What’s the Status of the Decline of War?

by on 2014-03-20 in Duck- 3 Comments

In light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Josh raised the question this morning about how we are all feeling about the war decline thesis. Also in reaction to Russia’s actions, Mlada Bukovansky issued a strong call to end the complacency regarding the acceptance and influence of global liberal norms and institutions. These comments appear to contrast with John Mueller’s post last week on the profound differences between attitudes on war today from a century ago and this week’s release of the 2013 Human Security Report which notes the continuation of the decline of conflict.

So, what to make of it all? Do Russia’s actions this week suggest we are returning to a more “normal” history — one in which interstate war is more likley, more frequent and common? Are we headed toward some kind of major interstate conflict between Russia its neighbors? How does this fit in the broader context of the overall trends in interstate war and the decline of war thesis?

These are some of the questions we’ll be looking at next week at ISA. My colleague, Kavita Khory, and I are coordinating an ISA Working Group in Toronto next week that will examine the global trends on war, conflict, and political violence. This June marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed episodes of extreme interstate and intrastate violence as well as a more recent period of relative stability. This more recent trend — the dramatic decline in interstate war — is striking. The Working Group will bring together a great line-up of scholars from a diverse set of theoretical, methodological and geographical approaches to look at the broad trends in interstate war, intrastate war, and political violence over the past century, where we are today, and what the future trends might look like.

We’ll be focusing on four broad areas: First, what are the trends in war, conflict and political violence? Does everyone accept that there has been a decline? Does it matter what timeframe we examine — the past century, since the end of WWII, since the end of the Cold war? Are there disagreements between major datasets? How strong is this data? Are we seeing a real decline or just a shift in the types of violence?

Second, what are the trends of violence within war — in particular, we’ll be looking at the trends on civilian targeting, mass atrocities, and gender-based violence. What kind of data do we have on these trends? Is regime violence towards civilians declining, increasing, staying the same? How has the concept of civilians changed over time? What are the trends in gender-based violence and how, it at all, is it different from other forms of violence towards civilians?

Third, we’ll be exploring the various explanations for all of these trends. In particular, what are the role of norms, institutions, and state practices in controlling or mitigating war? And,to what extent have material factors vs. cultural or ideational factors contributed to these trends?

And, finally, what are the likely future trends. How has, and will, war and political violence manifest itself in an era of globalization, liberalization, and global power transition? Who are the new actors? Is war being replaced by other forms of violence? Are the fundamental drivers of violence the same or changing?

Obviously, this list of questions represents a very large task. Our initial goal is simply to survey the “state of the field.” Our roster for next week’s Working Group is already set. But, from here, we will be developing an ongoing network for scholars to better coordinate scholarship on patterns of war and political violence across methodologies, theoretical perspectives, and geographic regions. We’ll also be developing a set of strategies to facilitate better transmission of scholarship to various policy communities. I’ll write a post when I return from Toronto with with a wrap-up of the Working Group discussions and more information about where we’ll be going from here.

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  • Andrew Mack - 2014-03-21

    The 2013 Human Security Report is entitled the Decline in Global Violence: Evidence, Explanation and Contestation. It focuses on the controversies

    stirred by Steven Pinker’s extraordinary study, The Better Angels of Our Nature which reviews the claims of both the “decilnists” and their critics. The Report is available at http://www.hsrgroup.org.

    In the Overview we note that:

    “The case for pessimism about the global security future is well rehearsed and has considerable support within the research community. Major sources of concern include the possibility of outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a massive transnational upsurge of lethal Islamist radicalism, or wars triggered by mass droughts and population movements driven by climate change.

    Pinker notes reasons for concern about each of these potential future threats but also skepticism about the more extreme claims of the conflict pessimists. Other possible drivers of global violence include the political crises that could follow the collapse of the international financial system and destabilizing shifts in the global balance of economic and military power—the latter being a major concern of realist scholars worried about the economic and military rise of China.

    But focusing exclusively on factors and processes that may increase the risks of large-scale violence around the world, while ignoring those that decrease it, also almost certainly leads to unduly pessimistic conclusions.

    In the current era, factors and processes that reduce the risks of violence not only include the enduring impact of the long-term trends identified in Better Angels but also the disappearance of two major drivers of warfare in the post–World War II period—colonialism and the Cold War. Other post–World War II changes that have reduced the risks of war include the entrenchment of the global norm against interstate warfare except in self-defence or with the authority of the UN Security Council; the intensification of economic and financial interdependence that increases the costs and decreases the benefits of cross-border warfare; the spread of stable democracies; and the caution-inducing impact of nuclear weapons on relations between the major powers.

    With respect to civil wars, the emergent and still-growing system of global security governance discussed in Chapter 1 has clearly helped reduce the number of intrastate conflicts since the end of the Cold War. And, at what might be called the “structural” level, we have witnessed steady increases in national incomes across the developing world. This is important because one of the strongest findings from econometric research on the causes of war is that the risk of civil wars declines as national incomes—and hence governance and other capacities—increase. Chapter 1 reports on a remarkable recent statistical study by the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) that found that if current trends in key structural variables are sustained, the proportion of the world’s countries afflicted by civil wars will halve by 2050.

    Such an outcome is far from certain, of course, and for reasons that have yet to be imagined, as well as those canvassed by the conflict pessimists. But, thanks in substantial part to Steven Pinker’s extraordinary research, there are now compelling reasons for believing that the historical decline in violence is both real and remarkably large—and also that the future may well be less violent than the past.”

    Andrew Mack

  • wimroffel - 2014-04-01

    From 1850-1914 the world had also a long period of peace. What was typical on the eve of 1914 however was the fondness of short military operations. Both sides expected 1914 to be a short fight too.

    Unfortunately we see now a similar fondness of short operations (Libya, Syria, Mali, etc.).

  • LFC - 2014-04-01

    From 1850-1914 the world had … a long period of peace.
    No it didn’t: this statement ignores the Crimean War, the wars of German unification, the Franco-Prussian War, the Boer War, etc. (At most one could claim that Europe, not “the world,” had a period from the mid-1870s to 1914 when there was no major war, but there were still armed conflicts in that period in Europe, notably in the Balkans.)

    Both sides expected 1914 to be a short fight too.
    There is evidence that the German General Staff did not expect WW1 to be short. (See e.g. K. Lieber’s ’07 article in Intl Security summarizing some of the historiography).

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