War on war

The newly established North America office of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute directed by Chantal de Jonge Oudraat yesterday hosted discussion of the statistical decline of armed conflict and whether it will continue.  Moderated by Sissela Bok, presenters were Peter Wallensteen of Uppsala University and Joshua Goldstein of American University, author of the recently published Winning the War on War.  The presenters and audience took as undisputed the uneven statistical decline of war since 1945, with a further dip after 1989.

Wallensteen attributed this mainly to better management of conflict, especially through the UN Security Council after 1989, and increased attention to rights, minorities and human dignity.  There is no increase in ethnic or one-sided conflicts that would muddy the statistical picture.  With war declining, other security concerns have emerged:  terrorism, state fragility and state failure.  Wallensteen thought the future looks promising if major powers continue to cooperate, security concerns remain limited, welfare economics has priority and human dignity is central to international concerns.  It is possible to envision zero conflicts in the future.

While not so sure about the zero conflict vision, Goldstein mostly agreed.  He debunked three causes for the decline in war:

  • nuclear weapons, because their number is decreasing sharply, without triggering an increase in war,
  • U.S. hegemony, because it too is declining without triggering an increase, and
  • democracy, because China has been peaceful but not democratic.

He supported three other causes:

  • normative disapproval of war and growth of the idea that peace is good, a view also advocated by Steven Pinker;
  • increases in prosperity, trade and global interdependence, which is what keeps the Chinese leadership out of war, since it derives its legitimacy from prosperity;
  • UN and other conflict management capacity, including increased use of peacekeeping.

Americans, Goldstein noted, on average pay $700 per month for U.S. defense and veterans benefits but only $2 per month for the UN.  Eighty per cent of Americans support the UN.  Doubling its budget would clearly bring real benefits. When will politicians realize this?

The presenters were too polite to mention it, but there is a great irony for Americans in the decline of war:  our armed forces have been active in conflict zones every year since 1989.  While much of the rest of the world has enjoyed relative peace, we have been expending trillions of dollars on less than fully successful military enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This, too, is something for our politicians to ponder.


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One thought on “War on war”

  1. A couple of things: the absence of increasing conflict with a decline in the number of nuclear weapons doesn’t prove that their existence hasn’t, and isn’t, playing a role in reducing wars: it may be that the number of weapons a country needs to deter attack is so low that any decline in the totals controlled by the US and Russia is irrelevant, from the standpoint of their ability to deter international adventures. Even so, reducing their number to the point where we can argue for outlawing them worldwide is a worthy goal.

    Something specific happened in 1989/1990 that doesn’t seem to be considered – the USSR fell apart. Russia, for obvious reasons, no longer was in any position to fund wars of national liberation that would be countered by America’s support for the local fight against Communism. If the Security Council started cooperating better, it was a result of the change in the geopolitical situation, not the cause.

    The great ideological struggles of the 20th century have ended, the neo-Nazis are a nuisance, the remaining Communists kind of pathetic as they march for pensioners’ rights, and all the Americans ever wanted was to be able to do business everywhere in the world. (It goes back to before the Revolution, when we were forced to be a maritime trading nation because roads were so expensive to build.) There just aren’t any great causes worth battles with 300,000 casualties any more.

    One other aspect (it may be in the book): population growth is slowing worldwide – Germany and Italy for example certainly aren’t looking for Lebensraum these days. The actual numbers are projected to increase for a while yet, peak, and then decline – the birth-control pill seems to have replaced the sword as the preferred form of population control. (Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Prize, and the inventors of the Pill didn’t?)

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