I’m not sure whether or not beauty pageant contestants wish for world peace these days, but lately the very idea, like Miss America herself, seems both antiquated and absurd. Including the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are 18 wars being waged at this very moment. And given America’s open-ended “war on terror,” the racial climate in Europe, the economic strife in Africa, and the globe’s seemingly endless supply of stubborn dictators, you couldn’t blame a person for concluding that things are going to get a lot worse. In fact, it’s easy to write-off anyone who dares to question the prevailing doom-and-gloom as a bleary-eyed idealist.
In a Foreign Policy piece that even the most cynical of realists will find hard to blithely dismiss, however, Joshua Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University, concludes that “President Barack Obama was telling the truth in June when he said, ‘The tide of war is receding.’ ” And Goldstein, who authored Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, has the data to back up his optimism.
“The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers . . . of the Peace Research Institute Oslo,” Goldstein points out.
Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.
Goldstein’s overall argument—that the end of war is “downright thinkable”—is structured around what he sees as a related series of commonly held misconceptions: war has gotten more brutal for civilians; wars will get worse in the future; a more democratic world will be a more peaceful one; peacekeeping doesn’t work; and some conflicts will never end. In each of these sections he artfully combines historical comparisons, recent data, and analysis to either counter the stated assertion or, at the very least, encourage a reassessment.
At times, Goldstein conflates his data or becomes almost too mathematical, forgetting to factor in the subtleties of human behavior and the vagaries of fate. But for the most part, he forces the reader to rethink current history and question the chaotic narrative that distorts our expectations.