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.