Day By Day

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A More Peaceful World

Josh Goldstein has an excellent piece in Foreign Policy dispelling many popular perceptions regarding the incidence and character of war in the modern world.

The first of these is a point I have frequently made -- that contrary to popular perception war is becoming far less common in recent decades.

Moreover not only the incidence, but also the lethality of wars has been declining over time. Goldstein writes:
[T]he last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace. 
And as for the idea that America has been becoming more warlike as the rest of the world is becoming more peaceful, he writes:
America's decade of war since 2001 has killed about 6,000 U.S. service members, compared with 58,000 in Vietnam and 300,000 in World War II. Every life lost to war is one too many, but these deaths have to be seen in context: Last year more Americans died from falling out of bed than in all U.S. wars combined.
Moreover warfare, contrary to the assertion of some peace activists, is not becoming more lethal to civilians. The ratio of civilian to military casualties has not changed over time despite significant changes in the technology and tactics of war.

So far, so good. I find nothing with which to disagree in Goldstein's account, but now he turns to more theoretical concerns.

First, he disputes the argument that the collapse of American and Soviet hegemony will lead to greater regional conflicts as rising powers jostle for influence. So far, that has been true -- but there are disturbing trends in a number of areas. The rise of belligerent powers such as Iraq [under Hussein], Iran, and China, could easily provoke regional conflicts. 

And, as Goldstein admits, there is little reason to suppose that democratization will produce a more peaceful world in the future. While it is true that historically full-fledged democracies have never engaged in full-scale war with each other, it is also true that democratic movements are often more belligerent than the authoritarian regimes they displace.

And, Goldstein places, in my opinion, far too much trust in the efficacy of international organizations and their peacekeeping efforts. He notes that such efforts were as likely to fail as succeed in the 1990's, but that their record in the new century has been much better. However, I would point out that there is simply not enough information available to sustain that argument and that the relative success of peacekeeping efforts in recent years could easily be attributed to the broader decline in conflict rather than to the international organizations themselves.

Goldstein also asserts that many longstanding conflicts that have previously been thought to be intractable have now settled into relatively stable, if uneasy, truces that might in the future become durable peace arrangements. We shall see..., we shall see. In some cases, like Northern Ireland, that is certainly possible, even likely, but I am not so optimistic regarding such places as Kashmir and Israel.

Finally, he argues that the major reason for the decline in violence is a shift in public attitudes similar to the one that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries regarding slavery, or regarding colonialism in the past century. War, once viewed as a glorious or necessary undertaking is increasingly seen as a disreputable, even disgraceful one by many people.

This, to my mind, is nonsense. The de-legitimization of slavery and colonialism are both complex subjects that are very much a product of profound conflict. International opinion is far more a reaction to than a shaper of historical developments.

Whatever you think of the arguments the article is interesting and well worth the time to read. Check it out here.

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