About this Issue

To judge by the televised news, the story of international relations is one of unrelenting woe. Mankind has always fought among itself, and the conflicts grow worse and worse all the time.

Happily, this view is mistaken. Although televised and Internet reporting bring the violence of battle into our daily lives in new, unsettling ways, the last few decades have actually seen a dramatic decline in the intensity of wars across the globe. In a word, the great untold story of our era is peace.

Demographers measuring the phenomenon agree about its reality, but they disagree both about its origins and its trajectory. Those of us who take world peace seriously face some important questions. Lately we appear to be doing something right—so what is it? And can we keep doing it? How long will the era of peace continue? What drives it, and what threatens it?

To discuss these weighty questions, we’ve invited Professor Andrew Mack, the Director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University; Professor Erik Gartzke of the University of California, San Diego; Professor John Owen of the University of Virginia; and Bartosz Stanislawski, the director of Syracuse University’s Mapping Global Insecurity-Global Black Spots Research Program.


Lead Essay

A More Secure World?

Since the end of World War II the global security environment has undergone a series of profound changes whose causes remain curiously little examined—even by security analysts.

As Figure 1 (below) reveals, the total number of conflicts—international and civil wars—being waged around the world increased threefold during the Cold War years, then sharply declined, with this latter change going largely unheralded, even at the United Nations.

The forces that have been driving this decline are likely to be sustained, or to increase, in the years ahead, providing grounds for cautious, qualified optimism about future security trends.

Patterns of Warfare in the Post-Cold War World

Almost all of the increase in conflict numbers from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War is accounted for by the proliferation of intrastate conflicts—civil wars. But, as Figure I indicates, following the end of the Cold War, the number of conflicts—almost all intrastate—dropped sharply. By 2008, there were a third fewer conflicts than in 1992.[1]

From 2003 to 2008, overall conflict numbers increased by some 25 percent. This was due primarily due to an increase in minor conflicts that kill relatively few people. But the number of high-intensity wars, those with an annual battle death toll of 1,000 or more, has continued to decline. By 2008 there were 78 percent fewer of these conflicts being fought around the world than at the end of the 1980s.

Remarkably, not a single full-length study has been devoted to explaining why this extraordinary reduction in conflict numbers—almost all of which were civil wars—has taken place.

How Wars Have Become Less Deadly

The average war in the 1950s killed about 10,000 people a year; in the new millennium the average was a little less than one thousand.

The remarkable but extremely uneven reduction in death tolls revealed in Figure 2 has been caused in part by the long-term decline in international conflicts (which kill far more people on average than civil wars), and by the sharp decline in the direct and indirect military interventions by the superpowers in other countries’ wars that were characteristic of the major conflicts of the Cold War years. These conflicts—from the Chinese Civil War and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan—typically involved prolonged engagements between huge armies, at least one of which was equipped with heavy conventional weapons—strike aircraft, tanks, long-range artillery and the like. Death tolls often exceeded 1 million.

In the post–Cold War world, wars are mostly fought within, not between, states and by small armies mostly equipped with small arms and light weapons. While often characterized by extreme brutality toward civilians, these wars have killed relatively few people compared to the major wars of the Cold War period.

And it is not just battle deaths that have declined. Deaths from conflict-exacerbated disease and malnutrition have also been reduced by long-term improvements in public health, notably immunization, that have caused child and adult mortality rates to decline sharply across the developing world over the past 30 years. These improvements have not only steadily reduced mortality rates in peacetime but also saved countless lives in wartime.

In addition there have been major increases in the level, scope, and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance to war-affected populations in countries in conflict. These interventions have reduced wartime death tolls still further.

Can We Be Confident About the Trends?

These findings present a picture that is very much at odds with popular—mostly media-derived—depictions of a progressively more violent world. And they raise an obvious question: how reliable are the data? The short answer is that we can be quite confident about the number of conflicts, but battle death data are far less reliable. Exaggerated, politically driven claims about death tolls are common in some conflicts, while undercounting is a problem in most—particularly in wars in very poor countries. But there is no doubt that the 50-plus year trend in battle-related deaths is downward—no serious scholar would deny that today’s wars are, on average, far less deadly than those of the Cold War years.

Predicting future security trends is an exercise fraught with peril, as the near-universal failure of the security studies community to predict the end of the Cold War reminds us. But while current statistical models do very poorly at predicting exactly when and where wars will start, considerable progress has been made in establishing the conditions, dynamics, and policies that increase—and decrease—the risks that countries will succumb to war.

It is ironic given the huge and sometimes disproportionate attention paid to the risks of war and terrorism, to say nothing of some 1.5-plus trillion dollars a year being devoted to military expenditure around the world, that there has been far less attention paid to what prevents or stops wars than what causes them. As Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey succinctly put it, “For every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.”[2]

Understanding the drivers of peace in the post–World War II world at minimum requires explaining the decline international conflicts since the 1950s, and decline in civil wars since the end of the Cold War. The next two sections attempt this, while the final section reflects on the implications these analyses for global security over the next decade.

Explaining the 60-Year Decline in the Incidence of International Conflict

In the 1950s, there were, on average, just over six international conflicts being fought around the world each year, anti-colonial conflicts included. In the new millennium there has been fewer than one international conflict each year on average, as Figure 3 makes clear.

Moreover, there has not been a single war between the major powers for an unprecedented 60-plus years. This does not mean that the major powers are war-averse—far from it. In fact France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia (USSR) top the list of countries that have fought the most wars since 1946—though their wars were almost all fought in poor countries and never against other major powers.

International conflicts are not only fewer in number, they have also become far less deadly. In the 1950s, the average international conflict killed some 20,000 people a year on the battlefield. In the post–Cold War 1990s, the average annual battle-death toll was less than 6,000; in the new millennium the figure was around 3,000.

International relations scholars have offered a number of—contested—explanations for the causes of war and peace in the nuclear age. However, notwithstanding heated debates among their proponents, most of the contested theories are complementary.

A Nuclear Peace?

For “realist” scholars, the absence of war between the major powers during the Cold War years is best explained by the existence of a stable balance of power between East and West—in particular by the deterrence created by the mutual possession of nuclear arsenals with “second strike” capacities.

Kenneth Waltz, the leading proponent of the pacifying impact of nuclear weapons, has argued that, “Peace has become the privilege of states having nuclear weapons, while wars are fought by those who lack them.”[3]

But while nuclear arsenals undoubtedly induced a measure of caution in the behaviour of the superpowers and their allies towards each other, Waltz’ assertion is wrong for two reasons.

First, nuclear weapons states are not embroiled in fewer wars. Quite the contrary. Each of the four countries that have fought most international wars since the end of World War II—France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia (USSR)—is a nuclear weapons state.

Second, since the end of World War II, non-nuclear states have repeatedly attacked nuclear weapons states. U.S. nuclear weapons did not deter China from attacking U.S. forces in the Korean War, nor North Vietnam from attacking South Vietnam and U.S. forces in the 1960s. Israeli nuclear weapons did not dissuade Egypt from attacking Israel in 1973. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from invading the Falkland Islands in 1982, and the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not deter the mujahedeen from waging war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s—nor did they prevent a Soviet defeat.

Peace Through Democratization and Interdependence

“Liberal” scholars, who have a much less pessimistic view of human nature and institutions than “realists,” believe that the incidence of war between states has been reduced since the end of World War II by the steady growth in the number of democracies in the international system and by growing international economic interdependence.

The best-known liberal theory is the “democratic peace,” whose central—and uncontested—finding is that fully democratic states never, or to be more precise, almost never, go to war against each other.

Proponents of democratic peace theory do not argue that democracies are generally peaceful—democracies frequently fight non-democracies—simply that democratic states do not fight each other. If the democratic peace theory is correct, the dramatic increase in the number of democracies around the world over the last three decades will have reduced the number of countries in the world likely to fight each other.

Other liberal scholars place much less stress on the conflict-reducing effect of democracy and a lot more on the security impact of the ever-growing interdependencies that are associated with today’s globalized economy. Interdependence increases the costs of going to war, while reducing its benefits. One study by the Cato Institute argued that when measures of both democratization and economic liberalization are included in statistical analyses, “economic freedom is about 50 times more effective than democracy in diminishing violent conflict.”[4]

The debate among quantitative scholars over the relative impacts of democracy and economic interdependence on the risk of war is both unresolved and highly technical, but there is little dissent from the proposition that increasing levels of international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) are associated with a reduced risk of war.

But increased interdependence is not the only economic driver of reduced war risks. In the modern era there are far fewer economic incentives for embarking on war than there were in the era of colonial expansion. Today it is almost always cheaper—politically as well as economically—to buy raw materials from other countries than to mount invasions in order to seize them.

Peace through Ideas: The Change in Attitudes to War

In the 21st century the traditional economic benefits of conquest have not only largely disappeared, but the resort to war as an instrument of statecraft has become legally and normatively proscribed except in self-defence, or with the authorization of the UN Security Council.

This shift in global norms is evident in the universal recognition of the illegitimacy of colonial conquest and the absence among national governments the world over of the sort of aggressive hyper-nationalism associated with German and Japanese Fascism prior to World War II. What the French call bellicisme—the glorification of warfare—has almost completely disappeared from the developed world and is very rare elsewhere—though it is characteristic of some radical Islamist organizations like al Qaeda.

The importance of the anti-war norm is not negated by the fact that it is sometimes violated. All norms are violated to some degree. This does not mean that they are ineffectual.

Explaining the Decline in Civil Wars

The most robust finding to have emerged from two decades of statistical research on the causes of war is that there is a strong association between rising levels of economic development and the risk of war onsets. As national incomes increase, the risk of war declines. Economic development, in other words, appears to be a powerful long-term form of conflict prevention.

Several reasons have been advanced to explain why higher incomes should be associated with reduced risks of civil war. The most compelling and best supported, is that income is a “proxy” indicator for state capacity. As national incomes rise, tax revenues increase and state capacity grows. This in turn provides governments with the political, economic, and military resources to prevent rebellions—and to crush militarily those that cannot be stopped via negotiation, or by buying off grievances, or political co-optation.

Rebel groups, often living in the rural periphery, are generally excluded from the benefits of rising levels of development, so the balance of resources relevant to preventing wars, and winning those that cannot be prevented, will—other things being equal—tilt progressively in favour of governments as incomes rise.

Given that economic growth generally increases the capacities of governments relative to those of insurgent organizations, we might expect to see fewer insurgent victories as poor-country incomes rise.

This is in fact the case. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, there hasn’t been a single insurgent military victory since the end of the 1970s, while among the “strong” states of the Middle East and North Africa, there has been just one (Yemen) in the same period. The greatest number of insurgent victories over the past 30 years has been in sub-Saharan Africa—the region with the weakest states.

If, as seems likely, poor-country incomes continue to rise, the prospect for insurgent victories will continue to decline. Confronting diminishing returns from political violence, some would-be rebels may in future be deterred from starting wars.

The Impact of the End of the Cold War

The extraordinary post-Cold War decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts went largely unnoticed in the policy community, the media, and by many in the research community. In the 1990s this was perhaps not surprising. Most people believed that conflict numbers were increasing—and they were partly correct. In fact, twice as many conflicts started in the 1990s, as in the 1980s. But an even greater number of conflicts ended in the latter decade. It was this little-recognized development that led to the net decline in conflict numbers.

The end of the Cold War directly caused, or indirectly catalyzed, a series of changes that had a major impact on the global security landscape.

First, the deep ideological division that had driven conflicts both between and within states in the international system for more than 40 years simply disappeared.

Second, the flow of resources from the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies to the warring parties in various “proxy” wars in the developing world simply shrivelled up. One consequence was the ending of “…nearly all the large scale communist insurgencies in the world.”[5]

Third, the UN, freed from the political stasis imposed by more than four decades of East-West rivalry, spearheaded an extraordinary upsurge of security initiatives by the international community.

Most notable were “peacemaking” (UN-speak for negotiations to end wars) and post-conflict “peacebuilding,” whose central security task, as its name suggests, is to prevent wars that have ended from starting again.

Preventive diplomacy was talked about a great deal but little practised. This was in part because the UN Security Council is so consumed by the demands of constant crisis management that it has little time to pursue prevention initiatives, and in part because many states in the developing world worried that inviting the UN in to play a dispute resolution role would give unwanted international legitimacy to insurgent groups.

The UN was not alone in its security activism, of course. The World Bank, other international agencies, regional security organizations, donor governments, and huge numbers of international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) were also actively involved, as were the national governments and national NGOs of the war-affected countries.

The increase in the level of international security activism has been extraordinary. It has included:

  • A threefold increase in UN and non-UN peace operations from 1988 to 2008—there are currently more than 30 such operations underway around the world, with a comparable number of non-UN missions in the field.
  • An increase in UN Security Council “Chapter VII” resolutions from zero in 1989 to 40 in 2008. Chapter VII resolutions authorize the Security Council to respond to threats to the peace with military force, sanctions, or other means.
  • A fivefold increase between 1989 and 2008 in the number of Special Representatives of the Secretary-General of the UN, most of whom have a security-related mandate.
  • A tenfold increase between 1991 and 2001 in the number of “Friends of the Secretary-General,” “contact groups,” and other political arrangements that support peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding initiatives.
  • A thirteenfold increase in the number of multilateral sanctions regimes in place each year between 1991 and 2008.
  • A ninefold increase in the number of ongoing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration operations from 1989 to 2008.

In some important areas—notably mediation initiatives to end civil wars—we still lack reliable global data. But, there is little doubt that the trends are similar.

Some Causes for Optimism

The security history of the post–World War II era, despite some major failures, provides grounds for some cautious optimism about the future—though none for complacency.

Two system-wide drivers of armed conflict—the imposition of colonial rule on much of the developing world and the Cold War—ceased to exist in this period. Neither will return. No obvious new system-wide source of conflict appears likely to replace them.

Some might argue that the threat of Islamist radicalism exemplified by al Qaeda is already a major threat to international security. But support for extremist Islamist ideology has declined substantially throughout the Muslim world. Absent popular support, Islamist radicals cannot wage a successful “peoples’ war,” and without conventional armies, which they do not have, they cannot overthrow governments. It appears extremely unlikely that radical Islamists can ever energize an effective global campaign comparable to the anti-colonial and Marxist political movements of the Cold War period.

There are other reasons for cautious optimism. First, absent a global economic crisis that is far greater than the current one, economic interdependence will continue to grow. This will likely further increase the costs and decrease the benefits of interstate war—and hence the risk of it occurring.

Second, incomes will almost certainly continue to grow in the developing world. This will continue to enhance state capacity, which almost all the statistical studies agree reduces the risks of armed conflict.

Third, there are no signs that the international community’s commitment to peacemaking and peacebuilding is waning—indeed the contrary is true.

Fourth, in seeking to bring down repressive and authoritarian regimes, there are viable alternatives to violent insurrection—as the mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt remind us. Since the mid-1980s the number of autocracies in the world has declined by some 70 percent.[6] Yet strikingly few of these transitions were the result of violent insurgencies; still fewer resulted from foreign military intervention. A substantial number, however, were brought about by unarmed “people power” movements—and without any help from external powers.[7] Such movements offer a promising alternative to violent insurgencies whose success rates have been declining.


In the two decades since the Cold War ended, a dynamic, inchoate, rarely efficient, but nonetheless quite effective system of global security governance has emerged. Its central focus is civil war in the developing world, and it comprises a loose network of international organizations—most importantly the UN and the World Bank—plus national governments and NGOs, plus informal clusters of like-minded states—like the various “Friends of the Secretary-General” groups—that share core values and objectives and are created to support peace negotiations and peacebuilding missions.

This is not a mode of governance that eschews the use of the military—indeed peacekeeping is central to its peacebuilding policy. But its major security objectives—conflict prevention, peacemaking, and post-conflict peacebuilding—are pursued primarily by non-military means.

The evolution of this nascent security system has been, and remains, messy, disputatious, and—as Rwanda and Darfur remind us—prone to tragic failures. But the security initiatives that have been pursued have been a major driver of the dramatic post–Cold War decline in armed conflict. This is no mean achievement.


[1] Figure 1 only counts conflicts in which a government is one of the warring parties and is either fighting another government (an international conflict) or a non-state armed group (intrastate conflict). Conflicts in which a government is not one of the warring parties—intercommunal conflicts, or those between rival rebel groups or warlords, are not counted. There are however relatively few of these conflicts and they are far less deadly on average than conflicts in which a state is one of the warring parties. Conflicts are defined here as violent contestations that result in least 25 battle deaths a year. Battle deaths include so-called “collateral dammage”—i.e., civilians caught in the crossfire.

[2] Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, Third Edition, New York, Free Press, 1988. p. 3.

[3] Kenneth Waltz, “Peace, Stability, and Nuclear Weapons,” Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation,

Policy Paper No. 15, University of California, Berkeley, August 1995, 9.

[4] Executive Summary, Economic Freedom of the World, 2005, Washington D.C., Cato Institute, 2005. http://www.cato.org/pubs/efw/efw2005/efw2005es.pdf. p. 3.

[5] Ann Hironaka, Neverending Wars: the International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005. p 124.

[6] Monty Marshall, “Global Trends in Democratization,” Center for Systemic Peace, http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm. p.17.

[7] See, Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Response Essays

Security in an Insecure World

It would have been much easier for my commentary to be colorful were the essay “A More Secure World” fatally flawed, but Andrew Mack has things about right. The world has become more peaceful, particularly in recent decades and in certain regions. Let me try to sharpen or emphasize a few points. I would also like to try to dive a bit deeper into the big “why” question. We all want to know whether this peace is temporary or perhaps perpetual.

A Few More Pictures of the Peace

It will help to begin with a few longer-term images of conflict trends. The graphs Mack provided are indicative, but we cannot really be sure a trend is a trend by looking at the bit that is supposed to be the anomaly. Below is a graph of the number of militarized interstate disputes—conflicts involving militarized threats, displays, or force up to and including major war between at least two countries—per year adjusted for the number of country pairs in the world. After an unusually violent period at the beginning of the 20th century, peace has begun to take hold. The trend Mack identifies is not only present post–Cold War, but has been a part of the modern world since at least the end of the Second World War. Countries are fighting each other less, and at all levels of conflict intensity.

It could also be that the last two centuries are the anomaly. To look back further, we need to focus on Europe, where data is slightly better. The next figure details conflict in Europe between 1400 and 2000. These data come from Peter Brecke. Warfare here represents at least 32 conflict-caused deaths, with each tiny square detailing the number of conflicts in a given decade. There is quite a bit of “noise” in the amount of conflict by decade, but clearly, too, there is a prevailing trend. These results are generally consistent with findings using other compilations of conflict behavior. Conflicts decrease in Europe from an average of 30 per decade at the beginning of the fifteenth century to about 10 per decade in 2000.

What is Going On?

So peace has broken out, at least in some places. Yet peace has been sought so earnestly, for such a long time, and with so little demonstrable success that it would be foolish, even irresponsible, for scholars to pretend that evidence alone is sufficient to have confidence in optimistic conclusions. History has observed other periods of unusual peace (there is an interesting set of studies showing that the Cold War peace was not statistically abnormal). As a matter of practical contingency, even in Europe war could recur at any time in large part because there is nothing in an anarchical world that prevents it from happening. In the absence a compelling explanation for why many nations are, and will remain at peace, we must allow for the possibility that macro-historical tendencies toward war will recur.

So what is happening? My answer is similar to Mack’s, but I will pose it in a slightly different way. First, let us think about why anyone (individuals, groups, nations) resorts to violence. War is costly and, in nominal terms, inefficient. Blood, effort, and treasure are expended in contests that might well be used in other ways. Yet historically, these actors return to violence because it offers the potential to accomplish ends for which they strive.

Conflict has utility in politics for one of two reasons. Either actors want physical, tangible stuff (populations, minerals, or territory) that they cannot all have, or they want intangible states of the world (policies, prerogatives, political concessions) that they may not be able to share. Think of the difference here in terms of the Cold War, where opponents wanted to impose a state of the world on one another—the United States and the Soviet Union had policy differences but did not want to physically control one another’s territory—and a war like the First World War, where opponents had real, tangible territorial objectives.

A second, separate question, is what actors are willing and able to do about their conflicts. Individuals are much more likely to act violently against a neighbor, since they are close and there are many opportunities to interact. Similarly, neighboring states are historically much more likely to fight. At the same time, alternatives are important in terms of whether opportunity and willingness to fight result in violence. I may dispute my neighbor in court instead of with my fists, if this is an option. Nations can occasionally work out differences peacefully when there are dispute mechanisms that accomplish “warfare by proxy.”

Almost as informative as the decline in warfare has been where this decline is occurring. Traditionally, nations were constrained by opportunity. Most nations did not fight most others because they could not physically do so. Powerful nations, in contrast, tended to fight more often, and particularly to fight with other powerful states. Modern “zones of peace” are dominated by powerful, militarily capable countries. These countries could fight each other, but are not inclined to do so. At the same time, weaker developing nations that continue to exercise force in traditional ways are incapable of projecting power against the developed world, with the exception of unconventional methods, such as terrorism.

The world is thus divided between those who could use force but prefer not to (at least not against each other) and those who would be willing to fight but lack the material means to fight far from home. Warfare in the modern world has thus become an activity involving weak (usually neighboring) nations, with intervention by powerful (geographically distant) states in a policing capacity. So, the riddle of peace boils down to why capable nations are not fighting each other. There are several explanations, as Mack has pointed out.

The easiest, and I think the best, explanation has to do with an absence of motive. Modern states find little incentive to bicker over tangible property, since armies are expensive and the goods that can be looted are no longer of considerable value. Ironically, this is exactly the explanation that Norman Angell famously supplied before the World Wars. Yet, today the evidence is abundant that the most prosperous, capable nations prefer to buy rather than take. Decolonization, for example, divested European powers of territories that were increasingly expensive to administer and which contained tangible assets of limited value.

Of comparable importance is the move to substantial consensus among powerful nations about how international affairs should be conducted. The great rivalries of the twentieth century were ideological rather than territorial. These have been substantially resolved, as Francis Fukuyama has pointed out. The fact that remaining differences are moderate, while the benefits of acting in concert are large (due to economic interdependence in particular) means that nations prefer to deliberate rather than fight. Differences remain, but for the most part the capable countries of the world have been in consensus, while the disgruntled developing world is incapable of acting on respective nations’ dissatisfaction.

While this version of events explains the partial peace bestowed on the developed world, it also poses challenges in terms of the future. The rising nations of Asia in particular have not been equal beneficiaries in the world political system. These nations have benefited from economic integration, and this has proved sufficient in the past to pacify them. The question for the future is whether the benefits of tangible resources through markets are sufficient to compensate the rising powers for their lack of influence in the policy sphere. The danger is that established powers may be slow to accommodate or give way to the demands of rising powers from Asia and elsewhere, leading to divisions over the intangible domain of policy and politics. Optimists argue that at the same time that these nations are rising in power, their domestic situations are evolving in a way that makes their interests more similar to the West. Consumerism, democracy, and a market orientation all help to draw the rising powers in as fellow travelers in an expanding zone of peace among the developed nations. Pessimists argue instead that capabilities among the rising powers are growing faster than their affinity for western values, or even that fundamental differences exist among the interests of first- and second-wave powers that cannot be bridged by the presence of market mechanisms or McDonald’s restaurants.

If the peace observed among western, developed nations is to prove durable, it must be because warfare proves futile as nations transition to prosperity. Whether this will happen depends on the rate of change in interests and capabilities, a difficult thing to judge. We must hope that the optimistic view is correct, that what ended war in Europe can be exported globally. Prosperity has made war expensive, while the fruits of conflict, both in terms of tangible and intangible spoils have declined in value. These forces are not guaranteed to prevail indefinitely. Already, research on robotic warfare promises to lower the cost of conquest. If in addition, fundamental differences among capable communities arise, then warfare over ideology or policy can also be resurrected. We must all hope that the consolidating forces of prosperity prevail, that war becomes a durable anachronism.

Don’t Discount Hegemony

Andrew Mack and his colleagues at the Human Security Report Project are to be congratulated. Not only do they present a study with a striking conclusion, driven by data, free of theoretical or ideological bias, but they also do something quite unfashionable: they bear good news. Social scientists really are not supposed to do that. Our job is, if not to be Malthusians, then at least to point out disturbing trends, looming catastrophes, and the imbecility and mendacity of policy makers. And then it is to say why, if people listen to us, things will get better. We do this as if our careers depended upon it, and perhaps they do; for if all is going to be well, what need then for us?

Our colleagues at Simon Fraser University are brave indeed. That may sound like a setup, but it is not. I shall challenge neither the data nor the general conclusion that violent conflict around the world has been decreasing in fits and starts since the Second World War. When it comes to violent conflict among and within countries, things have been getting better. (The trends have not been linear—Figure 1.1 actually shows that the frequency of interstate wars peaked in the 1980s—but the 65-year movement is clear.) Instead I shall accept that Mack et al. are correct on the macro-trends, and focus on their explanations they advance for these remarkable trends. With apologies to any readers of this forum who recoil from academic debates, this might get mildly theoretical and even more mildly methodological.

Concerning international wars, one version of the “nuclear-peace” theory is not in fact laid to rest by the data. It is certainly true that nuclear-armed states have been involved in many wars. They have even been attacked (think of Israel), which falsifies the simple claim of “assured destruction”—that any nuclear country A will deter any kind of attack by any country B because B fears a retaliatory nuclear strike from A.

But the most important “nuclear-peace” claim has been about mutually assured destruction, which obtains between two robustly nuclear-armed states. The claim is that (1) rational states having second-strike capabilities—enough deliverable nuclear weaponry to survive a nuclear first strike by an enemy—will have an overwhelming incentive not to attack one another; and (2) we can safely assume that nuclear-armed states are rational. It follows that states with a second-strike capability will not fight one another.

Their colossal atomic arsenals neither kept the United States at peace with North Vietnam during the Cold War nor the Soviet Union at peace with Afghanistan. But the argument remains strong that those arsenals did help keep the United States and Soviet Union at peace with each other. Why non-nuclear states are not deterred from fighting nuclear states is an important and open question. But in a time when calls to ban the Bomb are being heard from more and more quarters, we must be clear about precisely what the broad trends toward peace can and cannot tell us. They may tell us nothing about why we have had no World War III, and little about the wisdom of banning the Bomb now.

Regarding the downward trend in international war, Professor Mack is friendlier to more palatable theories such as the “democratic peace” (democracies do not fight one another, and the proportion of democracies has increased, hence less war); the interdependence or “commercial peace” (states with extensive economic ties find it irrational to fight one another, and interdependence has increased, hence less war); and the notion that people around the world are more anti-war than their forebears were. Concerning the downward trend in civil wars, he favors theories of economic growth (where commerce is enriching enough people, violence is less appealing—a logic similar to that of the “commercial peace” thesis that applies among nations) and the end of the Cold War (which end reduced superpower support for rival rebel factions in so many Third-World countries).

These are all plausible mechanisms for peace. What is more, none of them excludes any other; all could be working toward the same end. That would be somewhat puzzling, however. Is the world just lucky these days? How is it that an array of peace-inducing factors happens to be working coincidentally in our time, when such a magical array was absent in the past? The answer may be that one or more of these mechanisms reinforces some of the others, or perhaps some of them are mutually reinforcing. Some scholars, for example, have been focusing on whether economic growth might support democracy and vice versa, and whether both might support international cooperation, including to end civil wars.

We would still need to explain how this charmed circle of causes got started, however. And here let me raise another factor, perhaps even less appealing than the “nuclear peace” thesis, at least outside of the United States. That factor is what international relations scholars call hegemony—specifically American hegemony.

A theory that many regard as discredited, but that refuses to go away, is called hegemonic stability theory. The theory emerged in the 1970s in the realm of international political economy. It asserts that for the global economy to remain open—for countries to keep barriers to trade and investment low—one powerful country must take the lead. Depending on the theorist we consult, “taking the lead” entails paying for global public goods (keeping the sea lanes open, providing liquidity to the international economy), coercion (threatening to raise trade barriers or withdraw military protection from countries that cheat on the rules), or both. The theory is skeptical that international cooperation in economic matters can emerge or endure absent a hegemon. The distastefulness of such claims is self-evident: they imply that it is good for everyone the world over if one country has more wealth and power than others. More precisely, they imply that it has been good for the world that the United States has been so predominant.

There is no obvious reason why hegemonic stability theory could not apply to other areas of international cooperation, including in security affairs, human rights, international law, peacekeeping (UN or otherwise), and so on. What I want to suggest here—suggest, not test—is that American hegemony might just be a deep cause of the steady decline of political deaths in the world.

How could that be? After all, the report states that United States is the third most war-prone country since 1945. Many of the deaths depicted in Figure 10.4 were in wars that involved the United States (the Vietnam War being the leading one). Notwithstanding politicians’ claims to the contrary, a candid look at U.S. foreign policy reveals that the country is as ruthlessly self-interested as any other great power in history.

The answer is that U.S. hegemony might just be a deeper cause of the proximate causes outlined by Professor Mack. Consider economic growth and openness to foreign trade and investment, which (so say some theories) render violence irrational. American power and policies may be responsible for these in two related ways. First, at least since the 1940s Washington has prodded other countries to embrace the market capitalism that entails economic openness and produces sustainable economic growth. The United States promotes capitalism for selfish reasons, of course: its own domestic system depends upon growth, which in turn depends upon the efficiency gains from economic interaction with foreign countries, and the more the better. During the Cold War most of its allies accepted some degree of market-driven growth.

Second, the U.S.-led western victory in the Cold War damaged the credibility of alternative paths to development—communism and import-substituting industrialization being the two leading ones—and left market capitalism the best model. The end of the Cold War also involved an end to the billions of rubles in Soviet material support for regimes that tried to make these alternative models work. (It also, as Professor Mack notes, eliminated the superpowers’ incentives to feed civil violence in the Third World.) What we call globalization is caused in part by the emergence of the United States as the global hegemon.

The same case can be made, with somewhat more difficulty, concerning the spread of democracy. Washington has supported democracy only under certain conditions—the chief one being the absence of a popular anti-American movement in the target state—but those conditions have become much more widespread following the collapse of communism. Thus in the 1980s the Reagan administration—the most anti-communist government America ever had—began to dump America’s old dictator friends, starting in the Philippines. Today Islamists tend to be anti-American, and so the Obama administration is skittish about democracy in Egypt and other authoritarian Muslim countries. But general U.S. material and moral support for liberal democracy remains strong.

The trouble with hegemonic stability theory is that it is difficult to test. The difficulty lies in the unobservable qualities of hegemony: it is about not simply material power—guns and money—but “soft power,” persuasion, ideas, things difficult to quantify and measure. Still, many scholars of international relations continue to think that there is much to the theory. The implications are large. If American hegemony does indeed underpin, at least indirectly, the virtuous macro-trends outlined in Professor Mack’s essay—the overall downward trend in wars and political deaths—then the decline in American hegemony many analysts are now seeing is about much more than the humbling of a superpower.

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.

The Conversation

Two Questions

To Bartosz Stanislawski: Couldn’t the presence of “non-state threats” imply an important corollary for Andrew Mack’s thesis? If states really are not fighting much any more, extremists must resort to the admittedly more marginal acts of insurgency and terrorism. Even Mao Zedong said that these tactics seldom work in and of themselves, except that poor policies by states open avenues to the capture of state power, which then can be used for revolutionary ends. In other words, instead of seeking non-state conflict as more than it is, perhaps the rise of this type of conflict is a sign that state warfare is one the wane, long term.

As an aside, and as a matter of fact, people in 1939 could have only been optimistic if they ignored the statistics and history. There was a brief respite of warfare in the 1920s and early 1930s, but the longer-term trend was still increasing in the first decades of the 20th century.

Also, it is simply not good theory or policy to treat nonstate actors as irrational, especially when treating other actors as rational. Extremism may be abhorrent, but to doubt that it has a logic is to commit the classic error of underestimating one’s enemy. Again, as a point of fact, there is a considerable and growing theoretical literature that does exactly this, treating extremists as if they have reasoning abilities too. Why conflate extremism with irrationality and moderation with rationality, especially when this disarms to some degree both sets of concepts?

To John Owen: Could your argument not support a more optimistic conclusion than even that of Andrew Mack? In Dr. Mack’s world, the decline of U.S. hegemony does pose important potential risks, particularly if, as you note, the United States has been carrying the burden of sponsorship of global markets and the like. If instead we think of the “nuclear peace,” then paradoxically there is reason for more optimism. No one seriously thinks the United States will be unable to maintain a large nuclear arsenal far into the future, even if it does decline in relative terms on other dimensions of power. The Soviet Union completely collapsed in 1992. If we are to believe the nuclear peace, then we must also accept that a humbled Russia has succeeded in maintaining global stability by its nuclear balance with the United States, despite all sorts of problems both in its nuclear and conventional forces, and in its larger economy. Presumably, the United States will also be able to maintain a stalemate with any rising powers, because of the presence of its nuclear arsenal. Strangely, this implies that an Owenesque future could be more peaceful than Mackian one. (!)

A Response and a Question

Erik Gartzke asks:

Couldn’t the presence of “nonstate threats” imply an important corollary for Andrew Mack’s thesis? If states really are not fighting much any more, extremists must resort to the admittedly more marginal acts of insurgency and terrorism. Even Mao Zedong said that these tactics seldom work in and of themselves, except that poor policies by states open avenues to the capture of state power, which then can be used for revolutionary ends. In other words, instead of seeking nonstate conflict as more than it is, perhaps the rise of this type of conflict is a sign that state warfare is one the wane, long term.

I would say that phenomena like modern terrorism and transnational organized crime have been around for decades. Less modern versions have been around for centuries and millennia. Their existence does not necessarily mean the permanent decline of state-centric warfare. The rise in terrorist attacks in late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the anarchist movement, and the similar rise in the 1970s were not necessarily accompanied by a decline in state power or a decline in state-centric warfare. And let us remember that terrorism is just one of the threats posed by nonstate actors; it is not prudent to put all types of nonstate threats in one bag in search of an explanation. Thus, when we have to deal with a very large number of very diverse nonstate threats simultaneously, the picture of global security gets much more complicated. Transnational criminal organizations have almost always tried to co-opt state structures to serve their ends. Clearly, at times when international system becomes more fluid, illicit nonstate actors have greater ease of operations (taking advantage of shifting international borders, population movements, power vacuums, etc.).

The dynamics of the last two decades are sometimes compared with the years following World War I in that certain state structures, imposed on various ethnic and national groups of people, kept diverse social forces bottled up for decades. When those borders and states suddenly disappeared in 1918, the effect was a sort of a social explosion—both legitimate and illicit social forces were suddenly released. Crime spilled over the old borders and became, as we would call it today, transnational; hence the need for international law enforcement cooperation and the emergence of Interpol in 1923. A similar process did not take place following World War II because the global scene was almost immediately “frozen” by the dynamics of the East-West competition and the Cold War. Border fences were raised higher instead of being eliminated. The “thaw” following the Cold War, however, certainly resulted in the massive release of both legitimate and illicit social forces. What is really new about this most recent social explosion is that it has arrived in parallel with the processes of globalization and a technological and information revolution that have no precedents in the past and that serve as force multipliers for both legitimate and illicit activities.

As to whether people in 1939 should have been pessimists or optimists about the future, it seems that Erik Gartzke proves my point about the limited usefulness of longer term historical trends for forecasting future conflicts. It is the second graph in his own essay that shows that since the 15th century there has been an overall longer-term downward trend in conflicts in Europe. People in early 1939 could certainly have been optimistic if they were to base their assessments of world security on such evidence. Hence my word of caution about pronouncing the world “more secure” today just because the longer trends demonstrate a decline in warfare. That same graph certainly shows ups and downs, or what the author refers to as “noise”; there is a clear instance of it at the beginning of the 20th century, just as there is a clear instance of it at the beginning of the 21st century (!). If, based on such analysis, people in early 1939 should have been pessimistic, then perhaps we should also be a little more restrained about our optimism.

Gartzke concludes that the overall trend, however, minus the “noise,” shows wars being on a decline. True. But the overall long-term trend was downward in 1939 and it is today, in 2011. Is that a basis to be more optimistic and consider the world today more secure than seventy plus years ago? Twenty years ago? My point is that such long-term historical analyses are just that: historical analyses that cut across very different technological, political, social, and economic eras. They do not indicate that the world of tomorrow is more secure. Contextualization of time and space greatly matters and ignoring it may lead to generalization, leading to a disaster.

As important as it is not to underestimate the enemy, it is equally important not to underestimate the possibility of future wars through wishful thinking, another classic error. Consider the attitudes and actions of key European governments towards the possibility of Nazi Germany starting another war. Their “appeasement” process may be perceived as an attempt either to avoid the war at all costs (including giving up on their allies and, potentially, eventually making huge concessions to the enemy to avoid the war). But it may also be perceived as a strong belief (as unrealistic as it would have been) that the war with Nazi Germany could indeed be avoided. From the historical perspective this may be seen either as a sign of tremendous naiveté or wishful thinking, but both preferably to be avoided in security analysis.

Regarding the question about extremism and rationality: extremism has its logic and so does transnational organized crime—both phenomena that have been with us for a long time and both phenomena that states have had serious problems defeating, not to mention eradicating. Stating that the logic of state interactions cannot be easily applied to the analysis of interactions with illicit nonstate actors does not mean that nonstate actors (and, again, terrorist organizations are just one type of them) do not have their own logic or rationality. But it is different from what states are used to in dealing with other states—hence the limitation of looking at world security from an exclusively state-centric point of view.

Are terrorist organizations rational? We probably would not say that they are rational, but it is certainly a fact that they have their own rationality, just as we have ours. Some of their members believe that it makes sense—it is rational for them—to commit certain hostile acts that most people, especially in the “western” world, would not consider rational in our understanding of what constitutes rationality. That is why that rationality is referred to as “bounded rationality,” to use Herbert Simon’s term, and it is very likely that western rationality may be referred to as “bounded” by those not sharing western values; different cultures have different rationalities.

It is less so in interactions between states, which tend to be more predictable. That predictability is much more limited in interactions with illicit nonstate actors whose very existence is based on strategic denial and deception. These aim at misleading the way states, state agencies, and people staffing them think – misleading “our” rationality. Do we learn about the modus operandi of those illicit nonstate actors and the way they think – reflections of their rationality? And do we apply that knowledge to combat them? Certainly. But they do just the same. That combined with their asymmetric reality (low visibility or invisibility; no assigned territory; not being bound by international law; their purposeful targeting of our weakest spots, which often means civilian targets etc.) puts us on the “catching up” side of the equation in this adaptability contest. To put it metaphorically, while states, even when they are conflicted, speak more or less the same language, states in interactions with nonstate actors usually do not. And when you have two or more actors aiming their weapons at each other and, on top of that, not communicating in the same language, optimism declines rather rapidly. In an era of large numbers of such hostile nonstate actors (terrorist, criminal, and hybrid), which require not only systemic, but also nuanced responses, it is difficult to say that the world today is more secure.

I would also like to pose a question to Erik Gartzke:

There have been a lot of books and articles written about the impact of prosperity on world peace. There certainly is a lot of evidence that prosperous communities live in peace, various theoretical debates seem to confirm it, and, to put it colloquially, it “just makes sense.” Why then is it that many people in various states and institutions, as well as many average citizens in different parts of the world, simply do not buy the notion that prosperity alone will eliminate some of the oldest geopolitical competitions, including the possibility of regular wars? Certainly there is a lot of truth in the idea that one’s views depend on where one lives. But there seems to be more than that. We can certainly think of Russia or China today—granted, wealth in those countries is not distributed as well as it is in “western” countries, but even within their small middle classes people do not necessarily share some of the values of the “west.” Consumerism? Sure. Capitalism? Certainly. Democracy? Well … here we have a bit of a question mark. Some would say a very, very large question mark. A question mark that makes all the other “shared” values insignificant when we think of some of the drivers of international peace. And let us keep in mind that Serbia in 1999 also had a McDonald’s restaurant—yet we went to war with it over serious differences in other values.

In spite of the large body of literature documenting the importance of prosperity for international peace, it may be a good idea to be cautious when thinking of prosperity as the golden cure for conflicts. Prosperity needs to go hand in hand with specific shared values (not just economic and lifestyle ones), otherwise you may have very prosperous individuals (or countries?) who choose to use their wealth to fund very hostile organizations. Analysis of fundraising activities by various hostile nonstate organizations shows the names of people who certainly cannot complain about their wealth and prosperity yet hold some seriously different underlying values from those that the “western” world has come to represent and, therefore, by their financial support they contribute to overall insecurity.

The Perils of Nuclear Peace

Erik Gartzke raises a terrific question concerning nuclear peace. If more countries acquire a second-strike nuclear capability, fewer pairs of countries will fight. Russia has such a capability; China probably has one; India might attain one as its rise continues. If we treat the European Union as a sort of superstate, it has a robust nuclear deterrent as well (in the form of the British and French arsenals). Does this not bode well for the future? As we know, Kenneth Waltz answers in the affirmative.[1]

But I’m not sure optimism is called for. First, one can acknowledge (as I do) that nuclear deterrence has worked without accepting that it must always work. Perhaps a desperate nuclear-armed leader will lapse into irrationality; before committing suicide the (instrumentally) rational Hitler ordered that Germany be destroyed in punishment for its not being worthy of him. Perhaps a failure of command and control, such as that immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, could take place. Picture Slim Pickens riding that Bomb as it falls out of the B-52. The rub is that if nuclear deterrence fails only once, the consequences could be unprecedentedly catastrophic. Perhaps there is only a 0.5 percent chance of a failure of deterrence over the next century, but in the case of nuclear weapons we need to distinguish that low figure from zero.

Second, there is the question raised by Bartosz Stanislawski of non-state actors getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Scott Sagan and others have written about the problem of loose nukes – weapons, fissile material, and so on being insecure in some states such as Pakistan or Iran. These could get into the hands of terrorists who are hard to find and hence hard to deter. We know that al Qaeda wants a nuclear weapon. We know about the A.Q. Khan network run out of Pakistan. In other words, I think that Professor Stanislawski’s basic point that catastrophes can happen even during virtuous trends is a good one, especially as concerns nuclear weapons.

While I’m responding, I’ll mention how much I appreciate Erik’s use of centuries of data to show that the trend away from wars is a long-term one. The trends are especially striking because the number of political units, and hence the occasions for war, has increased. This set me thinking about the macro-trends in world history. If the big powers do have less and less incentive to fight, what is reducing their incentives? Was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of History” argument right after all?


[1] See for example Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (N.Y.: Norton, 2002).

Some Final Responses

Thanks to Erik, John and for their thought-provoking contributions.

To Erik

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.

To John

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.

To Bartoz

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.