A couple of months ago, the head of the UN’s refugee agency announced that, in 2013, “the number of people displaced by violent conflict hit the highest level since World War II,” and he noted that the number was still growing in 2014.
A few days ago, under the headline “Countries in Crisis at Record High,” Foreign Policy‘s The Cable reported that the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee for the first time ever had identified four situations worldwide—Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and Central African Republic—as level 3 humanitarian emergencies, its highest (worst) designation.
Today, the Guardian reported that “last year was the most dangerous on record for humanitarian workers, with 155 killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped as they attempted to help others in some of the world’s most dangerous places.’”
If you read those stories, you might infer that the world has become more insecure than ever, or at least the most insecure it’s been since the last world war. That would be reasonable, but probably also wrong. These press accounts of record-breaking trends are often omitting or underplaying a crucial detail: the data series on which these claims rely don’t extend very far into the past.
In fact, we don’t know how the current number of displaced persons compares to all years since World War II, because the UN only has data on that since 1989. In absolute terms, the number of refugees worldwide is now the largest it’s been since record-keeping began 25 years ago. Measured as a share of global population, however, the number of displaced persons in 2013 had not yet matched the peak of the early 1990s (see the Addendum here).
The Cable accurately states that having four situations designated as level-3 humanitarian disasters by the UN is “unprecedented,” but we only learn late in the story that the system which makes these designations has only existed for a few years. In other words, unprecedented…since 2011.
Finally, while the Guardian correctly reports that 2013 was the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, it fails to note that those records only reach back to the late 1990s.
I don’t mean to make light of worrisome trends in the international system or any of the terrible conflicts driving them. From the measures I track—see here and here, for example, and here for an earlier post on causes—I’d say that global levels of instability and violent conflict are high and waxing, but they have not yet exceeded the peaks we saw in the early 1990s and probably the 1960s. Meanwhile, the share of states worldwide that are electoral democracies remains historically high, and the share of the world’s population living in poverty has declined dramatically in the past few decades. The financial crisis of 2008 set off a severe and persistent global recession, but that collapse could have been much worse, and institutions of global governance deserve some credit for helping to stave off an even deeper failure.
How can all of these things be true at the same time? It’s a bit like climate change. Just as one or even a few unusually cool years wouldn’t reverse or disprove the clear long-term trend toward a hotter planet, an extended phase of elevated disorder and violence doesn’t instantly undo the long-term trends toward a more peaceful and prosperous human society. We are currently witnessing (or suffering) a local upswing in disorder that includes numerous horrific crises, but in global historical terms, the world has not fallen apart.
Of course, if it’s a mistake to infer global collapse from these local trends, it’s also a mistake to infer that global collapse is impossible from the fact that it hasn’t occurred already. The war that is already consuming Syria and Iraq is responsible for a substantial share of the recent increase in refugee flows and casualties, and it could spread further and burn hotter for some time to come. Probably more worrisome to watchers of long-term trends in international relations, the crisis in Ukraine and recent spate of confrontations between China and its neighbors remind us that war between major powers could happen again, and this time those powers would both or all have nuclear weapons. Last but not least, climate change seems to be accelerating with consequences unknown.
Those are all important sources of elevated uncertainty, but uncertainty and breakdown are not the same thing. Although those press stories describing unprecedented crises are all covering important situations and trends, I think their historical perspective is too shallow. I’m forty-four years old. The global system is less orderly than it’s been in a while, but it’s still not worse than it’s ever been in my lifetime, and it’s still nowhere near as bad as it was when my parents were born. I won’t stop worrying or working on ways to try to make things a tiny bit better, but I will keep that frame of reference in mind.