INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Locking up the dogs of war: huge decline in war-related deaths
, August 16, 2014
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, war-related deaths have declined dramatically; and since the Second Gulf War of 2003, war-related deaths have been at the lowest level in modern history.
This may seem counter-intuitive. The media’s intensive coverage of the horrors of current conflicts give the impression that war is worse than ever, with more armed conflicts, civilian deaths, rapes and human rights violations.
Joshua S. Goldstein
On this basis, many commentators have argued, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., that the world has been facing a major “clash of civilisations”.
Yet the opposite is true. The hard data on war-related deaths paints a bigger and more encouraging picture than the impressions left by the media’s coverage of the horror of wars and conflicts.
When current conflicts are instantly reported on our television screens, computers, smart phones and tablets, the saturation coverage obscures the larger picture.
All the while, democracies have been replacing authoritarian and totalitarian old orders (ancien régimes). The development of market economies has lifted peoples out of poverty. The emergence of regional alliances such as the European Union, the huge intermixing of populations, the spread of education, the expansion of peace-keeping and a vigilant media with a globally captive audience — all these have been key factors in reducing armed conflicts.
Joshua S. Goldstein, professor emeritus at the School of International Service at the American University in Washington DC, is the author of an acclaimed study, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011).
He recently pointed out in the Huffington Post (July 24, 2014) that in 2005 war-related deaths were under 12,000, and typically about 20,000 annually from the end of the Second Gulf War until the recent conflict in Syria.
This is far below the annual death toll in the millions during the two world wars, and well below the 200,000 deaths a year during the Cold War (which lasted from World War II until the end of Soviet communism in 1989).
After World War II, there were three major wars (in Korea, Indo-China and between Iran and Iraq) that spiked the death toll. Also, numerous Soviet-backed insurgencies led to proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the West in parts of Latin America, South East Asia and Africa.
In 2013, war-related deaths had increased to about 45,000 globally, with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq accounting for about half of these casualties.
So far this year, until August 10, 8,863 people have been killed in the Iraq conflict, according to IraqBodyCount.org (IBC), a public record of violent deaths following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. IBC derives its data from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, non-government organisation (NGO) and official figures, and also provides a day-by-day account of deaths in the war.
Even with this recent increase, the data on war deaths shows the world experiencing an extraordinary time of relative peace compared to the 20th century.
Professor Goldstein uses data from the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.
As of August 2014, he records eight wars (conflicts with more than 1,000 battle-related fatalities in one year) and eight countries with armed conflicts (200-999 deaths in a year).
The International Peace Institute’s figures are conservative, including only deaths of combatants and civilians directly killed in conflicts.
The figures don’t include civilian deaths from the indirect effects of warfare, such as increased mortality from disease and famine, which are much more difficult to assess.
Also excluded are one-sided violence (genocide, terrorist attacks on civilians) and non-state conflicts (ethnic/sectarian violence), which excludes the millions who died in the Rwandan genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, the Cambodian “killing fields”, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Deaths from these other causes have been far fewer in the post-Cold War period. Today, North Korea would be the worst offender.
The contrast between war deaths in the 20th century and recent conflicts is even more dramatic when these other conflict-related deaths are considered, and when war-related deaths are compared to the huge growth in the world’s population — from around 1.7 billion at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, to about 7 billion today.
The welcome decline in deaths from war is primarily due to the decline in direct wars between states, a trend which has persisted for over a decade.
In wars between states last century, whole populations and their industrial might were mobilised to equip and train professional armies that inflicted huge casualties on their opponents’ armies and civilian populations.
Britain’s famous World War II leader, Winston Churchill, decried the destructive power wielded by modern states to wage war.
In a speech he delivered early in his parliamentary career in the House of Commons in May 1901, he said: “In former days, when wars arose from individual causes, from the policy of a Minister or the passion of a King, when they were fought by small regular armies of professional soldiers, and when their course was retarded by the difficulties of communication and supply, and often suspended by the winter season, it was possible to limit the liabilities of the combatants.
“But now, when mighty populations are impelled on each other, each individual severally embittered and inflamed — when the resources of science and civilisation sweep away everything that might mitigate their fury — a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.”
He warned: “The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.”
Fortuitously, over the past quarter century, as the “wars of peoples” dramatically declined, war-related deaths have been confined to internal conflicts within nations.
The Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute has profiled countries most at risk of war. In particular they include countries:
• with large youth populations, particularly with low-income levels and low rates of economic growth;
• that lack strong political institutions capable of governing a country;
• that have a high proportion of their GDP from oil and other natural resources, where extremes of wealth and poverty exacerbate internal state tensions.
Conversely, there are several major factors that contribute to the decline of major conflicts.
The growth of democracies provides peaceful means of resolving issues that once could have led to armed conflict.
The biggest factors winding back global conflicts were:
• the end of Soviet communism, which had fostered proxy wars in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia;
• the growth in the number of democracies and the expansion of the global economy; and
• United Nations and regional peace-keeping operations, which, despite monumental failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, have halted or dampened down conflicts in a number of high-conflict areas.
Cutting off contraband financing and other forms of assistance from neighbouring states has also curbed the resources that fuel many conflicts.
The decline in the number and intensity of major conflicts also brings into serious question the “clash of civilisations” thesis promoted by the late American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, when he attempted to predict the likely course of a post-Cold War new world order.
In 1993, he provoked intense debate among international relations specialists with his article, “The clash of civilizations?”, in the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs. In it he warned of the eruption of major global conflicts. He expanded his thesis into a 1996 book with the title, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Huntington believed that future conflicts would not be the product of particular historical events, but would occur because of fundamental differences between civilisations — civilisations that are differentiated from each other by virtue of history, language, culture, tradition and, most important of all, religion.
Huntington treated the world’s “civilisations” as so internally monolithic, homogenous, static and divergent from each other that they could not peacefully interact and adapt as globalisation caused today’s great intermingling of populations and cultures. The inability of cultures and religions to adapt would heighten the risk of conflicts and wars.
Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” thesis has been roundly criticised.
Indian-born Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen disputes Huntington’s idea that cultures are so monolithic that they could not adapt to the modern world, leading almost inexorably to conflicts between states.
Sen writes: “The practice of democracy that has won out in the modern West is largely a result of a consensus that has emerged since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the last century or so.
“To read in this a historical commitment of the West — over the millennia — to democracy, and then to contrast it with non-Western traditions (treating each as monolithic) would be a great mistake” (Journal of Democracy, July 1999).
Extending that argument, Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism (2004), has argued that distinct cultural boundaries no longer exist in a world where the global connections and migrations are producing a huge intermixing of peoples, cultures and ideas. For example, despite China still being a totalitarian state, huge numbers of Chinese study abroad in places like the U.S, and Chinese tourists head abroad to many of the world’s tourist destinations.
There is now a growing interdependence between nations because of the intertwining of economies, education, media and cultures and the mixing of populations.
Critics regard Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory as a Cold War-inspired relic.
So how can an assessment be made of the failed “colour revolutions” that occurred in many societies of the former Soviet Union and of the 2010/11 “Arab Spring” revolutions in the Middle East and Africa?
The Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute notes that, while few mature democracies experience serious internal violence, the transition from authoritarian ancien régimes to semi-democratic systems increases the risk of conflict until a stable democracy is achieved. Indeed, that has been the experience of many Western democracies.
David A. Bell, a professor at Princeton University who specialises in the era of North Atlantic revolutions, is critical of those who feel that the high hopes many held for the colour revolutions and the Arab Spring have been betrayed.
In a recent article, “Inglorious revolutions”, Bell observed: “It is unreasonable, even rather absurd, to expect revolutions to usher in stable representative democracies that respect human rights virtually overnight.
“It is condescending and cruel to scold countries for their ‘failure’ to reproduce, within a span of a year or two, what took France, the United States and many other countries decades or even centuries to achieve” (The National Interest, January-February 2014).
Professor Bell stresses that only a “serious external incentive structure” — that is, ongoing commitments to economic development and protection, like the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II — can “jump start” these revolutions to achieve a successful, rapid and democratic conclusion.
Which comes back to the paradox of today’s media. In putting combatants on all sides under the magnifying glass, the media creates the impression (contrary to the wider global picture) that war and conflict are more widespread than ever. But, at the same time, its scrutiny of the horrors of war has helped to dampen conflicts.
Despite several intensive, localised conflicts, we live in a time of relative peace. Currently, there are no major wars between powerful nation states.
There is still, however, a crying need for a greater focus on promoting dialogue between states, cultures and religions with the aim of building national economies, mature democracies and respect for human rights in order at last to lock up the dogs of war.
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.
 “Recent events”, Iraq Body Count: a public record of violent deaths following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, last accessed August 10, 2014.
 Samuel P. Huntington, “The clash of civilizations?”, in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, Summer 1993, pp.22–49.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996).
 Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).