Newspaper headlines blare that we live in dangerous times, but that overshadows another reality – we also live in one of the most peaceful times in modern history.
Despite high-profile terrorist attacks, data shows the number of deaths caused by war is markedly lower than in any time since World War II. When the Colombian government signed a ceasefire with rebels in June, it ended the lone remaining military conflict in the entire Western Hemisphere.
In a blog posted on Medium, political economist Angus Hervey wrote, “If you can tear your attention away from the 24-hour news cycle, you’ll be astonished to hear that we are experiencing one of the least discussed, yet most remarkable cultural shifts of all time: war, one of our species’ most abiding and defining social practices, is at its lowest ebb.”
An op-ed written by Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker in the Boston Globe claims, “For nearly two-thirds of a century, from 1945 to 2011, war had been in overall decline. The global death rate had fallen from 22 per 100,000 people to 0.3.”
There have been new armed conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine. “The Syrian civil war became the bloodiest conflict in a generation, with hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, and multiple foreign powers joining the fight or supporting their proxies,” Goldstein and Pinker concede. But, they add, a partial ceasefire in Syria has sharply reduced casualties, the ceasefire in Ukraine has largely held and Boko Haram is being driven out of large chunks of its previously held territory.
“But, mercifully, as the major wars have died down, new ones have not sprung up in their place,” Goldstein and Pinker say. “Of special note is the continuing absence of wars between the world’s uniformed national armies. These forces exceed 20 million soldiers and are armed to the teeth. Yet the last sustained war between these armies was in 2003, in Iraq.”
Hervey stresses that war isn’t extinct. But it is declining, especially between states with some form of democracy. “After centuries of hard-earned lessons, people are starting to understand that governance really matters,” he wrote. “Democracy is more prevalent today than ever before, and despite all its obvious flaws, it’s still a hell of a lot better than authoritarianism and feudal serfdom.”
“Since democracies don’t usually go to war with each other, the likelihood of interstate war, which kills more people than the kinds of intermittent, non-state conflicts we see today, is declining,” Hervey concluded. "As the world becomes more interconnected, the powerful have ever more incentives to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences of going to war, too. Conflict isn’t good for your economy in a world of dense trade networks and digital flows.”
Hervey says as major warfare declines, mankind has “an opportunity to turn our collective efforts to overcoming other forms of violence such as domestic abuse, slavery and racial, political and religious persecution.” He might have added the “violence” caused by drug addiction and climate change.
The world isn’t good enough, but it seems to be getting better. “War,” Hervey says, “is not inevitable."