The World Is Getting More Peaceful, but That Doesn't Mean It Will Stay That Way

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March 25 2014 3:07 PM

Is the Decline of War Permanent?

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Standing athwart history, yelling Start.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With the unceasing violence in Syria, the deteriorating situation in the Central African Republic, and the threat of further conflict in Ukraine, it may be a hard time to make the case that we're living in an age of unprecedented peace. But the recently released Human Security Report—a widely cited annual analysis by the Peace and Conflict Studies research group and Simon Fraser University—for the most part, does just that. According to the authors:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

During 2012—the most recent year for which there are data—the number of conflicts being waged around the world dropped sharply, from 37 to 32. High–intensity conflicts have declined by more than half since the end of the Cold War, while terrorism, genocide and homicide numbers are also down.
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This year’s report focuses on the debate prompted by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that humanity is in the midst of a long-term decline in organized violence, interrupted by the brutal wars of the 20th century but increasingly obvious in the relative “new peace” we’ve enjoyed since the end of the Cold War.

The long-term numbers seem to bear out the basics of Pinker’s thesis, but digging deeper into the numbers of this year’s HSR, there are also some data points that should give “decline of war” optimists pause. (For one thing, 2013, which the report doesn't cover, was a pretty rough year in Syria, Sudan, CAR, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan ... )

It's also worth keeping in mind that while the total number of conflicts may have declined in 2012, one—the civil war in Syria—was almost enough to make up for it.

“The bad news is that the escalating carnage in Syria meant a dramatic increase in the number of worldwide battle deaths in 2012,” the authors write. “Indeed, the Syrian battle-death toll last year was the world’s highest since the World War I–style interstate war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1999.”

The Ethiopia-Eritrea comparison  is a disturbing one. That conflict “caused well over half of global battle deaths in 1999 and two-thirds of the total in the year 2000,” but the death toll in Syria has already far exceeded it

In total, global battle deaths increased “by 16 percent between 2010 and 2011.” This was most pronounced in the wake of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, where battle deaths more than tripled.

Most conflicts today are what the report classifies are “low-intensity,” meaning fewer than 1,000 battle deaths per year. This is, of course, a positive development, except that these conflicts tend to last much longer than high-intensity battles. (A long-running high-intensity conflict like Syria is the worst-case scenario.)

The has also been a marked increase in the number of “non-state” armed conflicts—those fought entirely but nongovernmental forces, particularly in Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa.  According to the report, “battle deaths from non-state armed conflicts increased more than threefold from 2007 to 2011.”

The conflicts tend to be less bloody than those fought by state militaries, though two recent examples—Mexico in 2010 and 2011 and Sudan in 2011—took more than 1,000 battle deaths in a year.

The best news in the report may be that war between rival countries’ militaries is an increasing rarity. “In the past 10 years, most of the few interstate conflicts we have seen—including one in 2011 between Cambodia and Thailand—have been very small compared to those taking place in the 1990s and at the turn of the century,” the authors write.

This is, in part, is what’s so concerning about the situation is Ukraine, where there’s a still unlikely but nonetheless real possibility of interstate war breaking out—and war between two large industrialized powers, at that.

We’re lucky to live in an era in which war is less common that it use to be, and with some horrific exceptions, less deadly as well. But that doesn’t mean this state of affairs is inevitable or permanent.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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