by DAVID AXE
Every year, the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, publishes a survey of the world conflicts, including an analysis of death tolls. Over several years, this Human Security Report has charted a seemingly unlikely trend: a steady decline in the number and scale of the world’s conflicts, with a commensurate reduction in war deaths. Despite the apparent chaos depicted in media, the world today is probably more at peace than it’s even been in modern times.
“Two seismic shifts in post-World War II global politics had a major impact on security during this period,” the 2010 Report explains. First, “wars of liberation from colonial rule … had essentially ended by the mid-1970s.” Next, the end of the Cold War “removed another major source of conflict from the international system.” In the 1990s, “twice as many wars started (or restarted) during the decade as in the 1980s. … The increase in new conflicts was real enough, but few observers noticed that the number of wars that ended in this period was even greater than the number that started.”
One result is fewer conflict deaths. “In the new millennium, the average international conflict killed some 90-percent fewer people a year than the average conflict in the 1950s,” the Report posits. “The overall decline in global battle-death numbers has been driven in large part by the decline in international wars — generally the deadliest form of conflict — but also because extensive involvement by the major powers in civil wars has become less common.”
The first part of the Project’s 2010 Report was published in January and sketched the parameters of a world increasingly at peace. The balance of the Report was released in early December and dug deeper into the dynamics underpinning our current era of peace. “International conflicts are not only fewer in number, they have also become less and less deadly. In the 1950s, a decade whose battle-death toll was driven by the hugely destructive Korean War — the average international conflict killed more than 21,000 people a year. In the 1990s the average annual toll was approximately 5,000. In the new millennium it was less than 3,000.”
But why? The Report proposes there are two broad prisms through which to view the outbreak of peace. The “liberal” perspective would attribute peace to “increasing economic
interdependence between states, their growing enmeshment in international institutions, and the spread of democracy.” The “realist” view advocates “peace through strength” and “alliance-building as the surest means of guaranteeing national security.”
With several caveats, the Report seems to side with the liberal viewpoint, pointing to East Asia’s experience in recent decades. Rapid economic growth and democratization have underpinned two decades free of inter-state conflict.
As state incomes rise, other things being equal, governments will have more political and economic resources to prevent conflicts and more capable military forces to deter them. In the wars that cannot be prevented, the shift in the relative balance of resources that determines who will prevail in civil wars will also tend to favor governments. Rising levels of economic development — and hence personal incomes — plus the remarkable increase in levels of democratization across the region has also enhanced the legitimacy of governments in the eyes of their citizens, reducing the incentives for individuals to join rebellions in the first place.
The Report also praises the U.N. for facilitating peacemaking, peacekeeping and diplomacy — all factors in suppressing conflict.
“There, is as one would expect, no single explanation that can account for all of the decline in high intensity conflicts over the past two decades,” the Report concludes.
We have argued that both the direct effects of the end of the Cold War, and the impact of rising national incomes, can explain some, but not all, of the decline. We further argued that the remarkable upsurge of international activism directed at stopping ongoing wars and preventing those that had stopped from starting again has also played an important role. These three explanations are complementary.
The policy implications of this analysis are clear. The positive developments that we have argued reduce the risk of war, remain in place, or have been strengthened. Peacemaking and peacebuilding missions continue to increase even though the numbers of major conflicts are down. National incomes in the developing world continue to grow, which will increase the capacities of governments to the disadvantage of insurgent groups. And no one expects a return to the bipolar rivalries Cold War.