The world's gotten more peaceful over the past 30 years -- but there's a catch

AP12110404363AP Photo/Narciso ContrerasDespite Syria’s civil war, the world as a whole is trending away from major conflict — for now.

In areportreleased earlier this month, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) observed that “the body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more than 28% higher than in the previous year.” They counted approximately 163,000 deaths in 2014, up from 127,000 in 2013.

The report described that increase as “part of a broader multi-year trend” that began in 2007. The project’s executive director, Peter Epps, also appropriately noted that “assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates.”

This is solid work. I do not doubt the existence of the trend it identifies. That said, I would also encourage us to keep it in perspective:

That chart (source) ends in 2005. Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict (UCDP) hasn’t updated its widely-used data set on battle-related deaths for 2014 yet, but from last year’s edition, we can see the tail end of that longer period, as well as the start of the recent upward trend PS21 identifies. In this chart — R script here — the solid line marks the annual, global sums of their best estimates, and the dotted lines show the sums of the high and low estimates:

If we mentally tack that chart onto the end of the one before it, we can also see that the increase of the past few years has not yet broken the longer spell of relatively low numbers of battle deaths. Not even close.

The peak around 2000 in the middle of the nearer chart is a modest bump in the farther one, and the upward trend we’ve seen since 2007 has not yet matched even that local maximum. This chart stops at the end of 2013, but if we used the data assembled by PS21 for the past year to project an increase in 2014, we’d see that we’re still in reasonably familiar territory.

Both of these things can be true. We could be — we are — seeing a short-term increase that does not mark the end of a longer-term ebb.

The global economy has grown fantastically since the 1700s, and yet it still suffers serious crises and recessions. The planet has warmed significantly over the past century, but we still see some unusually cool summers and winters.

Lest this sound too sanguine at a time when armed conflict is waxing, let me add two caveats.

First, the picture from the recent past looks decidedly worse if we widen our aperture to include deliberate killings of civilians outside of battle. UCDP keeps a separate data set on that phenomenon — here — which they label “one-sided” violence.

If we add the fatalities tallied in that data set to the battle-related ones summarized in the previous plot, here is what we get:

Note the difference in the scale of the y-axis; it is an order of magnitude larger than the one in the previous chart. At this scale, the peaks and valleys in battle-related deaths from the past 25 years get smoothed out, and a single peak — the Rwandan genocide — dominates the landscape.

That peak is still much lower than the massifs marking the two World Wars in the first chart, but it is huge nonetheless. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a matter of months.

Second, the long persistence of this lower rate does not prove that the risk of violent conflict on the scale of the two World Wars has been reduced permanently. As Bear Braumoeller (here) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here) have both pointed out, a single war between great powers could end or even reverse this trend, and it is too soon to say with any confidence whether or not the risk of that happening is much lower than it used to be.

Like many observers of international relations, I think we need to see how the system processes the (relative) rise of China and declines of Russia and the United States before updating our beliefs about the risk of major wars. As someone who grew up during the Cold War and was morbidly fascinated by the possibility of nuclear conflagration, I think we also need to remember how close we came to nuclear war on some occasions during that long spell, and to ponder how absurdly destructive and terrible that would be.

Strictly speaking, I’m not an academic, but I do a pretty good impersonation of one, so I’ll conclude with a footnote to that second caveat: I did not attribute the idea that the risk of major war is a thing of the past to Steven Pinker, as some do, because as Pinker points out in a written response to Taleb (here), he does not make precisely that claim, and his wider point about a long-term decline in human violence does not depend entirely on an ebb in warfare persisting.

It’s hard to see how Pinker’s larger argument could survive a major war between nuclear powers, but then if that happened, who would care one way or another if it had?

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