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?

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Whither Organized Violence?

The Human Security Research Group has just published the latest in its series of now-annual reports on “trends in organized violence around the world,” and it’s essential reading for anyone deeply interested in armed conflict and other forms of political violence. You can find the PDF here.

The 2013 edition takes Steven Pinker’s Better Angels as its muse and largely concurs with Pinker’s conclusions. I’ll sheepishly admit that I haven’t read Pinker’s book (yet), so I’m not going to engage directly in that debate. Instead, I’ll call attention to what the report’s authors infer from their research about future trends in political violence. Here’s how that bit starts, on p. 18:

The most encouraging data from the modern era come from the post–World War II years. This period includes the dramatic decline in the number and deadliness of international wars since the end of World War II and the reversal of the decades-long increase in civil war numbers that followed the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

What are the chances that these positive changes will be sustained? No one really knows. There are too many future unknowns to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

On that point, political scientist Bear Braumoeller would agree. In an interview last year for Popular Science (here), Kelsey Atherton asked Braumoeller about Braumoeller’s assertion in a recent paper (here) that it will take 150 years to know if the downward trend in warfare that Pinker and others have identified is holding. Braumoeller replied:

Some of this literature points to “the long peace” of post-World War II. Obviously we haven’t stopped fighting wars entirely, so what they’re referring to is the absence of really really big wars like World War I and World War II. Those wars would have to be absent for like 70 to 75 more years for us to have confidence that there’s been a change in the baseline rate of really really big wars.

That’s sort of a separate question from how we know whether there are trends in warfare in general. We need to understand that war and peace are both stochastic processes. We need a big enough sample to rule out the historical average, which is about one or two big wars per century. We just haven’t had enough time since World War I and World War II to rule out the possibility that nothing’s changed.

I suspect that the authors of the Human Security Report would not dispute that claim, but after carefully reviewing Pinker’s and their own evidence, they do see causes for cautious optimism. Here I’ll quote at length, because I think it’s important to see the full array of forces taken into consideration to increase our confidence in the validity of the authors’ cautious speculations.

The case for pessimism about the global security future is well rehearsed and has considerable support within the research community. Major sources of concern include the possibility of outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a massive transnational upsurge of lethal Islamist radicalism, or wars triggered by mass droughts and population movements driven by climate change.

Pinker notes reasons for concern about each of these potential future threats but also skepticism about the more extreme claims of the conflict pessimists. Other possible drivers of global violence include the political crises that could follow the collapse of the international financial system and destabilizing shifts in the global balance of economic and military power—the latter being a major concern of realist scholars worried about the economic and military rise of China.

But focusing exclusively on factors and processes that may increase the risks of large-scale violence around the world, while ignoring those that decrease it, also almost certainly leads to unduly pessimistic conclusions.

In the current era, factors and processes that reduce the risks of violence not only include the enduring impact of the long-term trends identified in Better Angels but also the disappearance of two major drivers of warfare in the post–World War II period—colonialism and the Cold War. Other post–World War II changes that have reduced the risks of war include the entrenchment of the global norm against interstate warfare except in self-defence or with the authority of the UN Security Council; the intensification of economic and financial interdependence that increases the costs and decreases the benefits of cross-border warfare; the spread of stable democracies; and the caution-inducing impact of nuclear weapons on relations between the major powers.

With respect to civil wars, the emergent and still-growing system of global security governance discussed in Chapter 1 has clearly helped reduce the number of intrastate conflicts since the end of the Cold War. And, at what might be called the “structural” level, we have witnessed steady increases in national incomes across the developing world. This is important because one of the strongest findings from econometric research on the causes of war is that the risk of civil wars declines as national incomes—and hence governance and other capacities—increase. Chapter 1 reports on a remarkable recent statistical study by the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) that found that if current trends in key structural variables are sustained, the proportion of the world’s countries afflicted by civil wars will halve by 2050.

Such an outcome is far from certain, of course, and for reasons that have yet to be imagined, as well as those canvassed by the conflict pessimists. But, thanks in substantial part to Steven Pinker’s extraordinary research, there are now compelling reasons for believing that the historical decline in violence is both real and remarkably large—and also that the future may well be less violent than the past.

After reading the new Human Security Report, I remain a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist. As I’ve said in a few recent posts (see especially this one), I think we’re currently in the thick of period of systemic instability that will continue to produce mass protests, state collapse, mass killing, and other forms of political instability at higher rates than we’ve seen since the early 1990s for at least the next year or two.

At the same time, I don’t think this local upswing marks a deeper reversal of the long-term trend that Pinker identifies, and that the Human Security Report confirms. Instead, I believe that the global political economy is continuing to evolve in a direction that makes political violence less common and less lethal. This system creep is evident not only in the aforementioned trends in armed violence, but also in concurrent and presumably interconnected trends in democratization, socio-economic development, and global governance. Until we see significant and sustained reversals in most or all of these trends, I will remain optimistic about the directionality of the underlying processes of which these data can give us only glimpses.

Why More Mass Killings in 2013, and What It Portends for This Year

In a recent post, I noted that 2013 had distinguished itself in a dismal way, by producing more new episodes of mass killing than any other year since the early 1990s. Now let’s talk about why.

Each of these mass killings surely involves some unique and specific local processes, and people who study in depth the societies where mass killings are occurring can say much better than I what those are. As someone who believes local politics is always embedded in a global system, however, I don’t think we can fully understand these situations by considering only those idiosyncratic features, either. Sometimes we see “clusters” where they aren’t, but evidence that we live in a global system leads me to think that isn’t what’s happening here.

To fully understand why a spate of mass killings is happening now, I think it helps to recognize that this cluster is occurring alongside—or, in some cases, in concert with—a spate of state collapses and during a period of unusually high social unrest. Systemic thinking leads me to believe that these processes are interrelated in explicable ways.

Just as there are boom and bust cycles within economies, there seem to be cycles of political (dis)order in the global political economy, too. Economic crunches help spur popular unrest. Economic crunches are often regional or global in nature, and unrest can inspire imitation. These reverberating challenges can shove open doors to institutional change, but they also tend to inspire harsh responses from incumbents intent on preserving the status quo ante. The ensuing clashes present exactly the conditions that are ripest for mass killing. Foreign governments react to these clashes in various ways, sometimes to try to quell the conflict and sometimes to back a favored side. These reactions often beget further reactions, however, and efforts to manufacture a resolution can end up catalyzing wider disorder instead.

In hindsight, I don’t think it’s an accident that the last phase of comparable disorder—the early 1990s—produced two iconic yet seemingly contradictory pieces of writing on political order: Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” A similar dynamic seems to be happening now. Periods of heightened disorder bring heightened uncertainty, with many possibilities both good and bad. All good things do not necessarily arrive together, and the disruptions that are producing some encouraging changes in political institutions at the national and global levels also open the door to horrifying violence.

Of course, in political terms, calendar years are an entirely arbitrary delineation of time. The mass killings I called out in that earlier post weren’t all new in 2013, and the processes generating them don’t reset with the arrival of a new year. In light of the intensification and spread of the now-regional war in Syria; escalating civil wars in Pakistan, Iraq, and AfghanistanChina’s increasingly precarious condition; and the persistence of economic malaise in Europe, among other things, I think there’s a good chance that we still haven’t reached the peak of the current phase of global disorder. And, on mass killing in particular, I suspect that the persistence of this phase will probably continue to produce new episodes at a faster rate than we saw in the previous 20 years.

That’s the bad news. The slightly better news is that, while we (humanity) still aren’t nearly as effective at preventing mass killings as we’d like to be, there are signs that we’re getting better at it. In a recent post on United to End Genocide’s blog, Daniel Sullivan noted “five successes in genocide prevention in 2013,” and I think his list is a good one. Political scientist Bear Braumoeller encourages us to think of the structure of the international system as distributions of features deemed important by the major actors in it. Refracting Sullivan’s post through that lens, we can see how changes in the global distribution of political regime types, of formal and informal interdependencies among states, of ideas about atrocities prevention, and of organizations devoted to advocating for that cause seem to be enabling changes in responses to these episodes that are helping to stop or slow some of them sooner, making them somewhat less deadly on the whole.

The Central African Republic is a telling example. Attacks and clashes there have probably killed thousands over the past year, and even with deeper foreign intervention, the fighting hasn’t yet stopped. Still, in light of the reports we were receiving from people on the scene in early December (see here and here, for example), it’s easy to imagine this situation having spiraled much further downward already, had French forces and additional international assistance not arrived when they did. A similar process may be occurring now in South Sudan. Both cases already involve terrible violence on a large scale, but we should also acknowledge that both could have become much worse—and very likely will, if the braking efforts underway are not sustained or even intensified.

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