Five years ago, few people outside of narrow academic circles had heard the term “polycrisis.” Thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine, global food shortages, deepening economic and debt crises in emerging markets, record numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, and the ever-present threat of climate change, the term is now practically impossible to avoid. Coined by the French social analyst Edgar Morin, it was popularized by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and, more recently, by the Columbia historian Adam Tooze, who has written extensively on how disparate global crises interact to create a seeming loop of doom.

A polycrisis isn’t just a glut of simultaneous emergencies; it is a series of crises that compound and augment one another in ways that make them harder to solve. As Tooze has put it: “the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.” A polycrisis, then, is a Gordian knot of global crises.

In thinking through the causes of and appropriate responses to the current polycrisis, debates about democracy versus autocracy, north versus south, and left versus right are not very helpful. Each crisis is complex, and its interaction with other crises is even more so. There is, though, one common denominator: imbalances of power that lead to abuses of power. Impunity, in other words, is the rising global danger. The notion that “rules are for suckers” is on the march, and everyone is paying the price.

A new project called The Atlas of Impunity, published by the Eurasia Group and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, maps the reach of impunity around the world, revealing how this phenomenon shapes nearly every major global challenge. It is the first quantitative assessment of global impunity ever published, and uses 67 independent, credible and comparable data sets. The report ranks 197 countries and territories on five indicators: conflict and violence, human rights abuse, unaccountable governance, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. These indicators of impunity, and the power imbalances that enable them, go a long way toward explaining today’s polycrisis.

THE AGE OF IMPUNITY

Impunity is the exercise of power without accountability. In its starkest form, it is the commission of a crime without the fear of punishment. It thrives where the powerful think they don’t have to follow the rules, and it is partially enabled by a dangerous global “democratic recession.” The percentage of the global population living in what Freedom House classifies as full democracies has halved to just 20 percent in the last 15 years. But that isn’t the whole story. When impunity, rather than democracy, becomes the analytical frame, it is easier to understand the multidimensional nature of global challenges, particularly the relationship between abuses of power at home and abroad. The lens of impunity also offers more nuance than that of democracy versus autocracy; impunity can undermine democratic societies as well as authoritarian ones, and even within nondemocracies there are shades of impunity. Furthermore, the lens of impunity allows for the analysis of economic and ecological abuses, not just political ones.

In seeking to quantify the first indicator of impunity—conflict and violence—the atlas looks at a country’s involvement in violence at home and abroad, relying on data on participation in foreign wars, arms exports, domestic violence, and homicides. The laws are clear and the abuses equally so. From Ethiopia to Yemen, Syria to Ukraine, adherence to international humanitarian law—granting protections to civilians and access to international aid organizations—is becoming the exception. Combatants, whether they are state or nonstate actors, have come to believe that there are no penalties for failing to follow the rules.

What is more, civil wars are increasingly becoming internationalized. The latest data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden show that the number of “internationalized intrastate conflicts”—civil wars with foreign participation—increased nearly sevenfold between 2007 and 2021, from four to 27. During the same period, the number of other conflict types remained stable or declined.

According to some calculations, humans are living as if there were three Earths instead of one.

The second and third indicators of impunity—human rights abuse and unaccountable governance—are in some ways two sides of the same coin. The former can be measured based on adherence to UN treaties, the use of torture and capital punishment, and the extent of ethnic cleansing and illegal detention. The latter can be gauged by assessing government responsiveness to citizens, protections for minorities, levels of corruption and clientelism, and guarantees of civil liberties.

To measure economic exploitation, the atlas goes beyond metrics of income and wealth inequality, although it does consider those. It tries to capture the strength of property rights against government interference and abuse, the transparency of state budgeting, the payment of taxes, and the extent to which fair working conditions (including laws against slavery and child labor) are observed.

The final indicator of impunity, environmental degradation, aims to balance three aspects of environmental accountability: a country’s policies and practices toward natural resources, its commitment to international environmental treaties and standards, and the sustainability of its resource consumption, biological footprint, and agricultural practices. Abuse of the planet is a type of impunity because the planet has no vote, and neither do the future generations who will pay the price for today’s overconsumption. According to some calculations, humans are living as if there were three Earths instead of one.

WHY DEMOCRACIES ARE FAILING 

The atlas shows that impunity exists in every country and that it is thriving across every facet of life. Although the top performers identified in the reportFinland, Denmark, and Swedenand the worst performersAfghanistan, Syria, and Yemenmay not be especially surprising, the richness of the data reveals several important trends.

First, the United States performs closer to the median than to the top, ranking higher on impunity than Singapore, which is not a full-fledged liberal democracy. This is in part a reflection of poor U.S. scores on conflict and violencedue largely to arms exports and involvement in foreign warsand environmental degradation. More broadly, none of the great powers are great role models. Russia has the 27th highest level of impunity and China has the 48th highest. These numbers help quantify the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is unmistakably true of power in the international system.

Second, there is a clear relationship between the historical legacies of colonialism and slavery and impunity today. Nearly all of the 20 worst-performing countries are former colonies or were affected by colonialism. Similarly, one-third of the 30 worst-performing countries were involved in the slave trade. Yet several countries, including Senegal, suffered from both colonization and the slave trade but still perform relatively well on impunity. This shows that although impunity is informed by circumstances, it is ultimately dictated by political and policy choices.

Third, the abuse of human rights, especially women’s rights, is a global problem, even within democracies. Several countries—including India, Israel, Malaysia, and the United States—perform relatively well on governance but substantially worse on human rights, highlighting the challenge of living up to democratic ideals. Violence against women negatively impacts the human rights and conflict and violence scores of many countries, regardless of whether they are democratic or authoritarian, peaceful or war torn.

Finally, even the most accountable societies tend to suffer from the impunity of environmental degradation. Canada, which is one of the best-performing countries in the atlas and traditionally scores well on similar indexes, is in the top quartile of countries for environmental degradation. Russia, China, India, and the United Statesall top emitters globallyrank respectively as the 26th, 29th, 31st, and 35th worst-performing countries on the environment.

POWER WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY

The decision by Western leaders to frame the invasion of Ukraine as a fight between authoritarianism and democracy represents a missed opportunity to build the broadest possible coalition in defense of the rule of law. There is no doubt that the Ukrainians are fighting with extraordinary bravery for their country and their democracy. But it is not just the citizens of democracies who have a stake in the fight. Citizens of all countries do, because impunity and accountability are at stake, both when it comes to the invasion itself and when it comes to the war tactics subsequently used.

The way to tackle impunity is a question for political leaders, the private sector, civil society, and individual citizens alike. I have written before in Foreign Affairs about the importance of building  “countervailing power” to address the imbalances that enable impunity. This is the source of true accountability. Although accountability is critical to democracy, a democratic system of government is not by itself sufficient to fend off impunity in the realm of human rights, the international arena, and the business world.

Countervailing power will take different forms in each of these domains, but in all of them it will almost certainly require an alliance among governments, the private sector, and civil society. Governments keen to uphold accountability have tools to do so.  They can tie security partnerships to respect for international humanitarian law. They can crack down on tax havens to combat economic exploitation, and link trade agreements to stronger labor laws. The private sector can use divestment campaigns to create financial costs for countries involved in human rights abuses or war crimes. Businesses can also impose risk premiums on investments that fuel the climate crisis. Civil society groups can play their part by documenting abuses at home and abroad and by exposing corporate malpractice that endangers workers and consumers.

Reframing the defining global challenge as a fight between impunity and accountability, as opposed to democracy and autocracy,  could speak to a global audience in a comprehensive and potentially personal way. And doing so yields an important agenda for action: every citizen, business, nongovernmental organization, and politician must act to strengthen the forces of accountability and check the abuses of power that lie at the heart of so many of today’s crises.

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  • DAVID MILIBAND is Co-Chair of the Advisory Council for The Atlas of Impunity and President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. From 2007 to 2010, he served as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom
  • More By David Miliband