Rapid Progress Toward Peace

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Some people mistakenly think that the world is a more violent place than it used to be, so Joshua S. Goldstein overcorrects:

Expectations for the new century were bleak even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their bloody aftermath: Political scientist James G. Blight and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggested earlier that year that we could look forward to an average of 3 million war deaths per year worldwide in the 21st century.

So far they haven’t even been close. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

If you see the world through the lens of simple linear models, I suppose a few decades of decreasing war deaths imply rapid progress toward peace. If you hold a cyclical view of history, they imply the opposite. If you hold a more chaotic view of history, you might accept that very few people saw the Great War coming, so we shouldn’t get too cocky.

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