Bending the curve toward peace

From Southeast Asia to Latin America, past conflicts -- conflicts that once consumed the world's attention -- have been overcome. Today's will be as well.


Over 30 years of war, 1.3 million lives were lost in Vietnam. For large parts of the 1960s and ’70s, the complex math involved in winning or settling the Vietnam conflict seemed unsolvable. The same seemed to be the case in Central America in the 1980s, where local disputes got swept up in cold-war competition. By the 1990s, superpowers and ideology had given way to ethnic animus in the Balkans and Rwanda. But those conflicts seemed no less intractable. 

Today, Vietnam, while still under one-party rule, is a friendly trading partner and tourist destination. Latin America is mostly at peace. Rwanda, if not exactly democratic, is the economic success story of East Africa. The Balkans are mostly calm and until recently were giving care and comfort to the migrants flooding into Europe. Another update from the past: Colombia – once ripped apart by drug cartels, rebel movements, and paramilitaries – has rebuilt itself as a Latin American success story, as Howard LaFranchi explains a Monitor cover story (click here).

The point is that many of yesterday’s conflicts – so difficult when living through them, so vexing when thinking about how to solve them – have been overcome. Today’s? A small group claiming to speak for more than a billion Muslims is using terror to oppress parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Unlike the recent conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Balkans, virtually the entire world is united against these jihadists – Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans, Russians, Chinese. This war will be won sooner or later. 

Monitor readers know that we strongly support humanity’s progress away from the delusion that disputes over ideas or territory, history or past injustices can be settled with brute force. A bully may dominate for a time, may intimidate and suppress. Taking a firm stand against injustice and prejudice and fielding a strong defense for freedom is always right and effective. But lasting peace requires an outcome in which all sides feel they have won. Any conflict seemingly settled by force is only deferred.

So how conflict-ridden is today’s world? That’s a matter of debate. I’m partial to the work of Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, author of the excellent book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” who sees a long-term historical decline in all levels of violence. But there’s a strong critique of his work by statisticians Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Taleb, whose “Black Swan” thesis warned of the 2008 financial crash. The critique is that the perception of a recent decline in violence might be the result of looking at the short-term peace that follows devastating wars – World Wars I and II – and not at the centuries’ long trend. A future war could wreck not just the statistical curve but the lives of tens of millions of humans.

Statistics, however, are not determinative. Recent history and ancient history tell different stories. The future is up to us. As we support justice, tolerance, and equality, we quietly bend the curve of history, and the future aligns with the deep, powerful, eternal peace that surpasses understanding.

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