The world is actually more peaceful than ever

In the aftermath of an awful tragedy, it's hard to remember that political violence is in fact diminishing greatly

Published April 23, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

The Dalai Lama   (Religion/Jessica Rinaldi)
The Dalai Lama (Religion/Jessica Rinaldi)

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, it is important to keep things in perspective, by emphasizing what the mass media tend to neglect — namely, the fact that the world has become much more peaceful in recent decades and is getting more peaceful all the time.

It does not diminish the horror of mass casualty attacks on civilians, in this and other countries, to point out that today’s terrorist incidents provide a counterpoint to a declining arc of political violence worldwide. Both violence among states and violence within states have diminished dramatically in the last few generations.

If we look at battle deaths in the last century, the spurts in the Cold War, associated with the Korean, Indochina and Soviet-Afghan wars, were dwarfed by the huge spikes of slaughter associated with the world wars. And with the end of the Cold War came a steep decline in political violence worldwide — mainly because the two sides no longer kept local conflicts going by arming and supplying opposing sides from Latin America to Africa to Asia and the Middle East.

Has escalating terrorism succeeded the conventional conflicts of the past? No. The al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. on 9/11 were exceptional in the number of their victims. The results obtained by the Boston Marathon terrorists, who killed only three individuals while maiming scores of others, are more typical.  According to the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents, in the seven years following 2001 the average number of deaths from international terrorism was 582. What is more, many suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks are carried out by locals and take place as part of intra-state wars or in countries or regions occupied by foreign forces like Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. While some of them are carried out by transnational terrorists, many of these incidents do not necessarily fit the category of “international terrorism.”

Indeed, the two defining acts of political violence in the post-Cold War world — Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and bin Laden’s attack on New York and Washington, D.C. — look ever more like anomalies. Saddam violated the cardinal rule of post-1945 international relations, which proscribed the kind of direct conquest and annexation of foreign territories and populations that had been widely considered legitimate before World War II. The strength of this norm is evident from the fact that so many regimes with otherwise different constitutions and objectives united in condemning the violation of Kuwait’s sovereignty.

Likewise, all regimes, whether liberal or despotic, can imagine their own cities and populations as victims of the kind of mass-casualty terrorism practiced by al-Qaida and other stateless terrorists. During the Cold War, Soviet-backed “freedom fighters” were the anti-Soviet alliance’s “terrorists” and vice versa. But while al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. enjoyed some support in some Muslim populations, no country hailed bin Laden as a freedom fighter.

What unites opposition to wars of conquest and shared dread of stateless terrorism is the self-interest of states as organizations that seek to monopolize violence, as the German philosopher Max Weber argued. Another philosopher, the 17th-century theorist Thomas Hobbes, would not have been surprised by the correlation between the strengthening of the control of states over their own territories and populations and the decline of violence of all kinds, including homicide per capita (which has been declining in the U.S. for generations). Libertarians may decry the power of police surveillance technologies in the U.S. — but would they really prefer to be terrorized by the James Gang and Al Capone?

As wars among states have declined, most political violence in the world consists of struggles within states. Often this takes the form of insurgencies by ethnic groups against other ethnic groups that dominate the government.

We trivialize these conflicts by calling them “ethnic conflicts,” as though they were turf wars among different groups of hyphenated Americans in the New York of West Side Story. It is more accurate to call them “nationality conflicts” and to recognize that they arise from the fact that there are more nations in the world than there are states. In much of the zone of former European colonization from Africa through the Middle East to Asia, two or more nationalities coexist within arbitrary borders drawn by long-dead French, British or Russian colonial administrators.

In some cases, peaceful coexistence among the constituent nations of a multinational state can be achieved by means of respect for minority rights, or, if that is not enough, by constitutional provisions for partial autonomy for ethnically identified regions. “Asymmetrical federalism” is alien to the U.S. tradition; we have never wanted to have German-speaking or Spanish-speaking states. But asymmetrical federalism has kept Anglophone and Francophone Canada together to date, and works well enough in Belgium (Flemings and Walloons) and Switzerland, with its German, French, Italian and Romansch cantons.

In other cases, it may be best for nations with incompatible differences to divorce, by partitioning a former multinational state into two or more nation-states. Sometimes this has been accompanied by sickening massacres and heartbreaking transfers of population, as in the former Yugoslavia. But in other places, the process has been peaceful, as in the partition of Norway and Sweden more than a century ago, and the bloodless breakup of the former Czechoslovakia not long ago. Americans, taught to “celebrate diversity,” tend to confuse the voluntary diversity of the U.S. — a country of descendants of voluntary immigrants, with the exception of descendants of native Americans, African slaves and some Mexican families in the Southwest — with the involuntary diversity of different nationalities yoked together arbitrarily by some now-extinct European colonial empire.

Partition often promotes peace among now-separated nationalities because the global prohibition against political violence across borders is much stronger than the prohibition against violence committed by regimes or insurgent groups within the borders of a single state. Contrast the different responses of the international community to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which involved crossing a recognized international border, with the response to his suppression of Iraqi Kurds and other minorities within Iraq (itself an artificial state cobbled together by British imperialists from parts of the Ottoman Empire after World War I). My guess is that there will be even less political violence a few generations from now — in part because there will be more nation-states.

If the world today is far safer than it was only a few decades ago, and generally more peaceful than it has ever been in human history, then why don’t we feel safer than we do? Partly it is because of the continuing genuine threat of terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing, which are unnerving because they can happen in places like our own neighborhoods, far from the few remaining war-torn regions of the earth.  Partly it is the intrinsic sensationalism of the media, which prefers headlines about “the Long War against super-empowered terrorists” to “global political violence in historic decline.”

And partly it is what I think of as the Law of the Conservation of Anxiety: As big worries recede, we blow up lesser worries to compensate. So we stopped worrying about global nuclear war in the 1990s, only to panic about the Y2K computer glitch, and turned Osama bin Laden and his allies from criminals who failed most of the time but got spectacularly lucky once into world-historic figures on the scale of Hitler and Stalin waging “World War IV.” Needless to say, threat inflation is encouraged by producer interests, like the computer technicians who were paid well to address the Y2K issue, and lobbyists for the military-industrial complex who argued that a military buildup and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan would pretty much eliminate the threat of things like the Boston Marathon bombing. But one swallow does not make a spring, and a small number of successful terrorist attacks, horrific as they are, do not augur global anarchy.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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