BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Rumours of peace
, June 20, 2015
WINNING THE WAR ON WAR:
The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide
by Joshua S. Goldstein
(Dutton/Penguin, New York)
Paperback: 400 pages
Reviewed by Peter Madison
Things are not as bad as they seem.
They have in fact gone from worse to bad.
They may even continue to get better with our effort. So Joshua Goldstein suggests in Winning the War on War, an in-depth analysis of the decline in global conflict over recent decades.
Joshua S. Goldstein has quite a resume. He is professor emeritus at the School of International Service at American University. He is winner of the International Studies Association Book of the Decade award, and of many other awards. His earlier works include International Relations (several editions) and Principles of International Relations. He is also a research scholar at the University of Massachusetts.
In Winning the War on War, Goldstein contrasts the first half of the 20th century (dominated by two world wars), with the 1949–89 Cold War era (which saw proxy conflicts between the West and the communist world), and the world since the end of Soviet communism in 1989.
The most destructive conflict was World War II (1939–45), in which about 70 million people died, at a rate of about 225,000 deaths each week.
Goldstein says that since then, the number of war-related deaths worldwide is continuing to diminish, largely through peacekeeping efforts:
“In the first half of the 20th century, world wars killed tens of millions and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half of that century, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. Now in the early 21st century, the worst wars, such as Iraq, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically.”
In spite of the terrible violence in the Middle East which features so largely in the media and which understandably worries the international community, the conditions we find ourselves in today are better by far in comparison to half a century ago.
As Goldstein writes: “In the post-Cold War era that began in 1990, far fewer people have died in wars each year than during the Cold War. And within the post-Cold War era, the new century so far has seen fewer deaths per year from war violence than in the 1990s. More wars are ending than beginning, once ended they are less likely to restart, and the remaining wars are more localised than in the past.”
In the Cold War era, there were about 200,000 deaths from war annually. This number gradually grew smaller, and continued on a downward trajectory after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Large death tolls in war occur when nation-states mobilise their entire economies for conflict, throwing major air, sea and land forces into battle.
Good news from nation-states
Wars between nation-states, however, have become much rarer. This, according to Goldstein, is good news, and much of his book is devoted to telling the stories of how large-scale wars of this sort have been avoided.
If we compare our situation with that of the 1990s, it is clear that things are just a little bit better. In the 1990s, there were about 100,000 deaths from war each year. In the 21st century there are about 50,000 a year.
That is obviously not good, but equally obviously it is much better than a number twice as large.
In the 1990s, eight major conflicts were going on around the globe – in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola, Bosnia and Chechnya. In the 21st century there are now four, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Four wars, while still a tragedy, are an improvement on eight.
If we compare the current situation with the Cold War era, says Goldstein, the difference is even more significant. In the Cold War era, there were 215,000 war deaths each year, while there were serious conflicts in a greater number of geographically diverse places.
The eight ‘peace factors’
In assessing the causes of the decline of armed conflict from the 1990s to the 21st century, Goldstein accepts the eight “peace factors” identified by sociologist Louis Kriesberg. Conflict has dropped thanks to the end of the Cold War, the dominance of the United States, the effects of globalisation, spreading norms of peace and human rights, the spread of democracy, the increased number of NGOs, the increased participation of women in politics, and improvements in conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution is a major focus of this book. Goldstein writes:
“The progress that humanity has made towards ending war has come about not through inevitable, natural, or magical changes, but through the long, hard work of people seeking peace. The job is not finished.
However, not only have the number and size of wars decreased in recent years, but our concept of war and military force is changing. The job of soldiers used to be, and still is to some extent, to kill and destroy. Nowadays, however, their job is, as often, to build and protect.”
While acknowledging the many instances of failed peacekeeping (Angola, Somalia and Rwanda, for example), Goldstein also examines some key success stories. These successes occurred around the same time as failures such as Rwanda, but are understandably much less reported.
A UN intervention that worked
One such success took place in Namibia in 1989. The Namibia mission differed from previous ones insofar as its objectives were more political than military. The United Nations was to oversee the ushering in of democracy rather than to ensure the integrity of a ceasefire. Namibia had long been a colonised country – first by Germany, then after World War I by South Africa. Armed conflict broke out between the South African government and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (which the UN recognised as the rightful government of the territory in 1966).
The conflict was long and drawn out, but after negotiations the UN was allowed to launch a peace operation in 1989, which was known as the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). With 4,500 troops and a similar number of police and civilians, UNTAG quickly achieved results, educating the population about the upcoming elections, disarming the opposing military forces and assisting with police duties.
With the help of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Namibian Council of Churches, around 40,000 refugees were resettled and a newly independent and democratic Namibia adopted its constitution in 1992.
Another success story unfolded in Mozambique in the 1990s. The way to peace in this case first emerged thanks to the efforts not of the UN but of a lay Catholic organisation. Before 1992, war had raged in Mozambique between the leftist government party (FRELIMO) and right-wing guerrillas (RENAMO). Both parties victimised civilians and hampered humanitarian aid.
When the lay Catholic organisation called the Community of Sant’Egidio offered to play the role of mediator, progress towards peace was quick, and after 27 months, a peace agreement was signed. The UN was asked to help ensure the integrity and success of the agreement. It was successful in achieving its peacekeeping goals – a ceasefire, demobilisation and peaceful elections. Almost 100,000 fighters were demobilised and reintegrated into civilian life.
Goldstein affirms that peacekeeping works. Research suggests that in ceasefires overseen by peacekeeping forces, the risk of renewed war is reduced by 55 to 85 per cent.
It comes as no surprise then that Goldstein sees further commitment to peacekeeping as one of the major ways in which we can promote the continued decline in war deaths in the future. In addition to this, he endorses increased spending on peacekeeping, reform of and support for the UN, and continued emphasis on the importance of war prevention. Goldstein makes no claim that the eradication of war is inevitable, only that our efforts towards peace are by no means futile.
Winning the War on War is an important book. Ultimately it is about putting things into perspective, so that peace efforts in the future will be more informed.
As Goldstein writes, we have already seen the alternative to this: “Political discourses driven by fears and worst-case scenarios, as today’s discussions of war often are, promote dysfunctional policies such as very high military spending and aggressive military actions. Fear of war – a sense that war is pervasive and could get us at any moment – does not lead to the pursuit of peace but rather to pessimism and policies likely to bring about the very thing we fear.”
No one could be content with the level of violence that afflicts parts of the world in 2015, but all serious-minded and realistic people will be glad that things are not as bad as they could be, and will want to know the reason why, so that they can pursue peace with discretion and the memory of what has and has not worked in the past.
“I hope that this story, one that tours some of the most awful war-torn places on earth but that is ultimately about peace, will inspire readers to see – through the continuing fog of war – our best qualities as human beings: our ability to communicate, to empathise, to cooperate, and to create a safer, freer, more prosperous world for our children,” Goldstein writes.