War And Violence On The Decline In Modern Times

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Despite news of terrorist bombings and crackdowns in Syria, two recent books argue the world has never seen so little war and violence. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Joshua Goldstein, author of Winning the War on War, discuss. Originally broadcast on December 7, 2011.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Suicide bombers explode themselves in the heart of Damascus; tens of thousands killed in that Syrian civil war and counting; the U.S. ambassador to Libya and four other Americans murdered in an attack in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11; in Minneapolis, a gunman kills four people at a local post office before shooting and killing himself; just a few of the recent headlines from a world seemingly afflicted by war and violence.

But Joshua Goldstein argues the past 10 years have seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years. And Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker goes even further: We may be living in the most peaceful period in the history of our species. Really? And if so, why?

If you'd like to challenge the contrarians, give us a call. Please note this is a re-broadcast, we're not going to be able to take any new calls in this hour. Later in the program, Loving Prize winner Reginald Daniel joins us to talk about teaching multiracial identity in a changing world.

But first, winning the war on violence. Joining us now from a studio at Harvard is Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus of international relations at American University. His book is titled "Winning the War on War." Nice to have you with us today.

JOSHUA GOLDSTEIN: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And just given those headlines, it really is hard to believe that there is measurably less violence this decade than in the past 100 years.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, think about that war that started 70 years ago, World War II. That was a war in which the levels of violence were 100 times higher than the wars today. And if you measure it, the 1990s were double today. The Cold War years were triple.

So in the United States, we've had a hard decade of war, no doubt about it, and one war is one too many. The things that still happen are heartbreaking and terrible. But overall, the trend is downward. And the big piece of this trend is that the most terrible, destructive wars are between the large, national armies with their tank formations and their submarines and airplanes, and nowhere in the world today anymore are two of those large national armies fighting each other head-to-head.

This is a huge change from history, when they were fighting each other most of the time, and it means that what we're left with are smaller wars, still terrible but smaller, more limited in size and geographically limited civil wars. And that's a big change.

CONAN: Well, saying that there are fewer war deaths this past decade than at any time in the past 100 years, isn't that another way of indicting the past 100 years and maybe this decade is the anomaly?

GOLDSTEIN: Well no because the past 100 years were - there was a big explosion of violence in the early part of the 20th century, but the 17th century was no picnic, either. The Thirty Years' War destroyed a third of the population of Germany, and back through history, there have been terrible wars much of the time.

And even in prehistoric times, as many as a quarter of the men in a society, not infrequently, died in wars. So it's actually a new thing and something that's developed in the least 60 years and especially the last 20 years.

And we can talk about why it is, and Steven Pinker will have more to say about that also, but the big change is that people are finding other ways to solve their problems, not through war, and we're seeing an actual shrinking in the number of people killed worldwide.

CONAN: We'll get to that, of course, but Steven Pinker joins us now, professor of psychology at Harvard University. His book is "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined," and nice to have you back with us.


CONAN: And you go even further into the past and make a broader assumption, that indeed this is the, probably, the most peaceful period in human history.

PINKER: Yes, the decline of war that scholars such as Joshua Goldstein have documented is one of a number of historical declines of violence. Others include the plummeting of rates of interpersonal violence, one-on-one homicides, which have fallen by about a factor of 35 since the Middle Ages in every European country for which statistics are available.

Another example is the abolition of cruel and barbaric institutionalized practices like human sacrifice, like chattel slavery, like the use of the death penalty for trivial infractions, the burning of heretics, bear-baiting, the list goes on.

And yet another one is the even more recent targeting of violence on smaller scales directed against vulnerable sectors of the population like racial minorities. So we've seen an elimination of the practice of lynching in the United States, which used to take place at a rate of about 150 a year and fell to zero by 1950. Rates of rape have fallen, rates of domestic abuse. Popularity of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment have gone down.

Even more recently, practices that wouldn't even have been categorized as violence in previous decades, like bullying, have now been targeted for elimination. A few years ago, bullying was just childhood, boys will be boys. Now we've brought it in under the umbrella of violence and sought to minimize it for the first time in history.

CONAN: Yet we always hear: the 20th century, the most violent, the bloodiest century in human history.

PINKER: Well, people who make that claim never cite numbers from any century other than the 20th, and as Joshua Goldstein has pointed out, the 17th century with its wars of religion, the 14th century with its Mongol invasions, many other centuries have atrocities that can hold their head high when compared against the 20th century.

The annihilation of native peoples of the Americas and Australia and Africa, the Islamic and Atlantic slave trades racked up horrific death tolls.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein. We're talking about the reduction in violence, measurable over millennia, according to them and certainly over the last 110 years. Really? Let's turn to Bruce(ph), and Bruce is on the line with us from Gainesville.

BRUCE: Hi, I've got a question about all of the blood slaughter that's been going on in Africa over the last decade. I hear about the industrialized nations, the high-tech nations like Europe, all over Europe, the United States, but I don't hear anything about Africa. And I know there's been a lot of bloodshed there. Do you want to comment about that, please?

CONAN: Joshua Goldstein, there's slaughter in places like Rwanda, obviously the ongoing war in Congo. Elections only seem to engender fears of more violence.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, there are fears of more violence in Congo, but the amount of violence is way down. I mean, 10, 12 years ago, there were six foreign armies in Congo. It was considered Africa's first world war. And since the U.N. got there a decade ago, the war has become much more localized.

Now, there are still atrocities going on in some of these eastern provinces, and I don't want to say that's okay, but it's much smaller scale. And across the continent, there's been a big reduction of war in the last decade. Places that - you see, war is more newsworthy. It's - we think about it. It gets our attention.

But in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and you mentioned Rwanda, where there was a terrible genocide 15 years ago, we forget about them once they are at peace, whereas the ones that are still at war, that we're afraid will go back to war, we remember those. And that's why we never acknowledge that we're actually making some progress, even though obviously the work isn't finished.

CONAN: Bruce? I guess he's left us. Which raises the question: If these are all advances, why are we doing better? And Steven Pinker, you advance several causes, one of them, and this goes back through history, is the evolution of the state.

PINKER: Yes, probably Hobbes got it right when he said that a leviathan, a third party with a monopoly on the use of - legitimate use of force in a territory, might be among the biggest violence reduction techniques ever invented.

When you outsources your revenge to a third party, you're less likely to keep acting on the belief that you're always on the side of the angels and the other guy is always treacherous and evil, and your violence is always justified retaliation, the other guy's violence is always naked, unprovoked aggression.

When you have both sides thinking that, you can get endless cycles of revenge and vendetta and blood feud. When you've got the state and the judicial system meting out the punishments, you can cap the damage after one round.

Now, in the international arena, of course, we don't have a global leviathan, a world government, but Joshua Goldstein points out how the international peacekeepers, which are a kind of soft, rough equivalent, the closest that the world has to an international police force, have, contrary to impressions, been effective.

CONAN: Effective, Joshua Goldstein?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, way more effective than people credit. I think there are three big reasons for the decline of war in the international system, one of which is this shift of norms that Steven Pinker has referred to. Things like dueling or human sacrifice just aren't cool anymore.

The second is the rise of prosperity and interdependence so that you don't get rich by conquering territory anymore, you get rich by trade, and war doesn't work for that.

But the third, which I focus on primarily, is the rise of the United Nations and peacekeeping, which has given the international community a way to manage and reduce conflicts, not to bring about world peace in one big gulp but to go into war zones where formerly ceasefires would break down more than half of the time.

But now most of them stick. Ninety percent stick because peacekeepers are able to provide that security. Now, this has been a very - as we all know, a challenging job for the United Nations and one that hasn't always been successful. But over the last decades, the U.N. has gotten better at peacekeeping, has gotten more effective at peacekeeping, and it's really cheap.

So the average American household pays $700 every month for our military and veterans' benefits, but $2 a month for peacekeeping, so $2 versus $700, and it gets us things that our military can't get us, not to say it can do everything the military does, but $2. So we could be beefing this up a little bit, and it's quite cost-effective.

CONAN: The old rule of thumb used to be peacekeepers were good at keeping the peace when both sides wanted the peace kept. What are they doing better now to make more of those situations, as you say, keep the peace more often than not?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, they've adapted in several ways, and one is that they're more robust now. So they go in with military force that if there's a spoiler trying to bring down a whole peace agreement and throw a society back into war, maybe so that some militia can get diamonds or coal, tin or something, the peacekeepers are willing to use force to protect civilians and to make sure that the agreement sticks.

I mean, they're in Democratic Congo with attack helicopters now, which is not our idea of traditional peacekeepers being neutral and never getting involved in conflict.

CONAN: Perhaps the recent situation in the Ivory Coast, Cote d'Ivoire, might be an example where they intervened and, well, brought about change and made a very bad situation much better.

GOLDSTEIN: That was an excellent example because the elections there had been - they had driven out the incumbent president, but he was holding on to power. He was beginning to slaughter civilians, and that could have gone right back to another decade of civil war. And that was a terrible war there. But the U.N. with French backing came in and put the rightful owner into power, so to speak, in a pretty robust way, and stabilized the society.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein, who you just heard, about what's driving the decline in war and violence. We'll get to more of your calls in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


GOLDSTEIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Two recent books reach similar conclusions about war and violence: that we see less of both than at almost any time in recent history. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's latest book is titled "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." Joshua Goldstein's latest is "Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide."

CONAN: Linda's on the line, calling from Portland.


CONAN: Hi, Linda, go ahead, please.

LINDA: I hate to sound so cheery on such a sad subject, but I'm a cultural anthropologist of Japan, and I teach a course on the anthropology of violence. And one of the questions that I have is whether perhaps the nature of violence in the 20th century and 21st century might be considered qualitatively different for two reasons.

One is the use of mass media. In other words, we may be more aware of more violence, but perhaps, you know, as both authors are saying, this is actually a time when we have less violence compared to other centuries.

On the other hand, I wanted to ask the question about the use of high technology, especially when we look at something like the Holocaust, that the Nazis were very effective in killing six million Jews in the space of a very short amount of time precisely because of the nature of technology.

So the question that I have for them is: Could they address the issues of maybe the quantitative and qualitative nature of violence in the 20th century and how you would compare that to previous centuries?

CONAN: Steven Pinker, why don't you start on quality of violence.

PINKER: I think the technology has not been a major factor. We've seen in Rwanda that you can rack up hundreds of thousands of deaths in a genocide using nothing more high-tech than a machete. And even during the Holocaust, the majority of Jews did not die in the gas chambers but at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, just men in trucks with guns who lined people up and then shot them in the back of the neck.

Certainly we have horrific images of nuclear explosions at the end of the Second World War, but there too the number of deaths were a tiny fraction of those that died in the Second World War. And on the whole, I think the motive to kill people is a more powerful determinant of how many people get killed than the means at their disposal.

CONAN: And Joshua Goldstein, what about the awareness of violence promulgated by - it seems you can't throw a punch at an Occupy rally without getting captured on a cell phone camera.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, that's right. I agree with Linda that the media has changed our perception of war. And as we're getting more and more coverage of the world, little clashes, skirmishes in the remote parts of the world from us now appear on our televisions, if not our cell phones, and so we're more aware of them, and it seems like the world's getting more and more violent.

Well, these things and much worse used to happen, and we were just completely unaware of them. So that's a big change that's contrary to the underlying trends but makes it seem as though things are getting worse and worse.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much.

LINDA: Sure, thank you.

CONAN: Email from Gary(ph) in Campbell, California: How can you talk about world peace without mentioning the D-word, democracy? Joshua Goldstein, is that a factor?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think it is a factor to some extent, and there are multiple causes here. The reason it didn't make my top three list is that the recent peace is also extending to countries that are not democracies and notably China. China has not had a military battle in 25 years, and that's a remarkable record for a country after centuries of war, civil war and revolution. And China is not a democracy.

So I can't see that democracy is the full story here. There's something deeper at work here. Now, China is a country that's depending on trade for wealth and where the leaders take their legitimacy from delivering prosperity, and that prosperity is based on trading with the other countries of the world. So war is not a viable path for them to stay in power or to build up their country.

CONAN: And Steven Pinker, commerce is indeed one of the factors that you cite.

PINKER: Yes, well, a basic principle of evolutionary biology is that organisms cooperate when they can deliver mutual benefits, reciprocal altruism. And so mechanisms that make it easier and more profitable to trade make other people more valuable alive than dead.

And as Joshua Goldstein pointed out, China has become peaceful as a capitalist country but not as a democratic country, and it's very unlikely, even though much has been written about the rivalry between the U.S. and China, but it's unlikely that they'll fight out this rivalry on the battlefield.

I mean, they make too much of our stuff. We owe them too much money. It would be suicide on both sides to engage in a war, and that's what reciprocal exchange does to people. They may not like each other, but they want to keep each other alive and well.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom. Tom's on the line from San Jose.

TOM: Hey, great show, Neal, and thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: Yeah, gentlemen, you made some great points, but I'd like to point out that according to the Lancet, the British medical journal, over a million Iraqi children were killed due to U.S.-backed sanctions back in the '90s. And that's not even counting the current, you know, shock-and-awe type of war that's gone on since, you know, 2003.

And that's over twice as many people killed as American service people were killed in World War II, which was supposedly much more violent than it is today. And of course we have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at Russia and China and who knows who else. So the statistics could change dramatically in just a matter of minutes, you know, literally, you know, 20, 30 minutes.

So anyway, I think Americans, you know, they just yawned when we heard the statistics about the children dying in Iraq and earlier in the '80s about the, you know, hundreds of thousands killed by, you know, death squads, you know, backed by the CIA and so on. And we go to Vietnam and Korea. You know, we bombed every city in Korea to the ground, even towns and villages completely obliterated.

And there's been no change in American looking at this war-like policy at all, even under Obama. He's just continued, you know, Bush's policies, you know, supporting the military industrial congressional complex, which pretty much has, you know, bought our government the same way the Wall Street bankers have.

CONAN: Tom, you've raised a couple of points there. One, Joshua Goldstein, your statistics are based on the deaths directly attributable to war. Would they have included, as Tom mentioned, the numbers of Iraqis who died as the indirect result of economic international sanctions on Iraq back in the 1990s up to 2003?

GOLDSTEIN: No, that's not included. What I'm looking at is deaths of civilians and military directly from war or violence. And that's easier to measure than the idea of indirect deaths that, you know, because of the Gulf War, then we had sanctions, and then these children went hungry, and you can try to figure out how many people died.

Look, a lot of people have died as an indirect result of war. There's no doubt about it. But these tend to move together. If there's a big war, and a lot of people are dying from bullets and bombs, those populations are also being displaced and malnourished, and cholera epidemics begin and so forth. So these two measures, the direct and indirect, it's not that people killed indirectly are less important, but they tend to move together, and the direct deaths is a better way to measure change through time.

And that's what we care about here. Now, it's a terrible world, and a lot of people, too many are dying horrible deaths. Don't get me wrong, it's horrible out there. But the question is: Is it less horrible than it used to be? And if you look carefully, it is less horrible. That means we're on the right track.

It's like if you had cancer, and that would be terrible, but if you went to your doctor and found that the treatments were shrinking the tumors, you'd say we're on the right track, let's stay on this track.

And in this case we're doing the right things to shrink and manage conflict worldwide, and although there's still terrible wars going on, we should stay on this track and do more of the things that are working, such as U.N. peacekeeping.

CONAN: Tom's point, Steven Pinker, the United States still has tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan said to be winding up by 2014, undeclared wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and in the eastern - in the Horn of Africa area, again Somalia. He's right, the United States is involved in more wars than ever.

PINKER: Yes, but it's completely misleading to say that nothing has changed since Korea. If you simply say wars exist now, wars existed then, well, that's true. But if you look at how many people get killed in the war, there's just no comparison.

You plot the numbers on a graph, and they absolutely plummet. Just, if you take just American civilians - soldiers alone, we're comparing, say, 58,000 in Vietnam to something more like 5,500 in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That's a factor of 10, and that's two wars over almost a decade.

The same story is true if you look at the number of, say, Koreans killed and Vietnamese killed compared to the number of Iraqis and Afghanis killed. You really have to look at the numbers, and if you go by the headlines, if you go by anecdotes from memory, you're going to get a very misleading impression about how dangerous the world is.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: Thank you, Neal, it's a great show.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Steven(ph), Steven with us from Normal, Illinois.

STEVEN: Good afternoon, Gentlemen. Great show, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. Thank you.

STEVEN: I just wanted to ask a quick question about the exponential escalation in violence when it comes to the war on drugs. It's a war we've been fighting for about 40 years now, and you look at the tens of thousands of people that have died in Mexico this year, and that number has gone up every year.

CONAN: I think you're - I think it's about 30,000 total, it's something in that ballpark.

STEVEN: Yeah, something like that.

CONAN: OK. Would that have been included, Joshua Goldstein?

GOLDSTEIN: No, that's not a war between politically motivated armed factions. It is included in Steven Pinker's analysis of overall violence and the decline thereof. And it's terrible what's going on in Mexico, 30,000 people killed. But as Steven Pinker mentioned, the Korean War killed a million people directly and several million, you know, indirectly. Vietnam War, a million and a half, people (unintelligible) - and that's not to mention World War II, Pearl Harbor and all that followed it.

We killed more people in a single night in the bombing raids over Japanese or German cities, in one night than are - have been killed in the Mexico drug or from the get-go until now. And we did it repeatedly night after night. And it wasn't collateral damage. It was deliberate strategy. So we have to remember these historical landmarks to judge whether we're going forwards or backwards. And then we have to rededicate ourselves to keep moving forward. We shouldn't be complacent by any means.

CONAN: And, Steven Pinker, I wanted to follow up with you on that. It is important, you said to look at these numbers because it makes the past seem less innocent, the present and maybe the future too less caring.

PINKER: Yes. The way not to understand the rate and changes in violence is to tick off all the violence that still exists on the Earth today. What that shows is that rates of violence have not gone down to zero, and neither Joshua Goldstein or I would say that rates of violence have gone down to zero. What does that mean? That means if you find all the violence that does exist on the Earth, you can list them as you did at the beginning of the program. Your callers can phone in with drug violence in Jamaica or terrorism in India. There are lots of examples. That tells you nothing. What you have to do is imagine all the spots on Earth that now don't have violence but did have a few years ago and would have if rates of violence continued.

There isn't a war in Angola the way there was a couple of decades ago. If someone isn't shot by a sniper, there isn't a camera crew there announcing 40 people today were not killed by a deranged sniper. All of the violence that doesn't occur doesn't get reported on the news. Only when you add those up and put them into the denominator of the fraction can you say anything about the rate of violence and can you say anything about whether the rate has gone up, gone down or stayed the same. Listing examples of violence that still take place proves nothing.

CONAN: Steven Pinker, Harvard college professor of psychology. And also with us, Joshua Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Michael in Spanish Fork, Utah: Looking at what's going on right now in Europe, one can't help but think that 70 years ago, similar issues were resolved with tanks and airplanes. In my opinion, economic interdependence has done more to mitigate violence than anything else.

GOLDSTEIN: Absolutely. The European story is just miraculous after centuries of bringing the world some of its biggest, most bloody conflicts. People there, it's not all economic. That's part of it, but people deliberately set out to integrate the continent, to make the countries dependent on each other and to build a common culture of Europe. And today, that French-German border that was fought over with huge fortifications and massive armies crossing back and forth, now that border consists of a single sign by the side of the road that says Germany or France. By the way, you're crossing a border, which barely is a border. And this is remarkable, it's the dog that didn't bark. The thing that didn't happen, the war in Europe, the war in China that we don't pay attention to because it didn't happen, but it is the story, the things that are not happening that could have happened or that in the past would've happened.

CONAN: Let's try to - oh, I'm sorry. Steven, go ahead.

PINKER: Yeah. And for all the criticism that greed and capitalism and profit and materialism are subject to, we should remind ourselves that they're historically often better than rectifying historic injustices, promoting national or religious supremacy, bringing the kingdom of God to earth and all kinds of spiritual motives that can do a lot more damage than people just wanting a good material life for themselves.

CONAN: An email from Susan(ph) in Davis, California: I was just speaking with daughter last night about tribalism and globalism. It seems as though humans are, by their nature, tribal. I wonder whether, as our worldview shifts to a more global worldview, we become less tribal and territorial. We begin to understand more about the need to co-exist more peacefully. And, Steven Pinker, all that technology we talked about that records all that violence, it also makes it possible for us to see and hear and know about each other.

PINKER: Yes, it's true. And as a psychologist, I'd be the first to agree that tribalism is a part of our psychology. But what mentally counts as a tribe can be very fluid. It - all of us belong to multiple tribes. We may belong to a particular religion and a particular state and a particular occupational guild, in a university or a club or a corporation and a country and an alliance, and nothing forces the concept of a tribe to coincide, say, within an ethnic group or an actual tribe. And I think the prevalence of media have given rise to virtual tribes, such as, perhaps, the entire global community, ideally, and make it harder to demonize people who may not happen to look like us or speak our language.

And there is a precedent for this because the first wave of media was the rise of print and books in the 18th century, which led to some of the first humanitarian reforms like the abolition of slavery. People read fiction, like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or memoirs like "Frederick Douglass" could see what it's like to be, say, an African-American slave, and they no longer feel like a different tribe. They feel like members of your own tribe. And so I think that global media can have the liberalizing force of elevating people beyond the narrow default concept of tribe to something that's more universal

CONAN: And, Joshua Goldstein, you've done yeoman work throughout this broadcast to remind us that terrible things still go on, that nuclear weapons still exist, that these statistics can change in the blink of an eye. What if there was one thing we could continue working on most focally would you recommend that be?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it's the United Nations, and it comes right out of this tribal issue, tribal identity versus global identity. So the U.N. not only is doing practical good work with peacekeeping and so forth, but it's also our identity as human beings. When I was a kid, we went around with orange boxes, collecting money for UNICEF. It symbolized that we were part of this larger human family, and the whole rise of humanitarian that's happened in my lifetime is remarkable.

Now one of the myths in the United States is that Americans don't like the U.N. This isn't true. Polls, public opinion polls show that about 80 percent of Americans strongly support the U.N., want us to keep contributing to it. And if there's one thing I would say that we can do and should do, it's to re-up our support for the U.N., to give more resources to peacekeeping, which are always under-funded and trying to do more with less. It would be good to do more with more. And so...

CONAN: Joshua...


CONAN: ...I have to cut you off. Joshua Goldstein...


CONAN: ...joined us from WFCR in Amherst, Steven Pinker at a studio at Harvard. We thank them both. This is NPR News.

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