War Stories

What “Peace Epidemic”?

Don’t pop the champagne corks just yet, the evidence isn’t quite there.

At the end of last year, the Human Security Centre, a research wing of the University of British Columbia, released a 158-page report concluding that, contrary to widespread perceptions, the world is more peaceful now than at any time in the past half-century. The end of the Cold War, it seems, brought on not an upsurge of chaos and bloodshed—as many had expected—but, instead, a dramatic decline.

The Human Security Report 2005, as the study is called, is fascinating and important. But are its most startling conclusions valid? Are we indeed living through—as Slate’s Timothy Noah put it in a celebration of the report—a “peace epidemic”?

The study’s authors put forth three reasons for what they see as a decline in armed conflict. First is the end of colonialism and, with it, the end of the national liberation wars that spurred its demise. Second is the end of the Cold War and its Third World “proxy wars,” which had been intensified by ideological rivalry and by the competitive supply of armaments by the United States and the Soviet Union. Third, and related to the first two, is a rise in United Nations peacekeeping efforts, which—despite a blemished record here and there—have helped end several wars and prevented others from starting.

Again, this is very interesting, even plausible. Yet a close look at the report reveals that much of its data undermines these conclusions. Clearly the nature of warfare has been changing over the past two decades, but it’s not at all clear that war itself is on the wane, and it’s certainly premature to shout “Hallelujah” or to roll out the carpet for a new age of human history.

The report’s main exhibit, Figure 1.1, is a graph showing the numbers of wars—international, civil, and colonial—from 1946-2002. The authors summarize this graph as follows:

It reveals that the number of armed conflicts increased steadily decade by decade throughout the Cold War. Then in the early 1990s, a steep decline started that continues to this day.

Well, let’s look at this graph. (Click here to follow along.)

First, yes, the number of armed conflicts has declined since 1992—from 50 to 30. But this merely puts the world at the same level of turmoil as in 1976. I don’t remember anybody thinking of that era as particularly tranquil.

Second, the authors write on the report’s first page of text that “the overwhelming majority of today’s armed conflicts are fought within, not between, states.” This is meant to suggest that the world is now less mired in grave conflict. Yet the graph shows that civil wars have far outnumbered international wars consistently since 1960.

Third, the graph does show a decline in wars between nations, but the numberof such wars has always been low—between two and eight per year in this 56-year period (except for a brief spell in the mid-’90s when there were none). The most recent year on the graph, 2002, was one of those low points, with just two international wars; but so were 1950-52, 1961-63, 1968, and 1975. In other words, did 2002 mark a trend or just a blip?

Fourth, assuming that the decline in conflicts is significant (historically and statistically), the data provide mixed support for the study’s theory on why this is so. The end of colonialism? The graph shows that colonial wars petered out in the mid-1970s, but this was precisely the moment when the overall number of wars began to soar. The end of the Cold War? More plausible, but not entirely so. In 1992, there were 50 conflicts; two years later, there were only 40. But then this number held steady until 2000, when it suddenly plunged again to 30. In other words, the decline couldn’t be deemed “dramatic” until nearly a decade after the demise of Soviet Communism and the end of the Cold War. So, what precipitated this two-phase plunge? Was it just the end of the Soviet-American rivalry? Was something else going on as well? Or did wars merely shift from one set of issues and maps to another? Finally, is the world really safer now than in, say, 1999, when the number of wars was much higher? That is, do these numbers reflect the true state of human security? (For more on this question, click here.)

The study’s conclusions appear shakier still in its next set of graphs, Figure 1.2, which depict trends in warfare, region-by-region. In Sub-Saharan Africa, armed conflicts rose through the 1990s. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as in Central and South Asia, the number of wars sharply zigzagged up and down, with no clear trend. In East and Southeast Asia, the number of conflicts declined from 1975-92 (a product in part of the end of the Vietnam and Cambodia wars) but has since remained flat. Only in Central and South America did the post-Cold War era bring an unequivocal decline in conflict.

Whenever a study compares the present with the past, especially when it claims that the present is much better or much worse, it’s useful to look carefully at the baseline. By some measures, the 1990s appear to have been a more peaceful decade than the 1970s or 1980s. But, even by these measures, were the ‘90s particularly calm—or were the ‘70s and ‘80s particularly turbulent? Are we seeing today some new phenomenon in human history—or a restoration of normalcy?

Toward the end of the report, there are two graphs that, perhaps unwittingly, provide something of an answer. Figure 5.1 shows the number of international wars from 1816-2002. The authors’ caption reads: “There is no obvious trend in the number of international wars until the end of the 1970s. But following the end of colonialism and then the Cold War, the number declined dramatically.” This isn’t quite true. There is a pattern through the two centuries—a continuous up-and-down wave. Peaks (years when there were six or seven wars going on) occurred in the 1880s, 1900, 1920, the late 1950s, and the 1970s. Troughs (years of one war or none) occurred in 1820, 1830, 1890, 1912, and the mid-to-late 1990s. The ‘70s spike lasted longer and the ‘90s trough dipped lower than most. But the graph provides no assurance that we are on the edge of a peaceful epoch. It could just be another trough, to be followed by another spike.

The second, still more daunting graph, Figure 5.2, shows civil wars from 1816-2002. The authors’ caption: “Driven by Cold War politics and struggles for control of the post-colonial states, civil wars soared after World War II, then declined even more rapidly after the end of the Cold War.” Again, this summary doesn’t capture the whole story. The number of civil wars jagged sharply up and down (ranging between two and eight per year) until the 1880s; stayed constant (at two per year) until the end of World War I; hovered slightly (between two and four per year) until the onset of World War II (when it dipped to zero, as the great international wars engulfed the globe); then climbed in the ‘50s, soared in the ‘60s, and rocketed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to a peak of 23 civil wars in the mid-’90s, before plunging to 12 in 2002. But this hardly marked a historic low point; it’s the same number of civil wars as in the late ‘70s, which, up to that time, was a larger number than any previous era ever witnessed. In other words, the recent plunge, while steep and rapid, still leaves the world with a lot of civil wars in the scheme of things, and it’s not clear whether the line will keep going down or go back up.

All the report’s graphs end in 2002, the final year for which the authors could gather data. The events of 2003-06—the war in Iraq and a possible civil war in the works, the slackening of dictatorship (but possibly the resurgence of ethnic conflict) in Lebanon and Ukraine, tensions rising with Iran, continued fighting in various hotspots of Africa—seem more discouraging than hopeful. The best thing that can be said about these conflicts, whether raging or brewing, is they could go either way.