When Russian troops attacked Georgia this month, rolling tanks into Tskhinvali and bombing Gori, it was not just a tragedy for the Caucasus. It also marked the demise of more than four years of no war between nations, the longest period in modern history.
With the news so full of violence, you may not have noticed that the world was at peace. But ever since India and Pakistan signed a cease-fire in November 2003, there have been no wars between governments. That's 1,716 straight days of world peace. Russia's invasion ended the streak on Aug. 8.
The previous record had been just over 600 days, from the end of the second Taiwan Straits crisis in 1958 to border skirmishes between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1960. Since then, there had been as many as nine interstate conflicts at a time, according to the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, which counts conflicts with 25 or more battle-related deaths. But none of these involved national armies fighting one another.
The war over South Ossetia reminds us of the awesome destructive power of modern states – hundreds of people reportedly killed in a single day, soldiers fighting their way through cities and countryside devastating communities in their path, jets dropping bombs on apartment buildings. Since World War II, interstate wars have averaged four times more fatalities than other civil conflicts.
The residents of South Ossetia suffered the most in the recent conflict, having endured two incursions in the same week. First, Georgian troops attacked to reassert control over a region that declared its independence in the early 1990s. Then Russian troops invaded to oust the Georgians.
During the past four years of interstate peace, there have been plenty of one-government conflicts: the Sudanese government massacring rebels and civilians in Darfur, the Iraqi government and its allies clashing with insurgents and militias, the Afghan government and its allies fighting the Taliban, the Congolese government and its United Nations allies taking on warlords in its eastern provinces, and Israel battling Hamas and Hezbollah, among others.
These conflicts have been bloody and tragic, but they would have been even more so if they had escalated into full-fledged interstate war. Sudan, for example, supports rebels in neighboring Chad, and Chad supports Darfur rebels in Sudan. Open war between the two countries, however, would spread devastation throughout the region, consuming the eastern regions of Chad and the northern regions of the Central African Republic as well.
Similarly, Israel's assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and Hezbollah's ongoing rocket attacks on Israel, killed more than a thousand civilians. Dozens of Lebanese soldiers died from Israeli bombardment in 2006, but Lebanon's military refrained from engaging in combat. Casualties would have been many times higher if the Lebanese government had declared war on Israel.
Just last month, Indian and Pakistani soldiers skirmished on the border in Kashmir, leaving several soldiers dead. Commanders from both sides met with one another the next day to ensure that the incident would not escalate into war between these two nuclear states.
As technology has increased military ferocity, as global commerce has interlinked economies, as systems of international sanctions have developed, and as war has become increasingly unacceptable to the international community, governments face strong incentives to choose mediation over warfare.
The result has been a decline in interstate warfare in recent decades. The number of active civil wars and insurgencies has tapered off, too, from as many as 50 in the early 1990s to as few as 20 in recent years. Even the number of terrorist attacks on civilians is lower today than two decades ago.
The world is still a brutal place. Half a million people die each year from violent conflicts, according to the World Health Organization, about as many as die from nutritional deficiencies. This is roughly 1 percent of the annual total of more than 50 million deaths around the world. But for all the attention paid to war, it is becoming rarer. The eruption of war over South Ossetia was surprising, despite hostile words and sporadic skirmishes in the past 15 years, in part because we have come to expect peace.
An international consensus has developed that war is an unacceptable way of resolving disputes between nations. Russia's intervention in Georgia further damaged a norm already battered by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It will take leadership, restraint, and serious multi-lateral effort to enforce and reinforce this global consensus against international conflict, with the concentrated destruction that such wars entail.
If the cease-fire between Russia and Georgia holds, a new period of world peace can begin. As of this moment, no other governments are fighting one another. Let's hope that interstate peace survives for a new world record, starting right away.