The Peace Epidemic
The world isn't so dangerous after all.
Just about every geopolitical argument put forth since 9/11 has taken as its starting point that the world has become a more violent place. Hawks reason that this new reality requires the United States to dispense with such niceties as the Geneva Conventions when we capture stateless Islamist fanatics. Doves reason that using 9/11 as a pretext to overthrow a brutal regime in Iraq, which is not known to have played any role in 9/11, merely provoked more Islamist violence. For both sides, it's a given that the first few years of the 21st century have been more bloody-minded than the last few years of the 20th.
When a proposition acquires this much currency, one's natural tendency is to assume that it must be true. But the things we all tend to believe tend not to receive much scrutiny. The notion that the world became more dangerous after 9/11 turns out to be one such belief. It's utter hooey.
In a fascinating op-ed in the Dec. 28 Washington Post, Andrew Mack, a former aide to United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan, demonstrated that during the past dozen years the world has become a significantly safer place:
[A]fter five decades of inexorable increase [italics Chatterbox's], the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued.
By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths -- fell by some 80 percent. The number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians also dropped by 80 percent [between 1988 and 2001], while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s.
International terrorism is the only type of political violence that has increased. Although the death toll has jumped sharply over the past three years, terrorists kill only a fraction of the number who die in wars.
Mack's data comes from The Human Security Report 2005, which is put out by the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center, of which Mack is director. Here are some other findings from the report:
- "The dollar value of major international arms transactions fell by 33 percent between 1990 and 2003."
- "The number of refugees dropped by some 45 percent between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came to an end."
- "The number of actual and attempted military coups has been declining for more than 40 years. In 1963 there were 25 coups and attempted coups around the world, the highest in the post-World War II period. In 2004 there were only ten coup attempts—a 60 percent decline. All of them failed."
- "[C]ivil (intrastate) conflicts rose steadily until 1992, after which they declined steeply."
The report attributes most of these trends to the end of the Cold War. Although it's widely believed that the long standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union brought peace, that wasn't really true. Mutual deterrence successfully prevented war between the two great powers, and we can all be very grateful that humankind avoided nuclear annihilation. But the Cold War turned hot in a variety of proxy wars in which the United States supported one side and the Soviet Union supported the other. The human cost was enormous. By the report's reckoning, the number of "state-based armed conflicts" in the world increased by a factor of three between 1946 and 1991. Dire predictions that the Cold War's end would bequeath a long epoch of tribal anarchy may have seemed plausible in the early 1990s, as the Balkans were beset with ethnic violence. But in the end the jeremiads weren't borne out. The death of Soviet communism didn't just make the West safer; it made the entire world safer. (The report says the end of Western colonialism also played a role; because of anticolonial conflict, the greatest number of wars fought between 1946 and 2003 were waged by the United Kingdom, which fought 21, and France, which fought 19. The United States ranks next with 16, and the Soviet Union brings up the great-power rear with 9. Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union until 1953, was no slouch in the killing department, but he tended to prefer murdering his own countrymen.)
One region must be excepted from this calculus. Interestingly, it isn't the Middle East (though certainly that region is a violent one). It's Africa. According to the Human Security Report, more people are being killed in wars in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined. Interestingly, however, the two individual states that have experienced the greatest number of "conflict-years" since 1946 are outside both Africa and the Middle East. They are Burma/Myanmar (232) and India (156). (The report calculates "conflict-years" as years during which a war is fought against an individual country; years in which wars are fought against multiple countries explain why the number of "conflict-years" sometimes exceeds 57, which is the number of actual years between 1946 and 2003.)
Where does all this data lead us? Not to complacency, certainly. It remains true that a single terrorist could kill a vast number of people with a suitcase-sized nuclear device. Because of armed resistance to the United States occupation of Iraq, the odds that an American soldier will be killed are much higher today than they were in 1992. And let's not forget that nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks—at least 2,600 at the World Trade Center, 125 at the Pentagon, and 256 on the four hijacked planes. The 9/11 death toll exceeds the number of people who died at Pearl Harbor. It was the second-bloodiest day in American history, bested only by Sept. 17, 1862, when 3,650 Union and Confederate soldiers died at Antietam. And the horrors of Darfur remind us that genocide is not yet extinct.
Still, it's worth remembering that the United States is not the world, and that horrible potential dangers are not always realized. If you go by the numbers, our planet is becoming less violent, not more so. Francis Fukuyama (who himself faltered slightly after 9/11) looks fairly prescient right now for predicting back in 1989 the "end of history," with "history" defined as "the evolution of human societies through different forms of government." In effect, Fukuyama was predicting an end to global armed ideological conflict, since "the evolution of human societies" is almost always achieved through warfare. The Human Security Report 2005 bears Fukuyama out. History may come back, but at the moment it's blessedly on the wane.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.