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Governance gaps in global security


In international relations theory, the concept of anarchy is often used to describe the lack of a hierarchically superior authority that can create and enforce norms and resolve disputes. In the absence of a world government, global affairs are managed through a complex web of global governance regimes, which produce and organize the norms, policies and institutions that constitute and mediate relations between citizens, societies, markets and states. However, these regimes are imperfect and often plagued by important gaps. In this piece, we focus on the governance gaps of the global governance architectures for the use of force, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and counter-terrorism that lead to a suboptimal provision of international peace and security. According to Thomas Weiss and Ramesh Thakur, governance gaps can be divided into five subcategories: knowledge, normative, policy, institutional and compliance gaps.

Knowledge gaps refer to the lack of empirical information or theoretical explanations about the nature, causes, gravity and magnitude of a problem that could inform policymaking. Such gaps are common and result in disputed knowledge that may stymie consensus about universally acceptable norms and, eventually, may even contribute to the creation of normative gaps. Knowledge is also crucial in policy formulation, namely the creation of governing principles and goals as well as the agreed programs of action for their implementation. The absence of policies on an emerging issue can lead to inaction and pave the way for crises. Of course, policies do not exist in a vacuum; if they manage to escape the trap of being ad hoc and idiosyncratic, they need to be housed within an institution with the necessary resources and autonomy – if these are missing, an institutional gap arises. Finally, even if institutions and treaties are put in place to tackle a certain threat, the political will to implement an agreement or provide resources for established institutions may be absent. In short, compliance gaps can raise issues of implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

Use of force

In the governance of the use of force, many problems and uncertainties arise from the constant improvement of technology. The operation of new lethal weapons like armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (drones) and autonomous weapons systems (killer robots), or the use of cyberattacks as a means of warfare, increasingly test the limits of well-established concepts like aggression, armed conflict or accountability. To illustrate this mismatch, let’s take the example of cyberattacks: according to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” would be an aggression that justifies going to war. However, it is hard to tell what constitutes an act of war in the cyber realm, since cyberattacks do not use physical armed force, they do not take place in the geographic realm, nor do they necessarily involve states. Similarly, the evolution of technology has created an important attribution problem. In drone attacks and cyberattacks, for instance, there is often no way of verifying the attacker’s identity and this challenges traditional ways of establishing accountability.

Owing to these knowledge gaps, normative gaps also abound. For example, there is a lack of commonly agreed norms on cybernetics and a lack of terminological clarity in the legal application of extant norms to new weapons and forms of attacks.

Uncertainty about the future role of drones and autonomous weapons systems in warfare and the lack of consensus on how to translate the law of armed conflict to the cyber realm explain policy gaps like the absence of a code of conduct or a treaty that would regulate the use of new weapons, or the absence of global norms and policies on cybercrime and cyberwarfare.

As for institutional gaps in the use of force, they can be of three kinds: first, institutions may be needed but inexistent (for example, UNSC responses to the use of force would benefit from an intelligence analysis unit and a rapid reaction capability); second, they may exist but have no real role (like the UN Military Staff Committee); and third, institutions may exist but malfunction due to their structural design, which sometimes leads to striking internal contradictions (the veto power of the P5, for instance, is incompatible with the UN’s objectives and the Security Council’s stated role).

Finally, compliance gaps are also very pronounced. This is due, among others, to the fact that the implementation of UNSC Resolutions on issues such as the deployment of peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations depends on the political will of states and coalitions to commit peacekeepers and troops. Additionally, divergent political priorities and conflicting legal interpretations within the UNSC lead to inconsistent implementation of norms and commitments (the Responsibility to Protect is a clear example).

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)

The WMD governance architecture presents several gaps that are common among the three types of weapons it regulates – nuclear, chemical and biological – but there are also certain gaps that are specific to a particular weapon class. To begin with, several knowledge gaps arise from the fast-paced evolution of science and technological innovation. In the context of WMD proliferation, the industrial production and exports of dual-use technologies (that is, technologies that can be used both for peaceful and military aims) are strictly regulated, lest they be exploited by malicious actors. However, the speed at which industrial production processes are evolving poses a considerable challenge for institutions, as they need to update their normative frameworks constantly in order to keep the threats under control. In the near future, new types of weaponry may emerge and institutions need to be able to regulate them by expanding the scope of existing treaties or guidelines.

Unsurprisingly, these knowledge gaps give rise to normative gaps as it is difficult to shape norms under conditions of uncertainty and/or when the boundaries of an issue are still unknown. What is more, scientific developments, especially in the field of biology, genetics and bioethics, can engender moral questions and controversial dilemmas that are difficult to solve at an international level.

While there are no major policy gaps to be found in the global governance of WMDs, institutional gaps do exist. The most evident one is the lack of a formal intergovernmental organization in charge of guaranteeing compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. The Implementation Support Unit, the body that lends institutional support to the Convention, does a laudable job in terms of universalization and administrative support to the Convention’s Review Conferences, but the absence of a proper verification mechanism hampers the correct functioning of the whole governance system. In addition, institutions in the field of non-proliferation are facing financial difficulties and/or a low level of commitment by certain member states. Another institutional gap which is specific to this field is weak communication channels between formal and informal intergovernmental organizations and civil society, industries, companies and academic centers.

Compliance levels vary among the three WMD architectures. In the nuclear field, the non-compliance of nuclear weapon states with their obligation to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament (Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) overshadows the success and perception of the treaty. The fact that the good faith negotiations that should be pursued according to this article have not even started reflects how distant nuclear disarmament is from the nuclear weapon states’ security priorities. Moreover, the voluntary Additional Protocol is far from universal and non-nuclear weapon states still prefer to comply with the slightly less intrusive Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. By contrast, in the chemical field, member states appear to be fairly compliant with their commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention – in spite of some inconsistencies in the regularity and periodicity of the demanded submissions by some parties. Regarding biological weapons, the lack of a dedicated body to monitor compliance with the BTWC has led to larger compliance gaps. Moreover, the emergence of non-state actors and the risk of them acquiring WMDs complicates the implementation of regulations.


Although international terrorism has been an important security challenge for decades, there are still gaps in our knowledge on the phenomenon. The roots of terrorism can be political, socio-economic, religious or a combination of these. Determining the motives and objectives of terrorist groups is not an easy task, but it is especially relevant for policymaking.

Given that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, global consensus on a common definition of terrorism has been notoriously elusive. Reaching an agreement on the spectrum of motives, targets and methods that amount to terrorism has distinctly political undertones that are difficult to overcome.

Considering that consensus is hard to attain, it is no wonder that counter-terrorism policy is currently very fragmented. Some global legal instruments on counter-terrorism do exist, but instead of addressing terrorism as a whole, they only refer to specific terrorist acts.

There is a wide array of intercontinental and regional formal intergovernmental organizations that have created legal instruments and specific bodies and committees to address terrorism. However, the absence of an international counter-terrorism organization continues to hamper global counter-terrorism measures, while institutions focusing on coordination tasks – like the UNSC’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) – struggle to overcome their inherent limitations.

Monitoring the implementation of Resolution 1373 – a fundamental resolution which imposes a series of compulsory counter-terrorist measures on states –  has been a very challenging task for the CTC. This has been further complicated by the deficiencies of the global counter-terrorism framework and the functional overlaps among the CTC, the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the informal Global Counterterrorism Forum.

Athanasios Kouliopoulos is a Research Assistant at Esade.