This Month’s Cato Unbound

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.

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14 thoughts on “This Month’s Cato Unbound

  1. “Why are we increasingly at peace? ” Probably the end of the Cold War has meant less destabilization of countres and of propping up of nasty dictators through aiding their mass murder (note – I said ‘less’, not ‘none’).

    As for nuclear weapons, I’m puzzled by your (and Andrew’s) analysis of nuclear weapons – of course, nuclear weapons limit the likelihood of major war between possessors (at the risk of a catastrophic war), and of course nuclear powers are still quite happy to beat on weak, non-nuclear powers.

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    • The end of the Cold War gets my vote too, for the record. The overwhelmingly malign influence of the Soviet Union is gone.

      So too is our often malign counter-influence. The many wars of that era were in part produced by western governments propping up their own nasty, though nominally anti-Soviet dictators. We aren’t supporting them so much anymore (with the sad exception of Hosni Mubarak, of course), and we even went to war against one of our former clients, Saddam Hussein.

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  2. Democracy, trade and nuclear weapons probably in even ratios I’d say. Consider modern China for instance. Some right wingers may imagine China as the new great rival for the US but the Chinese don’t want war. Their entire economy is based on importing the raw materials they need and exporting all kinds of stuff to pay for it. They simply aren’t going to continue increasing the standard of living in China if they do anything to upset their trade applecart and it is improving living conditions that allows the Chinese autocratic government to remain in place.

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  3. The world is hardly becoming a more peaceful place. I’m poking at an essay on Alexandre Kojève and Leo Strauss in a desultory way. It’s not encouraging, seeing how their thinking worked out in the long haul.

    At any rate, Andrew Mack seems to miss the elephant in the room: refugees. Nigeria’s animists and Christians are now fleeing from the north and are forming refugee camps. Darfur’s refugees are still packed into their filthy camps. The four million Iraqi refugees have not returned to their homes. Pakistan’s refugee problems continue unabated. Curiously, in Afghanistan, after the Americans invaded, the refugees who fled the Taliban regime all came home from Pakistan and have stayed home.

    The most significant refugee population, the most politically onerous, is Palestinian. No progress there in sixty years, nor will there be. They remain stateless persons, deprived of the right to any significant work within Lebanon, living out their strange and meaningless lives, generation after generation.

    Wars may have decreased, but the world’s refugee populations have not. Beyond simple conflict, the millions of economic refugees within China, equally deprived of rights, ought to scare every strategic thinker within the PRC. Africa’s economic refugees, flooding into Europe despite every attempt to keep them out, are provoking nationalist and xenophobic reactions. Today, Arizona proposes to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.

    If wars have decreased, it is because national borders have become largely irrelevant.

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      • Heh. Some improvement, nu? I’ve been a-studyin’ of war for a good long while. I have my own theory on why warfare has changed since the era of the Big War.

        Back when a single man’s destructive power was only amplified by the phalanx and terrain advantages, wars were endemic and smaller. Siege technology made a few advances, but the Roman gladius didn’t evolve. As one infantryman’s firepower increased, war grew more destructive if men grew no wiser. With the advent of air power, national borders became less relevant, force could be projected to the range of the bomber. With the ICBM, borders became meaningless.

        Like the much-mowed dandelion, war evolved to flower low to the ground. The technology dependent regimes evolved the Cruise Missile and JDAM, those without much technology evolved the Harness of Ayyash the Bomber and the IED.

        Is there more peace in the world? Not really. The technology of war changes, evolving with the results of each battle. Today’s whiz-bang super weapon is tomorrow’s battleship row. We are still the same vicious little hominids we were fifty thousand years ago, still motivated by the same tiresome litany of petty grievances we always were. Tribalism remains the scourge of the earth, religions loudly bray triumphalism, egging men on to war in the name of the gods. Nationalism beats its chest, a form of religion in all but name. Our cities are ringed with ulcerous slums, the refugee camps are filled to brimming. This can hardly be described as peace.

        What happens to a dream deferred?

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  4. I’ve been under the impression that free trade does a lot more to promote peace than democracy. That is, not being able to import/export creates a huge economic disincentive to starting war with a particular state. Much as North said above, this is why I don’t really worry about China becoming a military rival, but a partner instead.

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  5. Do nuclear weapons deter war? Sure, for a given definition of “war”.

    If you mean “Total War, the entire economy geared towards war production or war support, austerity measures in place, conscript armies, attacks on neutrals who aid the enemy”, then we haven’t had one of those since 1945.

    If you mean “armed conflict”, then we’ve never not had a war, whether nuclear weapons existed or not.

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  6. Learn, think be careful!

    “Tehran 1979” a pro-Western dictator,the Shah,was overthrown by an alliance of reformists and Islamists.After Shah fall,Islamists smashed the reformists,establishing anti-Western regime sponsoring anti liberal,democratic values using terror and radicalism worldwide.

    Obama Middle East policy is “anything but Bush.It castigates Bush for being unrealistic regarding the promotion of democracy in the Arab world.

    A:Obama policy outcomes:
    *Lebanon takeover by Hisbula terror group sponsored by Iran
    *Disappearance of Iranian anti Islamist opposition following the brutal crackdown of post election demonstrations
    *Erdogen leads Turkey to partnership with Iran and pro Islamist groups
    *Palestinian refusal to direct peace negotiations with Israel

    Bush’s support for democratization led the rise of Hamas Islamic terrorists-a branch of Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza.
    B:Obama repeats Bush’s mistake in Egypt,the leading country in Arab world.
    Obama calls for the inclusion of “non-secular” groups in the new government.

    Islamists anti-Western values and democraticy are ideological,not related to any American policy.
    Obama abandon of USA allies,embracing the Islamists, harms the standing of USA allies and strengthen anti-Western Islamists worldwide

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