Friday, September 22, 2006

The path to the apocalypse

The world is beset by increasing violence. The death toll mounts as international conflicts, civil wars and terrorism have all increased. In the terms of the debate as it is routinely conducted in the MSM and the blogosphere, there are essentially two main strands of thought.

One has it that the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought with it failed states and a rise in reactionary political movements based around nationalism and/or religion while the successor institution to the League of Nations stands impotent in the face of an unprecedented global threat.

The other that the end of the Cold War has left the United States as the sole rapacious superpower, who is now at liberty to impose its will on weak states left vulnerable by the dissolution of the Warsaw nuclear umbrella. This at least ensured a 'multipolar' world, which as every Guardian-reader knows - is at least preferable to this 'unipolar' world of American domination and 'war without end'.

Regular readers will know I'm more likely to lean towards the former rather than the latter analysis but for at least some of the representatives of both camps, there's a rather inconvenient fact. Because according to the Human Security Report (pdf file), the world has become significantly less violent since 1946 and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact it argues that the reduction in conflict - drawing from as far back as 1812 - is 'unprecedented'.

So what are the causes of peace? There's a wealth of information, which you can find from the index here. I'll restrict myself to a few observations:

1) The major sources of conflict postwar appeared to be rooted in anti-colonial struggles and the hot and cold war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It seems the latter has had the most significant impact, with civil wars declining significantly since 1989. Much as people might wish it to be otherwise, and regardless of who people would like to blame for all the bloodshed of the latter-half of the twentieth century, it seems that if one accepts imperialism as the cause of both international and intra-state conflict - the data would then seem to suggest that imperialism ain't what it used to be.

2) Terrorism has indeed increased - particularly since around 1982 - but here too there are inconvenient facts for both sides. The first is, whilst Western policy makers may talk up the threat posed by international terrorism - it is domestic terrorism that is unquestionably more deadly - and this to the civilians in these countries, not to Western capitalists or even the armed and security forces of the countries in question. Being partisan, I'm bound to say I think those currently supporting the various 'resistance' movements throughout the world ought to take this on board - but so should those who 'sell', if I can use this term, the War on Terror on the basis of the threat it poses to us or our 'way of life'. It doesn't diminish the atrocities experienced on Western soil to point out that the actual loss of empirical life has been far greater in those Muslim countries that routinely experience domestic Islamist terrorism.

3) A related point is that the growth of terrorism is not inconsistent with a general decline in violence throughout the world simply because more 'conventional' forms of conflict as found in civil and international wars simply produce more casualties. Again I can't resist reading from this conformation of my own partiality and preferences: those currently justifying more stringent restrictions on our liberty in this country than those that were ever in place during times of greater international conflict are doing so on the basis of anticipation. There are plausible arguments that can be made for this but at the very least one might hope the advocates of ever-more draconian security measures could at least acknowledge that this is so, rather than assuming they are self-evidently desirable responses to a historical pattern of terrorism.

4) Civil war and terrorism decrease in countries where wealth and democracy have increased. There are obviously a number of reasons why this should be so but wealth allows the state to effectively oppose internal terrorism and rebel movements whilst wealth and democracy equips it with the means to address grievances. Poverty and tyranny have the opposite effect. The decline in violence since the collapse of the Cold War would seem then to have something to with rising prosperity and the advance of democracy. This causes obvious problems for various people on all sorts of different levels.

5) Those, including myself, who are sceptical of the role of the UN may have to reconsider our view because the general decline in world violence has coincided with an increase in the number of peacekeeping missions throughout the world. A correlation isn't causation but it seems unlikely that it is completely irrelevant.

Partial though my reading of this obviously is, I found in this report reasons to be optimistic. Yet the fact that the question posed by the report - what are the causes of peace? - is so seldom asked reflects on the way most of us apparently view the world and this may be indicative of something less positive. Those harking back to the certainties of the Cold War in a variety of different ways are nostalgic for an age that was in reality more violent. And is it not a melancholy thought that there are not a few who would be disappointed by this realisation?

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