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The World is Actually Safer than It Used to Be ... And It Keeps Getting Safer

While global anxiety rises over the deepening financial crisis, perhaps it is worth noting what is unlikely to occur.  No matter how deep the recession gets, or how many countries default and drag their neighbors into the economic abyss, none are likely to fight one another.  There will be no replay of the 1930s, in other words, when depression was soon followed by world war.

In fact, over the course of the last two decades, warfare has been quietly disappearing from the planet.  The world in 2012 is a less violent, less belligerent place than at any time in recorded history.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to those whose historical perspective has been warped by the twenty-four-hour-news cycle, levels of conflict, both in terms of number and magnitude, have been dropping steadily since the end of the Cold War.  A series of empirical analyses done in the United States and Canada have consistently shown that the number of wars of all types—interstate, civil, ethnic, revolutionary, etc. —declined throughout the 1990s and into the new century.  The risk for the average person of dying violently at the hands of enemies has never been lower.

Since World War II, precisely zero UN members have been forcibly removed from the map (the only country to disappear against its will—South Vietnam—held only observer status).  Territorial disputes, which were the most common cause of warfare in the past, have dropped to record low levels, especially among the great powers.  International borders have all but hardened.  Today’s states are safe from annihilation or absorption by their neighbors.  Conquest is dead.

Intra-national war is also disappearing.  Ethnic conflicts have declined to their lowest level since people started collecting data about them.  This is at least in part because overall global repression appears to have diminished:  The number of minority groups around the world experiencing political or economic discrimination at the hands of states has dramatically declined since 1991.  Furthermore, since war is usually a necessary condition for genocide, it should be unsurprising that the incidence of mass slaughter declined by ninety percent between 1989 and 2005.  Coups are also becoming more and more rare.  Overall, there has been a clear, if uneven, decline in one-sided violence against civilians since 1989.

The evidence that “war has almost ceased to exist,” to use political scientist John Mueller’s phrase, is apparent on every continent.  The only active conflict in the entire Western Hemisphere is the ongoing civil war in Colombia, but even that is occurring at a far lower level than a decade ago.  Europe, which has historically been the most war-prone of continents, is entirely calm, without even the threat of—or planning for—interstate conflict.  Every one of the two billion people of the Pacific Rim is currently living in a society more or less at peace.  Levels of conflict are also the lowest they have ever been in Africa, despite ongoing crises in the Niger Delta, Sudan, and elsewhere.  The violence that is endemic in places like Uganda and the Congo more closely resembles criminal predation than traditional war.

Only in the greater Middle East does conflict still regularly occur.  It is worth keeping in mind that the wars which the United States and its allies began in Iraq and Afghanistan are small, relatively speaking, and the Libyan conflict is even smaller.  While it is still far too soon to know the fate of the Arab Spring movement, surely it is significant that the first tyrants to fall, in Egypt and Tunisia, did so with hardly a struggle (though admittedly that’s not the case in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain).  Post-Cold War revolutions—whether Rose, Tulip, Cedar or Facebook—have tended to be less bloody than those of earlier eras.

None of this is to suggest that these places are without problems, of course, or that war is impossible.  But given the rapid increase in world population and number of countries (the League of Nations had 63 members at its peak between the wars, while the United Nations currently has 193), a pure extrapolation of historical trends might lead one to expect a great deal more warfare than there currently is.  This unprecedented, exponential systemic growth has not resulted in the Malthusian clashes for resources that so many foresaw.  States have found ways to cooperate even when faced with growing populations and diminishing resources, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the future.

Despite a few minor wars and not-so-minor terrorist attacks, it seems clear that more citizens of the twenty-first century—both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage of the overall global population—will lead mundane, peaceful lives than in any that came before, bothered perhaps by quiet desperation but not by the violence of war.  That bears repeating:  Today a far greater percentage of the world’s population lives in peace than at any time before in history, which is a non-trivial, curiously underreported statistic.  By any reasonable measure, the world is living in a golden age of peace and security, even if it may not always appear to be so.

Is this trend part of a permanent change, or are we merely experiencing the latest of many respites between cataclysms?  That answer depends greatly on the explanation for the current age of stability, which is the subject of a robust academic debate.  But it is worth noting that history contains precious few examples of the return of institutions deemed by society to be outmoded, barbaric and/or futile.  In other words, normative evolution is typically unidirectional.  Few would argue, for instance, that either slavery or dueling is likely to reappear in this century.  As long as science, technology and economics do not take unprecedented steps backward, major war is unlikely to return, and minor wars will continue to be rare as weak states imitate the behavior of the strong.  While the future is unknowable, there is for the first time good reason to believe that the future will be far more peaceful than the past.

“Between the happening of a historical process and its recognition by rulers,” wrote historian Barbara Tuchman, “a lag stretches, full of pitfalls.”  While the current era may be full of pitfalls of various kinds, perhaps we can take solace in the knowledge that ours is not a particularly dangerous world, no matter how conventional is the wisdom to the contrary.