War and violence. Topics that, until the pandemic, we seemed to have been hearing more and more about day by day. The Syrian Civil War drags on, the insane barbarity of ISIS continues, and the Israelis and Palestinians continue to slug it out. It seems that we’re living in an ever more vicious world. However, this is a distorted reality: the truth is that we are living in the golden age of peace. A look at the numbers shows that war is going out of fashion, while the global population is at an all-time high. During 2019, there were 4 armed conflicts that killed at least 10,000; 4 that killed more than 1,000 and 17 that killed more than 100. While not exactly peaceful, none of these conflicts are between countries. Wars between nations are so much more devastating than local conflicts or civil wars – that many more resources and military forces can be mobilised, and the ensuing damage is much greater. Furthermore, the number of people dying as a percentage is at an historic low – war is killing fewer people than in any other period of modern history. Why is this the case? To truly understand what’s going on, it’s important to first take a look at human history and the nature of human conflict.
Until very recently, the vast majority of the global population worked on farms and the overall output of the world’s economy was dependent on the total agricultural output. This agricultural output was being restricted by the fixed amount of land in the world, which means that the overall output of the global economy didn’t change much on an annual basis. The world was a zero-sum game – the size of the ‘pie’ was fixed, so to speak. Therefore, the only way to be better off was for someone else to be worse off. If you wanted to become richer and gain resources, the best way to do this was by stealing, plundering and subjugating. Someone else’s loss was your gain. The world remained in this state for millennia and nations were in a perpetual state of war, invading each other to get more of the ‘pie’. The result was extreme economic inequality-some had untold wealth and riches, while others had to survive on the crumbs.
All of a sudden, the Industrial Revolution happened, and the course of humanity changed forever. Agricultural output skyrocketed as we developed advanced machinery, better fertilizers and better crops. It didn’t stop there though: every single industry saw an explosion in productivity and innovation. Iron production in Britain increased by a staggering factor of over 150 between 1700 and 1850. A previously unimaginable surge in economic output occurred and the nature of humanity was completely revolutionised. The world changed from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game. Instead of taking from others, we’d found a way to make a bigger pie that got even bigger every year-everyone could simultaneously be better off. Ever since, the standard of living and quality of life have been on a continuous march of improvement. Today, we have antibiotics, vaccines and medicine that keeps us alive and healthy. Nuclear fission, renewables and fossil fuels provide boundless energy. Electronics connect us and airplanes let us traverse the world cheaply. Continuous growth across all sectors seems normal and is to be expected in the modern world. However, we’ve forgotten how much of a momentous change it’s been and the wider implications it’s had for the human race.
What does all of this have to do with war? In the positive-sum world that we live in today, it’s actually almost always in your interest for others to be better off and to co-operate with them, rather than contesting with them for resources. War isn’t effective at achieving economic aims anymore – it’s now nearly always cheaper to buy resources instead of acquiring them by force. It turns out that people from across the world are more valuable alive than dead, which is a pretty novel concept. This is all the result of globalisation. While some may argue that this pandemic is about to reverse globalisation, this is an exaggeration: even if globalisation decreased, we’d still be undeniably interlinked – that’s just the state of the world economy nowadays. It’s not in your interest for others to be worse off and you don’t get more ‘pie’ if places like Africa stay poor. If there’s universal growth, people from all around the world can drive innovation and grow the global economic output. Imagine billions more people paying for cancer research, or hundreds of new companies driving technological innovation. Imagine the things we could achieve if everyone was better off around the world. This is the crux of the argument – it’s now in your interest for others to be better off. It may be unintuitive, but it’s true.
Living in a positive-sum world where it’s better to co-operate is one of the biggest reasons why we’re not seeing as many devastating wars today. However, there are also some other crucial reasons. Two considerations play into this: war is no longer as devastating today. The reason it’s no longer as devastating is that it’s no longer fought between nation states. Why is this the case? There are two sides of the coin to an explanation of this question: more civil wars and local conflicts are breaking out, and nation states are no longer fighting each other. Let’s start by explaining why there are more civil wars and local conflicts. The end of the Cold War and colonialism has ushered in an era of civil wars and conflicts. The conclusion of the Cold War, a huge driver of armed conflicts, in 1991 brought about an era of peace. Nonetheless, it also revealed tensions which had been previously hiding in the USSR. The dissolution of communist dictatorships brought countless new conflicts to the now-free states, often resulting in civil war. Additionally, the end of colonialism brought about mass conflict. Vast swathes of Africa, Latin America and Asia were under colonial rule in 1945. Nevertheless, colonialism was essentially over by 1990. A majority of ongoing conflicts are in areas that used to be under colonial rule. However, these civil wars and local conflicts are nowhere near as bad as the conflicts that used to regularly plague our world in the past. Absolute victories are much rarer, the number of negotiated endings has jumped from 10% to 40% and the devastation of these conflicts is nothing compared to the past.
How about nation states – why aren’t they attacking each other? There are a few reasons why nation states have stopped fighting each other. The first is democracy. Over the last few generations, there’s been a steady change towards democratic government – we’re seeing fewer autocracies than ever. This is vital since democracies rarely go to war against each other. The public rarely wants war, especially against other nation states, and democratically elected officials won’t commit political suicide by engaging in one. The number of wars fought between democracies over the last century has been minimal compared to all the wars fought between nation states. Second, war is old-fashioned. Not long ago, war was seen as an inevitable part of human nature, as something which you’d just have to deal with. Today, international organisations exist to prevent war from breaking out and going to war is no longer the convention. If a country chooses to go to war, it’s shunned by the global community and suffers heavily from trade restrictions and risks being ostracised. The UN has rules that dictate when acts of aggression can be justified. We have an international court for war crimes in The Hague. Of course, countries still illegally and unjustifiably go to war and war crimes are still committed, but it’s a lot harder to do so with the international community united against you. Finally, borders around the world are nowadays mostly fixed. Territorial wars have mostly ceased since WW2 and the vast majority of countries around the world pledge to respect the autonomy of other nations and to accept and recognise international borders.
This is all great, but does it guarantee peace? While war is generally going out of fashion, is it a certainty that this golden age of peace is going to continue? The fact of the matter is that we can’t be certain yet. Over the last 500 years, there have been one or two major international wars every century. There simply hasn’t been enough time since WW2 for us to be able to definitively and confidently say that war is over. Perhaps this is just a fluke, and the next great conflict is just around the corner. After all, there’s talk of war between the US and China, this pandemic may be the death of globalisation and nationalism is on the rise. On the other hand, maybe humanity really has changed. Maybe the world we’re seeing currently will remain peaceful for the foreseeable future. We can be confident that we’re safe for now, but we should never forget the past. It’s important to remember our history and to never ignore what we’re capable of. A war today would be more devastating than anything that’s ever happened before – it could mean the end of humanity as we know it. We must, therefore, remain vigilant and always ensure that we do our best to speak up for peace and democracy, to try to keep this golden age of peace ongoing and to look forward to a better future.