The State of War in Syria

I’m just now seeing Bridget Conley’s recent post on the state of war in Syria, which appeared on the World Peace Foundation’s Reinventing Peace blog several days ago. I agree wholly with her diagnosis:

Critics of either U.S. or Russian policy would prefer the rhetorical simplicity of merely pointing out flaws in the other’s position. What is really the problem is that both want war.

Russia now embraces war as a means to ensure that its client, the Assad regime, remains in power. But the U.S. also embraces war as a means to try to achieve regime change and, presumably, other regional and global ends as well. If the Obama administration were primarily concerned with fostering peace or stability and minimizing civilian casualties, it probably should have taken a softer line on President Assad’s status much earlier in this conflict. Instead, it has continued to insist that the conflict cannot end without his departure from power, and it has deepened its support for militias seeking to attain that goal by force.

As Bridget argues, “The most likely outcome of all these pro-war positions is continued conflict.” That’s what the scholarship on foreign intervention in civil wars tells us to expect, and that’s what we’ve seen in Syria for the past few years.

On the alternatives, though, I am less hopeful than Bridget seems to be. Instead of trying to win two consecutive wars—one to topple Assad, and then another to rule post-Assad Syria—Bridget proposes this:

If protection of civilian lives and carving a greater space for democratic practice is the desired outcome, then it’s time to seize the moment and negotiate, playing hardball for a political solution that provides institutional guarantees for democratizing processes.

But here is the conundrum: How can the U.S. “play hardball” in negotiations over Syria’s fate if it does not wield a credible threat to impose some costly punishment on parties that refuse to negotiate, or that negotiate but threaten to renege on any deal reached? And, given the current state of this conflict, how can it credibly threaten to punish defectors from any deal without fighting? What other threats are going to be so costly that the warring parties would prefer a certain outcome in which they mostly lose to the present uncertainty in which they might win and, in some cases, are profiting along the way?

Alternatively, the U.S. could simply pull back from the fight and leave it to the belligerents and their other patrons to sort out. In her post, though, Bridget alludes to one reason the U.S. has not committed to a hands-off approach: the U.S. is not acting alone, and its ostensible allies in this conflict would carry on without its participation. By keeping its hands in the war, the Obama administration apparently sustains its hope of managing that coalition, and of gaining leverage on other issues beyond Syria. As far as I can tell, the administration also seems to accept the claim that any diminution of U.S. involvement in Syria automatically and durably concedes power to its Russian and Iranian rivals.

Another option is escalation—fight harder. As Dan Drezner recently pointed out, though, escalation only makes sense if you believe that fighting harder will push the war onto a preferred path at an acceptable cost. Like Dan, I haven’t yet heard a convincing description of how that would occur. Even if you manage to win the war to topple Assad, you then have to win the post-war fight and contain the regional and global repercussions, and every recent iteration of this approach has ended poorly. With so many players committed to working at cross-purposes, I cannot imagine how this iteration would be different.

What we’re left with is foreign policy as a form of witchcraft. As the warring parties fight, various onlookers mumble incantations, wave herbs, and dole out potions. They have faith in the effectiveness of these traditional practices. When events fail to take the desired turn, evil spirits are to blame, and the answer is more mojo. If events ever do turn favorably, everyone swears it was his last spell that did it.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that a hands-off approach would be worse than the status quo. Instead of investing more in fighting and killing, why not invest in opening our doors wider to refugees from this war and helping them resettle here? I know the answer to that question: because U.S. domestic politics won’t allow it. It’s a fantasy. But then, so is the delusion of control that has us investing in the further destruction of Syria, and only one of those two fantasies involves the U.S. government spending its money and sending its people to kill other people.

How Likely Is (Nuclear) War Between the United States and Russia?

Last week, Vox ran a long piece by Max Fisher claiming that “the prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, [experts] warn, even plausible.” Without ever clarifying what “thinkable” or “plausible” mean in this context, Fisher seems to be arguing that, while still unlikely, the probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is no longer small and is rising.

I finished Fisher’s piece and wondered: Is that true? As someone who’s worked on a couple of projects (here and here) that use “wisdom of crowds” methods to make educated guesses about how likely various geopolitical events are, I know that one way to try to answer that question is to ask a bunch of informed people for their best estimates and then average them.

So, on Thursday morning, I went to SurveyMonkey and set up a two-question survey that asks respondents to assess the likelihood of war between the United States and Russia before 2020 and, if war were to happen, the likelihood that one or both sides would use nuclear weapons. To elicit responses, I tweeted the link once and posted it to the Conflict Research Group on Facebook and the IRstudies subreddit. The survey is still running [UPDATE: It’s now closed, because Survey Monkey won’t show me more than the first 100 responses without a paid subscription], but 100 people have taken it so far, and here are the results—first, on the risk of war:


And then on the risk that one or both sides would nuclear weapons, conditional on the occurrence of war:


These results come from a convenience sample, so we shouldn’t put too much stock in them. Still, my confidence in their reliability got a boost when I learned yesterday that a recent survey of international-relations experts around the world asked an almost-identical question about the risk of a war and obtained similar results. In its 2014 survey, the TRIP project asked: “How likely is war between the United States and Russia over the next decade? Please use the 0–10 scale with 10 indicating that war will definitely occur.” They got 2,040 valid responses to that question, and here’s how they were distributed:


Those results are centered a little further to the right than the ones from my survey, but TRIP asked about a longer time period (“next decade” vs. “before 2020”), and those additional five years could explain the difference. It’s also important to note that the scales aren’t directly comparable; where the TRIP survey’s bins implicitly lie on a linear scale, mine were labeled to give respondents more options toward the extremes (e.g., “Certainly not” and “Almost certainly not”).

In light of that corroborating evidence, let’s assume for the moment that the responses to my survey are not junk. So then, how likely is a US/Russia war in the next several years, and how likely is it that such a war would go nuclear if it happened? To get to estimated probabilities of those events, I did two things:

  1. Assuming that the likelihoods implicit my survey’s labels follow a logistic curve, I converted them to predicted probabilities as follows: p(war) = exp(response – 5)/(1 + exp(response – 5)). That rule produces the following sequence for the 0–10 bins: 0.007, 0.018, 0.047, 0.119, 0.269, 0.500, 0.731, 0.881, 0.953, 0.982, 0.993.

  2. I calculated the unweighted average of those predicted probabilities.

Here are the estimates that process produced, rounded up to the nearest whole percentage point:

  • Probability of war: 11%
  • Probability that one or both sides will use nuclear weapons, conditional on war: 18%

To translate those figures into a single number representing the crowd’s estimate of the probability of nuclear war between the US and Russia before 2020, we take their product: 2%.

Is that number different from what Max Fisher had in mind when he wrote that a nuclear war between the US and Russia is now “thinkable,” “plausible,” and “more likely than you think”? I don’t know. To me, “thinkable” and “plausible” seem about as specific as “possible,” a descriptor that applies to almost any geopolitical event you can imagine. I think Max’s chief concern in writing that piece was to draw attention to a risk that he believes to be dangerously under-appreciated, but it would be nice if he had asked his sources to be more specific about just how likely they think this calamity is.

More important, is that estimate “true”? As Ralph Atkins argued in a recent Financial Times piece about estimating the odds of Grexit, it’s impossible to say. For unprecedented and at least partially unique events like these—an exit from the euro zone, or a nuclear war between major powers—we can never know the event-generating process well enough to estimate their probabilities with high confidence. What we get instead are summaries of peoples’ current beliefs about those events’ likelihood. That’s highly imperfect, but it’s still informative in its own way.

One Measure By Which Things Have Recently Gotten Worse

The United Nation’s refugee agency today released its annual report on people displaced by war around the world, and the news is bad:

The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situation was likely to worsen still further.

The report focuses on raw estimates of displaced persons, but I think it makes more sense to look at this group as a share of world population. The number of people on the planet has increased by more than half a billion in the past decade, so we might expect to see some growth in the number of forcibly displaced persons even if the amount of conflict worldwide had held steady. The chart below plots annual totals from the UNHCR report as a share of mid-year world population, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau (here).


The number of observations in this time series is too small to use Bayesian change point detection to estimate the likelihood that the upturn after 2012 marks a change in the underlying data-generating process. I’m not sure we need that kind of firepower, though. After holding more or less steady for at least six years, the share of world population forcibly displaced by war has increased by more than 50 percent in just two years, from about one of every 200 people to 1 of every 133 people. Equally important, reports from field workers indicate that this problem only continues to grow in 2015. I don’t think I would call this upturn a “paradigm change,” as UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres did, but there is little doubt that the problem of displacement by war has worsened significantly since 2012.

In historical terms, just how bad is it? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say for sure. The time series in the UNHCR report only starts in 2004, and a note warns that methodological changes in 2007 render the data before that year incomparable to the more recent estimates. The UNHCR describes the 2014 figure as “the highest level ever recorded,” and that’s technically true but not very informative when recording started only recently. A longer time series assembled by the Center for Systemic Peace (here) supports the claim that the latest raw estimate is the largest ever, but as a share of world population, it’s probably still a bit lower than the levels seen in the post–Cold War tumult of the early 1990s (see here).

Other relevant data affirm the view that, while clearly worsening, the intensity of armed conflict around the world is not at historically high levels, not even for the past few decades. Here is a plot of annual counts of battle-related deaths (low, high, and best estimates) according to the latest edition of UCDP’s data set on that topic (here), which covers the period 1989–2013. Note that these figures have not been adjusted for changes in world population.

Annual estimates of battle-related deaths worldwide, 1989-2013 (data source: UCDP)

Annual estimates of battle-related deaths worldwide, 1989-2013 (data source: UCDP)

We see similar pattern in the Center for Systemic Peace’s Major Episodes of Political Violence data set (second row here), which covers the whole post-WWII period. For the chart below, I have separately summed the data set’s scalar measure of conflict intensity for two types of conflict, civil and interstate (see the codebook for details). Like the UCDP data, these figures show a local increase in the past few years that nevertheless remains well below the prior peak, which came when the Soviet Union fell apart.

Annual intensity of political violence worldwide, 1946-2014 (data source: CSP)

Annual intensity of political violence worldwide, 1946-2014 (data source: CSP)

And, for longer-term perspective, it always helps to take another look at this one, from an earlier UCDP report:

PRIO battle death trends

I’ll wrap this up by pinning a note in something I see when comparing the shorter-term UCDP estimates to the UNHCR estimates on forcibly displaced persons: adjusting for population, it looks like armed conflicts may be killing fewer but displacing more than they used to. That impression is bolstered by a glance at UCDP data on trends in deaths from “intentional attacks on civilians by governments and formally organized armed groups,” which UCDP calls “one-sided violence” (here).  As the plot below shows, the recent upsurge in warfare has not yet produced a large increase in the incidence of these killings, either. The line is bending upward, but it remains close to historical lows.

Estimated annual deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Source: UCDP)

Estimated annual deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Source: UCDP)

So, in the tumult of the past few years, it looks like the rate of population displacement has surged while the rate of battle deaths has risen more slowly and the rate of one-sided violence targeting civilians hasn’t risen much at all. If that’s true, then why? Improvements in medical care in conflict zones are probably part of the story, but I wonder if changes in norms and values, and in the international institutions and practices instantiating them, aren’t also shaping these trends. Governments that in the past might have wantonly killed populations they regarded as threats now seem more inclined to press those populations by other means—not always, but more often. Meanwhile, international organizations are readier than ever to assist those groups under pressure by feeding and sheltering them, drawing attention to their miseries, and sometimes even protecting them. The trend may be fragile, and the causality is impossible to untangle with confidence, but it deserves contemplation.

About That Apparent Decline in Violent Conflict…

Is violent conflict declining, or isn’t it? I’ve written here and elsewhere about evidence that warfare and mass atrocities have waned significantly in recent decades, at least when measured by the number of people killed in those episodes. Not everyone sees the world the same way, though. Bear Braumoeller asserts that, to understand how war prone the world is, we should look at how likely countries are to use force against politically relevant rivals, and by this measure the rate of warfare has held pretty steady over the past two centuries. Tanisha Fazal argues that wars have become less lethal without becoming less frequent because of medical advances that help keep more people in war zones alive. Where I have emphasized war’s lethal consequences, these two authors emphasize war’s likelihood, but their arguments suggest that violent conflict hasn’t really waned the way I’ve alleged it has.

This week, we got another important contribution to the wider debate in which my shallow contributions are situated. In an updated working paper, Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb claim to show that

Violence is much more severe than it seems from conventional analyses and the prevailing “long peace” theory which claims that violence has declined… Contrary to current discussions…1) the risk of violent conflict has not been decreasing, but is rather underestimated by techniques relying on naive year-on-year changes in the mean, or using sample mean as an estimator of the true mean of an extremely fat-tailed phenomenon; 2) armed conflicts have memoryless inter-arrival times, thus incompatible with the idea of a time trend.

Let me say up front that I only have a weak understanding of the extreme value theory (EVT) models used in Cirillo and Taleb’s paper. I’m a political scientist who uses statistical methods, not a statistician, and I have neither studied nor tried to use the specific techniques they employ.

Bearing that in mind, I think the paper successfully undercuts the most optimistic view about the future of violent conflict—that violent conflict has inexorably and permanently declined—but then I don’t know many people who actually hold that view. Most of the work on this topic distinguishes between the observed fact of a substantial decline in the rate of deaths from political violence and the underlying risk of those deaths and the conflicts that produce them. We can (partly) see the former, but we can’t see the latter; instead, we have to try to infer it from the conflicts that occur. Observed history is, in a sense, a single sample drawn from a distribution of many possible histories, and, like all samples, this one is only a jittery snapshot of the deeper data-generating process in which we’re really interested. What Cirillo and Taleb purport to show is that long sequences of relative peace like the one we have seen in recent history are wholly consistent with a data-generating process in which the risk of war and death from it have not really changed at all.

Of course, the fact that a decades-long decline in violent conflict like the one we’ve seen since World War II could happen by chance doesn’t necessarily mean that it is happening by chance. The situation is not dissimilar to one we see in sports when a batter or shooter seems to go cold for a while. Oftentimes that cold streak will turn out to be part of the normal variation in performance, and the athlete will eventually regress to the mean—but not every time. Sometimes, athletes really do get and stay worse, maybe because of aging or an injury or some other life change, and the cold streak we see is the leading edge of that sustained decline. The hard part is telling in real time which process is happening. To try to do that, we might look for evidence of those plausible causes, but humans are notoriously good at spotting patterns where there are none, and at telling ourselves stories about why those patterns are occurring that turn out to be bunk.

The same logic applies to thinking about trends in violent conflict. Maybe the downward trend in observed death rates is just a chance occurrence in an unchanged system, but maybe it isn’t. And, as Andrew Gelman told Zach Beauchamp, the statistics alone can’t answer this question. Cirillo and Taleb’s analysis, and Braumoeller’s before it, imply that the history we’ve seen in the recent past  is about as likely as any other, but that fact isn’t proof of its randomness. Just as rare events sometimes happen, so do systemic changes.

Claims that “This time really is different” are usually wrong, so I think the onus is on people who believe the underlying risk of war is declining to make a compelling argument about why that’s true. When I say “compelling,” I mean an argument that a) identifies specific causal mechanisms and b) musters evidence of change over time in the presence or prevalence of those mechanisms. That’s what Steven Pinker tries at great length to do in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and what Joshua Goldstein did in Winning the War on War.

My own thinking about this issue connects the observed decline in the the intensity of violent conflict to the rapid increase in the past 100+ years in the size and complexity of the global economy and the changes in political and social institutions that have co-occurred with it. No, globalization is not new, and it certainly didn’t stop the last two world wars. Still, I wonder if the profound changes of the past two centuries are accumulating into a global systemic transformation akin to the one that occurred locally in now-wealthy societies in which organized violent conflict has become exceptionally rare. Proponents of democratic peace theory see a similar pattern in the recent evidence, but I think they are too quick to give credit for that pattern to one particular stream of change that may be as much consequence as cause of the deeper systemic transformation. I also realize that this systemic transformation is producing negative externalities—climate change and heightened risks of global pandemics, to name two—that could offset the positive externalities or even lead to sharp breaks in other directions.

It’s impossible to say which, if any, of these versions is “true,” but the key point is that we can find real-world evidence of mechanisms that could be driving down the underlying risk of violent conflict. That evidence, in turn, might strengthen our confidence in the belief that the observed pattern has meaning, even if it doesn’t and can’t prove that meaning or any of the specific explanations for it.

Finally, without deeply understanding the models Cirillo and Taleb used, I also wondered when I first read their new paper if their findings weren’t partly an artifact of those models, or maybe some assumptions the authors made when specifying them. The next day, David Roodman wrote something that strengthened this source of uncertainty. According to Roodman, the extreme value theory (EVT) models employed by Cirillo and Taleb can be used to test for time trends, but the ones described in this new paper don’t. Instead, Cirillo and Taleb specify their models in a way that assumes there is no time trend and then use them to confirm that there isn’t. “It seems to me,” Roodman writes, “that if Cirillo and Taleb want to rule out a time trend according to their own standard of evidence, then they should introduce one in their EVT models and test whether it is statistically distinguishable from zero.”

If Roodman is correct on this point, and if Cirillo and Taleb were to do what he recommends and still find no evidence of a time trend, I would update my beliefs accordingly. In other words, I would worry a little more than I do now about the risk of much larger and deadlier wars occurring again in my expected lifetime.

To Realize the QDDR’s Early-Warning Goal, Invest in Data-Making

The U.S. Department of State dropped its second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, last week (here). Modeled on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the QDDR lays out the department’s big-picture concerns and objectives so that—in theory—they can guide planning and shape day-to-day decision-making.

The new QDDR establishes four main goals, one of which is to “strengthen our ability to prevent and respond to internal conflict, atrocities, and fragility.” To help do that, the State Department plans to “increase [its] use of early warning analysis to drive early action on fragility and conflict.” Specifically, State says it will:

  1. Improve our use of tools for analyzing, tracking, and forecasting fragility and conflict, leveraging improvements in analytical capabilities;
  2. Provide more timely and accurate assessments to chiefs of mission and senior decision-makers;
  3. Increase use of early warning data and conflict and fragility assessments in our strategic planning and programming;
  4. Ensure that significant early warning shifts trigger senior-level review of the mission’s strategy and, if necessary, adjustments; and
  5. Train and deploy conflict-specific diplomatic expertise to support countries at risk of conflict or atrocities, including conflict negotiation and mediation expertise for use at posts.

Unsurprisingly, that plan sounds great to me. We can’t now and never will be able to predict precisely where and when violent conflict and atrocities will occur, but we can assess risks with enough accuracy and lead time to enable better strategic planning and programming. These forecasts don’t have to be perfect to be earlier, clearer, and more reliable than the traditional practices of deferring to individual country or regional analysts or just reacting to the news.

Of course, quite a bit of well-designed conflict forecasting is already happening, much of it paid for by the U.S. government. To name a few of the relevant efforts: The Political Instability Task Force (PITF) and the Worldwide Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) routinely update forecasts of various forms of political crisis for U.S. government customers. IARPA’s Open Source Indicators (OSI) and Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) programs are simultaneously producing forecasts now and discovering ways to make future forecasts even better. Meanwhile, outside the U.S. government, the European Union has recently developed its own Global Conflict Risk Index (GCRI), and the Early Warning Project now assesses risks of mass atrocities in countries worldwide.

That so much thoughtful risk assessment is being done now doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to start new projects. If there are any iron laws of forecasting hard-to-predict processes like political violence, one of them is that combinations of forecasts from numerous sources should be more accurate than forecasts from a single model or person or framework. Some of the existing projects already do this kind of combining themselves, but combinations of combinations will often be even better.

Still, if I had to channel the intention expressed in this part of the QDDR into a single activity, it would not be the construction of new models, at least not initially. Instead, it would be data-making. Social science is not Newtonian physics, but it’s not astrology, either. Smart people have been studying politics for a long time, and collectively they have developed a fair number of useful ideas about what causes or precedes violent conflict. But, if you can’t track the things those theorists tell you to track, then your forecasts are going to suffer. To improve significantly on the predictive models of political violence we have now, I think we need better inputs most of all.

When I say “better” inputs, I have a few things in mind. In some cases, we need to build data sets from scratch. When I was updating my coup forecasts earlier this year, a number of people wondered why I didn’t include measures of civil-military relations, which are obviously relevant to this particular risk. The answer was simple: because global data on that topic don’t exist. If we aren’t measuring it, we can’t use it in our forecasts, and the list of relevant features that falls into this set is surprisingly long.

In other cases, we need to revive them. Social scientists often build “boutique” data sets for specific research projects, run the tests they want to run on them, and then move on to the next project. Sometimes, the tests they or others run suggest that some features captured in those data sets would make useful predictors. Those discoveries are great in principle, but if those data sets aren’t being updated, then applied forecasters can’t use that knowledge. To get better forecasts, we need to invest in picking up where those boutique data sets left off so we can incorporate their insights into our applications.

Finally and in almost all cases, we need to observe things more frequently. Most of the data available now to most conflict forecasters is only updated once each year, often on a several-month delay and sometimes as much as two years later (e.g., data describing 2014 becomes available in 2016). That schedule is fine for basic research, but it is crummy for applied forecasting. If we want to be able to give assessments and warnings that as current as possible to those “chiefs of mission and senior decision-makers” mentioned in the QDDR, then we need to build models with data that are updated as frequently as possible. Daily or weekly are ideal, but monthly updates would suffice in many cases and would mark a huge improvement over the status quo.

As I said at the start, we’re never going to get models that reliably tell us far in advance exactly where and when violent conflicts and mass atrocities will erupt. I am confident, however, that we can assess these risks even more accurately than we do now, but only if we start making more, and better versions, of the data our theories tell us we need.

I’ll end with a final plea to any public servants who might be reading this: if you do invest in developing better inputs, please make the results freely available to the public. When you share your data, you give the crowd a chance to help you spot and fix your mistakes, to experiment with various techniques, and to think about what else you might consider, all at no additional cost to you. What’s not to like about that?

An Updated Look at Trends in Political Violence

The Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) has just posted an updated version of its Major Episodes of Political Violence data set, which now covers the period 1946-2014. That data set includes scalar measures of the magnitude of several forms of political violence between and within states. Per the codebook (PDF):

Magnitude scores reflect multiple factors including state capabilities, interactive intensity (means and goals), area and scope of death and destruction, population displacement, and episode duration. Scores are considered to be consistently assigned (i.e., comparable) across episode types and for all states directly involved.

For each country in each year, the magnitude scores range from 0 to 10. The chart below shows annual global sums of those scores for conflicts between and within states (i.e., the INTTOT and CIVTOT columns in the source data).

Consistent with other measures, CSP’s data show an increase in violent political conflict in the past few years. At the same time, those data also indicate that, even at the end of 2014, the scale of conflict worldwide remained well below the peak levels observed in the latter decades of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. That finding provides no comfort to the people directly affected by the fighting ongoing today. Still, it should (but probably won’t) throw another blanket over hyperbolic statements about the world being more unstable than ever before.

If we look at the trends by region, we see what most avid newsreaders would expect to see. The chart below uses the U.S. State Department’s regional designations. It confirms that the recent increase in conflict within states (the orange lines) has mostly come from Africa and the Middle East. Conflicts persist in the Americas and East and South Asia, but their magnitude has generally diminished in recent years. Europe and Eurasia supplies the least violent conflict of any region, but the war in Ukraine—designated a civil conflict by this source and assigned a magnitude score of 2—increased that supply in 2014.

CSP saw almost no interstate conflict around the world in 2014. The global score of 1 accrues from U.S. operations in Afghanistan. When interstate conflict has occurred in the post–Cold War period, it has mostly come from Africa and the Middle East, too, but East Asia was also a major contributor as recently as the 1980s.

For a complete list of the episodes of political violence observed by CSP in this data set, go here. For CSP’s analysis of trends in these data, go here.

A Note on Trends in Armed Conflict

In a report released earlier this month, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) observed that “the body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more than 28% higher than in the previous year.” They counted approximately 163 thousand deaths in 2014, up from 127 thousand in 2013. The report described that increase as “part of a broader multi-year trend” that began in 2007. The project’s executive director, Peter Epps, also appropriately noted that “assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates.”

This is solid work. I do not doubt the existence of the trend it identifies. That said, I would also encourage us to keep it in perspective:

That chart (source) ends in 2005. Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict (UCDP) hasn’t updated its widely-used data set on battle-related deaths for 2014 yet, but from last year’s edition, we can see the tail end of that longer period, as well as the start of the recent upward trend PS21 identifies. In this chart—R script here—the solid line marks the annual, global sums of their best estimates, and the dotted lines show the sums of the high and low estimates:
Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

If we mentally tack that chart onto the end of the one before it, we can also see that the increase of the past few years has not yet broken the longer spell of relatively low numbers of battle deaths. Not even close. The peak around 2000 in the middle of the nearer chart is a modest bump in the farther one, and the upward trend we’ve seen since 2007 has not yet matched even that local maximum. This chart stops at the end of 2013, but if we used the data assembled by PS21 for the past year to project an increase in 2014, we’d see that we’re still in reasonably familiar territory.

Both of these things can be true. We could be—we are—seeing a short-term increase that does not mark the end of a longer-term ebb. The global economy has grown fantastically since the 1700s, and yet it still suffers serious crises and recessions. The planet has warmed significantly over the past century, but we still see some unusually cool summers and winters.

Lest this sound too sanguine at a time when armed conflict is waxing, let me add two caveats.

First, the picture from the recent past looks decidedly worse if we widen our aperture to include deliberate killings of civilians outside of battle. UCDP keeps a separate data set on that phenomenon—here—which they label “one-sided” violence. If we add the fatalities tallied in that data set to the battle-related ones summarized in the previous plot, here is what we get:

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Note the difference in the scale of the y-axis; it is an order of magnitude larger than the one in the previous chart. At this scale, the peaks and valleys in battle-related deaths from the past 25 years get smoothed out, and a single peak—the Rwandan genocide—dominates the landscape. That peak is still much lower than the massifs marking the two World Wars in the first chart, but it is huge nonetheless. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a matter of months.

Second, the long persistence of this lower rate does not prove that the risk of violent conflict on the scale of the two World Wars has been reduced permanently. As Bear Braumoeller (here) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here; I link reluctantly, because I don’t care for the scornful and condescending tone) have both pointed out, a single war between great powers could end or even reverse this trend, and it is too soon to say with any confidence whether or not the risk of that happening is much lower than it used to be. Like many observers of international relations, I think we need to see how the system processes the (relative) rise of China and declines of Russia and the United States before updating our beliefs about the risk of major wars. As someone who grew up during the Cold War and was morbidly fascinated by the possibility of nuclear conflagration, I think we also need to remember how close we came to nuclear war on some occasions during that long spell, and to ponder how absurdly destructive and terrible that would be.

Strictly speaking, I’m not an academic, but I do a pretty good impersonation of one, so I’ll conclude with a footnote to that second caveat: I did not attribute the idea that the risk of major war is a thing of the past to Steven Pinker, as some do, because as Pinker points out in a written response to Taleb (here), he does not make precisely that claim, and his wider point about a long-term decline in human violence does not depend entirely on an ebb in warfare persisting. It’s hard to see how Pinker’s larger argument could survive a major war between nuclear powers, but then if that happened, who would care one way or another if it had?

On Revolution, Theory or Ideology?

Humans understand and explain through stories, and the stories we in the US tell about why people rebel against their governments usually revolve around deprivation and injustice. In the prevailing narratives, rebellion occurs when states either actively make people suffer or passively fail to alleviate their suffering. Rebels in the American colonies made this connection explicit in the Declaration of Independence. This is also how we remember and understand lots of other rebellions we “like” and the figures who led them, from Moses to Robin Hood to Nelson Mandela.

As predictors of revolution, though, deprivation and injustice don’t fare so well. A chart in a recent Bloomberg Business piece on “the 15 most miserable economies in the world” got me thinking about this again. The chart shows the countries that score highest on a crude metric that sums a country’s unemployment rate and annual change in its consumer price index. Here are the results for 2015:

Of the 15 countries on that list, only two—Ukraine and Colombia—have ongoing civil wars, and it’s pretty hard to construe current unemployment or inflation as relevant causes in either case. Colombia’s civil war has run for decades. Ukraine’s war isn’t so civil (<cough> Russia <cough>), and this year’s spike in unemployment and inflation are probably more consequences than causes of that fighting. Frankly, I’m surprised that Venezuela hasn’t seen a sustained, large-scale challenge to its government since Hugo Chavez’s death and wonder if this year will prove different. But, so far, it hasn’t. Ditto for South Africa, where labor actions have at least hinted the potential for wider rebellion.

That chart, in turn, reminded me of a 2011 New York Times column by Charles Blow called “The Kindling of Change,” on the causes of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  Blow wrote, “It is impossible to know exactly which embers spark a revolution, but it’s not so hard to measure the conditions that make a country prime for one.” As evidence, he offered the following table comparing countries in the region on several “conditions”:

The chart, and the language that precede it, seem to imply that these factors are ones that obviously “prime” countries for revolution. If that’s true, though, then why didn’t we see revolutions in the past few years in Algeria, Morocco,  Sudan, Jordan, and Iran? Morocco and Sudan saw smaller protest waves that failed to produce revolutions, but so did Kuwait and Bahrain. And why did Syria unravel while those others didn’t? It’s true that poorer countries are more susceptible to rebellions than richer ones, but it’s also true that poor countries are historically common and rebellions are not.

All of which makes me wonder how much our theories of rebellion are really theories at all, and not more awkward blends of selective observation and ideology. Maybe we believe that injustice explains rebellion because we want to live in a universe in which justice triumphs and injustice gets punished. When violent or nonviolent rebellions erupt, we often watch and listen to the participants enumerate grievances about poverty and indignity and take those claims as evidence of underlying causes. We do this even though we know that humans are unreliable archivists and interpreters of their own behavior and motivations, and that we could elicit similar tales of poverty and indignity from many, many more people who are not rebelling in those societies and others. If a recent study generalizes, then we in the US and other rich democracies are also consuming news that systematically casts rebels in a more favorable light than governments during episodes of protest and civil conflict abroad.

Meanwhile, when rebel groups don’t fit our profile as agents of justice, we rarely expand our theories of revolution to account for these deviant cases. Instead, we classify the organizations as “terrorists”, “radicals”, or “criminals” and explain their behavior in some other way, usually one that emphasizes flaws in the character or beliefs of the participants or manipulations of them by other nefarious agents. Boko Haram and the Islamic State are rebel groups in any basic sense of that term, but our explanations of their emergence often emphasize indoctrination instead of injustice. Why?

I don’t mean to suggest that misery, dignity, and rebellion are entirely uncoupled. Socioeconomic and emotional misery may and probably do contribute in some ways to the emergence of rebellion, even if they aren’t even close to sufficient causes of it. (For some deeper thinking on the causal significance of social structure, see this recent post by Daniel Little.)

Instead, I think I mean this post to serve as plea to avoid the simple versions of those stories, at least when we’re trying to function as explainers and not activists or rebels ourselves. In light of what we think we know about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, the fact that a particular explanation harmonizes with our values and makes us feel good should not be mistaken for evidence of its truth. If anything, it should motivate us to try harder to break it.

“No One Stayed to Count the Bodies”

If you want to understand and appreciate why, even in the age of the Internet and satellites and near-ubiquitous mobile telephony, it remains impossible to measure even the coarsest manifestations of political violence with any precision, read this blog post by Phil Hazlewood, AFP’s bureau chief in Lagos. (Warning: graphic. H/t to Ryan Cummings on Twitter.)

Hazlewood’s post focuses on killings perpetrated by Boko Haram, but the same issues arise in measuring violence committed by states. Violence sometimes eliminates some people who might describe the acts involved, and it intentionally scares many others. If you hear or see details of what happened, that’s often because the killers or their rivals for power wanted you to hear or see those details. We cannot sharply distinguish between the communication of those facts and the political intentions expressed in the violence or the reactions to it. The conversation is the message, and the violence is part of the conversation.

When you see or hear things in spite of those efforts to conceal them, you have to wonder how selection effects limit or distort the information that gets through. North Korea’s gulag system apparently contains thousands and kills some untold numbers each year. Defectors are the outside world’s main source of information about that system, but those defectors are not a random sample of victims, nor are they mechanical recording devices. Instead, they are human beings who have somehow escaped that country and who are now seeking to draw attention to and destroy that system. I do not doubt the basic truth of the gulags’ existence and the horrible things done there, but as a social scientist, I have to consider how those selection processes and motivations shape what we think we know. In the United States, we lack reliable data on fatal encounters with police. That’s partly because different jurisdictions have different capabilities for recording and reporting these incidents, but it’s also partly because some people in that system do not want us to see what they do.

For a previous post of mine on this topic, see “The Fog of War Is Patchy“.


Occupy Central and the Rising Risk of New Mass Atrocities in China

This is a cross-post from the blog of the Early Warning Project, which I currently direct. The Early Warning Project concentrates on risks of mass atrocities, but this post also draws on my longstanding interest in democratization and social unrest, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Activists have massed by the thousands in central Hong Kong for the past several days in defiance of repeated attempts to disperse them and menacing words from Beijing. This demonstration and the wider Occupy Central movement from which it draws poses one of the sharpest public challenges to Communist Party authority since the Tiananmen Square uprising 25 years ago. In so doing, it clearly raises the risk of a new mass atrocities in China.

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

The demonstrations underway now are really just the latest surge in a wave of activism that began in Hong Kong earlier this year. Under the “one country, two systems” framework to which China committed when it regained sovereignty over the then–UK colony in 1997, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a great deal of autonomy over local governance. This summer, however, Beijing issued a white paper affirming the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and it blocked plans for open nominations in local elections due in 2017. Those actions spurred (and were spurred by) an unofficial referendum and a mass pro-democracy rally that eventually ebbed from the streets but left behind a strengthened civic movement.

The ongoing demonstrations began with a student boycott of classes a week ago, but they escalated sharply on Friday, when activists began occupying key public spaces in central Hong Kong. Police have made several forceful attempts to disperse or remove the protesters, and official channels have said publicly that Beijing “firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardise ‘social tranquility'” in Hong Kong. So far, however, the occupations have proved resilient to those thrusts and threats.

Many observers are now openly wondering how this confrontation will end. For those sympathetic to the protesters, the fear is that Beijing will respond with lethal force, as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

As it happens, the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessments do not identify China as a country at relatively high risk of state-led mass killing this year. Partly because of that, we do not currently have a question open on our opinion pool that covers this situation. (Our lone China question focuses on the risk of state-led mass atrocities targeting Uyghurs.)

If we did have a relevant question open on our opinion pool, however, I would be raising my estimate of the risk of a state-led mass killing in response to these developments. I still don’t expect that one will occur, but not because I anticipate that Beijing will concede to the protesters’ demands. Rather, I expect violent repression, but I also doubt that it will cross the 1,000-death threshold we and others use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from smaller-scale and more routine atrocities.

State-led mass killings as we define them usually occur when incumbent rulers perceive potentially existential threats to their authority. Following leading theories on the subject, our statistical analysis concentrates on armed insurgencies and coups as the forms those threats typically take. Authoritarian governments often suppress swelling demonstrations with violence as well, but those crackdowns rarely kill as many as 1,000 nonviolent protesters, who usually disperse long before that threshold is reached. Even the Tiananmen Square massacre probably fell short of this threshold, killing “only” hundreds of activists before achieving the regime’s goal of dispersing the occupation and setting an example that would frighten future dissenters.

Instead, violent state crackdowns usually push countries onto one of three other pathways before they produce more than 1,000 fatalities: 1) they succeed at breaking the uprising and essentially restore the status quo ante (e.g., China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005Burma in 2007, and Thailand in 2010); 2) they suppress the nonviolent challenge but, in so doing, help to spawn a violent rebellion that may or may not be met with a mass killing of its own (e.g., Syria since 2011); or 3) they catalyze splits in state security forces or civilian rulers that lead to negotiations, reforms, or regime collapse (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia in 2011). In short, nonviolent uprisings usually lose, transform, or win before the attempts to suppress them amount to what we would call a state-led mass killing.

In Hong Kong right now, the first path—successful repression—appears to be the most likely. Chinese Communist Party leaders have spoken openly in recent years about trying to learn from the mistakes that led to collapse of the Soviet Union, and the mixed signals that were sent to early risers in the USSR—some protests were repressed, but others were allowed to run their course or met with modest concessions—probably rank high on their list of things to avoid. Those Party leaders also know that activists and separatists elsewhere in China are closely watching events in Hong Kong and would probably take encouragement from anything short of a total defeat for Occupy Central. These considerations generate strong incentives to try to quash the current challenge.

In contrast, the second of those three trajectories—a transformation to violent insurgency in response to state repression—seems highly unlikely. Protesters have shown a strong commitment to nonviolence so far and have strategic as well as ideological reasons to continue to do so; after all, the People’s Liberation Army is about as formidable a foe as they come. Brutal state repression might radicalize some survivors and inspire other onlookers, but Hong Kong is a wealthy, urban enclave with minimal access to arms, so a turn toward violent rebellion would face tall structural obstacles.

The third of those trajectories also seems unlikely, albeit somewhat less so than the second. The Communist Party currently faces several profound challenges: a slowing rate of economic growth and widespread concern about a looming financial crisis; an escalating insurgency in Xinjiang; and an epidemic of local protests over pollution, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is creating new fissures within the country’s ruling class, and rumors of dissent within the military have swirled occasionally in the past two years as well. As I discussed in a recent blog post, consolidated single-party regimes like China’s usually weather these kinds of challenges. When they do break down, however, it almost always happens in times like these, when worried insiders start to fight among themselves and form alliances with emboldened popular challengers.

Put those considerations together, and it seems that Beijing is most likely to respond to Occupy Central with a crackdown that could be lethal but probably will not cross the 1,000-death threshold we use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from more routine political violence. It seems less likely but still possible that the prospect or occurrence of such a crackdown will catalyze the kinds of elite splits that could finally produce significant political reform or sustained instability in China. Under none of these circumstances would I expect the challenge in Hong Kong to evolve into an armed rebellion that might produce a new wave of atrocities of its own.

No matter what the immediate outcome, though, it seems increasingly clear that China has entered a period of “thickened history,” as Marc Beissinger calls it, in which national politics will remain more eventful and less certain for some time to come.


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