A More Secure World? In Some Ways Yes; In Some Ways No

Andrew Mack in the title of his essay asks a very provocative and always timely question: Is the world more secure? Statistical and historical quantitative evidence demonstrates that the number of interstate conflicts is on the decline. Through international institutions, democratization, and increasing living standards across many populations, the number of wars between states has been diminishing in the last several centuries. It has been a slow, evolutionary process, in which, as Mack mentions, major social, political and technological changes played critical roles.

However, state-centric conflicts are only a part of the global security picture next to, for instance, non-state threats and, therefore, they explain only a part of that picture. States have been losing their monopoly on the possession of highly devastating weapons, thus increasing the potential of such weapons being used by non-state actors. Due to these factors, analyses of the past state-centric conflicts, while informative, have somewhat limited utility for our assessments of world’s overall security.

Historical Trends and Forecasting

First of all, unfortunately, while statistical and historical analyses offer an important insight regarding overall trends in terms of incidents of war and casualty numbers per war, which over a rather long time have indeed been decreasing, they do not eliminate the possibility of a major interstate conflict taking place again. History demonstrates clearly that civilization has failed to learn the supposed lessons of past conflicts. An instructive example is the end of World War I, which was supposed to be the beginning of a more stable and safer international system. With the help of the League of Nations, we would avoid another such mass tragedy from ever taking place again. Unfortunately, only twenty-one years after World War I ended, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, starting an even more disastrous international conflict. Let us not forget that if we moved back in time to early 1939 and looked at the statistical and historical analyses of war trends collected until that time, we would also have seen encouraging evidence of declining numbers of wars. We would have been justified in thinking that the statistical evidence and the fact that the world had already experienced a world war and learned its lessons were signs of better things to come. Yet, as we now know, a major calamity would have been right on our doorstep.

Non-state Threats

The second reason to caution against a too-positive an assessment of today’s world’s security is the dynamic evolution and capabilities of modern illicit non-state actors. The state-centric analysis of wars that Mack discusses does not take into account the evolving capabilities of these actors. When we think of transnational organized crime, terrorist organizations, warlords, rebels, warring tribes, the challenges posed by formal international borders not overlapping with disenfranchised and disaffected ethnic groups, or even free-lance illicit operators, the picture of overall global security becomes much more complicated. What Mack discusses falls into the realm of a more traditional, sensu stricto military security with clearly distinguishable opponents participating in a particular war (be it a group of states or state proxies). In such conflicts, the battle space is much clearer and more predictable. It is not so in the modern security arena. Here, traditional geopolitical competition still plays a role (some would argue that increasingly so again), but in addition to it one has to take into account a significant and fluctuating number of illicit non-state actors from diverse regions of the world, motivated by various ideological or religious causes, mutating into new hybrid threats (like the crime-terror nexus), and frequently shifting alliances among them. The plethora of asymmetric threats that they may pose includes anything from preying on states, societies, and the international system (transnational organized crime), all the way to being purely destructive (most extreme terrorist organizations). Such adversaries, although no direct match for state capabilities, operate mostly in the forms of networks, which usually gives them a significant advantage over more hierarchical forms of state organization in terms of adaptability, operational speed, and decisionmaking cycles. This is the security picture of the world in which military approaches alone are mostly insufficient in providing security solutions, but in which military, law enforcement, international institutions, and NGOs often need to work together.

And while the number of international conflicts per se has been declining, the post—Cold War world has witnessed a rapid evolution and clear increase in the number and potential of terrorist attacks (e.g. the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, portable nuclear devices, or so-called ‘dirty bombs’), while the activities of transnational organized crime have never before been so global in nature, so sophisticated, and so threatening (e.g. the drug cartel war in Mexico in recent years, which in terms of the number of casualties, not to say anything about possible state co-opting by organized crime, may be compared to a low-intensity traditional conflict).

Similarly, the state-centric paradigm carries an assumption of at least a reasonable degree of rationality and predictability of state actors’ moves. As such, it cannot be easily copied into the analytical equations trying to predict the behaviors of non-state actors whose motives for violence may have little to do with tangible goals, such as territorial conquest or control of natural resources, and more to do with less tangible ideological or religious viewpoints. Traditional modes of deterrence usually do not work against such adversaries, as they tend to be less or not at all concerned about their physical well-being (as opposed to major powers during the Cold War, in which case nuclear deterrence and the MAD paradigm—Mutually Assured Destruction—deterred each side from initiating an attack against the other).

Lastly, on this point, while state-centric conflicts were and are fairly easy to locate on the maps of the world, asymmetric threats are not. Thus, even with a larger number of wars happening in faraway locations we tend to feel more secure because we know where they are and where not to go. With a threat of a terrorist attack, a threat that has no assigned territory and an enemy that has no face, that threat may be nowhere, yet it may be anywhere. As such, it is understandable that many people may perceive the world as less secure today than in the past. That parallels the remarks of some senior security officials from many countries, who somewhat sarcastically say that they miss the times of the Cold War. Why? Because things were much clearer and more predictable then. Increased lack of predictability even in a short-term perspective cannot mean a more secure world, can it?

The Role of Mass Media

Andrew Mack mentions the mass media in reference to the general perception of insecurity. He is absolutely right, as the modern mass media, unfortunately, mostly follows the corporate logic of sensational and, therefore, mostly bad news: and that means a lot of bad news in a 24/7 news cycle. That, obviously, leaves an image of the world full only of conflicts, death, and suffering, and in general manmade and natural catastrophes. We barely ever hear about the good things that are being done every day, about the progress in many countries that is a result of hard work of dedicated people in governmental and non-governmental institutions and voluntary organizations. Positive change at both the inter-governmental and the grass-roots level is taking place and is being facilitated all over the world, but it is mostly successfully “outshouted” by the negative processes that contribute to overall insecurity. In many ways, this informational battle space is just as important as combating poverty, crime, or terrorism. An average person bombarded with bad news may understandably walk away with a pessimistic feeling about the world and its future, with less desire to go and actually see the world, and more likely to feel besieged by all the dangers that are “out there.” We need neither too much pessimism nor too much optimism. What we need is a realistic assessment based on solid, verified, and sufficiently nuanced information, and such should be the information that is being reported to average citizens.

In Conclusion

The analysis of exclusively state wars (direct or conducted via proxy actors) may indeed be a cause for cautious optimism. We do need to remember, however, that as much as statistical and historical analyses of the past are very helpful, they should not be the sole basis of our optimism for tomorrow. Yesterday’s weapons were “swords and bows;” today’s may be portable nukes that, according to most intelligence analysis, sooner or later will find their way into the hands of extremist individuals. A more secure world means a world in which there is more clarity as to who is and is not your enemy; while during the Cold War it was very clear, in the world of today, that picture is fuzzy.

A more secure world means having the initiative against potential threats and enemies, and it means being a step ahead of the game, rather than always being on the defense and trying to catch up with what the potential enemies may do to harm us. A more secure world means constructive, well-informed, nuance-based, and culture-sensitive engagement with the rest of the world. If we continue being in the exclusively “reactive” mode, someone somewhere is likely to find a hole in the system and surprise us again, thus making it very tangibly a very insecure world yet again. Twenty years ago, Martin van Creveld, a distinguished military historian, noted: “In the future war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom today we call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit upon more formal titles to describe themselves.”[1] Since that statement was written the world has seen a huge proliferation of threats stemming precisely from various illicit non-state actors. Thus, while it is a very positive trend that international wars have been on a decline, it is also true that other forms of threats and lethal conflict have been on the rise. The picture that emerges is a bittersweet one and, therefore, concluding that we live in a more secure world today than twenty or so years ago seems to be too optimistic of a statement. There is still a lot of work to be done towards that goal and at the moment we are simply not there yet.


[1] van Creveld, Martin. (1991) The Transformation of War. Free Press. 1st Edition, p. 197.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Andrew Mack outlines a dramatic decline over the last several decades in the number of battlefield deaths and of wars overall. Reason, he argues, for cautious optimism. He reviews several arguments for why this decline has taken place. He dismisses the “nuclear peace” theory, noting that the world’s nuclear powers have been involved in many wars. He suggests that several other things may be driving the trend. First, democracies tend not to fight one another, and there are more democracies now. Second, the gains that nations realize from international trade now far exceed those they could otherwise realize through plunder. In our era, conquest doesn’t pay like it used to. International support of insurgent groups shriveled after the Cold War. And International peacekeeping institutions grew. Mack argues that while each has its partisans, these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Response Essays

  • Erik Gartzke argues that modern states have engaged in fewer and less deadly wars because it is now very often more profitable to trade than to plunder. The wave of midcentury wars had two causes; these wars were often either anticolonial conflicts, in which the great powers effectively surrendered their strategies of plunder, or ideological proxy conflicts stemming from the Cold War (or, of course, a mixture of both). Yet neither cause obtains much anymore. Today’s wars tend to be between poorer, less militarily capable countries, with the great powers acting in a policing role. Whether this trend continues will depend to a great extent on the trajectory of the economically rising east Asian states.

  • John Owen agrees that both democratic peace theory and commercial peace theory have some explanatory power, and that both of them may be working in tandem right now. But what started the virtuous circle? Is there a deeper explanation? Owen suggests that U.S. hegemony is that underlying factor. Hegemonic peace theory is distasteful to many, in that it claims one nation must be richer and more powerful than the rest to set the world at peace. Though distasteful, it might still be correct; if so, we should not welcome the decline of American hegemony.

  • Bartosz Stanislawski offers a mixed assessment of today’s human security picture. Although wars have become fewer and less deadly, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Nonstate actors are of particular concern today, in that, while states’ behavior may be modeled rationally, groups with an eccentric ideological or religious motivation cannot be so modeled. The result, obviously, is insecurity. The role of the mass media is also important, in his view. While much progress has been made, and while that progress is underreported, the media tend strongly to report violent conflict in a way that fills up the 24-hour news cycle. The result can be unjustified pessimism. Neither it nor its counterpart, unjustified optimism, is warranted.