Thanks to Erik, John and for their thought-provoking contributions.
The long-term data is indeed interesting. Harvard’s Steven Pinker has a fascinating new study being readied for publication that also tracks a significant decline in violence in human affairs.
And I certainly agree that a decline in the number and deadliness of armed conflict in itself doesn’t explain much—it could indeed, as others have suggested, simply be a statistical fluke.
But I think that your work and that of others provides an important part of the reason why the downward trend is real and not just a fluke. There are a number of conflict-reducing trends in the world today, some of which are driven by the impersonal economic forces that you focus on. Others emphasize the impact of purposeful political action—the huge upsurge in peacemaking and peacebuilding activity since the end of the Cold War that has been a major focus of our work.
You raise an interesting question about “rising powers” in Asia. I’m just back from a week in Australia where the defense debate has been focusing on “China Threat” scenarios. These debates have focused almost entirely on China’s rapidly growing military capacity and have largely ignored the huge stake that Beijing has in the political stability of the current international system on which its rising prosperity largely depends.
The “China Threat” proponents have yet to explain what interest the Chinese would have in using force to disrupt a system that so obviously benefits them. Not only is China hopelessly outgunned by the United States, but both the United States and China possess nuclear weapons; this provides a huge incentive for each to avoid military conflict
None of this is to suggest that Chinese foreign policy is necessarily benign. Like other major powers, including the United States, Beijing pursues its perceived national interests ruthlessly. But it has found that economic leverage can be a very effective under-the-radar way exercising power. And it is one that attracts none of the media attention that the PLA’s occasional demonstrations of military power do.
You make the case the nuclear weapons have kept the peace between the major powers. I certainly agree that, in making resort to war hugely costly, mutual assured destruction has induced a considerable amount of caution into major power relationships. But I’m not sure that the memory of the carnage in World War II—which was hugely more destructive than World War I—did not constitute a sufficient incentive for the major powers to avoid war. John Mueller has made the case that the immensely destructive nature of modern conventional weapons systems—think “Daisy Cutter” bombs and FAEs (Fuel-Air Explosives)—plus memories of the tens of millions of deaths in World War II would on their own have created powerful enough disincentives to wage war. Nuclear weapons from this perspective are unnecessary. The countries with the most obvious interest in possessing nuclear weapons are small powers that feel the need for a “strategic equalizer” because they face far more powerful enemies—North Korea comes to mind.
The idea that American hegemony may have been a key element in the postwar decline in political violence around the world is interesting, but as you yourself note, it’s very difficult to demonstrate.
I would have put it somewhat differently, however. It seems to me that, at least with respect to the huge upsurge of international security activism that followed the end of the Cold War, the U.S. role was more permissive than proactive. Importantly, Washington didn’t use its power to block many of the post–Cold War security initiatives that we believe have been a major driver of the decline in civil wars over the past two decades. Washington has made major contributions to UN peacekeeping. But it did not play a major leadership role. Indeed at sometimes it was positively unhelpful, as when the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, threatened to scupper the UN’s 2005 Global Summit.
We are very well aware of the challenges posed by non-state armed groups. Indeed we commissioned the only extant dataset on “non-state” conflicts from Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program some years ago. “Non-state” conflicts are those in which a state is not one of the warring parties; they are instead fought between communal groups, rebel/terrorist groups, warlords, and the like.
Eighty percent of these conflicts last for a year or less, and their death tolls are far lower than for wars in which a state is a warring party. They don’t appear to be a major threat to global security.
Uppsala also produces a dataset on political violence against unarmed civilians—which is the common definition of terrorism—though the dataset includes violence against civilians perpetrated by states as well as non-state actors. The data show a clear, though uneven, decline in the intentional killing of defenseless civilians since 1989—the earliest year for which data are available. Data collection for this dataset was supported by our center.
Then there is terrorism. You suggest that it is a major threat, but the data from the National Counter Terrorism Center show fatalities from terrorism declining around the world in recent years. And the death tolls over the years have been minimal compared with war death tolls. Moreover recent research by RAND and Max Abrahms indicates that terrorist regimes usually fail.
Al Qaeda–type radical Islamist terrorism is the focus of most concern in the West, but support for al Qaeda’s extremist ideology has declined dramatically throughout the Muslim world—not least because most victims of Islamist terror are Muslims. Absent popular support or conventional armies, radical Islamists have little chance of overthrowing governments. With mass popular support, violence may not be necessary—witness the recent changes in Tunisia and Egypt.
Clearly if terrorists gained access to deliverable nuclear weapons this would be a huge source of concern. But despite repeated dire warnings, no nuclear weapons have been acquired by terror groups, and for good reason—nuclear weapons security has been vastly improved since the end of the Cold War, and making a nuclear weapon from scratch is extremely difficult. It is beyond the capacity of any current terror groups.
It is possible that terrorists might get access to enough radioactive material to create a crude “dirty bomb”—essentially a conventional explosive device that scatters non-weapons grade radioactive material around. But the fatalities from such a weapon would be primarily from the explosion itself, not the radioactive material. They would be minimal.
No Room for Complacency
Pointing out that a number of positive security trends have been driving the number and deadliness of wars down and that there are no obvious counter-trends doesn’t mean that there may not be a reversal in the downward trends in the future. Climate change and the possibility that the next global financial crisis will have far greater economic and security impacts than the recent one both caution against facile optimism. And we should never forget that quantitative social science doesn’t have a great record in prediction.