World peace was not supposed to look like this. It was supposed to be more – well, more peaceful. But a remarkable global phenomenon is being obscured by headlines about bombs and conflict in the Middle East. The ancient scourge of war has disappeared, at least in the sense of one government's army doing battle with another.
Last week marked 1,000 consecutive days with no wars between nations anywhere in the world, since the night in November 2003 when India and Pakistan instituted a cease-fire. This is the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century.
Other sorts of conflicts still rage around the world, but these are not wars of government against government. In this summer's bloodletting in Israel and Lebanon, for example, the Lebanese government took no military action to defend its territory, even as some of its bases came under fire. In Iraq, no government in the world has sent troops to support the insurgency. The interstate phase of the war for Iraq ended more than three years ago, when the United States and its allies removed Saddam Hussein's government. Despite the brutality in Darfur and elsewhere, even civil wars have become rarer. After rising steadily for half a century, the number of civil conflicts dropped by a third or more in the late 1990s. The world is far more peaceful than a dozen years ago, when slaughters in Rwanda and the Balkans led to gloomy predictions of rampant civil war.
Despite this outbreak of world peace, we remain fixated on international conflict. For example, the United Nations called for a traditional Olympic truce during the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, despite the fact that no countries were actually fighting one another.
It may seem hard to reconcile the concept of world peace with the bloody campaigns of jihad and the war on terror. Yet according to political scientist John Mueller, a leading scholar of the subject, the political violence that we see today is but the "remnants of war," generally involving small gangs of thugs, mercenaries, and terrorists.
These conflicts are typically far less destructive than conflicts between states. Even in the conflict in Iraq, the casualty rate is still lower than it was during the interstate war that toppled Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003, according to the Iraq Body Count website.
The main threats to the United States, according to the president's National Security Strategy, are no longer the most powerful countries in the world. Instead, they are weak or isolated states such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and nonstate groups such as Al Qaeda. Terrorism remains a global threat, like the Soviet Union during the cold war – but without the missiles, troops, and billion-dollar budgets. The conflicts we face now do not threaten us with the massive, focused destructive power of another state.
Yet our sense of insecurity grows even as the threat level diminishes. Although Ameri- cans are far more likely to die in a traffic accident than a terrorist attack, politicians don't scramble to demonstrate their toughness on auto safety.
Appearing tough on security, by contrast, is all the rage, inflating the atmosphere of threat and twisting our nation's priorities. Republicans support secret detention centers that undermine American values of individual liberty. Democrats object to Arab management of port facilities, engaging in discriminatory racial profiling that they would normally abhor, in the name of national security.
With the decline of interstate warfare, we have multiplied our metaphorical "wars" against drugs, crime, and – above all – terror. These are certainly serious problems, but they do not pose the danger of interstate war.
Paradoxically, world peace may lead us to turn these nonwars into real wars. Without serious threats from other states, the US is more likely to use military power to address other goals – a temptation all the stronger when these are labeled as wars, too.
Militarizing the approach to these problems can lead to conflict with other states, and thus into real wars. The war on drugs has led us to get involved in the civil conflict in Colombia. The war on terror led us to the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, to help start a new civil conflict in Somalia, where we are funding warlords who claim to be fighting affiliates of Al Qaeda.
The remnants of war are nasty and brutish, and the world needs to address collective violence wherever it appears. But let's keep these concerns in perspective. The global trend is a hopeful one, if we can avoid making wars out of problems that are not. Perhaps it is time to take a deep breath and pause to appreciate world peace.
• Charles Kurzman teaches sociology and Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Neil Englehart teaches political science at Bowling Green State University, with a focus on Southeast Asia and human rights challenges in failing states.