Sunday, November 23, 2014
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The Global March Toward Peace

CANBERRA – If we were hoping for peace in our time, 2012 did not deliver it. Conflict grew ever bloodier in Syria, continued to grind on in Afghanistan, and flared up periodically in West, Central, and East Africa. There were multiple episodes of ethnic, sectarian, and politically motivated violence in Myanmar (Burma), South Asia, and around the Middle East. Tensions between China and its neighbors have escalated in the South China Sea, and between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Concerns about North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs remain unresolved.

And yet, many feared eruptions within and between states did not occur. Strong international pressure helped to contain the Second Gaza War quickly. A long-sought peace agreement was secured for the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Major strides were taken toward sustainable peace and reconciliation in Myanmar. There was no major new genocidal catastrophe. And, despite the United Nations Security Council’s paralysis over Syria, UN General Assembly member states made clear their continuing overwhelming acceptance of the responsibility to protect those at risk of mass-atrocity crimes.

The bigger story has been concealed, as ever, by the media’s daily preoccupation with current bloodshed: Over the last two decades, major wars and episodes of mass violence worldwide have become much less frequent and deadly. After a high point in the late 1980’s and very early 1990’s, there has been a decline of well over 50% in the number of major conflicts both between and within states; in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities; and in the number of people killed as a result of them.

This “New Peace” phenomenon was first publicized by Andrew Mack’s Human Security Report Project, supported by the superb database of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Harvard’s Steven Pinker, in his seminal book The Better Angels of our Nature, put it in a larger historical context – not just the “Long Peace” between the major powers since 1945, but, more important, a centuries-old pattern of steady decline in the human appetite for violence.

The many efforts that have been made to debunk this analysis (for example, by John Arquilla in Foreign Policy recently) have not been persuasive. True, there has been a resurgence since 2004 of what statisticians (if not humanists) would call “minor armed conflicts.” But, in the case of “high-intensity” conflicts or wars (defined as entailing 1,000 or more battle deaths in a year), the trend-line has been sloping unequivocally downward. And that goes for war-related civilian deaths as well.

Explanations of this phenomenon vary. In the case of the post-Cold War New Peace, the best is simply the huge upsurge in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking, and post-conflict peace-building activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half – most of it spearheaded by the much-maligned UN.

For the Long Peace, the most intriguing explanation – and, I think, the most persuasive, though many may disagree – is that since the end of World War II, a fundamental normative shift has occurred among the major powers’ policymakers. Having witnessed the ravages of the last century, they simply no longer see any virtue, nobility, or utility in waging war, and certainly not aggressive nuclear war. That doesn’t mean that we cannot stumble into a war – or a nuclear exchange – through accident, miscalculation, system error, or sabotage; but, it hugely reduces the risk.

The greatest test for this thesis in the years ahead will be how China and the United States react to the dramatic shift now occurring in their relative economic, and eventually military, power. President Barack Obama’s re-election offers reasonable hope that the US will give some strategic space to China through a policy of mutually accommodating cooperation, rather than insisting on dominance or primacy. But how will China behave under its new leadership?

In a deeply thoughtful recent speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former prime minister, described possible external scenarios for China over the next decade. They ranged from actively pursuing zero-sum power politics aimed at dominating the hemisphere and beyond, to engaging strategically with the US and other partners in Asia to sustain and enhance the existing rules-based international order. While suggesting that it would be prudent for countries to hedge against the worst-case scenario, Rudd made clear that he is an optimist: provided the rest of the world maintains a policy of cooperative engagement with China, incoming President Xi Jinping and his team will choose a non-confrontational path.

Optimism is a good call in this context, and also more generally. There are strong historical grounds for believing that waging aggressive war has simply run its course as an instrument of state policy. Having exhausted most of the alternatives over the years, national leaders have begun to internalize the virtues of cooperation.

Moreover, in foreign policy, as in life itself, outlooks can be self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Pessimists see conflict of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and adopt a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations. For optimists, what matters is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope, and expectation, that decent human values will ultimately prevail. If we want to change the world for the better, we must start by believing that it is possible.

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    1. CommentedKen Presting

      Mr. Evans’ thesis of a fundamental normative shift is, I’d say, a better explanation of the steady decline of slavery over centuries, rather than a cause for decline in organized conflict. Although I myself lean toward socialist policies, I must admit I believe global commerce and capitalism has tilted politics away from warfare.

      First, agricultural productivity is less dependent on land and more dependent on investments in machinery and irrigation, plus the expensive supply of fertilizer. All these of course must be financed. The value of acquiring land as a means toward national wealth and food security is less significant than having good banks, good insurance, and good chemistry.

      Second, globalization, especially of the labor market, has eliminated the last vestiges of the classical motivation to use foreign slave labor when native workers become expensive. Notice that international labor practices argue against Mr. Evans’ suggestion of any generalized increase in public morality.

      Third, as each national economy grows increasingly dependent on overseas suppliers and consumers, there is much more to lose from bad relations. Simply put, no business want to lose its customers, not to competitors, and not to bombs or bullets.

      Finally, war is inherently and essentially destructive, not only of human lives but also of capital equipment, plants and buildings. It used to be the case that a battlefield trampled one year could be growing wheat or pasturing cattle the next. It’s rather more expensive to replace the complex infrastructure which makes modern civilization so comfortable, and so profitable.

      When I was growing up, the background anxiety was a “central strategic exchange” and nuclear winter. Now the concern is global warming, and how long the globalized capitalists can distract the rest of us from dealing with it promptly. So I’m not convinced that the normative consciousness of our ruling institutions has improved. But I’d certainly agree that our present set of challenges is step forward.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Individually or nationally we are all so different, with different cultures, aims, histories, there is so much rejection and hate around, and we are all so much convinced about our own right, superiority, and entitlements, that remaining on our present level there is no chance for long lasting peace, there is much more chance for future wars, even 3rd or 4th World Wars.
      As Einsten reportedly said, we can never solve our problems at the same level where we created them, or the same level where we are are standing at present.
      Thus in order to solve our present problems, to create long lasting peace, humanity needs to rise to a higher level, to look at life and the world from an outside perspective.
      This is only possible through education, by teaching people how to view humanity and the world as an interconnected, complete system, a totally interdependent human network that is part of a much larger, self sustaining natural system that is based on strict laws and principles.
      As long as people view themselves as independent creatures that can do whatever they like, making up illusionary laws and rules to suit their own egoistic tendencies, we will continue to destroy and threaten our own existence.
      As soon as we accept our place in the system, fully attaining the function of the system and our own role within, our individual differences, characteristics will not remain as obstacles, or destructive forces, but suddenly they will turn into complementing, reinforcing parts, infusing the multi-colored mosaic, multi-dimensional system with vitality and life force.
      Then humanity within the natural system can become the driving force, the engine of development instead of the cancerous destructive organ.
      The paradox of our view on freedom is, that now when we view freedom as "do whatever you like", ruthlessly competing against each other, we are totally restricted as we hit the wall, hit each other and hit, block development all the time. If we become conscious, fully aware and selfless cogwheels in the system we will receive the true freedom of contributing to the work of the perfect system with 100% of our capabilities. Instead of fighting each other, taking the other out of the picture in order to triumph over them, we can cooperate, work together lifting the whole system, including ourselves to a qualitatively higher level.

    3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      These views are possible from Australia. Remote, resource rich and underpopulated with no land frontiers and little potential external threat, Australia is an exceptional case.

      The international trend is undeniable, however, trends often change.

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