This year HCSS launched The Socio-Political Instability Survey, inviting over 500 think tankers from around the world to give their views on the short-term likelihood and location of volatility and conflict globally using multiple-choice questions. The survey also delved into three ‘hot-topics’ using open-ended questions formulated by our Strategic Analysts. For this version of the survey the topics included the likelihood of the Russia-Ukraine war escalating into a Russia-NATO conflict, what a future U.S. Republican presidency might mean for multilateralism and how Europe should navigate a potential China-Taiwan conflict. The results of the open-ended questions were gained through a process of quantitative and qualitative discourse analysis, with specified themes or coding categories determined by the authors.
The survey was completed throughout the month of September 2023 and is the second of a series of surveys, to be completed throughout the year. The survey results will contribute to the Socio-Political Instability Monitor.
This ‘Observer’ outlines the results of the first Socio-Political Instability Survey and provides analysis. In this survey, socio-political instability encompasses various drivers of volatility, such as economic, diplomatic, environmental, and demographic factors. In extreme socio-political instability, this includes the probability of conflict fatalities, specifically, the incidence of armed conflict that results in fatalities.
The second edition of the Observer highlights the continued importance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a significant factor in shaping expert perceptions of global socio-political instability in the short term. Russia and Ukraine are seen as major sources of instability, through the worsening of the war in Ukraine and the conflict’s role as a catalyst for geopolitical bloc forming. However, experts do not perceive that the war in Ukraine is likely to escalate into a wider Russia-NATO confrontation any time soon. Africa, particularly Middle Africa, continues to be seen as a major source of future socio-political instability, with a number of coups in September highlighting how volatile situations can escalate and inspire other armed events. This potential for volatility around the world is heightened by perceptions of a retreat from multilateralism and a lack of ‘international community’, also highlighted in the previous May Observer. Please note, this Observer highlights the findings of a survey conducted throughout September 2023, before the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel and subsequent events.
Socio-political instability: Russia-Ukraine Conflict Persists and Mid-West Africa Battles ‘Coup Contagion’
According to the experts surveyed, the major drivers of socio-political instability globally are economic and military factors, this reflects a generally gloomy global economic outlook in 2023, driven by war-prompted energy and food crises, China’s growth slowdown, and the impact of major military events on economies. On a country level, 24% of experts anticipate that Ukraine, followed by Russia (15%) and Niger (11%) will encounter the highest level of socio-political instability in the coming six months. The war in Ukraine is an interstate conflict with Russia which is ongoing and worsening, with the frontlines remaining mostly stable in 2023 and fears over donner fatigue continuing to grow. In September, Ukraine also experienced disputes over grain imports to EU Eastern European countries, notability Poland, in early September, perhaps adding to a perception of reduced support. Notably among our September respondents, 35% found that Eastern Europe is likely to face the most socio-political instability in the next six months, a decrease from 40% in our May Observer. This result maps onto the countries expected to have the most socio-political instability, with Ukraine and Russia as key sources of conflict in Eastern Europe.
24% of experts anticipate that Ukraine, followed by Russia (15%) and Niger (11%) will encounter the highest level of socio-political instability.
HCSS Socio-Political Instability Survey (September 2023)
Our September respondents notably expect a significant increase in socio-political instability in Western Africa, with 15% of experts rating the region as likely to face the most socio-political instability in the short term, an increase of 9% compared to our May results. This likely reflects the two significant coups in Western Africa that occurred during this period, in Niger (July 26th) and Gabon (September 14th) and fears of ‘coup contagion’ in a region with a notable history of them. In Niger, cooperation and support from the African Union and the EU were halted, while France and the US also suspended their backing for Nigerien forces. This decision came in response to the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) sealing off the presidential palace in Niamey and taking President Mohamed Bazoum hostage.
However, Middle Africa, incorporating the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C) and Rwanda, remains a site of concern and is unchanged from May. Sudan, which was predicted to have the most socio-political instability for the coming six months in May 2023, has slipped down to 9% despite continued fighting in Khartoum following several failed ceasefires and the belligerents refusal to cooperate with the UN and other international intermediaries, reflecting a growing trend in disinterest in multilateralism.
51% of experts believe that Russia would have the greatest impact on global socio-political instability in the next six months, down from 63% in May. In contrast to the May Observer, both China and Ukraine have seen shifts in their perceived influence on global socio-political instability. China’s perceived influence decreased to 15% in September, a shift potentially reflecting concern over a China-Taiwan conflict after a series of Chinese military exercises which encircled Taiwan in May. In contrast, Ukraine has witnessed an increase to 15%, signifying a heightened level of perceived influence since May. The Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Niger and North Korea were also noted for their influence on global socio-political instability in the short term. This likely reflects uneasiness around coup contagion in the case of Niger, as noted above, and in the Central Africa Republic and Ethiopia where continued armed conflict against insurgent groups have been exacerbated by factors such as population displacement and flooding. North Korea also came to the fore in September when Russia opted to after a meeting which took place between the country’s leader leader Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin in to discuss arms deals in Russia’s Amur Oblast.
Beyond Ukraine: The Risk of Escalation into a Russia-NATO war
62.5% of experts expect the Russia-Ukraine war will not lead to a wider Russia-NATO conflict in the next 2 to 5 years. According to 19% of experts, increased tension and bloc forming through the supply of arms and indirect support from allies could trigger a wider Russia-NATO conflict. The perception of bloc forming with the ‘west’ (Europe and its U.S allies) on one hand, Russia, China and other autocratising states on the other, or between the global north and global south, has been noted for some time. Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine war has been seen as a catalyst for future bloc forming, with both the EU and G7 supporting Ukraine while Russia has been seeking China’s political backing to sustain the war in Europe. 17% of experts agree that a wider conflict is likely to be triggered by a “tipping point” event, whether intentional or accidental and one that escalates into a wider conflict. Experts point to other potential drivers of conflict escalation: Russian political or economic instability (13%), substantial shifts in military power (13%) and the use or threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (12%). The spectre of the nuclear threat has reemerged as a significant factor in the September Observer, given the possession of nuclear arsenals by both Russia and NATO member-states which include the US, the UK, and France. There is evidence that sanctions are gradually suffocating Russia’s economy, pushing it towards a full-fledged war economy, thereby affecting basic consumer needs. Furthermore, the mobilization of Russian men is disrupting the labour market and diminishing morale. Adding to these challenges, Putin’s credibility as a leader has been tarnished by the Wagner Group rebellion in June 2023.
From Red States to Red Lines: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future of Multilateralism
25% of respondents envisioned the U.S. withdrawing from multilateral commitments. This maps onto perceptions of President Trump’s efforts to usher in a new era of isolationism. During his four-year tenure, Trump notably withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, and signalled his administration’s intent to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Following this, many of those surveyed foresaw an increase in economic and military competition with China (14%), a heightened U.S. foreign policy focus across the Indo-Pacific (14%), and possible instability for Asia (14%). Growing concern vis-à-vis U.S.-China strategic geopolitical competition has been widely analysed to and discussed in the media to date. Speculations of a future conflict between the two superpowers has led many to believe that successive Republican presidents will usher in an era of instability for Asia as U.S. foreign policy centres entirely on the Indo-Pacific domain. Meanwhile in Europe, experts envision a variety of aftershocks if Trump or a counterpart reaches the White House. 14% forecast that successive Republican presidencies would weaken the NATO alliance. Respondents here likely have in mind Trump’s threats of pulling out of NATO altogether in 2019. 13% believe that in such a scenario Europe must secure strategic autonomy and lastly 13% also predict that successive Republican presidencies would result in political dealignment between Europe and the U.S.
Europe’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’: Strategies for Navigating a China-Taiwan Conflict
A third of those surveyed (33%) were of the view that Europe should support the U.S. through a ‘coalition of the willing’-type approach.1 Experts are generally in favour of enduring European engagement with states in the Indo-Pacific that present a challenge to the liberal international order, since Taiwan is regarded as a like-minded ally to not only U.S., but to European Union countries. Despite some of the pitfalls of economic sanctions as a method of deterrence or punishment, sweeping EU sanctions on Russia have kept the EU out of the Ukraine-Russia war directly – potentially avoiding inadvertent escalation – leading to just over a quarter (26%) of experts to suggest non-military solutions to resolve a potential U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. 18% of experts stressed that Europe should not join a U.S. coalition of the willing-type approach. This view is somewhat mirrored by a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations which showed that the majority of Europeans want to remain neutral in a potential U.S.-China conflict. Furthermore, 15% of experts supported offering indirect military aid to Taiwan and not involving their armies forthright, mirroring the approach that European nations have taken with in regard to Ukraine. Finally, 8% of those surveyed suggest that the U.K. should intervene on the basis of its military commitments under the AUKUS pact and as one of Europe’s major naval powers alongside France, the latter of which has a realistic chance of engaging militarily in Indo-Pacific theatre.
1 The term coalition of the willing refers to an international alliance focused on achieving a particular objective, usually of military or political nature. It gained prominence during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
48 experts from universities, think tanks and research institutes completed this version of the survey. Our expert respondents reside in 19 different countries across 8 different regions. Half of the experts reside in Western Europe, with 35% of experts residing in the Netherlands. This may account for the importance placed on the war in Ukraine and influence of the Russian Federation. 15% of respondents reside in the United States. International Relations, Security Studies and Defence and Military Studies were the domains of expertise most represented among our experts, with roughly 20% each. We endeavour to expand participation in future surveys.
Take part in the next Socio-Political Instability Survey
Are you a geopolitics, economics, security, climate, area or international affairs expert affiliated with a think tank, university or research institute? Interested in taking part in the next Socio-Political Instability Survey? Sign up via the Socio-Political Instability Survey page