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Nature Of Conflict In The 21st Century: War, power, rules

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Economic wherewithal is an essential precursor to sustainable defence spending, technological prowess powers innovation and disruption, a defence-industrial base is necessary to produce weapons of sophisticated engineering at scale and incorporate new capabilities, strategy and sure-footed diplomacy either amplify or detract from the effectiveness of military force, policies that strengthen fragile states or improve their capacity for change build a more stable international order and foster patterns of cooperation among states.

Data is, of course, central to understanding all of these elements. The IISS is rare among think tanks in that we are not just analysts, but also producers of independent data upon which our assessments – and the work of many governments, businesses, and scholars – rely.

In charting our way forward to the next decades of IISS work, we have identified the most pressing questions that will shape security outcomes and, by extension, provide a rationale for our research activities.

For the past 60 years, the International Institute for Strategic Studies has been the place where the important work of data collection and analysis on crucial questions of war and peace occurs. In the 1950s and 1960s those questions were the role of nuclear weapons, the adequacy of conventional military forces and the security of Europe in the face of the Soviet challenge.

Over the past two decades, our work has rebalanced to be more inclusive geographically and substantively: where we used to have a transatlantic young leaders’ programme, now we focus on ASEAN young leaders. And realising the transatlantic community was increasingly drawn into security issues in Asia and the Middle East, but neither of those regions had the institutional webbing to provide sustained policy engagement, we created the Shangri-La and Manama Dialogues, to provide that important ligature. In so doing, the IISS became a strategic actor, a convener of national security leaders, as well as an intellectual force in setting an agenda upon which those leaders engage.

In charting our way forward to the next decades of IISS work, we have identified the most pressing questions that will shape security outcomes and, by extension, provide a rationale for our research activities.



Fear, honour and interest. Politics by other means. Whether one elects Thucydides’ or Clausewitz’s definition of warfare, its motives have a constancy over time.


What changes with technological and tactical innovation is the ability of states to mount and sustain conflict, and the capacity of societies to recover from its effects.

IISS research explores emergent technologies coming into fighting forces and with civilian applications that can be harnessed for the purpose of engaging in conflict. Uniquely, we are developing metrics to assess state capability in the cyber domain and incorporating this increasingly important element of military power into the force comparisons that we publish in the Military Balance.

We are building a database that will assist governments, businesses and non-governmental organisations alike to conduct geopolitical due diligence by assessing the potential for conflict. And we analyse the changing patterns of defence-industry economics and how these will affect force modernisation and alliances.



Geopolitics is back in fashion as competition heats up among great powers. But what constitutes power in the 21st century?


The West’s self-congratulatory complacency after the Cold War has given way to anxiety that non-democratic states have inherent advantages, which they are using to redraw the map of international commerce and alliances.

The appeal of authoritarian capitalism in providing credit where the Bretton Woods lenders and Western states would not, and assistance where Western states would not involve themselves, is causing reconsideration of whether the strongest or wealthiest states remain the most powerful.

IISS work under this theme will draw on the research strength we are building in geo-economics, with one strand of research exploring how economic tools are sharpened for great power competition. A larger, long-term project will research the implications and impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, bringing together researchers from across the IISS to: explore economic and debt questions; assess the trade and investment impact; examine energy security issues; research the development and outcomes of the digital silk road; and analyse the geo-political implications.


The term ‘rules-based order’ entered into the English lexicon in the late 1990s when governments in the US and UK lobbied for China to be included in the institutions formed by Western powers after the Second World War.


Now, with a disruptive US and a China clearly unwilling to play by the rules and strong enough to challenge them, the rules-based order is under strain.

IISS research seeks to provide greater clarity on what those rules, alliances and institutions are that shape the current order, and explore how new distributions of power and the development of new tools for shaping the order create new demands.

We are exploring whether laws designed for an international order of 51 states require adjustment for an international order of 195 states, and whether the Geneva Conventions can be extended into areas of current state and non-state actor conflict.

Credits| IISS

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