Friday, May 20, 2005

The End of War? Who Should Get the Credit?

Gregg Easterbrook has another great and contrarian piece in the TNR this week explaining that "war" has actually been in sharp decline over the past 15 years. He relies on an academic study by two political scientists, Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr, who have done a series of empirical studies demonstrating that violent conflict has been steadily decreasing since the end of the Cold War.

Not convinced? Well, you will have to look at the Easterbrook piece, or the original study, which measures "war" in a variety of ways: number of violent conflicts, numbers of war-related deaths, risk of death from war as compared to other causes, global military spending. The upshot? All of these measurements have shown a steady decline in the last 15 years.

Assuming this study is accurate, the important question becomes: what is the cause? Easterbrook throws some love to the UN, writing that, in addition to peacekeeping,

Peacekeeping is just one way in which the United Nations has made a significant contribution to the decline of war. American commentators love to disparage the organization in that big cereal-box building on the East River, and, of course, the United Nations has manifold faults. Yet we should not lose track of the fact that the global security system envisioned by the U.N. charter appears to be taking effect. Great-power military tensions are at the lowest level in centuries; wealthy nations are increasingly pressured by international diplomacy not to encourage war by client states; and much of the world respects U.N. guidance. Related to this, the rise in "international engagement," or the involvement of the world community in local disputes, increasingly mitigates against war.

This is certainly possible. But Easterbrook's review of possible causes curiously overlooks one important alternative. The U.S. has been calling itself the world's only superpower for about, oh, 15 years. Some have already proclaims this period a potential Pax Americana or American Imperium. The reduction in great power military tensions might reflect better diplomacy or it could simply reflect the overwhelming supremacy of U.S. military forces.

It is likely that all of these factors, and more not discussed here, have led to the comparative reduction in wars over the past 15 years (assuming that is really happening). The important question going forward then, is to figure out how best to keep the trendline heading downward.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff V. said...

Nuclear proliferation -- most notably to India and Pakistan -- might also have played a role.

5/20/2005 8:49 AM  
Blogger Kirk H. Sowell said...

If one is going to argue that the UN has something to do with international peace, then it is first necessary to understand two things about the nature of the UN security system itself. One, the security council has the composition it has because FDR thought its purpose would be to contain Germany and Japan. This has helped make the security council irrelevant to the real threats in existence since 1945.

Two, the UN system, based as it is on collective security, requires unanimity for action. In theory, this means that for there to be effective action (a) the state or non-state actor which poses a threat cannot be a client of a security council members (a negative condition), and (b) there must be an affirmative national interest by security council members in taking action to prevent a regional war (a positive condition).

These conditions have worked together to make the UN system irrelevant because (a) most of the threat states - North Korea, Iran, Baathist Iraq and Syria, the Sudan - have close relationships with either Russia and/or China, and (b) where a regional war has killed huge numbers, such as in the Congo or Rwanda, there is no national interest on behalf of council members to spur them to action.

I think a more realistic explanation for the decline in conflict is the one given by Julian - the rise of American military hegemony ("Pax Americana") has allowed regional rivalries to be contained. There are numberous examples of this - Japan/China, Egypt/Israel, much of Latin America, etc. Where U.S. military hegemony has been lacking, such as central Africa, then violence has been greatest in such regions. Thus a major factor will be whether the United States and its free world allies have an interest in getting involved. If they don't, then locals are on their own.

Kirk H. Sowell
Window on the Arab World, and More!

5/22/2005 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Increasingly, one side has simply been slaughtered. The number of Genocides is on the rise. It is pretty easy to decrease war when one side is completely unable to defend itself. The U.N. and other powers have treaty obligations to go to war in the case of a nation or group attempting to commit genocide. Both the U.N. and other powers have consistently avoiding going to war in accordance with these obligations. So the number of official wars has decreased. This is not a real improvement.

5/24/2005 1:07 PM  
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