This month’s Cato Unbound is on one of those counterintuitive topics that I’ve taken a great deal of interest in lately. By the numbers, the world is increasingly at peace. Most people probably wouldn’t think so, and you might never guess it by turning on the TV news, but if you look at the number of wars and the number of combat fatalities — two of the more reasonable metrics — the real news is just very, very good. Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University, makes the case:
Almost all of the increase in conflict numbers from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War is accounted for by the proliferation of intrastate conflicts—civil wars. But… following the end of the Cold War, the number of conflicts—almost all intrastate—dropped sharply. By 2008, there were a third fewer conflicts than in 1992.
From 2003 to 2008, overall conflict numbers increased by some 25 percent. This was due primarily due to an increase in minor conflicts that kill relatively few people. But the number of high-intensity wars, those with an annual battle death toll of 1,000 or more, has continued to decline. By 2008 there were 78 percent fewer of these conflicts being fought around the world than at the end of the 1980s.
Once we’ve grokked the basic facts, the next questions are obvious: Why are we increasingly at peace? How can we continue the trend? What have we (perhaps accidentally) been doing right? Anyone who looks at the issue of world peace with more than a Miss America–level of focus really ought to pay attention to questions like these.
Mack’s essay discusses several of the leading theories, but he really only dismisses one of them—the idea that nuclear weapons deter war. He writes:
For “realist” scholars, the absence of war between the major powers during the Cold War years is best explained by the existence of a stable balance of power between East and West—in particular by the deterrence created by the mutual possession of nuclear arsenals with “second strike” capacities.
Kenneth Waltz, the leading proponent of the pacifying impact of nuclear weapons, has argued that, “Peace has become the privilege of states having nuclear weapons, while wars are fought by those who lack them.”
But while nuclear arsenals undoubtedly induced a measure of caution in the behaviour of the superpowers and their allies towards each other, Waltz’ assertion is wrong for two reasons.
First, nuclear weapons states are not embroiled in fewer wars. Quite the contrary. Each of the four countries that have fought most international wars since the end of World War II—France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia (USSR)—is a nuclear weapons state.
Second, since the end of World War II, non-nuclear states have repeatedly attacked nuclear weapons states. U.S. nuclear weapons did not deter China from attacking U.S. forces in the Korean War, nor North Vietnam from attacking South Vietnam and U.S. forces in the 1960s. Israeli nuclear weapons did not dissuade Egypt from attacking Israel in 1973. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from invading the Falkland Islands in 1982, and the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not deter the mujahedeen from waging war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s—nor did they prevent a Soviet defeat.
Nuclear weapons may produce a radically altered decision matrix, but they don’t end war. Nuclear-nuclear conflicts have obviously become rarer (France, the UK, and Russia are all way, way off their historical trendlines for war with each other!). Meanwhile, though, nuclear states might be more willing to wage war against non-nuclear states. And non-nuclear states, at least by these examples, seem to have no compunctions whatsoever in waging war against the nuclear club.
Perhaps they’re counting on international sympathy if they do suffer a nuclear attack. Perhaps they don’t believe the nuclear powers will ever use their weapons again. Or perhaps these wars have all been of a particular type — limited, regional conflicts that don’t implicate the nuclear power’s home territory. With the exception, of course, of the 1973 Egypt-Israel conflict, in which Israel won without needing, or using, any of its nukes.
For a current events tie-in, let’s finally consider that if Egypt becomes a democracy, we’ll have one of the best imaginable test cases for another explanatory model, the democratic peace theory. Democracies don’t fight one another, we are told. Will that hold true even if the democracies are Egypt and Israel? Democratic peace theory is one of the better explanations out there, but even it may have its limits.