Why, despite the headlines, the world is a safer place

The most destructive category of warfare – namely, war between two big rich countries – hasn’t had a new entrant since the Korean War came to an end in 1953.

Reuters/Stringer
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez (l.) shakes hands with Colombian lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle during a meeting as part to the peace talk in Havana February 27.

Despite the headlines today – the cruelty of the Islamic State in its quest for territory and followers, for example, and the brutal oppression of Syrians by leader Bashar al-Assad – violence has actually decreased considerably over history. 

Even more surprising to some, given what seems to be ubiquitous bad news: The hefty drop is largely a trend of the past 70 or so years. It is one that psychologist Steven Pinker describes in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”

This week, Dr. Pinker traveled from his office at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., to a symposium of the future of war, sponsored by the New America Foundation in Washington.

“Since 1945, if you count the number of wars and people in wars,” he told the audience assembled there Wednesday, “it’s very different from the headlines you get from the news.”

That is, of course, because the big news organizations are far more likely to report on what is happening than what is not happening. They rarely send Diane Sawyer halfway around the world to broadcast live from, say, a non-war zone.

“So if you concentrate on headlines, you think nothing has changed,” Pinker said.

The most destructive category of warfare – namely, war between two big rich countries – hasn’t had a new entrant since the Korean War came to an end in 1953.

What’s more, there have been no wars between the countries that are among the top 40 for gross domestic product (GDP) since 1945.

This has meant no more wars claiming upwards of 37 million lives, as World War I did, or the 60 million people – which was more than 3 percent of the world’s population at the time – from World War II. 

Throughout the world, the number of war deaths per capita has also declined considerably, from 300 per 100,000 people during World War II to 30 per 100,000 during the Korean War era to the teens in the Vietnam era of the 1960s.

Those numbers have continued to plummet – down into the single digits in the 1970s and ’80s, to 1 per 100,000 in the ’90s, to less than 1 in the 21st century.

The Syrian war – along with other violence that erupted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – has indeed caused a “small uptick” in violence worldwide, namely from 2/10ths to 8/10ths per 100,000. Although this is a quadrupling of figures, it is still among the lowest rates of violent death in modern history. 

“So that wiped out about a dozen years of progress – taking us back to about 2003 – but nowhere near the level of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s,” Pinker said.

So what, precisely, has gone right? There are a few key factors. For starters, “All ancient empires practiced ritual human sacrifice,” Pinker said. “We’ve managed to get rid of that.”

What’s more, there’s a growing consensus among Western military officials, including those at the Pentagon, about the overall conduct of war. 

Specifically, that “the purpose of the military is to prevent wars,” Pinker said. In other words, a primary objective of US military commanders includes preventing both provocation and miscalculation.

“There’s increasing agreement that war isn’t just a normal state of affairs,” he added. “It’s an abnormal state to be avoided.”

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