Bryan Caplan  

Peace On Earth Is Almost Here

Day One... McCloskey on Self-Ownership, T...
The ceaseless ugliness of the news notwithstanding, the Great Pacification continues.  Check out Wikipedia's latest map of Ongoing Military Conflicts, circa October 2012.


The minor wars are usually dwarfed by private crime.  Even most of the major wars would have seemed minor thirty years ago.  Out of the "major" wars, only the Syrian Civil War and the Mexican Drug War exceeded 10,000 fatalities for the year.  Throughout the rest of the world, government has virtually abandoned its historic pastime of organized murder. 

If you don't feel grateful, you should.  Yes, things could get worse.  At some point, they almost certainly will for a spell.  But the utopian dream of peace on earth now looks amazingly realistic.  Who knows?  We might abolish war before we get driverless cars!

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Ben Haller writes:

Now if only we could abolish military spending...

Chris Koresko writes:

My suspicion is that the decline in warfare since 1945 is mostly a result of U.S. military hegemony. Can anyone suggest a plausible alternative?

The explanation is important, because a lot of libertarians argue that the U.S. ought to devote a more typical (i.e., much lower) fraction of its GDP to its military. If my hypothesis is correct, that is a recipe for disaster.

Eric writes:

My suspicion is the nuclear bomb. Like the great moderation, everything will be just fine until it isn't, and then ....

Brian writes:

1. Should we be normalizing for population?

2. Mexico doesn't have any military conflict ongoing and hasn't since the pacification of rebel armies in Chiapas and Guerrero in the mid 1990s. If we're including violent criminal activity, why aren't southern Italy and the USA and Brazil marked? Russia could be a deeper red.

3. I thought the rebellion in Burma had been relieved by liberalization. We're even getting economic development reports on major media from there now. Is there still violent conflict ongoing?

4. The US drug "war" is producing about 4000-8000 murders a year while Mexico's has produced 2000-12,000 per year over the past decade. The lower rate in the USA is probably mostly due to the intense focus of US medicine on superior acute trauma surgery facilities; drug related shooting rates are much closer. Wouldn't the USA merit a big red blotch on the map?

5. Yes, Bryan, I do feel grateful. Less war and death is a wonderful thing.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I am grateful. But, I'd argue the Wiki map is highly subjective. China executes thousansds of its people every year. That's peace? I thank my lucky stars I live in the US but, I'm sure over 1000 people die in the US each year in drug and gang related violence. So, how is it Mexico is lit up and the US is - according to the map - at peace?

Ken P writes:

This was very insightful, although BRian raises some good points regarding normalization as well as the US drug war.

Hana writes:

While the drug wars in the Americas are a reflection of misguided, but addressable, policies, I wouldn't break out the champagne quit yet.

Other than the Americas, the area where war is ongoing encompasses almost the entire Islamic world. The battle amongst secular, religious, modern and traditional groups is just starting, not nearing its end. The intense passions of the participants will not allow peaceful resolutions of the conflicts. Unfortunately, millions more will die before those wars end.

Rob writes:

"If you don't feel grateful, you should."

That's like saying kidnapped victims should feel grateful if their sadists don't torture them as much as they physically could. Gratitude is not the emotion that I naturally feel for that.

I don't want to exist in a war time, but I don't want to exist in a state of violence during peace time, either. I'm still forced to suffer against my will, even though government could have simply omitted their violence.

Btw, despite logically incorrect claims from prominent natalists, life is not freely disposable. Even during peace, suffering is mandatory.

BC writes:

I had a similar thought as Chris Koresko, although I would not claim that American hegemony extended back to 1945. Bryan's link to the Great Pacification links to a post about the decline in conflict since the *end* of the Cold War. That actually makes the case for American hegemony *stronger* since during the Cold War, of course, the Soviet military rivaled the US military, resulting in a bipolar, rather than unipolar, world.

Suppose, there is indeed a link between peace and asymmetry of US military power to the next strongest military. Then, would Bryan reconsider his earlier support of decreased US military spending on the basis that we already spend much more than the next N countries combined? If peace was correlated with the ratio of US military budget to the second largest military budget, it would seem that such US military spending would be money well spent.

Chris H writes:

Chris Koresko writes:

My suspicion is that the decline in warfare since 1945 is mostly a result of U.S. military hegemony. Can anyone suggest a plausible alternative?

The explanation is important, because a lot of libertarians argue that the U.S. ought to devote a more typical (i.e., much lower) fraction of its GDP to its military. If my hypothesis is correct, that is a recipe for disaster.

While I agree that generally a single power having hegemonic military might will tend to reduce inter-state warfare (and possibly intra-state warfare, but I have some doubts on that point given that proxy civil wars may be the only means for lesser powers to militarily challenge the hegemonic giant, if military challenge is a goal), I think other important trends are taking place too.

First and most obviously, nuclear weapons have effectively made war between major powers obsolete. The USSR and the USA didn't go to war because one side has a huge conventional military advantage (though for much of the Cold War the Soviets did have a significant edge on land at least in the short to medium term), but because nukes made the cost of any war far too high even for the normal irrationality political leaders seem to show about this through history. Also obviously this cannot explain the decline in wars between non-nuclear powers or between non-nuclears and nuclears. However, US military might seems incomplete with those stories as well. Consider that the US and it's allies are rather reluctant to intervene in wars with countries not seen as strategically vital (Rwanda, Sudan, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Congo, Angola, and Indonesia all being post-Cold War examples). Indeed invasions by non-US aligned nuclear powers against other countries also seem to not drive intervention (Georgia vs. Russia being the best example here). And yet there does seem to be some decline even in these conflicts (if less so than in the more strategically vital countries).

One possible explanation for this is a generalized cultural shift against violence a la Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature. This theory seems to work best though with developed countries and perhaps some of the quicker developing countries. This shift is clearly not completely anti-violence yet, pacifism isn't a very popular cause, but it helps. This might be expanding with increasing democracy world wide, but I'm not yet fully convinced by the empirical argument for decreased warfare from democracies (or even between them though I think the argument there is likely somewhat stronger).

Another idea is the greater interconnectedness of global markets (less so in labor but at least in capital and goods/services). Previous periods of wide scale global trade also seem associated with less inter-state warfare, such as the late 19th and early 20th century prior to World War One. The fact that that period ended with the First World War happening should put a bit of a caveat on that force for peace, but combined with nuclear armament I think it's safe to be more secure that a catastrophe of quite that magnitude is less likely than that possibility was during the Belle Epoch.

Another alternative is that the emphasis on development in many poorer countries. Leaders focusing on development will tend to want to avoid as many wars, as warfare seems fairly well correlated in most countries with retarded economic growth for what should (except perhaps for the most unsophisiticated Keynesians) be obvious. This motive would likely weaken as countries feel more secure in their development paths, it might also lead to increased intrastate warfare as people in countries with poor growth prospects attempt to replace ineffectual regimes.

Another possibility is that technology is beginning to give regime large advantages over popular uprisings limiting the latter's appeal. I wouldn't put too much weight on this though given the persistence of relatively poorly armed groups against very well armed ones in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Libya (though the latter two have or have begun to benefit from major power support).

Finally, it may be that the US's economic hegemony is as important if not more so than it's military hegemony. Nations like Russia and China realize they cannot (as of yet) seriously challenge the US for world leadership. Thus the incentive for proxy wars on their part is low because even aligning large portions of the third world to their side is unlikely to represent a major challenge. Especially given that then influencing these countries to cut trade with the US and harm US growth would only come back to harm them (China in particular). Indeed Chinese geo-political strategy seems to be to win over the developing world with investment and aid rather than messy and potentially dangerous proxy wars.

So what does this mean for the size of the US military? It's probably still too big considering that politicians are far more likely to listen to military special interests and military pork barrel projects for home constituencies than actual world peace concerns. For US defense, I find it hard to make an argument for anything beyond nukes. For world peace purposes, a significantly cut back military could likely perform most of the beneficial deterrent functions while being less likely to engage in actions that are likely to be on net harmful to global peace (such as invasions of already effectively military impotent countries like Iraq).

Shane L writes:

Also worth mentioning cultural changes in recent decades. I think I read once that before the Franco-Prussian War some slight by the Prussian government caused French students to pour onto the streets demanding war. Today students pour onto the streets demanding peace.

This is why I tend to laugh off recent suggestions that the continent of Europe might fall into a major war due to its high unemployment and other economic problems. Sure that part is similar to the 1930s, but there is no pro-war ideology like Nazism, fascism, imperialism or Bolshevism to radicalise the masses.

To me, this is a very good thing!

Adam writes:

Murder by totalitarian states was the great scourge of the 20th century. Socialist totalitarianism was the overwhelmingly dominant cause of 20th century murder. See RJ Rummel's very insightful research at:

For historical data prior to the 20th century see:

Upshot: Megamurders by totalitarian states were an institutional and technological innovation of the 20th century. The logistical and organizational processes used by megamurderers Stalin, Mao, Hitler and even Pol Pot didn't exist prior to the 20th century.

Fortunately, the state organizations created by the megamurders have come to nought. Their demise and disintegration, however, doesn't mean the outbreak of utopian peace.

The 21st century decline in violence is probably a return to the levels of violence more typical in human history--the violence of limited wars and conflict between identity groups. Such violence is just as cruel as ever to those killed and maimed. Also, a return to totalitarianism and its murderous results certainly remains a possibility.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I will agree that there are a large number of casualties in the US due to the war on drugs, but it is also true that in Mexico it is more of a military style war because military style weapons are being used and private armies are actively fighting both police and the state military forces, which does not happen in the US where most casualties are low-level drug dealers shooting each other with handguns.

For example, here is a picture of grenades confiscated in Mexico, along with RPG's, M60 machine guns, etc.

Of course the war in Mexico is nearly 100% due to the legal situation of drugs in the US and could be ended immediately if there were legislative guts.

Chris Koresko writes:

Lots of thoughtful comments here.

Seems to me that these questions are among the most important that social researchers could address. Some really high-quality research, correct, relevant, and good enough to convince people against their prejudices and preferences, might save a lot of lives.

NZ writes:

@Mr. Econotarian:

I agree, except I don't think it's simply a matter of legislative guts. I think it's a matter of various things, but perhaps mostly it's government entities believing that using drug laws as a proxy to easily lock up violent/property criminals is worthwhile. It's a tempting line of reasoning, and if you look at the right sets of numbers it can appear to be effective. (Though in the final analysis, it probably isn't.)

Anyway, I wonder if the decline in war and the decline in nationalism are causally related, and if so, which is the cause?

mesaman writes:

Now if only we could terminate financial support for all our foreign enemies, and foreign friends, as well, and concentrate on closing the gap between friends and enemies on our own soil.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I’d just like to try to add a little to Chris H’s, Shane L's and Adam’s root cause analysis of why we have less conflict. One political science hypothesis I’ve heard is that true democracies are unlikely to wage war on one another. Because war usually has negative political consequences for those in power, democratic rulers like to avoid it. If the rulers on both side of a conflict are both war adverse a peaceful settlement is more likely. At the beginning of the 20th century few industrialized powers (i.e. countries with the greatest capacity to wage large scale war) had democratic rule. Today, I’d argue that close to two thirds of the G20 are actual democracies and of the G8 only Russia has weak democratic credentials, very different from the era of world wars.

MingoV writes:

If there are overwhelming force differentials, then high-casualty wars don't happen. China conquered Outer Mongolia and Tibet with minimal loss of life. Were those wars? Russia could conquer the former SSRs (except Ukraine) with minimal loss of life. Would those be wars?

Wars cannot be gauged solely by casualty counts. Destroying crops can kill people months later. Destroying infrastructure and industries can impoverish people for decades. Living under foreign rule can result in continual stress, partly due to loss of traditions, culture, and language.

Chris H writes:


Those numbers are still a bit higher as a portion of GDP than the late 90s. Furthermore, as a percentage of total world military spending it's a huge amount. Arguably that later point is more important as military dominance is determined in reference to other countries not your own country's potential (this article discusses a number of different measures of US military spending).

But think about it like this. Buying 5 pounds of ground beef in a given week may not take up a huge portion of my income, but if I'm only going to eat 2 pounds at most then it would still be crazy to spend the money on the extra 3 pounds. If the US does not need a military as large as it is for defense or for world peace purposes, then even if US spending isn't that high (though it is by developed country standards) then it should still be cut.

ColoComment writes:

Perhaps we should speak of "military interventions" instead of "wars." We may never see "war" on the scale of WWI or WWII, but armed conflict is ubiquitous. From today's Jim Geraghty's Morning Jolt:

"I suppose there’s a big question about how you define “significant military action.” President Obama sent troops to Uganda and South Sudan in October 2011, Chad in December 2012; the Turkish-Syrian border in January 2013, Niger in February 2013, Jordan in April 2013, Egypt in June 2013, and so on."

The world has never been "at peace," and I suspect never will be so long as men seek power.

You need to read Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace to appreciate the scope of continuous military activities and interventions of the United States (and allies) since 1805.

Jon writes:

The US is at war, or "helping" one side in a conflict, in 74 different countries. That we know about. Military spending is always setting records. This is pacification?

dL writes:

The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the little tract within Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" novel, clearly outlines that "world peace," defined as the abolition of major nation-state wars, is a consequence of oligarchical collectivism.

I wouldn't call oligarchical collectivist governance "utopian." I would define utopia as a type of justice of mutual advantage, something that OC most assuredly is not, evidenced by the rise of things like asymmetrical warfare.

Oligarchical Collectivism can be simply defined as that type of governance whose objective is the perpetuation of the status quo, the perpetuation of the socio/political/political-economic institutional order

For those who challenge this order, OC comes down hard. Reference: Wikileaks, Snowden.

A major contribution of Edward Snowden is that he has clearly exposed this institutional pattern at play, to the point that it is no longer something that even needs to be debated.

Fonzy Shazam writes:

Maybe my "Which Will Come First" should have been driverless cars versus peace on earth?

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