The World is Still Becoming More Peaceful

With the civil war in Syria due to enter its third year and violence breaking out in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, it may be hard to think of the world as a particularly peaceful place at the end of 2013. Yet far fewer people still die of war as did half a century ago. The world has, in fact, become a more peaceful place. So much that in parts of the world, including Europe, war is virtually unimaginable.

The Canadian scientist Steven Pinker showed just how much more peaceful the world has become in his 2011 book The Better Angels Of Our Nature. He found that both the number and intensity of wars has decreased. The worldwide rate of of death from civil and interstate war combined has “juddered downward,” he writes, “from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than 1 in the twenty-first century.”

The Waning of War

The Waning of War

There are many reasons for this trend. One is technology. The invention of the atom bomb made was between nuclear states too risky. With the exception of India and Pakistan, no nuclear states have ever waged war on each other directly. The cost in human lives and infrastructure destroyed would be too enormous. The average European country might not even survive a nuclear war altogether.

Another reason is that the global balance of power shifted dramatically after World War II and then again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the overbearing might of the two superpowers usually prevented others from pursing policies that could lead to war. The Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe couldn’t pursue their own foreign policies to begin with. The freedom of Western European countries united in NATO was also somewhat curtailed in that regard. When France and the United Kingdom nevertheless attacked Egypt in 1956, they were quickly forced to give up the endeavor by the United States. Rarely has a European country since initiated military action without the Americans approving it beforehand, if not participating in it.

The Suez Crisis 1956The humiliation of 1956 made Britain realize its days as the world’s policeman were finally over. The British Empire all but dissolved within the next decade. Unlike France, Britain gave up most of its colonies and overseas territories without much of a fight. The dramatic decrease in war casualties after World War II would probably have been less dramatic had Britain not surrendered its empire so easily.

The postwar spread of democracies, which coincided with decolonization and later the end of communism in Eastern Europe, also had an effect. There were just a handful of democracies in 1945. By the end of the Cold War, some 40 percent of the world’s countries were democratic. Today, about 60 percent is. Democracies don’t usually fight each other so as the number of democracies increases, war becomes rarer.

The greatest democracy of all, America, has also played a unique role in fostering peace. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it has deployed its unprecedented military power time and again to end wars, rather than start them — Iraq being an unfortunate exception. The fact that the most powerful nation on Earth seeks neither conquest nor the subjugation of other peoples has contributed enormously to global peace and that is something worth remembering as we enter the new year.

This entry was posted in English, Nick Ottens, Security Policy.

5 Responses to The World is Still Becoming More Peaceful

  1. A colleague of mine sent a critique by Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Pinker’s findings to me:

    Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements. Science is not about making claims about a sample, but using a sample to make general claims and discuss properties that apply outside the sample. — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The “Long Peace” is a Statistical Illusion“, 02.11.2012.

    In a reply, Steven Pinker wrote:

    Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels with the slightest attention to its content. Instead he has merged it in his mind with claims by various fools and knaves whom he believes he has bettered in the past. The confusion begins with his remarkable claim that the thesis in Better Angels is “identical” to Ben Bernanke’s theory of a moderation in the stock market. Identical! This alone should warn readers that for all of Taleb’s prescience about the financial crisis, accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits. — Steven Pinker, “Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb’s “The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion”“.

  2. Tobias says:

    I welcome your post, but I wish you’d clarify which authors the aforementioned arguments belong to in this debate, because this issue is really interesting for the future of IR. Currently, you’re confusing opinions of Pinker with others, possibly your own, or Stephen Walt’s. Steven Pinker’s list of five historical causes are completely different from your own. In fact they are absent in your article. This is a bit surprising to be honest since you did grab a graph that supposedly summarizes his research, and yet the arguments made in this post are not Pinker’s.

    Although you cite Pinker’s book, you confuse his reasoning for the decline in war-related deaths with the opinions of others. In fact, the argument that nuclear weapons helped reduce war-related deaths was put forward by Stephen Walt at a debate at Harvard, but this remains a claim – not an argument – since the statistical correlation between the increased nuclear arsenal and reduced number of inter-state conflicts is not proven. Those who have tried to make the point in the past do not see a clear statistical relationship between the proliferation of nuclear arms and the sheer volume of armaments. sure, the relationship may be somewhat indirect, but if there is no statistical evidence for it, Pinker’s arguments remain more persuasive. I realize that qualitative-quantitative methods usually separate who talks to who in IR, and it’s a weakness for our discussions, especially because there’s an obvious preference for stats in a debate on “trends”.

    Furthermore, the claim that nuclear weapons made the world peaceful is controversial because we are dismantling nuclear weapons today, and so if a relationship exists between violence in general and the existence of nuclear weapons – it is either weakening or very weak to begin with – if not a mirage. Why? Because violence is not on the rise. The relationship certainly isn’t linear and the breaking point ought to appear when states commit themselves to credible nuclear disarmament protocols, which they have repeatedly during the Cold War and after. Furthermore, we cannot simply assume that just because nuclear weapons exist, all attempts to peacefully negotiate disputes are irrelevant.

    And on that tangent, other authors have already noted that although the historical spending on militaries in total – but also accounting for expenses minus maintenance of nuclear weapons – is at an all-time high, the armies are not in direct conflict. State interaction and diplomatic negotiations are at an all-time high. Even highly tense resource-conflicts are not resulting in war.

    Obviously there are degrees of rivalry among states and the amount spent on arms should make war less likely, but it doesn’t help if states fail to provide other measures of security. So states with few armaments and generally poor governance are more likely to embark on a civil war to restore power and control than a rich and peaceful state.

    Further, you really should clarify that your graph is not Pinker’s data for two reasons: To clarify the argument AND to acknowledge that this is not a complete dataset for violence.

    Pinker selected several particular data collections to prove one trend for interstate conflict, and that’s fine, but the data belongs to much larger datasets on violence in all types of armed conflict. The data is from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo and Uppsala Conflict Data Program. The same data shows that although inter-state wars are on the decline, intrastate wars are on the rise. This doesn’t counter Pinker’s point entirely, but it shows that what we expect “war among states is the worst type of conflict” could be wrong.

    See more on that here as well as policy implications:

    Perhaps this is less known in IR debates about Pinker’s research, but this certainly has been brought up quite frequently here in Norway when Pinker’s book was released.

    As for how deadly different types of conflict are, it’s far more complicated to explain the statistics. Intrastate wars often fail to attract international media attention and gauging death counts is more difficult since the usual authority, the state, is often complicit in the war. Thus credibility of estimates for intrastate conflicts needs external validation, usually from an international humanitarian agency. In a inter-state war, alliances may influence which actor is considered more credible.

    All in all, I appreciate your interest for the subject, and I hope you follow up on it in the future.
    The Harvard debate I was referring to can be seen here

  3. Nick Ottens says:


    Thanks for your comment. To clarify (and I’m sorry this apparently wasn’t clear from my post): I get the basic notion that the world is becoming more peaceful mainly from Pinker, the rest is my own argument, not his.

    On nuclear weapons: I do not argue there is a direct correlation between the number of nuclear weapons and war (or lack of war). What I argue is that the existence of nuclear weapons, coupled with the overwhelming military might of the two superpowers, kept the world safer during the Cold War than it otherwise probably would have been.

    Nowhere did I ever make the case that attempts to resolve disputes peacefully are irrelevant.

  4. Tobias says:

    “Nowhere did I ever make the case that attempts to resolve disputes peacefully are irrelevant.”

    Sorry, I was not accusing you of saying diplomacy is irrelevant, but when you make a post about Pinker’s study and don’t address his arguments – I wonder why you’d mention his book at all, since he does in fact emphasize that improved reasoning among humans helps resolve conflict.

  5. Nick Ottens says:

    That’s a fair point. As I commented though, I only brought up Pinker’s study to show the number of war casualties is declining. The interpretation that follows is my own.

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