By Gideon Jones
Has the world become more peaceful?
One would think that such a question would be easily answered. On an intuitive level, many people in the West would feel that this is the case: to them, war is something that exists in far distant places and is seen only on high-resolution screens. It’s absence has become so pronounced that some have claimed we are living in a Long Peace, the period from the end of the Second World War until today that has seen a fall in the frequency of major wars, and has led to a period of unparalleled human prosperity. However, this answer, and the preceding question is seductively simple, and when investigated, a far more complicated image begins to emerge.
The argument that the world has become more peaceful (and less violent in general) was perhaps most famously made by Steven Pinker. Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, made a celebratory case about modernity, that in spite of the horrors of the 20th Century, war and violence in human society have been on a decline that has been ongoing over centuries. And there is plenty of data to back up this claim. Just a cursory glance at ‘The Visual History of Decreasing War and Violence’ highlights reductions in our rates of violent death, whether related to murder or the lethality of war. For example Western Europe was thought to have a violent death rate at around 2% of the entire population in the 17th Century, whilst between 1900-1960, the violent death rate in Europe and North America lay at 1%.It is not without cause that Pinker feels confident in proclaiming that ‘we may be living in one of the most peaceful eras in our species’ existence’.
The reasons for this apparent decline are manifold, but Pinker’s central claim is that humanity has gradually been able to gain greater control over our inner demons. The classic view of human nature is that Humanity has and always will be prone to violence, and that since war is an expression of that violent tendency, it is here to stay. He claims human nature itself, while containing the potential for violence and cruelty, isn’t static, but is itself influenced by the environment, and that the systems and institutions of modernity (be it participative democracy or free market capitalism) promote less violent and more cooperative behaviour. When humanity developed means to trade peacefully with one another and developed ways of managing relations without recourse to war, more cooperative behaviours were selected for, as opposed to violent ones. Furthermore, Pinker claims that it’s our reason that lies at the basis of much of this change, and that ‘just as our species has applied its cognitive powers to ward off the scourges of pestilence and famine, so it can apply them to manage the scourge of war’. Though war and our impulses to wage it may never be eradicated, there may be reason to believe that we may be slowly turning a new leaf.
This decline of war thesis is a celebration of modernity. Though we are frequently inundated with the problems of the world in our news media, those proposing this thesis reassure us, showing us that we have in fact progressed, and we have modernity to thank.
However, while the narrative of the decline in war and violence is as attractive as it is persuasive, it only represents half of the argument. Others have argued that such progress is an illusion, and that the idea that we have morally advanced is little more than wishful thinking.
Bear F. Braumoeller, a statistician and political scientist, argues that the idea that the data shows a decline in violence is questionable at best. In his book, Only the Dead, Braumoeller firstly disagrees with the thesis that war between states has become less frequent. He argues that when one looks rate of conflict initiation in the Cold War- during the so called Long Peace– we see ‘one of the most warlike periods of the last 200 years outside the two world wars’. Though a ‘hot’ war between the USA and the USSR thankfully never broke out, that did not mean that violent conflicts were not fought elsewhere.
What about the claim that war has become less deadly? Once again, it depends on how the data is interpreted. Though there is an observable decline in the death rate per 100,000, this may as much be a product of the fact that our societies are larger. The anthropologists Dean Falk and Charles Hildebolt argued in a paper that though a higher ratio of any given society will tend to die in conflict the smaller the society is, ‘the actual number of war deaths increases with growing population sizes’. If human societies had gotten more peaceful as time had gone on, this relationship should not exist.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to criticising the statistical basis of the Long Peace thesis. To Nassim Taleb and Pasquale Cirillo, the greatest weakness of the decline of war theory not just a chronic underestimation of deaths from violent conflict, but also looking at the mean whilst ignoring low probability, high impact events like a world war.
When this is taken into mind, the peace that the world has experienced from the end of the Second World War (between the great powers at least) begins to look very different. Though there have been times and places in history where peace did for the most part exist- be it Augustus’ Pax Romana or the Congress System in Europe where major conflicts were prevented and relations were managed- they inevitably ended in major conflict. The difference between then and now is of course our technology, with 14,000 nuclear weapons existing today, which are more powerful than the ones which existed in the Cold War. The point here is to suggest that an armed conflict between the world’s major powers, whilst unlikely, is by no means impossible, and such a war would undoubtedly be one of extreme death and violence. To quote Taleb and Cirillo, it is nonsensical ‘to say that violence has dropped but maybe not the risk of tail events’– in that case, the Long Peace is not evidence of humanity’s newfound pacifism, but is instead merely an interlude between one great conflict and the next.
So why does this debate matter?
On New Year’s Eve 2019, it looked as if 2020 was going to be the same as any other year. Yet it wasn’t. Instead, the world faced a global pandemic- a supposedly low probability, yet high impact event. And we were not ready for it.
Whether one agrees with the idea that war is declining is one thing, but it should not be a cause for complacency and self-congratulation. If peace is to remain, there must be an understanding of its fragility. We should not let grand narratives of our moral progress lull us into a false sense of security; by ignoring the violence of today we open the doors to the violence of tomorrow.
Gideon Jones is a MA student in Terrorism, Security & Society at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, and completed his BA in History at the University of Warwick. Coming from Northern Ireland, he has been brought up in a country scarred by the issues of terrorism, conflict, sectarianism, and extremist ideology. Through this experience, he has been given valuable insight into how the legacies of such problems can continue to divide a society decades after the fighting has stopped, and how the issues left unresolved can threaten to upend a fragile peace. Gideon is a Staff Writer at Strife.