Monthly Archives: December 2011

Peace on Earth: More than a Wish

“Could war — like slavery, cannibalism, and crucifixion — become extinct?” That’s the subject of my Christmas Op Ed column syndicated by the Fredericksburg, VA Free Lance-Star:

Globe Ornament“Peace on Earth.” It is each year’s Christmas wish and indeed the great wish of the world’s religions across history.

Of course, any realist or cynic can tell you that this wish is an empty hope that will never come true. And oddly, the idealists who march in the streets for peace seem to agree–the world is awash in war, from atrocities in remote provinces of the Congo to drone attacks in Yemen to suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Whether you blame the military-industrial complex, the clash of civilizations, competition for natural resources, or human nature itself, peace on Earth seems further away than ever.

Except, actually, it isn’t. While TV images will always show us the most horrible parts of the human experience, the big picture has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. Peace on Earth as a complete cessation of violence may never arrive, but the distance between the dream and the reality has been shrinking for decades. Worldwide, wars today are fewer, smaller, and more localized than at any time in living memory.

Start with the bloodiest form of violence in history–wars between the world’s regular national armies, head-to-head with their tanks, artillery, airplanes, missiles, and currently 20 million soldiers worldwide. For centuries, these armies fought regularly, several times a year on average, and the worst of these wars killed millions at a time.

Today, nowhere in the world are these armies fighting each other–a historic development that has received almost no notice. It’s as though we had all grown wings but were walking around complaining about the extra weight. Countries are still armed to the teeth and still have conflicts, but they don’t go to war to solve them, mostly because it’s insanely expensive and doesn’t work very well. Exhibit A is the recently ended U.S. war in Iraq.

In Europe, where major interstate wars followed one after another for centuries, a continent has become a Union where (despite monetary troubles) fighting is unthinkable. China, wracked by wars and revolutions throughout history, has not fought a battle in 25 years. Its leadership derives legitimacy from trade-based prosperity, and follows a “peaceful rise” strategy in the world system. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry no longer exists, and the world’s arsenals of nuclear weapons have shrunk by three-quarters in the past 30 years, with no hoopla.

But has the violence of interstate wars merely been displaced onto civil wars that are more widespread and brutal than ever? The answer is “no.” Civil wars have also abated of late. Careful counts of battle deaths worldwide in the 21st century reveal levels half those of the 1990s and a third the Cold War average. (These numbers do not include indirect war deaths, as from epidemics and starvation, but those deaths generally move in parallel with direct deaths from violence.)

Whole regions consumed by war a couple of decades ago–Central America, West Africa, the Balkans–are now at peace. East Asia, where the most lethal conflicts of the Cold War years occurred in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, enjoys a stable peace. Today’s skirmishes in Burma, guerrilla raids in the Philippines, and bombings in Indonesia are insignificant compared with Asia’s violent past.

Brutality toward civilians is also diminishing. Yes, atrocities do still occur, but today they provoke outrage, whereas in the past they were considered a normal part of war if the world even heard about them. During World War II, the Allies firebombed dozens of German and Japanese cities, each time burning to death tens of thousands of civilians in a night. The other side did far worse.

And what about the statistic showing that 90 percent of war deaths supposedly are now civilian, whereas a century ago 90 percent were military? It resulted from a clerical error in a 1994 U.N. report, which mixed up deaths (a century ago) with the much larger number of killed, wounded, and refugees (recently). A better estimate is 50-50, and not changing through time.

Another longstanding peace dream is coming true–an effective international community. Two centuries ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had the vision of a world federation of states to keep the peace without imposing a world government. Almost 100 years ago the world gave it a try in the League of Nations, but it failed miserably.

Then after World War II we tried again with the United Nations. During the Cold War, its Security Council was deadlocked. When the Cold War ended, it ventured into peacekeeping but ran into a buzz saw of troubles in places like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. In the 21st century, however, after a period of regrouping and learning lessons, peacekeeping has become far more effective. As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the world’s largest deployed army will be the U.N.’s 100,000 peacekeepers. And peacekeeping is cheap–it costs $2 per U.S. household per month compared with $700 for our military forces and veterans’ benefits.

Peacekeeping missions stabilize cease-fires in societies trying to emerge from war by assuring armed groups that their disarmament will not result in being massacred by their enemies. As recently as the 1990s, half of all cease-fires broke down and war resumed, but in the 21st century fewer than 15 percent did so. In Sierra Leone, after an especially brutal war, a 1996 peace agreement failed when an under-funded U.N. force did not arrive quickly enough.

When the U.N. showed up in force several years later to support a new agreement, with British military backing, the peace lasted. In 2005, the peacekeepers left, their mission accomplished. The key to the U.N.’s success in Sierra Leone was giving the effort adequate personnel, funding, and outside military support. We could spread the blessings of peace elsewhere by following this model and beefing up our support of U.N. peacekeeping.

Much as I hate to infringe on holiday gloom with a ray of sunshine, hard evidence shows that the media drumbeat of war and violence does not represent the direction of history. To be sure, one war anywhere is one too many. Our work is not done. But to greet progress toward peace on earth with “Bah, humbug!” is to deny humanity’s ability to grow. Generation by generation, people have left behind cannibalism, human sacrifice, legal slavery, and public spectacles of sadistic torture and execution such as crucifixion–all of which were once widespread around the world. War could be next.

If we open our eyes to the new realities and stop living in the past, we can give our children the greatest gift of all, a more peaceful world.

Joshua S. Goldstein is professor emeritus of international relations at American University and author of “Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.”


Thailand-Cambodia Border Cools Off

Soldier near border - photoUsually I, like other bloggers and journalists, focus on the world’s “hot spots” where conflicts are raging or getting worse. But this unbalanced view of the world ignores the places where conflicts are coming under control or getting less violent.  Today I want to consider one such place.

There is a small disputed parcel of land along the Thai-Cambodian border that has seen fighting in recent years between the Thai and Cambodian armies. This is very unusual in the world, because regular national armies are not fighting each other anywhere on the scale of all-out war. (The last such was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and a mini-war lasted 5 days in 2008 between Russia and Georgia.) Little clashes that do occur between these armies, such as last year’s shelling of a South Korean community by North Korea, tend to de-escalate rather than ramp up to war.

In the past, a border dispute such as that between Thailand and Cambodia could have easily led to an all-out war — and indeed extensive changes in borders as a result. But today the international community has developed a fairly strong taboo on changing borders by force. The very small-scale disputed territories around the world, many of them now being tiny islands, are not worth an all-out war, and the international community has invented better ways to resolve such conflicts. In the Thailand-Cambodia case, the World Court was central to the resolution.

By way of background, the territory is next to an ancient temple once claimed by both countries but easily accessible only on the Thai side (cliffs face the Cambodian side). In 1962 the World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia, a decision grudgingly accepted by Thailand. However, in 2008 Cambodia got UNESCO to declare the temple a World Heritage Site, and tensions flared over the surrounding area, less than two square miles, where the border has never been agreed.

In October 2008 and April 2009 the two armies exchanged fire, with several soldiers killed. I remember noticing at the time that Cambodia’s response was not, “we will fight to the last drop of blood for our honor and territorial integrity.” It was “we’re taking you to the UN Security Council.”

This past February, more clashes killed 8 people and forced tens of thousands from their homes. The fighting spread to a couple of other disputed territories before dying down. The UN Security Council asked ASEAN to manage the conflict, and ASEAN turned to Indonesia to provide cease-fire monitors. But in April, 17 more people were killed in renewed fighting. Leaders of ASEAN at their summit earlier this month expressed concern about the border dispute and the possibility of war.

In May, Cambodia went back to the World Court to demand that Thailand remove its troops from the disputed land around the temple. Instead, in July the Court issued an unusual ruling telling both sides to withdraw forces from the area and set up a demilitarized zone. It was unusual because the Court did not just rule on the ownership of territory — which it has done with great success in a number of cases around the world — but laid out a plan for troop movements and conflict de-escalation. How is that going to work? The World Court ordering national armies to redeploy to new positions in conflict zones? (The World Court and what army?)

Well, this week Thailand’s defense minister traveled to Cambodia for the 8th meeting of the General Border Committee, and the two sides agreed to implement the Court’s ruling, with the help of Indonesian supervision. The conflict is de-escalating.

The international community has succeeded in preventing war in this case. Norms and taboos about borders limited the dispute to small territories. Key  roles were played by the UN Security Council, ASEAN, and especially the World Court. Another big factor in the successful outcome is the fact that both Thailand and Cambodia are developing economies where leaders get their legitimacy from delivering prosperity through trade and engagement with the global economy. War does not fit into that picture.

If the Thailand-Cambodia border dispute had escalated to all-out fighting between the two national armies, it would have been front-page news. Instead, because the international community succeeded in preventing that war, the conflict is hardly “news” at all. That is why so many people think that war is increasing when in fact the opposite is true. So let’s take a day and notice a “dog that didn’t bark” — the war that might have happened in an earlier age, but didn’t today.

Is War on the Way Out?

Iran-Iraq War 1980s photoYesterday the last U.S. troops left Iraq, ending a painful 9-year deployment. In yesterday’s New York Times, my Op Ed coauthored with Steven Pinker puts the event in long-term perspective. Major head-on clashes of national armies have become rare, with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq the most recent case and, conceivably, the last. Smaller forms of war such as civil wars are also on the decline in recent years.

Contrary to popular opinion, data on war deaths show a dramatic decline in recent years and decades, notwithstanding America’s decade of war now drawing to a close:

The biggest continuing war, in Afghanistan, last year killed about 500 Americans, 100 other coalition troops and 5,000 Afghans including civilians. That toll, while deplorable, is a fraction of those in past wars like Vietnam, which killed 5,000 Americans and nearly 150,000 Vietnamese per year. Over all, the annual rate of battle deaths worldwide has fallen from almost 300 per 100,000 of world population during World War II, to almost 30 during Korea, to the low teens during Vietnam, to single digits in the late 1970s and 1980s, to fewer than 1 in the 21st century.

We suggest three reasons for the decline in armed conflict:

The futility of conquest is part of the emergence of an international community regulated by norms and taboos and wielding more effective tools for managing conflicts. Among those tools, the United Nations’ 100,000 deployed peacekeepers have measurably improved the success of peace agreements in civil wars.

War also declines as prosperity and trade rise. Historically, wealth came from land and conquest was profitable. Today, wealth comes from trade, and war only hurts. When leaders’ power depends on delivering economic growth, and when a country’s government becomes richer and stronger than its warlords, war loses its appeal.

Perhaps the deepest cause of the waning of war is a growing repugnance toward institutionalized violence. Brutal customs that were commonplace for millennia have been largely abolished: cannibalism, human sacrifice, heretic-burning, chattel slavery, punitive mutilation, sadistic executions. Could war really be going the way of slave auctions?

International relations scholars generally (though not uniformly) support the claim that armed conflicts are declining in size and scope. In a widely printed AP story two months ago, leading realist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is quoted as saying,”The facts are not in dispute here; the question is what is going on.” (Whereas I give the UN a lot of credit, he thinks a dominant U.S. military has been acting as a pacifying force in world politics.)

But the general public does not buy the “facts” at all and, judging by the comments we received on the NY Times website, finds the concept of a more peaceful world ridiculous. Just look around at all the horrible armed conflicts going on!  Our point is that looking just at the horrible armed conflicts does not tell you whether they are spreading or shrinking. You have to look at the big picture, both the wars and the non-wars around the whole world. Then you see the world is moving in the right direction. It might reverse in the future, but the present trend is that war is on the way out.

What do you think? Could war continue to decrease, or is the present lull doomed inevitably to end in a new explosion of violence?

Iraq — The End of a “Dumb” War

Flag ceremony in Baghdad 12/15/11Today the United States officially declared the end of the war in Iraq, after nine years, 4,487 U.S. deaths, 32,336 U.S. wounded, about a million U.S. military personnel deployed (many on multiple tours, many still coping with the psychological aftermath), and something like a trillion dollars of U.S. spending. Actually 4,000 U.S. military personnel are still left, to turn out the lights on their way out by the end of the month, but I’m not going to quibble.

Looking back, the decision to invade Iraq stands as a monumental foreign policy mistake, arguably the worst in American history. Sadly, we will never know if it could have been only half as bad, or — who knows? — even a success, had it been implemented competently. The Army chief of staff in 2003, General Eric Shinseki, told Congress just before the invasion that something like several hundred thousand troops would be needed to keep order in Iraq. The decision to ignore and marginalize him allowed a “successful” regime change to morph into anarchy, then insurgency, and ultimately sectarian warfare between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites. By the time the “surge” of U.S. forces stabilized the situation in 2007, the damage was done.

Iraqis paid a much higher price than Americans, of course. The most conservative, documented deaths total more than 50,000, or by a more inclusive count more than 100,000, with credible estimates reaching somewhat higher still (and somewhat less credibly, much higher). The United States leaves a country that has gained a measure of democracy and freedom after decades of dictatorship, but one significantly traumatized by the recent years of war, where the electricity still does not work as well as a decade ago. Today Iraq still has armed conflicts to sort out, as Linda Robinson blogs today. Then again, as Fareed Zakaria notes, Iraq does have very significant oil resources to draw on as a source of income.

Before the war started, in 2002, the young senator Barack Obama called it a “dumb war” and made these predictions:  “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East … and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.” That guy was smart.

Looking forward, I’m very hopeful. First, America is not likely to repeat the mistake of invading a big country unnecessarily. Second, the rest of the world has gotten more peaceful over the past decade even as America has spent the decade at war (the subject of my new book). Third, unnoticed in the commotion of this decade’s wars, America has reduced its military footprint in several world regions, pulling out tens of thousands of troops permanently based in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America. The war in Iraq was not a harbinger of a new century doomed to ever-increasing war and violence. It was an anomaly, a throwback to the 20th century, and possibly the last major war of its kind — two regular national armies clashing head-on over control of a country. I elaborate these thoughts in an Op Ed coauthored with Steven Pinker that will appear in the Sunday Review section of this Sunday’s New York Times.

So let’s wrap up Iraq, draw lessons, celebrate homecomings, and look forward to a future foreign policy process that does not make so many dumb mistakes. Welcome home, troops — this time you’re not going back.

Is Syria at War?

Assad interview photoViolence continues to escalate in Syria. The opposition Free Syria Army, consisting of defectors from the army, has engaged in several lethal clashes with government forces recently. Until now I have not included Syria on my list of wars in progress, but I am edging closer to adding it.

To be considered a war, an armed conflict must pit two armed groups against each other, contesting territory or control of government, with the repeated use of lethal force. Peace researchers who count wars do not include “one-sided violence” and most of Syria’s lethal violence this year has been just that. Now, with the emergence of the Free Syria Army, Syria is moving toward a civil war. Yemen had a somewhat similar profile (unarmed protesters plus armed tribesmen and a defecting portion of the army), but Yemen was already on the war list because of two other longstanding armed conflicts there.

In the Syrian case, I have been waiting to see if this move toward civil war is sustained. Right now the actual lethal armed clashes between two fighting forces are at a very low level and sporadic. Today’s armed clashes involving the Free Syria Army reportedly killed between 8 and 18 people. And this week ugly sectarian killings in the city of Homs, heart of the opposition, took dozens of lives. Government violence against unarmed protesters continues as well, with protesters today holding a general strike and the government using force against them. The UN estimates that 4,000 people have died in the 9-month-long Syrian uprising, the vast majority clearly being unarmed demonstrators killed by government security forces.

The Syrian unrest is beginning to destabilize the neighborhood. On Friday a bomb in southern Lebanon wounded five French peacekeepers, and the French foreign minister has now accused Syria of being behind the attack. The Lebanese armed group, and leading political party, Hezbollah, has reaffirmed its strong support for its longtime patron, Syrian president Assad. In Jordan this weekend, anti-Assad demonstrators stormed the Syrian embassy and injured two diplomats. Meanwhile Syria’s strongest regional ally, Iran, is going through a turbulent period with new international sanctions against its nuclear weapons program. Syria’s vice president thanked Iran today for its steadfast support of the Assad regime.

If Syria keeps moving in the current direction, there is much to worry about and I will be adding the country to my list of wars in progress. I do not want to do so before it is really clear that Syria is in a civil war. The UN’s top human rights official said just that earlier this month. But at the moment Syria is just hovering at the brink of a real civil war and I do not want to assume the worst.

The question may be decided in the next few days though. On Saturday the government gave an ultimatum to the opposition in its stronghold of Homs — stop holding demonstrations, turn in weapons, and hand over defecting members of Syria’s army. Obviously those things are not going to happen. The “or else” is a bombardment of the city by government forces. When Assad’s father faced a serious armed uprising by Islamist militants in the city of Hama in 1982, he flattened it with artillery, killing tens of thousands of people.

The bizarre topping on the week’s Syria news was an interview that Assad gave with ABC News’s Barbara Walters — his first with an American journalist since the protests began nine months ago. Denying everything, Assad said he did not give orders for a crackdown and that most of the people killed were his government’s forces. His response to the UN’s estimate of 4,000 deaths was “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?” At times he seemed out of touch with reality — realities like the Arab League has taken unprecedented steps to sanction him; his former ally Turkey has turned against him; the European Union and United States oppose him; and Syrians continue to march in the streets against him after nine months of violent repression including murder, torture, and imprisonment.

Assad declared, “We don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.” I’m not saying Assad is crazy, but without a doubt he’s killing his own people. And now they’re starting to shoot back. This is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

The Iran Drone Mystery

Drone pictureThe U.S. stealth drone that crashed in Iran last weekend continues to generate mystery and speculation. This much seems clear. The drone was an unarmed RQ-170 “Sentinel” drone with a bat-wing stealth design that evades radar. The CIA has been flying it out of a base in western Afghanistan on high-altitude missions deep into Iran to help keep tabs on the nuclear program there. It crashed 140 miles inside Iran, and it’s not known whether it survived the crash intact or not (Iran has not shown photos yet).

The Iranians claimed to have shot it down, or even to have hacked into its control systems to take it over. The Americans say nonsense, it just crashed. The Sentinel is supposed to return to base on its own if contact is lost, but does not have a self-destruct mechanism in the event it falls into enemy hands.  This is the first time, by the way, that a U.S. drone has fallen into enemy hands. We can be pretty sure the Russians and Chinese  are showing up to have a look and spend some of the political capital they’ve earned by keeping the international community from imposing biting sanctions on Iran in recent years. Nobody seems to know, however, how much useful information may be gained by any of these interested parties.

Why the USA wants to keep an eye on Iran is obvious.  Why with drones rather than satellites was explained with the help of my favorite aerospace analyst John Pike:

While an orbiting surveillance satellite can observe a location for only a few minutes at a time, a drone can loiter for hours, sending a video feed as people move about the site. Such a “pattern of life,” as it is called, can give crucial clues to the nature of the work being done, the equipment used and the size of the work force.

“It’s basically like staking out a Mafia social club,” said John Pike, who tracks military technology at the Web site “If I’m just looking at brick-and-mortar targets, satellite’s fine. But if I want to see what people are doing all day, the drone is a whole lot better.”

The same type of drone was reportedly used multiple times to gather intelligence in advance of the raid in Pakistan that killed  Osama bin Laden. During that raid a U.S. stealth helicopter crashed and its tail was left behind for Chinese visitors to have a look at later. Ten years ago a U.S. intelligence plane flying off the coast of China was bumped by a Chinese fighter jet and made an emergency landing in China, where authorities gave it a thorough inspection before returning it. In 2002, America also gave China a free lesson in surveillance methods by installing dozens of bugging devices in the Boeing-made Chinese presidential airplane. Now that China knows so much about U.S. spy technology, maybe America can save scarce defense dollars by having our high-tech spy gear made in China.


Update:  On Thursday Iran displayed the drone on TV and claimed again that Iranians had hacked into the controls and landed it. The intact drone they displayed suggested that this was the case, rather than the drone having lost control and crashed. Clearly the intact capture will also provide more intelligence to Iran and, presumably, Russia and China.

Egypt’s Election and Islamism

Ballots in Egypt Dec. 2011The results of the Egyptian election are in, though not complete, and two Islamist parties have scored big victories. The Muslim Brotherhood, a long-established and well-organized point of opposition to Mubarak over the years, leads the voting as expected with about 37 percent. What was not expected was the strong showing for the Salafists, a more conservative Islamist group, with about 25 percent, outpolling the liberal, secular parties. As the traditional center of the Arab world and a country of 80 million people, Egypt will set the direction of political Islam far beyond its borders.

This round of elections will choose only about 30 percent of the seats in parliament so it’s too soon to say how a new government will shake out. But I’m not convinced that “the Islamists” — representing the more moderate Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists (and a third party with about 5 percent) — is the right category for thinking about this. In 1962 the political scientist William Riker developed the theory of minimum winning coalitions. It predicts basically that if the Muslim Brotherhood is going to lead a government, it may turn to smaller parties, perhaps the liberal secularists, to get over 51 percent. The #2 winner, the Salafists, would exact a greater price (in cabinet positions, for example) for their participation, whereas the liberals would take what they could get.

In addition, the Salafists put the Brotherhood in an awkward position in defining the role of Islam in Egyptian society. The Salafists’ success, according to the NY Times, presents “a challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, in part by plunging it into a polarizing Islamist-against-Islamist debate over the application of Islamic law in Egypt’s promised democracy, a debate the Brotherhood had worked hard to avoid.”

And indeed, today the Salafists came out with a statement that they would not water down their views to join a Brotherhood-led government. They oppose a secular state and insist on sharia law. Ed Husain writes in The Atlantic that they pose an extreme danger and terrify many Egyptians.

Israelis are worried that the Islamist turn in Egypt will spell trouble from its long-time stable ally. Israel has seen Islamism turn Iran from an ally to a bitter enemy after 1979, and more recently saw free elections in Palestine bring to power the Islamist movement Hamas, which has also been a bitter enemy. A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt called the changes in the region an “Islamic tsunami,” which actually does not seem too far from reality.

However, as the Egyptian elections clearly illustrate, there is not one Islamism in the region, but several. Three states have Islamist leaders but follow very different models. Saudi Arabia is most closely related to Egyptian Salafists, and follows a very conservative domestic politics in such matters as women’s rights and sharia law. Iran is an Islamic Republic but Saudi Arabia’s great enemy — reflecting the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey is the model that resonates most in the region, with an Islamist leader but capitalist economy, connections with the West (Turkey is a NATO member), and a deepening respect for human rights. That is the model followed by Tunisia’s recently successful party that won elections there, and the model of the Brotherhood in Egypt.

With all these models competing, and others that do not have control of a state (the failed al Qaeda model still limping along in Yemen and Somalia), the label “Islamist” does not clarify Middle East politics very much. What divides Islamists is as important as what unites them.