Scottish Council on Global Affairs: New Scottish think tank to be ‘independent voice and critical friend to government’ - Professor Peter Jackson

The world in 2022 faces challenges of unprecedented variety, complexity and seriousness.

From an inter-state war in Europe which brings with it the spectre of nuclear confrontation, to a global pandemic that has not ended, to an unfolding environmental catastrophe that seems to accelerate year-on-year, humanity is confronted with problems that require discussion and debate as well as research and reflection.

The new Scottish Council on Global Affairs [SCGA] will contribute to promoting greater understanding of these problems as well as the innovative solutions and collaborative efforts needed to overcome them.

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The Scottish Council constitutes the ever first pan-Scotland international affairs institute. It will provide a hub for collaborative policy-relevant research and a forum for evidence-based debate on all areas of global affairs, from human rights, foreign policy and security to trade, governance, public health and the environment.

Professor Peter Jackson FRHistS FRSE, Chair in Global Security, University of Glasgow. Picture: Martin Shields

There is a wealth of relevant expertise within Scotland’s universities, its business and financial community, we well as within Scottish civil society. Until now, however, there has been no means of marshalling this expertise and putting it at the service of public policy and public debate.

The lack of such an institution in Scotland reflects the wider reality that, in the United Kingdom as a whole, there are very few think tanks outside of London. Policy-oriented research and debate is concentrated overwhelmingly in and around Westminster. The result is that public policy is deprived of the vast reservoirs of world-leading expertise that exists outside of London and the ‘golden triangle’ that extends only to Cambridge and Oxford.

The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of both domestic and international politics in which the threat of nuclear war receded from the conceptual horizons of both policy-makers and citizens alike.

An unfortunate consequence of this otherwise welcome development was a growing sense of distance from international affairs for much of the population, for much of the time. Episodes such as the 2003 Iraq War constituted exceptions to a general feeling that fundamental questions of war and peace were existed on a different plane from the everyday life of the average citizen in New York, Frankfurt or Edinburgh.

Electricity pylons stand as steam rises from cooling towers at the Neurath coal-fired power plant on April 22, 2022 at Neurath, Germany. According to data from 2020, Neurath is Europe's second biggest emitter of CO2. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Ukraine War has destroyed this false sense of distance from world politics. The direct effects of Russian aggression against Ukraine on energy prices and the cost of living has driven home the impact of international affairs on everyday life here and across the west.

The consequences of the conflict are likely to be far-reaching and could well transform the North Atlantic Alliance and lead to the creation of a new security architecture in Europe.

But it is vital that tragedy unfolding in Ukraine does not divert attention away from the other acute challenges facing the global community. This is important not least because many of the most acute problems confronting us are inter-connected. One solution to European dependence on Russian oil and gas is an accelerated move towards more environmentally-friendly sources of energy.

Similar connections exist between the environment and global public health. The danger posed to bio-diversity by economic modernisation and global inter-connectedness is linked in fundamental ways to likelihood of future pandemics. The degradation of the environment will cause insecurity and instability in parts of the globe and lead to ever growing flows of migration that pose a moral and political challenge to global society.

These inter-connected challenges can only be met with international co-operation and multi-disciplinary expertise stretching from scientists working in laboratories to businesses seeking to navigate the new commercial environment created by the UK’s exit from the European Union.

This realisation has shaped the way we have conceived of a Scottish Council on Global Affairs. We have underlined six inter-related themes that will serve as the early focus for our activities. These are: 1) Human Rights, Immigration, Migration, Refugees; 2) Foreign Policy, Peace Building, Conflict Resolution; 3) International Law, Trade and Global Governance; 4) Defence and Security; 5) Global Public Health, International Development; and 6) Climate Change, Sustainability, Fisheries, Energy.

It goes without saying that most research and engagement will cut across at least two and probably more of these themes. But the aim is to stimulate debate, discussion and collaboration from diverse perspectives that will provide new perspectives on the most pressing questions of our time.

Our core mission is twofold. First, we will provide a much-needed institutional hub to marshal the formidable expertise that exists on global affairs in Scotland and place it at the disposal of public policy in Edinburgh, in Westminster and beyond. The aim is to be an independent voice and a critical friend to government.

Second, we will provide a strictly non-partisan forum for evidence-based discussion and debate on international questions through informed commentary and an exciting series of public-facing events.

The Scottish Council comes into existence as a partnership between the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It also benefits from the support of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in Westminster.

But our aim is to expand our partnerships and relationships with other governments, academic institutions and with civil society and business and financial interests across Scotland. We must ensure that the SCGA reflects the diversity of opinions and approaches to global affairs that exists in Scotland and in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We are very keen to get to work and we hope that you will join us in making this new Council on Global Affairs a success.

Professor Peter Jackson is the Chair in Global Security at the University of Glasgow and the first Executive Director of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs

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