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Has war been declining?

Is the world becoming less belligerent and more peaceful? This proposition encounters widespread disbelief, as most people are very surprised by the claim that we live in the most peaceful period in history. Are we not flooded with reports and images in the media of conflicts around the world today, some of them very active and bloody, and others seemingly waiting to happen? Have the United States and its allies not been repeatedly involved in a series of messy wars over the past few decades? Alternatively, is the relative peacefulness of today’s world not attributable to a transient American hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to a fleeting post-Cold War moment? Are we not tempted by a resurfacing of old illusions that will again be dispelled by the rise of China to a superpower status, by a resurgent Russia, or by vicious wars in south or Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa?

The notion that war is declining first appeared in Europe and the West during the nineteenth-century, the most peaceful in European history up until then. But it seemed to have been brutally shattered by the two world wars. These were followed by the Cold War, a clash of titans which arguably did not turn hot and develop into a third world war, only, or primarily, because of nuclear deterrence.

And yet, even before and increasingly after the end of the Cold War, new claims about the decline of war have commanded attention. From the 1970s onwards, the initially startling finding that modern democratic/liberal societies hardly ever fight each other has progressively gained credence. An alternative or complementary theory has suggested that what we are witnessing is a capitalist rather than democratic peace.

Thus, several questions call for answers. First, has war really been declining? Second, if it has, why is that so? Which of the various theories that have been aired explains the decline: a nuclear peace of mutual deterrence; the notion that war, even in conventional forms, had simply become far too lethal, ruinous, and expensive to indulge in, or, when looked at from the other direction, that it no longer promises rewards; the idea that war has always been a big mistake, and was finally being got rid of as people became wiser and sick of it; a democratic peace; a capitalist peace; and peace through international institutions. How valid is each of these explanations? How do they relate to, supplant, or complement one another?

 Is the world becoming less belligerent and more peaceful? This proposition encounters widespread disbelief, as most people are very surprised by the claim that we live in the most peaceful period in history.

Third, what is the time frame of the decline in belligerency, if indeed this has taken place? Did it begin, as various scholars hold, with the end of the Cold War, in 1945, in 1918, or in the nineteenth-century? Clearly, the answer to this question may also offer a vital clue as to the causes of the change.

People have always alternated between the three behavioural options of cooperation, peaceful competition, and violence to attain evolution-shaped human desires. Developments since the onset of the industrial age from 1815 onwards have radically shifted the calculus of war and peace towards the two peaceful options, sharply decreasing belligerency in the parts of the world affected by the process of modernization. Rather than war becoming more costly in terms of life and resources, as many believe to be the case (not so), the real change is that peace has become more rewarding. The Modernization Peace concept scrutinizes, contextualizes, and encompasses within a comprehensive framework the various peace theories advanced over the past few decades, and shows the more valid ones to be elements of a greater whole. By now, war has disappeared within the world’s most developed areas and survives only in its less developed, developing, and undeveloped parts.

Finally, the Modernization Peace concept has been disrupted in the past, most conspicuously during the two world wars, and challenges to it still arise. Challenges include claimants to alternative modernity—such as China and Russia, still much behind in levels of development and affluence—anti-modernists, and failed modernizers that may spawn terrorism, potentially unconventional. While the world has become more peaceful than ever before, with war unprecedentedly disappearing in its most developed parts, there is still much to worry about in terms of security and there is no place for complacency.

Featured image credit: Paratrooper Returns Fire in Afghanistan MOD by Sgt Anthony Boocock, RLC. OGL via Wikimedia Commons.

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