America

Predicting Peace: Are We Any Closer To A Conflict-Free World?

A demonstartor offers flowers to soldiers on their tank as an un-easy peace hangs over Tunisia on January 21, 2011. i i

A demonstrator offers flowers to soldiers as an uneasy peace hangs over Tunisia on Jan. 21. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A demonstartor offers flowers to soldiers on their tank as an un-easy peace hangs over Tunisia on January 21, 2011.

A demonstrator offers flowers to soldiers as an uneasy peace hangs over Tunisia on Jan. 21.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It's probably undeniable that humans spend much more time talking about what causes war, instead of what causes peace.

Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Canada, makes that point in a new paper for the Cato Institute. But at the center of his argument is that right now we are at an unprecedented point in history.

For 60-plus years, he says, "there has not been a single war between the major powers."

Mack goes deep into numbers and the possible reasons for this relatively peaceful period. But we'll take the long view here. He presents two surprising charts. First, the average number of international conflicts per year:

Then, the number of deaths from armed conflicts by region:

A graph showing deaths from battle. i i

A graph showing deaths from battle. Andrew Mack hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Mack
A graph showing deaths from battle.

A graph showing deaths from battle.

Andrew Mack

Here, Mack explains the numbers:

These findings present a picture that is very much at odds with popular—mostly media-derived—depictions of a progressively more violent world. And they raise an obvious question: how reliable are the data? The short answer is that we can be quite confident about the number of conflicts, but battle death data are far less reliable. Exaggerated, politically driven claims about death tolls are common in some conflicts, while undercounting is a problem in most—particularly in wars in very poor countries. But there is no doubt that the 50-plus year trend in battle-related deaths is downward—no serious scholar would deny that today's wars are, on average, far less deadly than those of the Cold War years.

Predicting future security trends is an exercise fraught with peril, as the near-universal failure of the security studies community to predict the end of the Cold War reminds us. But while current statistical models do very poorly at predicting exactly when and where wars will start, considerable progress has been made in establishing the conditions, dynamics, and policies that increase—and decrease—the risks that countries will succumb to war.

But the bottom line, he says, is that there is reason to be optimistic:

The security history of the post–World War II era, despite some major failures, provides grounds for some cautious optimism about the future—though none for complacency.

Two system-wide drivers of armed conflict—the imposition of colonial rule on much of the developing world and the Cold War—ceased to exist in this period. Neither will return. No obvious new system-wide source of conflict appears likely to replace them.

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