Peace Breaking Out All Over

Former United Nations strategic planning chief Andrew Mack argues that, despite what you read in the papers, peace is breaking out all over.

Seen through the eyes of the media, the world appears an evermore dangerous place. Iraq is sliding toward civil war, the slaughter in Darfur appears unending, violent insurgencies are brewing in Thailand and a dozen other countries, and terrorism strikes again in Bali. It is not surprising that most people believe global violence is increasing. However, most people, including many leading policymakers and scholars, are wrong. The reality is that, since the end of the Cold War, armed conflict and nearly all other forms of political violence have decreased. The world is far more peaceful than it was.

Why has this change attracted so little attention? In part because the global media give far more coverage to wars that start than to those that quietly end, but also because no international agency collects global or regional data on any form of political violence.

The Human Security Report, an independent study funded by five countries and published by Oxford University Press, draws on a wide range of little publicized scholarly data, plus specially commissioned research to present a portrait of global security that is sharply at odds with conventional wisdom. The report reveals that after five decades of inexorable increase, the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued. By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts — those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths — fell by some 80 percent. The number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians also dropped by 80 percent, while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s. International terrorism is the only type of political violence that has increased. Although the death toll has jumped sharply over the past three years, terrorists kill only a fraction of the number who die in wars.

What accounts for the extraordinary and counterintuitive improvement in global security over the past dozen years? The end of the Cold War, which had driven at least a third of all conflicts since World War II, appears to have been the single most critical factor. In the late 1980s, Washington and Moscow stopped fueling “proxy wars” in the developing world, and the United Nations was liberated to play the global security role its founders intended. Freed from the paralyzing stasis of Cold War geopolitics, the Security Council initiated an unprecedented, though sometimes inchoate, explosion of international activism designed to stop ongoing wars and prevent new ones.

Army Reserve colonel and strategic analyst Austin Bay agrees.

The January 2005 Palestinian and Iraqi elections . . . were not the revolutions of generals with tanks and terrorists with fatwas, but the slow revolutions of the ballot box, with political moderates and liberal reformers the genuinely revolutionary vanguard. To massage Churchill’s phrase, these revolts were the beginning of democratic politics, where “jaw jaw” begins to replace “war war” and “terror terror.”

These slow revolts against tyranny and terror continue, and are the “big story” of 2005 and the truly “big history” of our time.

Partisan, ignorant, fear-filled rhetoric tends to obscure this big history, in part because the big story moves slowly. The democratic revolt is grand drama, but it doesn’t cram into a daily news cycle, much less into “news updates” every 30 minutes.

Television, the medium where image is a tyrant, finds incremental economic and political development a particularly frustrating story to tell. A brick is visually boring — a bomb is not. The significance of a brick takes time to explain, time to establish context, while a spectacular explosion incites immediate visceral and emotional responses. In the long term, hope may propel millions — hope that democracy will replace tyranny and terror. But in the short haul, violence and vile rhetoric, like sex and celebrity, guarantee an immediate audience.

So the “big stories” get lost in the momentum of the “now.”

Writing toward the end of the Cold War, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller argued that major war was one the verge of “obsolescence,” much like slavery and other practices that were once the norm but are now anathema. Unfortunately, internal wars continue.

A 2002 conference on The Waning of Major War provided insights by Mueller and some other top scholars of war.

Martin van Creveld, author of The Rise and Decline of the State (1999) among many other seminal works, presented the keynote address, contending that major wars between great powers are waning. In his view, this was largely due to the strengthening of international law and the development of nuclear weapons, which have made it impossible for the victors to survive a major confrontation. However, other forms of war, such as terrorism, guerrilla wars, and intra-state conflicts, are replacing interstate war, and are in fact more destructive.


Turning to the 20th Century, John Mueller contended that several kinds of war are in marked decline, or even obsolete, including major war between developed countries, conventional civil war, colonial war, and ideological civil war. Unlike van Creveld, however, Mueller traced the decline in warfare to a profound change in public attitudes about warfare and violence in general, rather than to technological developments. He concluded that the wars which remain, such as that in Yugoslavia, are best understood as residual wars, and that many of these, particularly in Africa, have a character more like crime than war.

Kalevi Holsti agreed with Mueller’s emphasis on the role of ideas and norms — particularly norms relating to territory, borders, and conquest — in explaining the declining incidence of major war. However, he argued that some versions of balance of power theory raise questions about Mueller’s thesis. For example, the conflicts between great powers take a long time to develop and thus a half-century of great power peace is insufficiently long to establish a trend. Hosti also questioned whether the trend noted by Mueller is really toward obsolescence, since it is possible for human advances made in the 20th century to be forgotten or reversed.


One factor associated with the decline of major war is the establishment of multilateral institutions. Patrick Morgan argued that multilateral institutions are more effective at preventing serious problems from arising or provoking conflict between powerful states than at containing ongoing conflicts or active movements toward war by great powers. He also observed that, while the West tends to see multilateral institutions as a prerequisite for peace, Southeast Asia has experienced a similar reduction in major war over the last 30 years without the development of multilateral institutions.

Other significant factors to consider are the global extension of juridical sovereignty and economic liberalism, according to Hendrik Spruyt, who submitted a paper which was presented and discussed at the conference. The increased respect for the norm of state sovereignty has played a role in decreasing the prevalence of territorial wars or imperialistic expansion. Economic liberalization, a norm which is more contested than sovereignty, also decreases the risk of confrontation.

William Thompson linked the discussion of the waning of war with current theory about democratization and its role in creating more peaceful international relations. Many have argued that democratization tends to make countries less prone to international war. However, democratization occurs within states, while the transformations underlying the waning of war occur at the level of international relations. Thompson concluded that democratization could play a major role in reducing war, but only if the social transformations take place in the institutions and political cultures of all of the major powers, which seems unlikely.

More recently, Mueller observed,

Certain standard, indeed classic, varieties of war have become so rare and unlikely that they could well be considered to be obsolescent, if not obsolete. Moreover, much, but not all, of what remains of war is substantially opportunistic predation waged by packs of criminals, bandits, and thugs who engage in warfare in much the same way as they often did in medieval and early modern Europe: as mercenaries recruited or dragooned by weak (or even desperate) state governments or as warlord gangs developed within failed or weak states. Much of this warfare could be reduced or substantially eliminated by disciplined police and military forces and, in their new era of essential consensus in the wake of the Cold War, the developed countries could create mechanisms for policing civil warfare. However, they are likely to do so with any sort of reliability only where their interests seem importantly engaged or where they manage to become self-entrapped. Rather, the key lies in the establishment of competent domestic military and policing forces, tracing a process Europe went through in the middle of the last millennium. Indeed, much of the civil warfare that persists in the world today is a function of the extent to which inadequate governments exist. Of late, there seems to have been an increase in the number of countries led by effective people who, instead of looting and dissipating their country’s resources, appear to be dedicated to adopting policies that will further its orderly development. Thus, while far from certain, a further (or continuing) decline in a most common remaining kind of war does seem to be an entirely reasonable prospect.

Mack and Bay are onto something with their focus on the mass media’s coverage of war as a key variable. Even though modern wars are fought with greater precision and far fewer casualties than their predecessors of even a quarter century ago, the Western public is increasingly hostile to war and its consequences. Seeing them unfold live and in color in their living rooms is surely a major contributing factor to that.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Democracy, Military Affairs, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Well, given this peace epidemic, the invasion of Iraq is looking better and better. Where will the U.S. stamp out peace next?

    The Onion, Jan. 2001:

    During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.

    “You better believe we’re going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration,” said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. “Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?”

  2. James Joyner says:

    The major combat phase in Iraq took 21 days and toppled a brutal dictator. What we’ve had since has been, for all practical purposes, an internal war.

  3. Anderson says:

    Exactly—how clever of us to invade a country with such staying power!

    More seriously, I am happy to see Saddam ousted, but think that it was for the Iraqis to do for themselves, possibly with the U.S. providing some mujahadeen-style assistance to the Shias. Probably we should’ve supported their rebellion in ’91; bad call on Scowcroft’s part.

  4. DaveD says:

    As you’ve quoted, Malik’s article suggests that the end of the Cold War is allowing the UN to better fulfull its destiny. Malik’s article suggests that, more and more, the UN is arbitrating peaceful settlements to conflicts. I think this is perhaps a little naive, though. I ask how many countries are necessary for the world to achieve peace? For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union we have seen the emergence of new (or long forgotten) countries whose geographic borders are established along ethnic lines. Yugoslavia is an example. It may be easier to broker a peace once everyone has gotten a piece of something. My local paper this morning had an article discussing how the Kurds in the Iraqi security forces would not hesitate to break ranks and fight against their Shi-ite comrades for an independent Kurdistan if the senior tribal leaders in the north of Iraq give the word. I am not so sure the UN could broker a comfortable peace until the Kurds have enough of what they feel is their own. The ethnic memory of these groups go back many, many centuries.

  5. ken says:

    Even though modern wars are fought with greater precision and far fewer casualties than their predecessors of even a quarter century ago, the Western public is increasingly hostile to war and its consequences. Seeing them unfold live and in color in their living rooms is surely a major contributing factor to that.

    I think you give too little credit to peoples moral sense. In a just war civilian casualties are bad but understood as an unavoidable part of the fight. But in a war without justification civilian casualites become inexcusable, morally speaking.

  6. jimbo says:

    Don’t discount democracy and rising standards of living. This doesn’t mean that poverty causes war, but when you depend on public opinion, the degree to which the public has something to lose or gain economically plays a part. A test case might be China and Taiwan. As China becomes more prosperous, even if not democratic, will the regime be willing to risk all out war over Taiwan? If China offered Taiwan a choice between certain invasion or reunification while keeping their economy as Hong Kong did, what would the Taiwanese choose?

  7. Ray says:

    Taiwan – depends on who is the gov. of the US and Taiwan, and the balance of military power. Right now Taiwan believes it could hurt China enough to delay it with a US Gov. that would intervene, and it has an pro-Taiwan President. In four years, hard to say. I see Taiwan culturally becoming more and more Taiwanese each year with increasingly democratic. Does China really want a true democracy to join it?