At the end of last year, the Human Security Centre, a research wing of the University of British Columbia, released a 158-page report concluding that, contrary to widespread perceptions, the world is more peaceful now than at any time in the past half-century. The end of the Cold War, it seems, brought on not an upsurge of chaos and bloodshed—as many had expected—but, instead, a dramatic decline.
The Human Security Report 2005, as the study is called, is fascinating and important. But are its most startling conclusions valid? Are we indeed living through—as Slate's Timothy Noah put it in a celebration of the report—a "peace epidemic"?
The study's authors put forth three reasons for what they see as a decline in armed conflict. First is the end of colonialism and, with it, the end of the national liberation wars that spurred its demise. Second is the end of the Cold War and its Third World "proxy wars," which had been intensified by ideological rivalry and by the competitive supply of armaments by the United States and the Soviet Union. Third, and related to the first two, is a rise in United Nations peacekeeping efforts, which—despite a blemished record here and there—have helped end several wars and prevented others from starting.
Again, this is very interesting, even plausible. Yet a close look at the report reveals that much of its data undermines these conclusions. Clearly the nature of warfare has been changing over the past two decades, but it's not at all clear that war itself is on the wane, and it's certainly premature to shout "Hallelujah" or to roll out the carpet for a new age of human history.
The report's main exhibit, Figure 1.1, is a graph showing the numbers of wars—international, civil, and colonial—from 1946-2002. The authors summarize this graph as follows:
It reveals that the number of armed conflicts increased steadily decade by decade throughout the Cold War. Then in the early 1990s, a steep decline started that continues to this day.
Well, let's look at this graph. (Click
First, yes, the number of armed conflicts has declined since 1992—from 50 to 30. But this merely puts the world at the same level of turmoil as in 1976. I don't remember anybody thinking of that era as particularly tranquil.
Second, the authors write on the report's first page of text that "the overwhelming majority of today's armed conflicts are fought within, not between, states." This is meant to suggest that the world is now less mired in grave conflict. Yet the graph shows that civil wars have far outnumbered international wars consistently since 1960.
Third, the graph does show a decline in wars between nations, but the numberof such wars has always been low—between two and eight per year in this 56-year period (except for a brief spell in the mid-'90s when there were none). The most recent year on the graph, 2002, was one of those low points, with just two international wars; but so were 1950-52, 1961-63, 1968, and 1975. In other words, did 2002 mark a trend or just a blip?