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Could population flows lead to conflict?

Posted By Kevin Jae, Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the role of migration in causing conflicts through his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Migration and conflict seem to be intrinsically connected. Intra- and inter-state conflicts around the world have devastated livelihoods and led to displaced peoples both inside and outside of home country borders. One can think of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and recently, Syria, as examples.


The converse appears to be the case as well. The recent movement of migrants into the borders of the West have shifted domestic politics. In the United States, President Trump has vowed to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out. In the European Union, there has been a similar political realignment. In the absence of an appropriate European response, nationalist responses have threatened to unravel the fragile political tapestry that is the European Union. Europe ended up paying Turkey to host migrants—the solution was figuratively displaced.


The vicious cycle of conflict, forced migration, and further conflict threatens to spiral out of control, particularly due to the unresolved threat of climate change, which may worsen food stability and literally render some areas of the world uninhabitable. According to a commonly cited figure, there will be over 200 million forced displacements related to climate change by 2050. The current figure is at 80 million forced displacements (both internal and external) today.


A brief sketch of 2050 may frighten the reader into believing in an apocalyptic image of the future, in which over-migration will lead to resource scarcity, societal disorder, and violent conflict. However, one can temper this image of 2050, where migrants storm the gilded gates of the West.


Despite popular conceptions, the share of migrants as a percentage of the global population has hardly changed since 1960. It has remained at 3% of the global population, from 93 million out of a population of 3 billion in 1960 to 244 million out of a population of 7.3 billion in 2015. However, the flow of migration has changed. The European continent has changed from being a source of migration (due to colonization and push factors) to become a destination for migrants. It attracts 1.5 to 2.5 million migrants per year today, which equates to 0.3% to 0.5% of the entire European Union population.


Forced displacements have occupied a powerful image in the public imagination. However, Europe and the West is not the final destination of all of the nearly 80 million displaced people in the world. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2019, 45.7 million were displaced internally, and 26 million were considered refugees (being displaced externally). Of the 26 million people, 73% were hosted in neighbouring countries, and 85% were hosted in developing countries. While climate change threatens to create forced displacements, the majority of those displaced will be displaced internally and most of them will be displaced into neighbouring countries.


Finally, additional context about the present discourse around migration and conflict needs to be discussed. While migrants may create some legitimate cultural and structural tensions, it is also important to explore the economic context underlying the recent shift in public discourse about migrants. Research suggests that the inhabitants of regions hit by economic insecurity, due to the 2008 financial crisis and the outsourcing of supply chains, are more likely to be anti-migration. Insecure livelihoods and scarcity revive the well-worn trope of the lazy, but job-stealing migrant, who simultaneously takes jobs from locals but also undermines the welfare state. The migrant has perhaps returned to the position of the scapegoat. These economic conditions contribute to the perception of the conflict-bringing migrant in political discourse.


Migratory movements in the future may lead to conflict; however, we can also imagine and create a future in which migration and conflict are not inevitable. One must escape the confines of the present economic and political context to think more rationally about migration and potential conflict in the future.


© Kevin Jae

Tags:  conflict  migration  population 

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Can international institutions constrain great-power conflict?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Craig Perry has written his ninth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks whether international institutions can constrain great-power conflict. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Since at least the time of Thucydides, realism has dominated the study of international relations, explaining the propensity for great-power conflict in terms of human nature and systemic anarchy. But what accounts for cooperation among states? Liberalism emerged from the Enlightenment as a competing school of thought, emphasizing the importance of international institutions, free trade, and the spread of democracy in mitigating conflict—and positing a theory of change promising a more peaceful future.

For all the talk of anarchy in international relations, states do tend to cooperate on a myriad of issues. Unlike the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” that rewards defection, states have to live with the lasting consequences of their iterative foreign policy choices, making mutual cooperation an eminently rational choice. As their interests converge in a given area, states routinely enter into arrangements with one another, from informal consultations to binding treaties and international organizations, that more efficiently and productively manage their interactions. In practice, such cooperative regimes produce far more “win-win” outcomes than zero-sum solutions.

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which famously introduced the modern concept of state sovereignty, also inaugurated the use of multinational gatherings to resolve international disputes. Such ad hoc conferences became a recurring feature of European diplomacy following the 1815 Congress of Vienna—which also established the world’s first intergovernmental organization, to manage navigation on the Rhine—and it wasn’t long before international conventions in Geneva and The Hague began codifying laws of war.

Founded following World War I, the League of Nations was the first international organization focused on maintaining world peace, and it failed miserably owing in part to poor institutional design and lack of U.S. membership. However, this idealistic experiment paved the way for the United Nations, which has successfully resolved numerous conflicts since the Second World War through diplomacy, economic sanctions, peacekeeping operations, and even the use of military force. Nowadays, most countries insist on UN Security Council authorization before going to war, and even the great powers pay lip service to this influential institution as a forum for registering their foreign policy positions.

Beyond the UN, the United States championed a variety of multilateral regimes to promote global economic growth and regional integration in the wake of World War II, including the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, NATO military alliance, and the European Union. These institutions not coincidentally served as bulwarks against Soviet expansion during the Cold War, and were instrumental in the transition of Eastern Europe to “Western” democracy and capitalism after the collapse of the USSR. They have unquestionably contributed to making Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Regional integration has been much less successful in Asia, however, where U.S. influence has been exercised primarily through bilateral arrangements among mutually mistrustful partners that only recently began to fear a rising China. Since taking up its UNSC seat in 1971, Beijing has proven itself more adept than Moscow at playing well with others in multilateral forums, joining Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the WTO before its northern neighbor and establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a potential rival to the World Bank and IMF. With the launch of its massive Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China is institutionalizing its regional hegemony—and challenging U.S. leadership—in ways Russia must envy.

While the proliferation of cooperative international regimes has certainly bound most states together in ways that makes war among them less likely, it puts far fewer constraints on the great powers, who jealously guard their privileged positions atop the international system. Beijing rejected arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over its South China Sea claims; Moscow annexed Crimea in contravention of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances; and Washington routinely engages in bombing campaigns with the flimsiest of legal pretexts.

Moreover, the future of international cooperation seems increasingly uncertain. The current American president disdains the very multilateralism that for generations enhanced U.S. power and prosperity; China is promoting alternative arrangements that promise far less transparency and accountability; and Russia is intent on undermining NATO and the EU at any cost. The less committed these great powers become to prevailing security regimes, the more likely they are to disregard longstanding norms of international cooperation and multilateral conflict resolution—which could be a very dangerous development, indeed.

Ultimately, international institutions can constrain conflict—but only insofar as the great powers play along. And for Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, it’s an anarchic world after all.

© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  conflict  multilateralism  power 

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