The Peace Epidemic, Defended

Is this a “trough” or an “epoch”? Who cares?

My Slate colleague Fred Kaplan doesn’t believe me when I say (here and here) that the world is experiencing a “peace epidemic.” What about sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of armed conflicts is going up? What about the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia, where the number of wars “zigzagged up and down, with no clear trend”? But I never intended to suggest that every corner of the planet is growing more peaceable; I merely pointed out that, in the aggregate, the world is becoming less warlike.

Kaplan, citing the document I used in my first “peace epidemic” column ( Human Security Report 2005, University of British Columbia) writes that the trend toward fewer international (as opposed to civil) wars starts from a pretty low base, rendering it difficult to draw large conclusions:

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?

It’s a good point; I myself have been known to ding researchers who draw large conclusions from small numbers. But the trend in international wars is one of many indices all pointing in the same southerly direction. In Human Security Report 2005, we learn that the dollar value of major international arms transactions fell by a third between 1990 and 2003; that during roughly the same period, the number of refugees dropped by 45 percent; and that between 1995 and 2003, the number of civil wars fell by one-half. Kaplan takes no note of two other studies about which I wrote in my follow-up column, one of them available online, that tell the same story. Kaplan also complains that the data did not go all the way up to 2005, but the online study, which does go up to 2005, shows continuing decline in “major societal wars” and the number of states on the brink of collapse.

Am I saying that war will eventually become a thing of the past? I’ll admit that I acknowledged that wonderful possibility, but I’d never be so foolish as to predict such a thing, if only because the last time mankind predicted warfare’s end we ended up instead getting the bloodiest war of the 20th century. The usual thing with epidemics is that they spread and then recede, and in all likelihood this one will recede, too. Kaplan makes the useful observation that if you look at trends during the last 200 years, as opposed to the last 50, you see 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.

None of this, as far as I can tell, refutes my observation that today’s trend runs to fewer wars. Are we experiencing a “trough”? Call it what you like. One man’s trough is another man’s epoch.