate security community had offered for years, perhaps decades, began to come true around the world: swiftly rising food and water insecurity; public health crises from extreme heat and disease proliferation; disrupted supply chains; and fire and flooding. Famine struck in the Sahel and Pakistan, with millions at risk for their lives. Migrant crises arose around the world, for example Central American climate refugees poured north toward Mexico and the United States.

The multilateral system fragmented owing to the combined scale and complexity of overlapping and mutually reinforcing disasters. Although UN agencies and individual countries dedicated themselves to addressing the crises, they were overwhelmed and under resourced.

Wealthier nations invested heavily in domestic disaster management and resilience but had few remaining means, and almost no willingness, to direct funds toward the rest of the world. These governments did not honor their financial commitments to key funds such as the Green Climate Fund, with the $100 billion commitment for investments in climate adaptation expiring in 2025, even before the onset of the 2027 El Niño event.

Multilateral funding for and cooperation around conflict resolution and peacebuilding stagnated and then began to decline. Much of the funding that remained for peace and security efforts came from China, with significant strings attached, worsening debt traps and eroding lending standards related to human rights, for example.

Stripped of its conflict prevention and peacekeeping center, the UN became a technocratic institution that dispensed useful advice and provided valuable services, but otherwise could not secure peace and security.

Unfortunately, climate disruptions continued after 2027, which despite the El Niño event did not prove to be an unusual year after all. In 2033, the climate clearly has changed for the worse, disrupting entire ecosystems and creating permanent crises that fragile governments in particular are unable to deal with. Mass migration events, arising from agricultural implosions and natural disasters, have become a regular feature of the landscape, which has only caused wealthier nations to pull the drawbridges up even tighter.

The climate crisis is now, in 2033, a permanent feature of our world, worsening fragility, exacerbating polarization, causing mass hardship, discontent, and outrage, and undermining institutions. As states have proven unable to deal with the cascading problems, governance gaps are increasingly filled by bad-faith nonstate actors, often but not always in fragile states, that try to seize power wherever possible.

In regions such as the Sahel, all this is a disaster. The feeble multilateral interventions at the global level are insufficient to counter the region’s destructive dynamics, exacerbating food insecurity, growing social polarization, and emboldening ANSAs. Governance gaps widen in the Sahel as weak and corrupt governments are incapable of dealing with the climate crisis, leading to spiraling conflict and the largest forced out-migration from the region in history.

Scenario 4: Reinvigoration

In the early 2020s, the multilateral system was unable to address the world’s biggest problems, including interstate and intrastate conflict. This situation owed much to the intransigence of the world’s major powers, which were uninterested in cooperation within the UN Security Council and other key multilateral forums and, worse, had been antagonizing one another for years. In 2025, China and the United States got what both had been fearing yet also planning for, which was a showdown over Taiwan. The resulting crisis, which was worse even than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in bringing the world close to a nuclear Armageddon, reset not only their bilateral relationship but the multilateral system as well. The UNSC and other key multilateral instruments for resolving conflict were reinvigorated, the result of a newly found desire to have the major powers play much more constructive and cooperative roles in the global system.

Through 2023 and 2024, a gridlocked multilateral system had been incapable of managing peace and security matters around the world. Diplomatic successes were few and far between. Russia’s war in Ukraine, for example, was at a stalemate and risked becoming a true frozen conflict. Neither the US-led NATO nor Russia and its ally China seemed interested in making a decisive move in one direction or another to resolve the situation in Ukraine. Other conflicts around the world, for example in the Sahel, were given a low priority by the major powers and therefore by the UNSC.

All of this changed in 2025, when China under President Xi Jinping decided the time had come to make a play for Taiwan. Although long feared in Washington, Xi’s play was not the expected full-scale invasion but rather a blockade of the island, an unorthodox move that appeared to give China maneuvering room vis-à-vis the United States and its allies while maximizing pressure on Taiwan. As Washington and Moscow had in 1962, Washington and Beijing maneuvered for advantage within an ever-more dangerous and increasingly nuclear-hued crisis.

And for weeks, the world watched the escalations on television and via social media: first the sober announcements from both capitals, other states, and UN leadership, then the opening acts of intimidation at sea and in the air around Taiwan, and finally reports of the two countries’ armed forces shooting at one another—a step that the Soviet Union and the United States had managed to (almost) completely avoid in 1962. At each stage, rhetorical and bureaucratic escalation matched the physical acts, first at the UNSC where both countries accused the other of acting in bad faith, then to both countries announcing they had placed their nuclear forces on highest alert, and finally to leadership telling their citizens, as calmly as they could muster, to be prepared for a nuclear exchange.

For the public watching around the world, this showdown evolved from apathy to disbelief to deep worry and finally to mass panic. Rally-around-the-flag demonstrations in China, the United States, and their allies quickly faded as both powers began talking openly about the risk of nuclear escalation, including at UNSC emergency meetings, held daily throughout the crisis. Impromptu street marches and sit-ins focused on peace took the place of nationalistic rallies, including among publics in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions that feared being targeted by nuclear warheads should the worst occur. These events occurred even in regions with little fear of direct targeting, such as Latin America and Africa, owing to the real risk of an apocalyptic nuclear winter that would occur should the United States and China exchange only a fraction of their nuclear arsenals. Toward the end, as shooting began around Taiwan, mass panic set in nearly everywhere. The situation was not helped by the social media environment, where bad-faith actors used AI tools to generate deepfakes showing realistic attacks on ships, aircraft, and even Taipei, most of which had yet to occur. Few could differentiate between reality and fiction, which helped sow confusion and mass panic.

It took several kinetic incidents, including the sinking of a few ships, for Presidents Xi and Biden (the US leader having been reelected) to find their way to a truce. Years later, as with the Cuban Missile Crisis, it came out that both sides had come within millimeters of escalating to conventional missile attacks on one another’s territory (the United States on bases in southern China, and China on bases in Guam and Hawaii). Fortunately, cooler heads indeed prevailed, as had occurred in 1962.

The crisis having subsided, the two leaders agreed to meet for an extraordinary bilateral summit. There, they signed a declaration reiterating the need for multilateral cooperation, including an announcement of arms control negotiations, and pledged their joint support for managing, containing, and reducing conflict around the world. The effect of this summit was so profound on elite and public opinion the world over that many compared it to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Reykjavík in 1986.

The two leaders appeared to be genuine in their convictions, which were buttressed by overwhelming sentiment in support of multilateralism from every corner of the world. Governments representing the two countries’ allies and partners as well as the world’s nonaligned states pressed hard for a return to multilateralism to ensure that such a near-death experience would never happen again.

With the United States and China in the lead, and with the support of most other countries, there was a recognition of the need to reinvigorate the UN system’s core functions, especially conflict resolution, which once again were seen as having failed in preventing this near catastrophe. The P5 agreed to UNSC reforms, which included the expansion of the number of elected seats and reforms to various processes that give elected seat holders more influence in setting the body’s agenda and in coalition building. Yet there was no veto reform, so concerns persisted that the world would return to gridlock within the UNSC. However, those concerns were temporarily assuaged given the willingness of the world’s two greatest powers to cooperate, which they did on more occasions than not from 2025 to the mid-2030s.

The severity of the Taiwan crisis ensured that the conflict prevention and peacebuilding architecture also would be subject to an overhaul. There was a marked increase in interest within the UNSC to revitalize engagement in conflict zones. Existing peacekeeping missions were reauthorized, and new ones deployed, including special missions to monitor situations among and between nuclear powers, for example India and Pakistan. There was some progress in managing interstate conflicts, where the bulk of the multilateral diplomatic and mediation efforts focused. In 2027, the war in Ukraine formally ended with a peace deal. Through the late 2020s and early 2030s, there was a reinvestment in the Sahel, which enjoyed broad material and financial support from the P5, including both the United States and China, in turn helping to stabilize the region and end much of the fighting there, if only temporarily.

Regarding arms control, China, the United States, and Russia started promising talks that were hoped would result in binding agreements, as had occurred during the Cold War. Under the auspices of the UNSC, promising talks on the Korean peninsula were started for normalizing relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea), and serious multilateral negotiations restarted concerning Iran’s nuclear program.

Although this reinvigoration of the historic tools of multilateral conflict prevention and peacebuilding was welcomed, peace activists around the world remained concerned that the system had not been overhauled sufficiently. Among other worries, they feared that intrastate conflicts had been given too little attention and imagination. Within the UNSC, they pushed for what they called a new Charter for Resilience that would push countries away from the post-Cold War model of military intervention and focus on an indirect model that would invest in partnerships with local populations within affected countries.

Regional case study: How the scenarios could play out in the Sahel

By Soda Lo

Scenario 1: Sahel languishes amid bipolar clash

During the mid-2020s, conditions in the Sahel continued on a difficult and downward path. Strategic disinterest in the region from the United States and China, meddling from other external powers, worsening impacts from climate change, and the region’s own internal dynamics all resulted in a proliferation of conflict and disorder in the region. Mali and Burkina Faso—the two most conflicted states in the region—continued their downward trajectories. The string of contagious regional coups from the early 2020s did little to help matters, and often made them worse, fostering internal turmoil, governments ceding territory to extremist groups, and generally contributing to pervasive instability. States in the Sahel continued to struggle with their lack of territorial governance, the proliferation of ANSAs, and conflict- and climate-induced intraregional migration, all of which created a spillover effect into neighboring countries. The 2023 Niger coup—facilitated by a faction of the state’s military—was emblematic as regional institutions such as ECOWAS proved unable to deal with both the coup and insecurity spillover from Mali to its neighbors. Even traditionally stable nations like Nigeria and Senegal began to be rocked by the region’s devolving situation.

External parties alternated between being constructive and harmful in the Sahel. In the case of Russia, it was the latter. Although severely weakened by its war in Ukraine, Russia proved a damaging presence. Its Wagner Group (the mercenaries were never formally absorbed into the Russian military) continued to have free reign to promote its own interests in the region, as in the 2010s and early 2020s, engaging in violent, criminal, and destabilizing operations.

All of this transpired in the context of the worsening geostrategic split between the United States and China, which divided the world into three groups, consisting of the two powers’ individual spheres of influence plus a group of states that fell outside these two spheres. And it was this major power competition that proved of enormous significance for the Sahel, a region which neither the United States nor China defined as being of high strategic value.

China watched developments in Africa with interest and apprehension. Its significant economic ties with the continent spurred a rising interest in securing bilateral alliances and partnerships in Africa, but that interest did not extend to the Sahel. This region, while a focus of concern for Beijing, existed far outside its sphere of influence. The same logic held true in Washington. As such, neither state was eager to take an active role in the region.

Spurred by a lack of direct bilateral assistance, in 2026 several nations in the Sahel approached the UNSC with a plea for help, asking for a direct multilateral intervention to quell the violence. With neither China nor the United States exercising a veto (and China pushing Russia to not exercise its veto), the UNSC approved the intervention.

As the peacekeeping mission took shape, it was clear that the contours of UN involvement in the region had changed along with global conditions. The United States was an active participant, but in a limited leadership role, providing advisers, logisticians, technical support, and medical staff. In part out of heightened caution concerning US domestic politics, the administration refrained from sending a large number of troops and aimed to keep its contingent on bases as much as possible, away from potential conflict. China, conversely, took a more active role, eager to prove its worth as an engaged partner. Among other things, it supplied the region with a visible troop presence.

Scenario 2: Sahelian networks of power

Through much of the 2020s, the Sahel region faced persistent and endemic border-transcending threats of extremism, terrorism, and insurgencies, just as it had in the 2010s. But the 2026-2027 influenza pandemic had a similar impact in the Sahel as it did elsewhere in the world: despite its awful death toll, the challenge nonetheless helped to galvanize state and nonstate actors within and outside the region—even within the most conflict-affected states such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—to coordinate whole-of-society, collaborative, and creative approaches to addressing conflict. Countries, multilateral institutions, and civil society embraced a form of networked multilateralism that drew resources from every level of the international system, including the United Nations, individual states and governments, regional organizations, civil society actors, and even local communities.

The influenza pandemic proved to be a key moment around the world, underscoring the need not only to find new ways to deal with the world’s mounting problems but also avenues for incorporating more participants in governance. The Sahel was no different, with public-, private-, and philanthropic-sector institutions finding newfound energy to address the region’s chronic challenges through utilization of their combined efforts and embrace of novel solutions. Their perspectives were enriched by the leadership and engagement of civil society groups such as international and national nongovernmental organizations and local community groups, which provided both useful insight on the causal roots behind instability and conflict and leadership toward successful (if often ad hoc) on-the-ground approaches that had been underway for quite some time in scattered local settings around the Sahel.

Seizing the moment and the space that had been opened by its member states to so engage, the United Nations took on a greater consultative, financing, and organizational role. It financially supported and more closely coordinated with regional organizations, civil society groups, philanthropies, and multinational corporations to deepen collective efforts aimed at development and conflict management. The leadership and engagement of civil society groups counted for much here, allowing the formal institutions to go well beyond hard security concerns to create and fund innovative approaches to addressing the underlying development and socioeconomic factors behind conflict. A multitude of experimental and often successful (occasionally not) initiatives sprang up across the Sahel, dedicated to promoting socioeconomic development, combating food insecurity, improving educational attainment, fighting climate impacts, and other outcomes. All this helped build trust among civilian populations—who often co-created and ran the experiments—and lessened the appeal of extremism.

The networked ideal applied to many state and multilateral actors in addition to the UN, all of which proved more willing to work alongside not just nonstate actors but one another as well. Individual states in the region worked more cooperatively within regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the AU—with the support and participation of the same civil society and community actors that pushed hard for such outcomes. Western powers that had previously withdrawn military and humanitarian support from select Sahelian nations, such as the United States and France, now partially reversed their decisions, sending funds and other support through multilateral and regional institutions and networks.

This model began to strengthen the systems that would allow the Sahel to become more resilient and malleable. An example was the strengthening of the region’s existing early warning systems, such as the ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN), which received more funds and more technical capabilities (partly driven by AI- and remote sensing-enabled upgrades), and gained more credibility as a useful tool among ECOWAS member states.1“The ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Network: Interview with Augustin Sagna,” Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, May 2009, Similar stories abounded regarding the rejuvenation of other such EWS tools, for instance the region’s National Early Warning System (NEWS), which is a part of the alert and response mechanism that supports ECOWARN.2“Early Warning & Response,” West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, accessed November 20, 2023,

By strengthening these kinds of proactive information-sharing mechanisms, data could finally be leveraged for actionable, fact-based strategic responses to conflicts and security concerns. More importantly, there were actors—state and nonstate alike—who were willing to not only receive the data and analyses that tools like ECOWARN and NEWS gave them but also act on their findings.

Scenario 3: Fragmented Sahel

During the 2020s and into the 2030s, the Sahel’s trajectory went from bad to worse, the result of the mix of trends and uncertainties that beset the world as a whole and the region. For the Sahel, the conditions in 2033 are now disastrous. Drastic climate impacts, felt everywhere in the world including the Sahel, have worsened both the conditions on the ground—food and water availability, as just one example—and the ability and willingness of various actors to engage in the region. What little interest remains among global multilateral institutions to address the Sahel’s problems fail to counter the region’s downward spiral. The Sahel is the foremost example of the global race to the bottom of limited international cooperation, heightened and strained competition, and increased conflict. In the Sahel, there are more coups d’état and insurgencies, more civilian deaths from terrorism, and more conflict among and between communities.

Arguably, years before the worst of all this began in the horrible El Niño year of 2027, the Sahel stood out as the regional vanguard of global fragmentation. Following the 2023 Niger coup, a multitude of events simultaneously occurred. The withdrawal of Western—primarily American and French—forces and aid left the region vulnerable and more susceptible to the rising influence of bad-faith actors and groups, which were already prevalent in the region. Insurgents and mercenaries filled even more of the region’s governance gap. The regional institutions aiming to counter this, primarily ECOWAS, continued to be handicapped by internal conflicts within their membership ranks. Amid threats of military interventions, the coup leaders from Mali and Burkina Faso rallied alongside Niger’s leadership, creating a coalition of coup leaders and sympathizers who stood united against the democratically elected leaders of the Sahel. This schism—coupled with strained internal dynamics and the organization’s inability to do much about peace and conflict in the region—resulted in the erosion of confidence in the effectiveness of these institutions. While they continued to exist, their roles were relegated to figureheads.

While efforts continued to fight extremism in the region, even before the 2027 climate crisis there was a deteriorating political and economic climate in the region, international partners and financial institutions were withdrawing, and in general there was limited international cooperation regarding the Sahel. Stability was already on the decline.

Unfortunately, the horrible El Niño year of 2027 and the onset of what looks like a permanent shift in the earth’s climate made all of this much worse. What began as a temporary ceasing of Western humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the coups of the early 2020s became a permanent part of the development landscape, with aid trickling into Sahelian states. After 2027, such moves were motivated by rising isolationism in the wealthier parts of the world toward the poorer parts. Even China, the largest exogenous player on the continent, limited and reduced its own engagement with the entire continent, including the Sahel. Just as Western countries were motivated by a desire to protect themselves from rising security risks found in the worst-affected parts of the Global South, the PRC was reluctant to subject itself to the region’s risks. China engaged more frequently through bilateral pathways and confined itself mostly to interactions with wealthier African nations such as Nigeria.

Some non-African states found opportunity. Russia, for example, attempted to deepen its influence, primarily via the Wagner Group. It found that the lack of governance around critical minerals and overall mining operations, coupled with the rise of informal and ungoverned spaces, gave the mercenary group the ability to profit from this instability.

Chaos across the Sahel has had a profound impact on the quality of life for most of its residents. The region’s economic and financial fortunes declined, meaning that one of the world’s poorest regions generated even worse poverty rates. Poverty, the climate crisis, and other plights including food insecurity, made intraregional and out-migration spike. In 2033, the outlook for the region is grim.

Scenario 4: Sahel, reinvigorated

In the early to mid-2020s, multilateral approaches to addressing the Sahel’s conflicts were unraveling, at the same time as a series of coups in the region were giving it the Coup Belt nickname. External states’ interventions in the region extended mostly to provision of military weaponry and training, as well as some humanitarian aid. Multilateral approaches to addressing conflict and violence were failing, as demonstrated by the failure of MINUSMA in Mali and the subsequent string of coups.

The significant turn in the Sahel’s fortunes, as was the case for other world regions, occurred in 2025 when the United States and China barely managed to avoid a thermonuclear exchange over Taiwan. The newfound cooperative spirit that followed, a spirit animated as much by the rest of the world as by the two major powers, increased global cohesion and led to the revitalization of the multilateral system, including within the United Nations. The United States, joined by partners in Africa, Asia, and Europe, devised a multilateral plan to bring stability to fragile Sahelian states. At the UNSC, the other permanent members agreed, directing the United Nations to establish a new mission and equipping it with the resources that were believed necessary to effect true change. The material and financial support from the P5, with both the United States and China collaborating, ensured that this issue of shared importance was given the attention it deserves. The new mission began operations in 2026, with financial and material support from a large network of donor countries, including both the United States and China.

Nor was that all that happened after the 2025 Taiwan crisis. Within the United States, the crisis also animated a desire to recommit to US leadership around the world. There was an upgrading of the Global Fragility Act, which had been signed into law in 2019, to ensure that the ten-year plan that the Biden administration had formulated in 2023 had some chance of realization around the world, including in the Sahel. As the law called for, the US government prioritized its analysis pillar to assess the underlying, causal factors that were believed to perpetuate conflict, placing emphasis in its strategy on civic engagement, competent and effective democratic institutions, the rule of law, and proper checks and balances in addition to the provision of military training and resources.

The upshot of all this activity was a multilateral reengagement in the Sahel, properly resourced, with sufficient political backing, and across multiple dimensions along the conflict management spectrum. There was a turn from prescriptive to proactive policies that ensured that the structural and long-term bases of peace and security were not ignored in favor of short-term, kinetic, and hard security solutions. External parties, including forces from the UN peacekeeping mission plus national governments’ resources, worked to provide and build combat-proficient security forces, but the priorities shifted to helping people and communities secure their own futures and to hold accountable their governments, with an emphasis on rebuilding the public trust that had largely been lost.

Civic engagement became a priority, including an emphasis on targeting youth whose economic opportunities were being unmet and whose political voices were being silenced. While many had been (and many remained) vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations due to their discontent, young Sahelians largely acted as the vanguards of change within the region, consistently active and engaged, aspiring for better futures. Through these and other efforts across the region, the multilateral system, its core institutions, and its arsenal of peacekeeping mechanisms once more had started to prove effective at bringing about positive change in the Sahel and elsewhere.

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V. Questions for policymakers

This report has assessed how core trends and uncertainties are reshaping the world, the contours of conflict, and the management of conflict. This section asks five questions that policymakers should consider as they assess how best to navigate the interaction of the trends and uncertainties over the coming decade. Some answers to these five questions are easier to implement and can be scaled relatively quickly. Others will require a broader shift in how institutions approach conflict management and the conflict cycle, requiring both more time and resources for successful implementation.

Some of the questions and potential responses presented in this section are consistent with topics discussed in UN Secretary-General Guterres’s A New Agenda for Peace. Where there is overlap, this work offers steps for the UN to build beyond its findings.

1. How should multilateral organizations such as the UN adapt to and manage a multipolar world?

As discussed at length in the trends and uncertainties section, the UN’s core security apparatus, the UNSC, today is marked by sustained disagreements among the P5 nations. Those disagreements mirror the ideological and geopolitical divergencies among (principally) China, Russia, and the United States. It is tempting to dismiss efforts to find mutual ground among these powers, given the unlikelihood of positive results. Our Common Agenda recognizes the risk of increasing tensions among the major powers and the need for diplomacy to take place during times of high tension. Indeed, conflict will not pause in an era of increased tensions among major powers.

The UN as an institution was never designed to be a cure-all for conflict, violence, and warfare, but rather as a forum wherein states could attempt to find collective solutions to such problems. Given the sensitivities among major powers to interventions that could impinge upon their sovereignty or interests, the UNSC was never meant to enable collective security responses to international crises through majoritarian decision-making processes. Hence the veto given to the P5 states. (At the time of the UN’s founding, the P5 were the world’s remaining major powers.) The UNSC’s system of permanent membership, including the veto, “was explicitly built to be unfair, giving the victors of World War II an outsized role in international peace and security . . . and it was explicitly structured to be easily deadlocked, with any of the P5 able to unilaterally grind its work to a halt,” as two United States Institute of Peace (USIP) analysts put it.152Anjali Dayal and Caroline Dunton, “The U.N. Security Council Was Designed for Deadlock–Can It Change?,” United States Institute of Peace, March 1, 2023,

This means that although policymakers (and others) should temper their expectations for UNSC reform, and although the current state of play among the major powers is discouraging as reflected in the UNSC’s (frequent) deadlock regarding its peace and security agenda, cooperation remains possible despite it all. For example, in 2013 and 2014 the United States, China, and Russia all voted to approve the MINUSMA mission in Mali.153United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2531, S/RES/2531, June 29, 2020, Though this mission has now fallen apart, the fact that all five of the P5 states agreed to its formation shows that common ground existed within the UNSC, at least at the time, regarding this area of the world.154David Lewis and Edward Mcallister, “U.N. Peacekeeping Mission in Mali Set to End on June 30,” Reuters, June 27, 2023,

A longer look back into history shows that sporadic cooperation among the major powers on peace and security matters did occur. During the Cold War, although the Soviet Union and United States infrequently cooperated, they did join on some important matters within the UN framework generally and on occasion within the UNSC. For example, they backed creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957 and signed the UN-brokered Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968.155“U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control, 1949–2021,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed November 20, 2023,

There are analogous opportunities among the major powers today. For example, China’s interests might align with those of the United States in some parts of the world where both countries seek stability more than they do gaining an upper hand over their geopolitical rival. Here, some analysts point to Africa and the Middle East as examples of regions where such conditions hold.156See, e.g., arguments by Jeffrey Feltman in Mercy A. Kuo, “The US and China at the UN: Global Diplomacy,” Diplomat, February 9, 2021,

Also like the Cold War, cooperation among great powers in an era of multipolarity will likely resemble more limited and targeted interventions in scope. MINUSMA’s renewal in 2022, before it was dissolved, offers a hint of what may come. At that time, although the mission was renewed, there was debate within the UNSC regarding the scope of MINUSMA’s human rights reporting mechanism. This dispute led to China and Russia abstaining in the vote and a declaration by Mali that they would not enforce the human rights provisions of MINUSMA’s mandate.157Ten Challenges for the UN in 20222023, Special Briefing no. 8, International Crisis Group, September 14, 2022, This event suggests that policymakers should be prepared for interventions, if they are to be approved by the UNSC, to have a tighter mandate compared with past missions.

It also suggests that policymakers should reconsider what success looks like within the confines of the UNSC. As Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations has stated, “the ultimate goal of peacekeeping” that encompasses the entirety of the peace process or the conflict cycle is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Rather, as the International Crisis Group rightly notes, missions should focus on other goals short of the ultimate one such as providing aid and protecting civilians.158Gowan and Forti, “What Future for UN Peacekeeping?” Such goals are practical, useful, and achievable. For example, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO, has made aid delivery and infrastructure development across the DRC a focus of its work.159Carine Tope R’Ridasi, “North Kivu: Tanzanian Contingent of MONUSCO Launches ‘Health and Peace’ Campaign,” United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 11, 2023,

The implications of multipolarity extend well beyond the UN as an institution for addressing peace and conflict. Here it is well worth discussing minilateralism as a solution set to conflict management. Minilateral approaches to international governance problems refer to the formation of (often) small coalitions of actors—quite often, state actors but occasionally state and nonstate actors in tandem—that have a desire to address a specific type of problem in the world. Minilateral approaches often are utilized when the multilateral system has failed to address and solve a problem and/or when minilateral participants want to avoid the strictures (institutional, legal, or otherwise) that the multilateral system imposes.

Although the roots of minilateralism extend back centuries, this approach to international governance has been enjoying a renaissance owing to the difficulty of finding comprehensive solutions to the world’s myriad challenges within the multilateral system. Advocates of minilateralism insist that the format easily attracts both state and nonstate actors alike that are interested in addressing specific problems in (often) ad hoc diplomatic arrangements. Minilateralism’s virtues can include geographic and thematic flexibility, speed of formation and work modalities, convenience, nonideologically based groupings, and the power that comes from networked relationships. Minilateral arrangements have been increasing in number and significance across regional settings, including Asia and the Middle East, for example the Quad, AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and I2U2 (Israel, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates).160C. Raja Mohan, “The Nimble New Minilaterals,” Foreign Policy, September 11, 2023,; and Jean-Loup Samaan, “The Minilateral Moment in the Middle East: An Opportunity for US Regional Policy?,” Atlantic Council, July 5, 2023,

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) vehicles drive in the Lebanese village of Wazzani near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, July 6, 2023. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

For the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the global conflict-management system, minilateralism presents as much risk as opportunity. On the risk side, USIP’s Andrew Cheatham writes that minilateralism “cannot take the place of multilateral organizations” because those are “based on norms and laws” that reflect a set of universal democratic ideals.161Andrew Cheatham, “In Competition with China, the U.S. Should Double Down on Multilateralism,” United States Institute of Peace, July 19, 2023, Minilateralism, he argues, has the potential to dilute the multilateral system’s global governance model and undermine its norms, laws, and standards. On the opportunity side, minilateralism’s virtues—nimbleness, ease of inclusion, and issue- and region-specific purpose—mean that the UN can find many ways to insert itself into such processes when doing so suits its purposes, if not as a formal participant then at least in an advisory or other role.

There is little to suggest a reversal in the minilateral trend, given its upsides for participants in a world characterized by messy and complex problems that no single global institution is equipped to solve on its own. According to Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian diplomat, “peace, order and progress will increasingly demand shifting combinations of multilateral, minilateral and bilateral cooperation between governments . . . [and] require a wide variety of institutional responses—some evolutionary, others revolutionary, some inside the United Nations System and Breton Woods institutions and others outside of them. . . . No country or small group of countries can long dominate this complex, integrating, changing world or alone determine its future.”162Paul Heinbecker, “Reconfiguring Global Governance: Global Governance Innovation,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, August 29, 2013,

2. How can multilateral organizations plan for and adapt to conflict management challenges brought on by the evolution of Earth systems and emerging technologies?

In a rapidly changing global environment, the UN needs to have a better sense of risks and opportunities that are on the longer-term horizon. Strategic foresight and futures thinking is a well-established and highly respected field that for decades has established its value in large public- and private-sector organizations the world over. Mainstreaming foresight and futures practices within the UN and other multilateral conflict resolution and peacebuilding bodies can make them nimbler in the face of emerging risks and opportunities that are arising within the global system.

A piece of good news here is that the UN secretary-general has embraced a future-oriented agenda, as outlined in Our Common Agenda, published in 2021, and the Summit of the Future, a high-level UN conference planned for September 2024.163“Summit of the Future,” United Nations, accessed November 20, 2023, Our Common Agenda called for strengthening “international foresight” capabilities within multilateral conflict resolution and peacebuilding bodies. UN agencies appear to be trending toward institutionalization of foresight and futures thinking.

Two bodies stand out in this regard. The first is the Climate Security Mechanism, a joint operation managed by multiple UN agencies. CSM works at the nexus of Earth systems change and conflict, and seeks to provide policymakers with a greater understanding of their intersection. While a good start, to be truly effective, the resources and mandate behind CSM need to be scaled. As CSM itself notes, the mechanism consists of a small, New York headquarters-based team that lacks the mandate and capacity to coordinate broader UN work on climate security. As a result, due to budgetary constraints and institutional capacity, much of CSM’s engagement takes place remotely through virtual relationships.164Climate Strengthening Mechanism Progress Report, United Nations, May 2021, Scaling the CSM through an appropriate budgetary increase and an expanded mandate would allow it to work closely with more UN agencies, implement on-the-ground field work, and expand its remit to cover the entire world (its current focus areas are the Arab states, Latin America and the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Similarly, the rapid development and advancement of technology is also changing the world that policymakers will have to navigate as well as providing them with powerful tools to manage it. Mainstreaming foresight thinking is important to develop an understanding of the different possible trajectories that technological advancement may take, including their future impacts on conflict. The DPPA has created what is calls an Innovation Cell that is tasked with utilizing novel approaches to its work, including greater emphasis on “data-driven foresight [consistent] with its early warning role.”165Strategic Plan 20232026, UN DPPA, accessed November 20, 2023, 30, A focus of the Innovation Cell is the Futuring Peace project, which studies how emerging technologies such as generative AI may alter the UN system in the future.166Futuring Peace home page, UN DPPA, accessed November 20, 2023, The work of the Innovation Cell is important and timely, but like the CSM its funding and mandate are limited. The Innovation Cell should be empowered to work with UN agencies beyond the DPPA by increasing its mandate or funding. One possibility might be to change where the Innovation Cell is located within the UN system. The UN should consider moving the Innovation Cell from the DPPA to the secretary-general’s office.

Beyond the UN, other multilateral organizations should seek to improve their foresight capabilities, including as they relate to Earth systems and technology. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and regional bodies such as the European Union, ECOWAS, SADC, NATO, and more should all seek to develop or build out their capabilities in this space through increases in financing or expansions of mandate. Where existing systems such as early warning mechanisms are in place, multilateral institutions should integrate foresight techniques to allow for their data analytics to be mapped onto decision-making processes that focus on longer time horizons.

Foresight is a practice that is designed to anticipate disruption and assist organizations to develop strategies that are resilient in the face of many possible futures. Indeed, foresight is the primary instrument and analytical lens behind this study. And as this study has endeavored to show, the UN will confront a rapidly changing world, marked by new opportunities and challenges resulting from alterations in the global balance of power, technological and ecological disruptions, and other drivers of change.

3. What will the role of nonstate actors be in this space going forward and how can the UN and other multilateral institutions both leverage opportunities and manage threats posed by nonstate groups?

As section III endeavored to show, nonstate groups are playing an important role in international affairs. This category includes both ANSAs such as terror groups and transnational organized criminal groups, as well as groups with a more positive intent including private philanthropies that fund vaccine development or nutrition assistance. The UN and other multilateral organizations will need to continue engaging with such groups, using their expertise to their advantage where they can, while limiting the negative impacts that they might have.

Minilateralism includes an assertion that states and international organizations should form partnerships with nonstate actors, at least on occasion, if their efforts are to succeed. Nonstate actors’ roles in the global system are important enough to warrant their own assessment. Private- and philanthropic-sector actors often provide resources for addressing global challenges in areas ranging from public health to climate change to hunger and conflict. For example, in response to COVID-19, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation authorized up to $300 million in forgivable loans to support vaccine manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries and up to another $300 million for the procurement of vaccines and treatments in low- and middle-income countries.167“Funding Commitments to Fight COVID-19,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, last modified January 12, 2022,

Gavi, established in 1999, is perhaps the most apt and strongest example of a public-private model that was designed to attack a major global problem: access to immunization. Gavi marries significant financial assistance and technical expertise from dozens of corporate and philanthropic partners with those from multilateral institutions including the World Health Organization, World Bank, and the United Nations Children’s Fund, known widely as UNICEF.168“Gavi’s Partnership Model,” Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance website, accessed November 20, 2023,

Tapping into philanthropies and the private sector offers a way for multilateral institutions such as the UN DPPA not only to overcome funding shortfalls they may be facing to complete their work, but also to augment their own capabilities.169“Multi-Year Appeal: 2022 Mid-Year Report, 01 January to 30 June 2022,” UN DPPA, accessed November 20, 2023, Given the scale of the conflict management problem, the DPPA should embrace a partnership model to secure donations from private and philanthropic actors and to find other pathways and capabilities for doing its work. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), as another example, already does so, having secured a partnership with (once again) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to their press release announcing the partnership, the Gates Foundation “brings a global network of partners and expertise in technology and innovation, while UNFPA contributes country-level reach, experience working with governments and expertise in family planning and reproductive health.”170“UN Population Fund Hails Bill and Melinda Gates’ $2.2 Billion Donation to Fund Population and Health Activities Worldwide,” Press Release, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed November 20, 2023,; “UNFPA and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Boost Family Planning in Developing Countries,” Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Social Inclusion,” United Nations,  

There are several considerations for DPPA and other multilateral organizations to successfully engage private and philanthropic partners in a common endeavor. First, partnerships will have to provide an attractive value proposition wherein they can provide tangible results in the real world (and with impacts that justify costs). They will need to demonstrate that such tangible results will occur only if all actors work in concert. Demonstrating this value proposition will incentivize external actors to invest in a UN-led or UN-managed partnership. Doing so also would discourage private donors from entering the conflict prevention and peacebuilding space unilaterally. Second, for private-sector and philanthropic actors who become partners, multilateral organizations such as DPPA must find ways to leverage their preexisting capabilities for maximum positive impact on the conflict prevention and peacebuilding spaces. Potential partners from the tech sector, as an example, offer valuable capabilities ranging from AI/ML processing to big data analytics to remote sensing and much more. Third, organizations such as DPPA will need to ensure that private and philanthropic partners understand that although their voices and participation are critical, only the public organizations have final decision-making responsibilities regarding core priorities and tasks.

Beyond private and philanthropic partners, multilateral organizations will need to manage the growth of ANSAs. Membership within the United Nations is confined to nation-states, which means that the UN is confronted with an awkward conflict-management challenge involving nonmember groups. ANSAs are playing an increasingly powerful role in conflicts, where they can sometimes claim more legitimacy than the state itself, in large part because states often have weak or even nonexistent governance capacities across parts of their territories. Across all UN peacekeeping and conflict prevention operations, the UN will have to contend with this complex of weakened state capacity on the one hand and heightened ANSA capabilities on the other. Minilateralism is unlikely to work when engaging ANSAs, as minilateral institutions tend to offer limited technical knowledge, have minimal financial backing, and do not possess the organizational infrastructure and know-how to engage as the UN can.

In adapting to the reality posed by nonstate actors, including ANSAs, the UN ideally should establish clear and concise guidelines about engaging such actors in all conflict phases (before, during, and after conflict). The established policies should include red lines that the UN should not cross, for example ensuring there is no engagement with ANSAs that commit human rights violations. Policies should include metrics to determine if ANSAs have enough popular legitimacy in areas they control to justify serious engagement with them.

These policy goals are relatively easy to state and more difficult to realize, owing to both political sensitivities within the UN (i.e., member states’ reluctance to have the UN acknowledge the legitimacy of ANSAs for political negotiation) and the difficulty of finding ANSAs that meet the above criteria. UN institutions, including the UNSC, for years have developed guidelines for engaging with ANSAs for humanitarian purposes, but have been extremely hesitant to do the same within conflict prevention and peacebuilding processes, owing largely to push back from states.171Feltman, “UN Engagement.”

A central challenge for any sort of operational guidance is that no two conflict situations are the same. While some of the main themes, causes, and even actors may transfer over between conflicts, each conflict is unique. As such, the above guidelines should be developed in a way that does not make them definitive, but rather allows them to be customized and applied to each conflict situation in a way that will result in the most positive possible outcome.

A key example of the need to define these guidelines can be seen following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The UN has a clear mandate to protect civilians, including those living in territory controlled by ANSAs.172Feltman, “UN Engagement.” There exists debate within the UN about how to approach and engage the Taliban, including within the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) regarding the government’s actions to exclude woman from public life and concerns over the harboring of terrorists, thus limiting the ability of the UN to even start to protect civilians.173“Induce Taliban to End ‘Gender Apartheid’ in Afghanistan through All Available Means, Speakers Urge Security Council, Alarmed by Growing Oppression of Women, Girls,” Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, United Nations, September 26, 2023, The dire situation in Afghanistan demands that the international community find productive ways to engage and promote human and civil rights, despite lack of a clear international consensus on how to approach the situation in Afghanistan. Developing a set of guidelines to guide interactions with ANSAs could result in a more effective international response the next time a situation like the Taliban’s rise to power occurs.

The UN and other multilateral institutions are hardly the only public-sector actors struggling to come to grips with how to deal with ANSAs in conflict settings. Important states in the conflict management space, especially donor states such as the United States, also face the question of whether and how to engage such nonstate actors. Lauren Mooney and Patrick W. Quirk write that such groups “pose a thorny policy dilemma” for the US and other state actors for the reasons outlined above. Like the UN, these states have yet to devise clear guidelines for selecting which groups to engage and under what principles. They assert that those principles ought to prioritize democratic governance, local dialogue, and human rights.174Mooney and Quirk, Toward a Framework.   However, as others rightly note, a lack of defined guidelines can be effective, allowing special envoys to operate under the radar without following a set of rules, a process that can sometimes result in success.175Feltman, “UN Engagement.”

4. How can the UN support regional bodies in advancing their conflict prevention and peacebuilding goals in line with global multilateralism?

Assuming the UN continues to be plagued by major power competition, especially within the UNSC, regional organizations like the AU and ECOWAS likewise should continue to play an outsized role in conflict management.176“Ten Challenges for the UN in 2022–2023,” International Crisis Group, September 14, 2022, These regional organizations are smaller (they have fewer member states), operate closer to the ground within specific regional geographies, and often possess high legitimacy and buy-in from their member states. Most often, these organizations are a step removed from the great power competition that plagues multilateral bodies like the UN and its decision-making organ, the UNSC.

The UN should continue to prioritize its engagement with and increase its financial and technical support of regional institutions (as practicable), given their importance in regional settings and as levers for the UN. Cooperative provision of institutional and expert knowledge, for instance, should be prioritized and strengthened. An example concerns UN engagement with the AU. Our Common Agenda notes that the UNSC should more systematically interact with the AU, rather than treating its recommendations in ad hoc fashion. The UN should revisit funding the AU; past proposals have called for the UN to fund 75 percent of AU-led peace operations, with the AU picking up the remaining 25 percent.

At the same time, the UN and the DPPA should expand its development and promotion of tailored strategies to manage conflict within individual states. This model would have the UN deepen its work with individual state governments to develop strategies for both preventing and responding to conflict within their borders. Such an approach would have the UN engage host states to build trust and capacity that would be sensitive to highly localized settings.

Beyond strategy development, the UN and other multilateral bodies should also invest in building institutions within nations that can carry out these strategies. The UNDP has already undertaken efforts to do this, creating local peace communities (LPCs) in Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and South Africa, to name a few examples. (LPCs are broad-based community forums that “meet regularly to discuss emerging conflicts or tensions affecting a district, municipality, town or village.”)177An Architecture for Building Peace at the Local Level: A Comparative Study for Local Peace Committees: A Summary for Practitioners, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), accessed November 20, 2023, These efforts utilize UNDP staff who are trained in peacebuilding to assist LPCs, local governments, and other stakeholders.178An Architecture for Building Peace at the Local Level, UNDP.   Further funding of these resources can be a helpful tool to ensure the effective implementation of locally developed strategies.

Although there are pitfalls to be avoided in this model—the UN would have to ensure that any coordination efforts were consistent with its mandate and ideals—the promotion of such localized approaches might have several benefits. These include their flexibility, sustained engagement with national and subnational leadership, and the possibility of greater buy-in from major powers owing to the approach’s respect for state sovereignty. China, for example, often used state sovereignty as a rationale not to support UN-sanctioned multilateral interventions.179Mario Barelli, “Preventing and Responding to Atrocity Crimes: China, Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 23, no. 2(2018),

5. How can the UN, and particularly the UNSC, overcome concerns that it lacks legitimacy, especially in the Global South?

A longstanding criticism of the UNSC is that power is held in the hands of the body’s permanent members, the P5, reflective of the global distribution of power at the end of World War II in 1945, when the UN was founded. A growing number of Global South states and outside observers increasingly see the UNSC and the UN as a whole as an organization lacking legitimacy. Reforming the UNSC, whether by function or by structure, would allow the body to overcome a perception that it is a (largely) Western-led body that is unrepresentative of the world and that, accordingly, fails to act in the interests of the UN’s member states. For this reason, and for years, countries in the Global South have called for permanent seats on the UNSC to rebalance the body geographically, economically, and demographically. According to this argument, the inclusion of one or more nations from Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere would assist the UNSC and other institutions to be more responsive to conflicts in those regions.

Although decades old, calls for reform have become louder since US President Biden endorsed UNSC reform in an address to the UN General Assembly in 2022. “The United States supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the council,” he said, including “permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa [and] Latin America and the Caribbean.”180Brett Schaefer, “A Narrow Path to Reforming the UN Security Council,” Geopolitical Intelligence Services, November 18, 2022, Since his address, the US proposal has called for the addition of six permanent seats on the UNSC, albeit none holding veto power.181Missy Ryan, “U.S. Seeks to Expand Developing World’s Influence at United Nations,” Washington Post, June 12, 2023, The Biden administration continues to work with partner nations to develop a plan for reform.182Ryan, “U.S. Seeks to Expand Developing World’s Influence.” Other states, such as India and Italy, have also tabled their own proposals for UNSC reform,183Prashant Jha, “India Pushes for Reforms in UNSC at Two Key Meets,” Hindustan Times, September 24, 2022,; and “The Italian Plan for Reforming the UN Security Council,” Decode39 (website), February 22, 2023, and states such as Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa have all expressed an intent to join the UNSC.184Schaefer, “A Narrow Path.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken chairs the U.N. Security Council meeting on famine and conflict-induced global food insecurity in New York, U.S., August 3, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

UNSC reform, if defined narrowly as the addition of new permanent (veto-holding) seats, might be the least plausible policy recommendation on this list, in terms of the odds of coming to fruition. There are numerous serious obstacles standing in the way, including the resistance of P5 members to dilution of their power within the UNSC as well as the number of non-P5 states that have no interest in seeing other states become permanent members. The veto within the UNSC is designed to give the body a deliberative mechanism that will slow action and even prevent it, while protecting the interests of its permanent members.

Beyond major power alignment, there are concrete actions that might spur greater cooperation within the UNSC, including among the E10, which are the body’s ten elected (nonpermanent) members. One way to do so would be by expanding “pen holding” privileges, which refers to the current system that enables P5 countries to draft and circulate statements, declarations, and resolutions. Currently, the United States, United Kingdom, and France hold the pen on twenty-three out of thirty-three country-specific files at the UNSC, including eleven of twelve countries in peacekeeping contexts.185Julie Gregory, “Sharing the Pen in the UN Security Council: A Win for Inclusive Multilateralism?,” Global Observatory, International Peace Institute, April 7, 2023, What this means is that a small number of P5 states have extraordinary power to shape the UNSC’s substantive and procedural work, which other members view as unacceptable. For example, France holds the pen on files related to Mali and the Central African Republic, despite both of those states’ opposition to its role, given France’s history and recent presence in West Africa.186Gregory, “Sharing the Pen.”

Yet as the pen-holding example shows, even without P5 reform, it is possible to retain and even strengthen the institution’s ability to function. The E10 has had an important role here. Aside from insisting on changing the rules around pen holding, E10 members also have built new coalitions among one another and with P5 states, and have strategically utilized the rotating UNSC to shape the Council’s work where they can.187Dayal and Dunton, “U.N. Security Council.”

Outside of further developing pen-holding privileges, the UN should also explore expanding the UNSC beyond the E10. Currently, the ten elected members come from five different regional groupings: three from the Africa group, two from the Asia and Pacific group, one from the Eastern Europe group, two from the Latin America and the Caribbean group, and two from the Western European and Others group.188“Regional Groups of Member States,” UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, accessed November 20, 2023, (Of the P5 members, China is in the Asia and the Pacific group, Russia is in the Eastern Europe group, and the UK, France, and the United States are all in the Western European and Others group.)189“Regional Groups of Member States,” UN. By offering more elected seats to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia, the UNSC can help to overcome some of the claims that it geographically concentrates power in the Global North.

Outside of Security Council reform, the nature of UN peacekeeping interventions will also need to be addressed. UN peacekeeping interventions are often faced with the criticism that they are led by foreign powers having little respect for the host country’s government and institutions.190This recommendation is distilled from insights in Julie Gregory and Faith Goetzke, “Host-Country Consent in UN Peacekeeping: Bridging the Gap between Principle and Practice,” Stimson Center, September 8, 2022, UN peacekeeping operations are built around the principle that the host country consents to the mission, though there is no document that codifies this and there is no way to ensure consent for the mission is given at subnational government levels. Rather, consent is believed to have been granted at the start of the mission and is not negotiated until the mission mandate is up for renewal.

Creating a strengthened consent regime that incorporates and respects the wishes of host states will result in UN operations gaining legitimacy and support. To this end, the UN should define a standardized consent document (as the current system relies on documents that fall short of express consent). A new document process, to be developed and executed by DPPA and the host nation, would establish the boundaries of host nation consent, including the scope of operations and conditions under which a renewal would occur.

Although a revised consent document process could proceed based on an agreement solely with elites representing the host government, the challenge is to find consensus outside of that small circle of national elites. To build and sustain the baseline for the mission’s success, DPPA should devise ways in which it can canvas elites outside of a nation’s capital during the initial consent process and iteratively thereafter.

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About the authors

This body of work was generously supported by the United States Institute of Peace.

The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and the world.

Image: Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna January 17, 2013. French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a broadening of their operation against battle-hardened al Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes. West African military chiefs said the French would soon be supported by around 2,000 troops from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and other regional powers - part a U.N.-mandated deployment which had been expected to start in September but was kick-started by the French intervention. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde