Thursday, January 26, 2006

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Is the world really getting more pacific?

Slate's Fred Kaplan has an essay that tries to debunk claims made in last year's Human Security Report that the world is becoming more pacific. Among his many points:

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 here to follow along.)

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.
This sounds like a nice debunking, but it's pretty unconvincing to me, for two reasons:
1) If you look at the figure, it seems like the world was more peaceful 60 years ago -- but that's only because the total number of states in the system was much smaller than today. It's not surprising that the number of intrastate conflicts increased from 1946 to 1991 -- that's because the number of states in the system increased as well. What's interesting about the post-1991 system is that it's gotten more peaceful even as the number of states has increased. True, a lot of these new countries are microstates like Tonga -- but they also includes the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics.

Kaplan's focus is on the numerator -- but you have to look at the denominator as well. That's what makes the decline in wars so surprising.

2) Unstated in the Human Security Report, but vital to the perception of a "peace epidemic," is the absence since 1945 of the most deadly form of international conflict -- a genuine great power war. For the near future, the U.S. won't be fighting China, India, Russia, or even the European Union. Great power wars are indeed rare, but the current peace of 60 years is the longest stretch of time without one breaking out since the birth of the modern state system.

Kaplan is correct to point out that the current downturn in armed conflict might not be permanent -- but it's still a downturn.

UPDATE: Andrew Mack -- Director of the Human Security Centre at UBC and the one responsible for the report that's being debated -- has taken the time and trouble to post his response to Kaplan in the comments section. Go check it out.

posted by Dan on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM


The smart money is on a Sino-American war breaking the cycle.

posted by: John Kneeland on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Robert D. Kaplan opined on just such an eventual Sino-American war last year in the Atlantic; well worth a read. A contributing cause, should this war ever come to pass, could be that the Chinese still underestimate the American military and its capabilities, as evidenced in “Unrestricted Warfare” by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui.

At this stage in history it is hard to imagine how China could win a large scale and direct confrontation, that is, one not confined to Taiwan and China’s desired possession of it. And even that is unlikely. Even if the enormous hardware advantage that the United States enjoys is taken out of the discussion China simply lacks natural allies in the region or world; North Korea being the likely lone participant of consequence. Those in the area with militaries of importance would all be interested in checking Chinese growth: Japan, Russia, India and Australia.

posted by: Phocion on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

People are learning to move away from a zero-sum to a ‘let get a bigger pie’ attitude. In the past, wars were the best way to increase resources and enlarge the rules entourage. With globalization, Adam Smith’s mysterious hand improves both the strong and the weak. In today’s wars, both sides seem to lose.

posted by: Ronny Max on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

I think the danger is not so much wars between great powers, but rather a downturn in the global economy (due to the imbalances and the precariousness of countries such as India and China) which leads to a strain on these many new, weak emerging democracies as well as ethnic tensions between peoples within Europe and Asia.

Out of this derailment could come a lot of non-state actors who operate in assymetrical ways challenging the great powers. So war between China and the US will be unlikely, but war within China and within the many countries the US trades with and uses to generate wealth.

Whatever is coming, it will end this peaceful era which is just an abberation. Democracy is difficult and so many countries right now either have demographics or weak institutions operating against them. A global economic downturn should be the catalyst that ushers in a more ominous age.

posted by: Patrick on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

"Since 1945..."? You forget that China and India fought a war within the last 60 years (1962)and the U.S. and China were fighting in Korea (add the USSR given that Soviet pilots flew the MIGs). A truer statement is that there has been no unlimited great power war since 1945. To reach a true appreciation of the changes, we need to look at numerator, denominator, and the definition of "war". And maybe the definition of "state".

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]


No one would label China in 1950 -- or India in 1962 -- as great powers.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]


India in 1962 was most definitely not a great power. However, I think a reasonable argument can be made that China was pretty close to a great power by the end of the Korean war (modulo the then absence of nuclear weapons).

How much has the presence of nuclear weapons done to prevent great power wars ? There has only been one genuine war between nuclear equipped states (India vs. Pakistan in 1999).

posted by: erg on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

A major problem is that this sort of analysis codes the cold war as a period of great power peace, when in fact it was a period of intense and dangerous rivalry more akin to war than to the great power peace we have now.

posted by: pt on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Dan - The problem with this graph is that it says nothing about casualties except to set a minimum in each instance of 25. Surely the scale of conflict as measured by the total number of casualties in each war should be the key metric of how peaceful the world has become.

posted by: David Billington on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Um Dan, The Correlates of War say China is a major power as of 1950. What's the great power, major power, super power distinction that you're using?

posted by: Michigan on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

David - you raise a good point that the number of conflicts with more than 25 deatsh does not necessarily reflect the severity of conflict. However, a graph of the toal total number killed shows a similar downward trend, see p. 154 in this paper:

posted by: Kristian Skrede Gleditsch on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Fred Kaplan's critique of the data in the Human Security report (which is culled from a wide variety of research institutions) is problematic in a number of areas.

The text of his article and our response to it are in caps below.

The term 'Peace epidemic' , by the way, is from Slate's Tim Noah not us. There is still far too much political violence in the world to celebrate the status quo. We believe that the evidence demonstrates that things are less bad -- but that is far from being good.

Andrew Mack

What "Peace Epidemic"?
Don't pop the champagne corks just yet, the evidence isn't quite there.
By Fred Kaplan
Posted Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006, at 4:46 PM ET

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. AGREED ENTIRELY, WHICH IS WHY WE WARN THAT THERE IS NO CAUSE FOR COMPLACENCy--AND SAY WHY.

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 here to follow along.)

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. NOR DO WE.

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. NO -- IT IS THE DRAMATIC DECLINE IN THE ABSOLUTE NUMBERS OF INTRASTATE WAR, NOT THE RATIO OF CIVIL TO INTERSTATE WARS, THAT INDICATES THAT THE WORLD IS 'LESS MIRED IN 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 number of 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). AGREED -- WE MAKE NO CLAIMS TO THE CONTRARY. 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?

Fourth, assuming that the decline in conflicts is significant (historically and statistically), the data provide mixed support for the study's theory on why this is so. The end of colonialism? The graph shows that colonial wars petered out in the mid-1970s, but this was precisely the moment when the overall number of wars began to soar. WE ALSO NOTE THAT THE END OF ANTI-COLONIAL STRUGGLES WAS OFTEN FOLLOWED BY VIOLENT STRUGGLES OVER CONTROL OF THE NEW POST-COLONIAL STATES. THIS, PLUS THE (OFTEN-RELATED) COLD WAR DRIVERS EXPLAIN MUCH OF THE RISE IN POLITICAL VIOLENCE FROM THE END OF COLONIALISM TO THE END OF THE COLD WAR.



In 1992, there were 50 conflicts; two years later, there were only 40. But then this number held steady until 2000, when it suddenly plunged again to 30. In other words, the decline couldn't be deemed "dramatic" until nearly a decade after the demise of Soviet Communism and the end of the Cold War. So, what precipitated this two-phase plunge? Was it just the end of the Soviet-American rivalry? Was something else going on as well? SEE ABOVE Or did wars merely shift from one set of issues and maps to another? THE LOCUS SHIFTED TO SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA... Finally, is the world really safer now than in, say, 1999, when the number of wars was much higher? WELL THE DECLINE IN BATTLE DEATHS PER CONFLICT PER YEAR, WHILE VERY UNEVEN, HAS BEEN EVEN GREATER THAN THE DECLINE IN THE NUMBER OF CONFLICTS. THIS IS THE BEST MEASURE OF THE AVERAGE DEADLINESS OF WARS. IN 1950 IT WAS 37,000 PER CONFLICT PER YEAR, IN 2002 IT WAS JUST 600. That is, do these numbers reflect the true state of human security? (For more on this question, click here.)

The study's conclusions appear shakier still in its next set of graphs, Figure 1.2, which depict trends in warfare, region-by-region. In Sub-Saharan Africa, armed conflicts rose through the 1990s. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as in Central and South Asia, the number of wars sharply zigzagged up and down, with no clear trend. In East and Southeast Asia, the number of conflicts declined from 1975-92 (a product in part of the end of the Vietnam and Cambodia wars) but has since remained flat. Only in Central and South America did the post-Cold War era bring an unequivocal decline in conflict.

Whenever a study compares the present with the past, especially when it claims that the present is much better or much worse, it's useful to look carefully at the baseline. By some measures, the 1990s appear to have been a more peaceful decade than the 1970s or 1980s. But, even by these measures, were the '90s particularly calm—or were the '70s and '80s particularly turbulent? MOSTLY THE LATTER. Are we seeing today some new phenomenon in human history—or a restoration of normalcy?

Toward the end of the report, there are two graphs that, perhaps unwittingly, provide something of an answer. Figure 5.1 shows the number of international wars from 1816-2002. The authors' caption reads: "There is no obvious trend in the number of international wars until the end of the 1970s. But following the end of colonialism and then the Cold War, the number declined dramatically." This isn't quite true. There is a pattern through the two centuries—a continuous up-and-down wave. Peaks (years when there were six or seven wars going on) occurred in the 1880s, 1900, 1920, the late 1950s, and the 1970s. Troughs (years of one war or none) occurred in 1820, 1830, 1890, 1912, and the mid-to-late 1990s. The '70s spike lasted longer and the '90s trough dipped lower than most. But the graph provides no assurance that we are on the edge of a peaceful epoch. It could just be another trough, to be followed by another spike. TRUE BUT WE ARGUE THAT THERE ARE SEVERAL REASONS WHY THIS IS UNLIKELY -- NOT IMPOSSIBLE -- TO HAPPEN.

The second, still more daunting graph, Figure 5.2, shows civil wars from 1816-2002. The authors' caption: "Driven by Cold War politics and struggles for control of the post-colonial states, civil wars soared after World War II, then declined even more rapidly after the end of the Cold War." Again, this summary doesn't capture the whole story. The number of civil wars jagged sharply up and down (ranging between two and eight per year) until the 1880s; stayed constant (at two per year) until the end of World War I; hovered slightly (between two and four per year) until the onset of World War II (when it dipped to zero, as the great international wars engulfed the globe); then climbed in the '50s, soared in the '60s, and rocketed in the '70s and '80s, to a peak of 23 civil wars in the mid-'90s, before plunging to 12 in 2002. But this hardly marked a historic low point WE NEVER CLAIMED THIS; it's the same number of civil wars as in the late '70s, which, up to that time, was a larger number than any previous era ever witnessed. In other words, the recent plunge, while steep and rapid, still leaves the world with a lot of civil wars in the scheme of things, AGREED and it's not clear whether the line will keep going down or go back up.

All the report's graphs end in 2002, the final year for which the authors could gather data. The events of 2003-06—the war in Iraq and a possible civil war in the works, the slackening of dictatorship (but possibly the resurgence of ethnic conflict) in Lebanon and Ukraine, tensions rising with Iran, continued fighting in various hotspots of Africa—seem more discouraging than hopeful. The best thing that can be said about these conflicts, whether raging or brewing, is they could go either way.


The study itself raises other questions—some wittingly, some not. For instance, all the charts and timelines contain the following footnote: "The graph does not include ethnic or other conflicts where neither warring party was a state, nor does it include cases of 'one-sided' conflict, such as genocide." TRUE -- AND THIS IS A MAJOR LIMITATION OF THE DATASET WE USE WHICH IS WHY WE COMMISSIONED THE COLLECTION OF DATA ON 'NON-STATE' CONFLICTS. WE ALSO NOTE THAT THE OTHER EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THAT THE DECLINE IN THE LATTER IS AT LEAST AS CREAT THE DECLINE IN THE FORMER. If it's true, as some scholars maintain, that international politics will become increasingly dominated by actors that are not states (terrorists, ethnic enclaves, etc.), this study's methodology has little to say on the future of warfare. INSOFAR AS 95% PLUS OF TODAY'S WARS ARE CIVIL WARS THEY BY DEFINITION INVOLVE NON-STATE ACTORS.

As for genocide, one graph in the study, Figure 1.11, shows that the number of genocides has dramatically declined since 1990 (from 10 instances to two). But, as the authors acknowledge, it's unclear that this means. There are no good data on the number of deaths caused by genocide. BARBARA HARFF DOES PROVIDE ESTIMATES OF NUMBERS OF DEATHS. (More people may have been killed in one, Rwanda—800,000, by most estimates—than in a hundred smaller genocides.) INDEED, AS WE POINT OUT, RWANDA LIKELY KILLED MORE PEOPLE THAN ALL THOSE KILLED IN BATTLE IN THE DEADLIEST YEAR OF ARMED CONFLICT IN THE POST WORLD WAR II ERA -- I.E 1950.

Data began to be collected in 2002. The authors trumpet the fact that fewer people were killed by genocide in 2003 than in 2002, but nothing can be inferred from two data points. WE AGREE -- WE NEED AT LEAST A DECADE TO BE ABLE TO DETERMINE TRENDS WITH ANY DEGREE OF CONFIDENCE. THE POINT TO NOTE IS SIMPLY THAT THERE WAS NO CHANGE FOR THE WORSE AS SOME MEDIA COMMENTATORS HAD CLAIMED DURING 2002–3

The report notes that wars are producing steadily fewer battlefield casualties than was once the case. Millions died in the two world wars and in the Vietnam War. Those were prolonged battles, involving tanks, heavy guns, and massive aerial bombing. Wars fought nowadays tend to be "low-intensity conflicts," involving fewer soldiers and more limited aims. But this trend is hardly irreversible. A war in the Middle East or a serious civil war in Iraq could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. If a war or terrorist strike ever involves nuclear weapons, millions might be killed, depending on the targets. AS WE NOTE.

The report contains some data suggesting that parts of the world are growing more militarized. For instance, from 1975-96, the ratio of security forces to population has grown by 81 percent in Sri Lanka, 71 percent in India, 65 percent in Pakistan, 63 percent in China, 42 percent in Burma, and 29 percent in Thailand. These trends don't make conflict inevitable; they don't even necessarily make it more likely; but they're not worth celebrating, either. AGREE -- THE DISCUSSION SUGGESTS THAT THE ACTIONS OF MANY OF THESE PARAMILITARY FORCES ARE A MAJOR SOURCE OF CONCERN. BUT THEY SOMETIMES MAY QUELL DOMESTIC INSURGENCIE––LOWERING THE INCIDENCE OF CONFLICT WHILE INCREASING THE INCIDENCE OF REPRESSION.. NOT A RECIPE FOR ACHIEVING HUMAN SECURITY IN THE LONG TERM.

So, what makes this report important? First, it may well be the most comprehensive compendium of data available anywhere on the patterns and history of armed conflict. Second, it shows conclusively that systems of international control, devised to keep the peace between great powers (whether the Cold War's nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union or the Treaty of Vienna's balance of power among the five major nations of Europe in the early 19th century), do not stave off—and, in fact, may promote—wars involving smaller powers. However, the report's data do not support the notion (however much the authors may wish otherwise) that peace flourishes in the absence or aftermath of these great-power control-systems.

Still, those data raise intriguing questions about what does cause war and peace. That graph in Figure 5.2, showing the wavelike rise and fall in the number of wars across the centuries—they seem almost mechanical, these waves, like forces of nature: war followed by peace followed by war followed by peace … But is this pattern inevitable CERTAINLY NOT, or can it be controlled? The report's final section notes a surge in peacekeeping activities—by the United Nations and by regional institutions—since the end of the Cold War. Some of these efforts have been disastrous (Rwanda, Somalia), but others have met success (El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique). More than at any other time in modern history (due in part to the rapidity of global communications and transportation), the major powers have the means and methods to dampen conflicts. The question is, do they have the desire? TOO OFTEN NOT -- AND ANYWAY THE RESORT TO FORCE DOESN'T NECESSARILY TRANSLATE INTO SUCCESSFUL CONFLICT MANAGEMENT AS IRAQ REMINDS US.

In short, the report can serve as the basis for two kinds of exploration. Scholars should dig into the database to examine just why the incidence of warfare has risen and fallen at such regular intervals. AGREED ENTIRELY... WE POINT TO CORRELATIONS -- NOT CAUSES. WE MAKE INFERENCES BUT THIS IS FAR FROM ESTABLISHING CAUSES. THERE ARE HUGE NUMBERS OF RESEARCH QUESTIONS THAT STILL NEED TO BE ANSWERED. Diplomats should see if they can—through their own cooperative actions—keep those waves at bay.

Related in Slate

Andrew Mack
Human Security Centre
Liu Institute for Global Issues
University of British Columbia
6476 NW Marine Drive
Canada V6T 1Z2
Tel: 604 803 3548 (cell)
604 822 4861

posted by: andrew mack on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Kristian - Thank you for the link to the report on casualties. It is very useful.

The report makes clear that war-related fatalities have greatly exceeded battlefield deaths in Africa. In the case of the Congo war of 1998-2001, for example, only 145,000 people died on the battlefield but 350,000 more died as a result of violence, and war-related illnesses raised the total dead to 2.6 million. Table 4 shows that other recent conflicts in Africa have had similarly small percentages of battlefield deaths in relation to total war-related fatalities.

Turning to the world as a whole, and leaving out the five largest conflicts from 1946 to 2002, Figure 3 in the report shows a continuous frequency, not a decline, and including these five conflicts shows a clear decline mostly because of the higher spike in the Korean War. If war-related fatalities were properly included, the much smaller decline from the 1960s to the 1990s would disappear.

Efforts to describe warfare since 1946 can certainly distinguish between the results of different kinds of conflicts involving different kinds of actors. But the proper aggregate measure of any rise and fall in warfare should be the number of people who would still be alive if wars hadn't happened.

posted by: David Billington on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

The true Hertiage talking point on this shouln't be to contest the point that the world is getting more pacific. The neocon movement should embrace it and take credit for it. George Bush pre-empted the next Hitler by invading Iraq.

posted by: centrist on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

No one would label China in 1950... as [a] great power

Kicked our asses pretty good, though, didn't they?

posted by: ajay on 01.26.06 at 01:23 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?