In the first half of the twentieth century, world wars killed tens of millions and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half of that century, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the worst wars, such as those in Iraq and Sudan, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically. Can the world, step by step and with ups and downs, actually reduce the amount of war violence taking place? Can it move down the scale of war over time? Actually, this has been happening already for decades.
In the post-Cold War era that began in 1990, far fewer people have died in wars each year than during the Cold War. And within the post-Cold War era, the new century so far has seen fewer deaths per year from war violence than in the 1990s. More wars are ending than beginning, once ended they are less likely to restart, and the remaining wars are more localized than in the past.
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar describes the state of the world when he became secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) in 1982: Iraq and Iran were in a “cruel war,” Israel and the PLO were battling over Lebanon, the Soviet Union occupied and brutalized Afghanistan, U.S.-Soviet relations had hit a low, apartheid ruled in South Africa and postcolonial conflicts raged elsewhere in Africa. Central America had “social strife and insurgency … And casting its ominous shadow over all was the mounting arsenal of nuclear weapons, bearing in them the threat to humanity’s very survival.”
The Iran-Iraq War deserves note among these wars of the 1980s as one of the few cases in recent decades of interstate war, with regular armies (armed with tanks, missiles, and other heavy weapons) on both sides. Those wars generally cause more death and destruction than do the more common civil wars — including all of today’s remaining wars — in which a government army on one side fights rebel militia groups (usually more lightly armed) on the other side.
How does that world of the 1980s compare to today’s world? In Lebanon, the civil war finally ended in 1990. Hezbollah became a political party and won seats in parliament, although it also remained heavily armed and provoked a destructive war with Israel in 2006. In 2009, when pro-Western parties won elections, dealing a setback to Hezbollah and its allies, the losers did not turn to war. They turned to doing better in the next election.
In fact, worldwide, wars today are measurably fewer and smaller than thirty years ago. By one measure, the number of people killed directly by war violence has decreased by 75 percent in that period. Interstate wars have become very infrequent and relatively small. Wars between “great powers” have not occurred for more than fifty years. The number of civil wars is also shrinking, though less dramatically, as old ones end faster than new ones begin. This tremendous progress goes unheralded for the most part, as people’s attention and media coverage gravitate toward the remaining trouble spots.
The overall peaceful trend since 1990 may be a harbinger of even greater peace, or just an interlude before new and more terrible wars. It may be robust or fragile. It may result from understandable causes or from an unknown confluence of events. But, for now, peace is increasing. Year by year, we are winning the war on war.
The culmination of today’s hopeful trends in the permanent end of war is not inevitable, but neither is their reversal. We have good reason to worry, in a world of more and more powerful weapons, that a new outbreak of major war would be more devastating than ever. But at the same time we have good reason for hope, that such a disaster need not happen. World peace is not preordained and inevitable, but neither is a return to large-scale war.
The reduction in war over several decades suggests that the international community is doing something right in trying to tame war, by which I mean the efforts of international peacekeepers, diplomats, peace movements, humanitarian aid agencies, and other international organizations in war-torn and postwar countries. Considering how few funds and resources they get, these international peace operations have succeeded remarkably well.
The UN lies at the heart of the “war on war.” And that institution has many problems. Dictators from around the world gather to give long-winded speeches in the General Assembly, although not usually with a holster strapped on as Arafat had in 1974. Human-rights abusers led the UN’s human rights commission. The oil-for-food program for Iraq was corrupt. Sex scandals have tarnished peacekeeping missions. Some of the UN’s problems are genuine failings that the UN struggles to correct over the years and decades. Others are mere theater. But they should not distract us from the tremendous good that the UN has accomplished, despite its problems, in reducing war since 1945.
Heated political rhetoric, such as calls from some “Tea Party” candidates in 2010 to withdraw the United States from the UN, sometimes gives the impression that Americans do not support the UN. But this is not true. In a 2007 public opinion survey, an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans favored “strengthening the UN” in general.
Why does it matter if wars are diminishing or increasing? It matters because the question “Are things getting better or worse?” must be the starting point for making decisions about courses of action over time.
As an example of what happens if we get this “better or worse” question wrong when it comes to the world’s wars, consider the argument of political psychologist James Blight and Robert McNamara, former World Bank president and U.S. defense secretary. They seek to apply the lessons of the bloody twentieth century to make the twenty-first more peaceful (good idea). But they start from the assumption that war is getting worse. Noting the high casualties of the two World Wars, they conclude that “in the twentieth century, war was a common occurrence, it was increasingly lethal, and its toll fell primarily on civilians.” This idea that war was increasingly lethal over the past century is clearly wrong, however — certainly if you just compare the first half of the century with the second.
Blight and McNamara project the level of warfare forward into the twenty-first century based on population growth, and suggest a “speculative” but “conservative” estimate of “at least 300 million” fatalities from war in the twenty-first century, of which perhaps 75 million would be military. That is to say, the new century would see an average of 3 million war deaths per year, with 750,000 of them military deaths. They acknowledge the tremendous uncertainties in war data and difficulties in projecting forward a hundred years, but note that “our projections … may well be underestimates!” (emphasis in original).
Based on these projections, Blight and McNamara call for major changes in the way the international community approaches the problem of war. Since what we have been doing is not working (war is getting worse), we need a new approach, in their view. They write, “Without significant reform of the UN Security Council, little can be done to stop communal killing around the world.” This puts peace in line behind an intractable issue, Security Council reform. Recognizing these difficulties, Blight and McNamara say that if, prior to being reorganized, the Security Council cannot agree to a military invention to stop a war, then a “‘coalition of the willing’ should be assembled to approve the intervention and authorize it.” (This was before such a coalition invaded Iraq.) Indeed, they say the UN Charter is “out of date and needs revising …”
These radical suggestions would make sense if wars were becoming more numerous and lethal, just as it would make sense to try an experimental medicine for a cancer that had not responded well to conventional treatments. But for our world, today, the cancer of war is responding. The United Nations is succeeding, although it could work better with more support and resources.
More generally, political discourses driven by fears and worst-case scenarios, as today’s discussions of war often are, promote dysfunctional policies such as very high military spending and aggressive military actions. Fear of war — a sense that war is pervasive and could get us at any moment — does not lead to the pursuit of peace, but rather to pessimism and policies likely to bring about the very thing we fear. The political dynamics leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 illustrate this problem and its serious consequences.
Joshua S. Goldstein is a professor at the School of International Service at American University, winner of the International Studies Association “Book of the Decade” award, among others, and a research scholar at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he lives.