Monday, January 09, 2006

The Uncertain Future of War

One of the most strikingly underplayed features of the contemporary world is the decline in both the number of wars and the deaths they cause. Amidst all the chatter about the clash of civilizations and collapsing Arab civilization and the hopelessness of Africa and on and on, the data indicate that since the middle of the 20th century, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, peace has been breaking out everywhere.

In their ongoing series “Peace and Conflict,” Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr document the decline in both interstate and intrastate (i.e., “civil war”) conflicts. In their most recent report, Peace and Conflict 2005, they report that the number of wars of all kinds more or less rose steadily after 1945, but then peaked in 1982-3 at roughly 180 conflicts. Since then, this number has been in steady retreat, to about 60 conflicts as of this year. To be sure, they identify threats of future wars that still exist – particularly between the Koreas, Taiwan and China, and India and Pakistan. But the data to this point in what with perhaps unintentional irony is termed the postwar period cannot be interpreted anything but positively.

Even ethnic conflict and civil wars are falling, to the lowest level since 1960. While six new such wars began between 2001-4 in such places as Darfur and the Indonesian province of Aceh (and the newspapers tell us all we want to know and more about such conflicts), thirteen were settled during this period. Indeed, while many predicted that the end of superpower support for ruthless client states during the Cold War would lead to an outbreak of such wars, a brief uptick in the early 1990s was followed by a subsequent, ongoing decline.

The decline of war is by any measure an astonishing (if not necessarily permanent) development. If (a very big if) it persists, it will be perhaps the greatest human achievement in history. What explains it? Profs. Marshall and Garr attribute it to the collective-security structure begun with the UN after World War II and followed by greater dominance of the world by responsible democracies. But another possibility which receives relatively little attention is the growth of global trade. There are two ways to get what someone else has: to persuade him to give it to you in exchange for something of value that you have and he wants, or to forcibly take it. As the productivity of modern technology grows, the incentive structure may tilt toward trading and away from warring. (Of course, this is a double-edged sword; as the late economist Jack Hirshleifer was fond of noting, technological progress can strengthen relative advantages in fighting as much as the gains to trading.) But it is well-known that nations that trade more fight less, and so the growth in global economic networking may not only make it more costly to fight your trading partners but strengthen the incentives to preserve the international-security order that makes such trade possible.

Why do we hear so little about this dramatic development? First, it is obviously not universal. Many contend that in many non-industrial societies, and Arab and Muslim-majority countries in particular, the clash between the cultural requirements of globalization and the local traditions (and those empowered by those traditions) is great, great enough in fact to prompt a violent backlash. And given that the U.S. is involved in one major ongoing war, Americans are naturally predisposed to a the-world-is-going-to-hell argument. And the media naturally tends to play up bad news of all kinds, even though the economist Julian Simon made a second career out of meticulously documenting (in such works as The Ultimate Resource 2) that despite all the hand-wringing about how things are getting worse, they are by all available measures (life expectancy, health damage from pollution, food production, etc.) getting better, as they have for about 300 years without interruption, and always will. Local television news reporters like to say that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the media in general will play up bad news not because they are dour or cynical by nature but because (perhaps because we are evolutionarily predisposed to) it is what we will watch and read. But the decline in warfare and deaths from it may qualify as one of the most underreported stories of the last fifty years.

This poses a possible problem for the essential conservative view of man as unchanging, always prone to prey on his fellow man (a view increasingly supported by sociobiologists), a contrast to the leftist view of man as a work in progress, each century’s rollout better than the one before it because of all the hard work of moral uplifting done by political progressives. But in fact man can still be what he is and prosper and succeed, as long as he resides in an institutional environment that strengthens his best instincts and restrains his worst ones. And that framework is something that cannot be designed, but only discovered one mistake at a time. The current combination of the spread of consensual government and of global trade, both tendencies that promote cooperation rather than conflict, may be the culmination of an experiment that has taken centuries to reach this climax.

But we should be careful not to take this line of thought too far. A future Nobel Peace Prize winner once contended that economic interdependence made war obsolete, as those nations that cooperated were those that advanced, and only the rear guard of nations in decline had to resort to territorial conquest to get what their people needed. As trade and technology advanced, war would recede into nothingness. The author was Norman Angell, the book was The Great Illusion, and the year was 1910.


Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...

In many ways, this reminds me of Bastiat's dictum, "When goods don't cross borders, armies will." (Which of course, Thomas Friedman ripped off with his "Golden Arches Theory"....) Also, Mises wrote extensively about this same concept in abolishing trade, and indeed, the market in general, actually encourages conflict.

I'm not sure I buy the argument that "democracies don't fight each other" the connection between ones political form and ones economic policies aren't the democracy does not necessarily mean capitalism.

Great post anywat

10:07 AM  

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