Friday, May 27, 2005

War with or without end

Gregg Easterbrook has a provocative piece in The New Republic speculating that war, already on the decline worldwide, may be headed for the dustbin of history:

The University of Maryland studies find the number of wars and armed conflicts worldwide peaked in 1991 at 51, which may represent the most wars happening simultaneously at any point in history. Since 1991, the number has fallen steadily. There were 26 armed conflicts in 2000 and 25 in 2002, even after the Al Qaeda attack on the United States and the U.S. counterattack against Afghanistan. By 2004, Marshall and Gurr's latest study shows, the number of armed conflicts in the world had declined to 20, even after the invasion of Iraq. All told, there were less than half as many wars in 2004 as there were in 1991.

Marshall and Gurr also have a second ranking, gauging the magnitude of fighting. This section of the report is more subjective. Everyone agrees that the worst moment for human conflict was World War II; but how to rank, say, the current separatist fighting in Indonesia versus, say, the Algerian war of independence is more speculative. Nevertheless, the Peace and Conflict studies name 1991 as the peak post-World War II year for totality of global fighting, giving that year a ranking of 179 on a scale that rates the extent and destructiveness of combat. By 2000, in spite of war in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda, the number had fallen to 97; by 2002 to 81; and, at the end of 2004, it stood at 65. This suggests the extent and intensity of global combat is now less than half what it was 15 years ago.

Daniel Drezner notes that in Easterbrook's laundry list of reasons for this – including the march toward global enlightenment – he leaves out the role of the world’s one superpower. True enough.

A bigger flaw with the essay’s argument is that it employs the futurist’s fallacy: That the future will be like the present, only more so. Leaving aside the warnings and apprehensions of visionaries such as Kafka or Marx (and who are their counterparts today?) who was predicting the elaborate horrors of the 20th century in 1905? The stew of globalization, digitization, media interconnectedness, competition for resources, nukes, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and China could keep on bubbling at a relatively low level – or it could explode in unexpected ways, especially if global politics is chaotic in the sense that butterfly wings flapping lead to hurricanes. By 20th century standards, for example, 9/11 was a relatively small-scale event. But look at the effects it’s still having on American politics and the projection of U.S. 0f force around the world.