A More Dangerous World? Think Again

Over the past dozen years, virtually every trend in global security has been positive -- dramatically so.

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Since 9/11 and the global war on terror, the world is a much more dangerous place. Right?

Dead wrong, according to a recent in-depth study, which found that virtually every trend in global security in the past dozen years has been positive, and dramatically so.

The world is today a safer place, according to the Human Security Report, a project funded by five nations and published by Oxford University Press. The study, which is the culmination of three years of research, offers a comprehensive look at the data on political violence from 1988–2005, and reaches some arresting conclusions:

  • Fewer armed conflicts. Armed conflicts declined by more than 40 percent since the early 1990s. During this period, fifteen more armed struggles for self-determination ended than started. Today there are fewer armed secessionist conflicts than at any point since 1976.

  • Less genocide. Notwithstanding the horrors of Rwanda , Bosnia , and Sudan, the number of genocides and “politicides” fell by 80 percent between the high point in 1988 and 2001.

  • Fewer international crises. The number of “international crises” declined by more than 70 percent between 1981 and 2001.

  • Fewer arms deals. International arms transfers, in real dollar values, fell by 33 percent between 1990 and 2003. This accompanied a sharp decline in total military expenditure and troop numbers as well.

  • Fewer refugees. The number of refugees dropped by some 45 percent between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came to an end.

  • The longest peace between major powers. The period from World War II to today is the longest interval of uninterrupted peace between great powers for hundreds of years.

  • The rise of the United Nations after the cold war. The years since the end of the cold war have seen the related emergence of the United Nations as an effective actor in conflict resolution.
  • (See the figures here .)

    It seems the past decade’s global security sea change has gone virtually unnoticed outside of political science departments. The dominant narrative in America—echoed by the media, politicians, and the security establishment—is that we today live in a more dangerous world with endemic conflict, clashing civilizations, and new threats.

    There is, of course, some truth nested within these beliefs, especially with regard to the threat posed by nuclear proliferation and catastrophic terrorism. But they hardly paint a complete picture or explain why the myth of a more dangerous world has become so widespread.

    One possible explanation is that no one hears the good news because no one benefits from telling it. The media, driven by a profit-centric climate and the 24-hour news cycle, has cut airtime for international news and fed us gripping visual snippets of conflicts with no explanation of their causes.

    Our leaders also have few incentives to present a positive picture. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have found the myth of a more dangerous world useful: Conservative politicians were drumming up dangers to justify higher military spending even before September 11, while liberals have warned of neglected dangers to take aim at Bush administration failures in Iraq and North Korea, homeland security, and non-capture of Osama bin Laden.

    Non-governmental organizations also contribute to these distortions: the very advocacy efforts intended to raise money and awareness can contribute to a climate of perpetual crisis that numbs the public to real and remarkable progress.

    A second explanation is that Americans have not appreciated international trends because their national trends have been more negative. September 11 created a sense of vulnerability within a nation that had heretofore been spared an attack on its soil. The war in Iraq has since inundated us with a steady stream of violent and gloomy news, the likes of which we have not seen since Vietnam. Yet even in the face of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror, aren’t we demonstrably more safe than when we faced nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union?

    Assuming we accept the report’s premise that deadly conflict has declined in the past decades, what observations and policy prescriptions do these findings suggest?

  • A vindication for the foreign policy of the 1990s. The foreign policies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—often derided as adrift and without vision—contributed to a period of unprecedented global prosperity, democratic enlargement, nuclear détente, and the resolution of conflicts.

  • Multilateral activism has been key: The Human Security Report notes that the end of the cold war allowed the United Nations, the World Bank, and various ad hoc coalitions to engage in the “post–Cold War activism on the global security front” that “provides the single best explanation for the extraordinary decrease in civil wars around the world since the 1990s”.

  • Peacekeeping works—and no one does peacekeeping better than the United Nations. The weaknesses of United Nations peacekeeping operations in a few intractable conflicts are much publicized, but its many successes (as in Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia) are rarely heralded. The research of James Dobbins, a RAND analyst and former U.S. special envoy, suggests that U.N.-led interventions tend to have greater legitimacy, far lower costs, and a higher rate of success than U.S.-led interventions.

  • Iraq is the exception, not the rule. America’s failures in Iraq have been seized upon by politicians and analysts from both parties to make the case that we need a larger military (and complementary post-conflict capabilities) to prepare for the next crisis. These recommendations only make sense if future conflicts resemble Iraq. If Iraq is a unique case, as the vast majority of Americans now hope it will be, then it makes little sense to reorient our military to fight wars of this type. The United Nations is better equipped for many post-conflict challenges.

  • Nostalgia for the cold war is misguided. During the “small wars” of the 1990s and today’s “struggle against global extremism,” scores of writers and politicians pined for the “stability” and “grand vision” of the cold war. The data suggest they should be careful what they wish for—especially those who seem anxious to re-create an adversarial relationship with China and Russia. The so-called long peace of the cold war had millions of victims, the bulk of them in poor countries.

  • Africa remains the last frontier. Africa largely has been spared by the broad wave of peace and prosperity that has swept the rest of the globe. According to the report, more people are “killed in this region than in the rest of the world combined.” If the last decade’s peace is to continue to expand, the United States and the international community must devote more attention and resources to the forgotten continent.

  • Terrorism has not been central. Terrorism has generated – as terrorists intend – anxiety, preventive expense, and a sense of insecurity out of all proportion to the damage it inflicts: “although the focus of enormous attention, international terrorism has killed fewer than 1,000 people a year, on average, over the past 30 years.” The threat of catastrophic terrorism (with nuclear or biological weapons) must be a top national priority. But this threat is best addressed through specific and tailored responses—not a weapons system spending spree.
  • More time has elapsed from September 11 to today than from Pearl Harbor to Japan’s surrender. We are entering a new phase in our national history, and the decisions we make about the future of American foreign policy will depend on how we remember the recent past. That memory is too important to leave to the dictates of conventional wisdom.