Category Archives: International Organizations

Posts about the UN and other international organizations

Is the War Fever Breaking?

From my Op Ed with Steven Pinker in the Boston Globe:

“QUIETLY, AMID the carnage and chaos in the daily news, 2016 is shaping up as a good year for peace in the world. You read that right. A significant escalation of war over the past few years is, at the moment, abating. …”


Glimmer of Hope for Cease-Fires

Syria talks photoMost wars end without military victory for either side, and whatever arrangements move a conflict toward resolution, they generally begin with a cease-fire. Recently several of the world’s serious armed conflicts took steps in the direction of cease-fires — certainly a welcome development in the period of backsliding from peace over the last five years.

The world’s worst war at present, in Syria, saw a baby step toward political resolution today as four major outside powers met in Vienna to discuss it — Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (Russia supports the Syrian regime; the others oppose it). The talks hardly justify or vindicate Russia’s violent military intervention in Syria, but it’s still better to have backers of different sides talking. Whether it’s better than nothing, or is actually nothing, remains to be seen.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, a real cease-fire has taken hold, probably because of Russia’s preoccupation in the Middle East now. Previously the Minsk Agreement was honored in part but fighting continued in places. Now the front line is quiet, which is a step forward.

Yemen also shows tiny steps forward.  The Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels who control the capital have finally agreed today to meet. The UN envoy charged with making it happen has not yet set the date or agenda. Perhaps it will happen before the Yemenis all starve.

In Mali, where Tuareg rebels signed a cease-fire with the government in February, two feuding Tuareg tribes who had been fighting each other have now reached agreement as well.

Myanmar (Burma) has just reached a peace deal with some, but not all, of its rebellious ethnic groups. Possibly the others will come on board in the future. Myanmar is preparing for its first elections since the military loosened its grip on the country somewhat.

South Sudan had been sliding over a precipice and facing widespread starvation after persistent and brutal fighting between the two largest ethnic groups in the world’s newest country (which had spent decades in a brutal civil war before splitting from Sudan). Recently the leaders in South Sudan also signed a political agreement and cease-fire, which has been holding imperfectly and may not last but nonetheless represents a ray of hope.

October 24 is “UN Day” and this year it’s the organization’s 70th birthday.  In Mali, South Sudan, and Yemen, all largely removed from great-power interests, the UN has been a key broker in negotiations.  In the conflicts directly involving Russia — Ukraine and Syria — the great powers make their own deals without the UN. In Myanmar outside mediators seem to have played little role, and in the recent peace deal in Colombia, the mediator was Cuba.

This diversity of approaches to making cease-fire deals underscores an important point — there is no one set route to end wars and broker agreements.  Sometimes it’s governments, sometimes the UN, sometimes NGOs or individuals, but if a war is to end someone has to go in and help the sides get to an agreement.  And that agreement almost always begins with a cease-fire.  The first step in ending a war is to stop the shooting.

Peace in the Western Hemisphere

Peace deal handshake

Cuba’s Raul Castro celebrates peace deal between Colombia’s president and FARC leader, Sept.2015

Amidst the violent turmoil in the Middle East and the world’s backsliding in its long-term progress toward peace, a piece of good news deserves notice. Last week a breakthrough finally occurred in peace talks between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels. The talks, held in Cuba, had dragged on for several years but have now produced an agreement to definitively end hostilities in six months, in March 2016. A truth commission will sort out war crimes, and penalties will follow a compromise between impunity and severe punishment.

The agreement marks the end of the last war in the Western hemisphere and thus continues a trend over recent decades that have seen the zone of active fighting in the world shrink to an area now stretching from central Africa to Pakistan, with a tendril up into Ukraine and occasional little skirmishes in southeast Asia. (Actually fighting in Pakistan is much reduced this year, and a shaky peace deal was agreed last month in South Sudan, though Syria’s war rages on.)

Peace in the Western hemisphere does not mean an absence of violence. Thousands continue to die in drug-related violence in Mexico, homicides against indigenous people in Guatemala, and gang violence in El Salvador. But the historical contrast is stark.

Just a few decades ago, civil wars (with international involvement) ravaged Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Argentina’s government waged a “dirty war” against leftists, Chile lived through a brutal coup and dictatorship, and Brazil had a military government. The United States invaded Grenada and Panama.

Although economic growth in Latin America has slowed recently, some 70 million people there rose out of poverty in the past decade. Literacy and education rates are very high, birth rates are low, and the region has become solidly middle-income. Actually, Latin America has become so successful that it’s easy to ignore amidst the troubles of other regions – making the evening news only when a big corruption scandal (Brazil) or especially violent incident (Mexico) flares up.

With the reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States this year, the Western hemisphere now enjoys normal and peaceful interstate relations from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It’s not paradise to be sure – inequality, corruption, violence, and racism have definitely not disappeared – but the progress is dramatic.

The war in Colombia lasted fifty years, took more than 200,000 lives, and displaced millions from their homes. Peace will be sweet.

World Backsliding on Peace

Data graph of battle deaths

UCDP: Uppsala Conflict Data Project, Sweden.     PRIO: Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway.

The latest Swedish data on world battle-deaths (through 2014) add to the evidence of a serious reversal of the decades-long trend toward fewer and smaller wars.

From fewer than 25,000 battle-deaths in 2011, the total has jumped to nearly 40,000 in 2012, 70,000 in 2013, and more than 100,000 in 2014. The world has moved from a historic interlude of relative peace, about halfway back to Cold War levels of armed conflict, and will get there in a few more years on the present trajectory. (Uppsala battle-death data are minimums based on confirmed reports of incidents.)

Most of the reversal in the peaceful trend over the past decade has come specifically from the terrible civil war in Syria, and the consequent new Iraqi war with the so-called Islamic State (IS). Of the world’s 101,000 battle-deaths in 2014, some 54,000 were in Syria and 13,000 more in Iraq, together making up close to two-thirds of the world total.

Afghanistan and Pakistan each added another 12,000 battle-deaths; Nigeria and Ukraine had about 5,000 each. Smaller wars with 1,500 to 2,000 battle deaths included South Sudan, Yemen, and Israel/Hamas. Adding this year’s developments into the picture, the civil wars in Yemen and South Sudan have worsened dramatically in 2015, with millions of people facing starvation unless solutions are found.

The world’s most serious wars are quite internationalized. Foreign fighters and outside military forces are operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ukraine, South Sudan, and Yemen. By contrast, United Nations or other international peacekeepers are conspicuously absent from the world’s major conflicts today, the main exception being South Sudan where they are ineffective. (It’s unclear if these conflicts became deadlier because of the absence of peacekeepers or if the world’s powers avoid using peacekeepers in the deadliest conflicts.)

The increase in war over the last four years does not negate the longer-term decline in armed conflict, but does clearly set the shorter-term trend in the other direction, with the potential to undo much past progress if things continue in the new way. Battle-deaths in 2014 were still less than half the typical level during the Cold War years, and of course no comparison to the World Wars. In the peaceful post-Cold War period, we’ve had two previous spikes in battle-deaths up to near the level reached in 2014. These corresponded with the Ethiopian civil war and Gulf War around 1991, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea War around 1999 – the world’s last sustained interstate war.

Because quantitative data are always suspect in some quarters, and battle-deaths are in some ways problematic, I’ve argued the long-term decline of armed conflict since the World Wars primarily using evidence other than just battle-deaths.

Among the salient landmarks are the “zeroes” – no nuclear wars since 1945, no wars between great powers since 1953, no naval battles worldwide for more than 25 years, no tank battle anywhere for more than 10 years, no wars between two regular state armies (the most destructive category) in more than 10 years.  And the rising great power, China, has not fought a single military battle in more than 25 years (historically unheard of). Geographically, the areas of the world affected by active fighting have shrunk to a zone from central Africa through Pakistan. Whole regions such as Central America and Southeast Asia, not long ago plagued with multiple wars at once, are nearly entirely at peace now.

As battle-deaths climb, however, some of the other peaceful developments also seem to be slipping. The war in Ukraine crosses several red lines, including the spread of active war up into Europe and the de facto fighting between two regular uniformed armies, although dressed up as local conflict and “little green men.” It’s not quite an interstate war, but it’s pushing the limits. Meanwhile Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an alarming breach, unprecedented in decades, in which one UN member seizes and annexes the territory of another. Iraq tried that with Kuwait but unsuccessfully.

Even China’s remarkable “peaceful rise” seems to be slipping lately, with more bellicose rhetoric and expansive claims in the South China Sea – where China says everything belongs to China and therefore is not subject to international law. So far, China is not an important contributor to the new trend away from peace, but China’s changing attitude does somewhat undermine the fragile norms of peace that had been strengthening.

Syria and the adjacent Sunni areas of Iraq, consisting of less than half of one percent of the world’s land area, currently produce two-thirds of the world’s bloodshed from armed conflict.  Americans wishing to help the millions of Syria refugees directly can do so through the UN refugee agency here. Diplomatic efforts for a political settlement need to be redoubled and supported.

Note:  I’ve updated my “wars in progress” page with the 2014 data.

Sources:  UCDP Battle-deaths data, v.5, 2015. See Pettersson, Therése & Peter Wallensteen. Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014. Journal of Peace Research 52(4), 2015. Available at . PRIO data:  Peace Research Institute Oslo, Battle Deaths Dataset 3.0, updated from Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch, “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths”, European Journal of Population 21, no. 2–3 (2005). Data provided by Human Security Report Project (HSRP), Simon Fraser University.

Climate Change is the BIG issue in IR

COP_12_MAVThe most important issue in IR today, climate change, is receiving little scholarly attention in our discipline. To help address this gap, I am hereby winding down much of my work on war, retiring from my IR textbook, and will make climate change my main area of work. Thirty years ago I set out to understand war because it was the overriding moral issue of our time and the greatest threat to humanity. Today that issue is climate change.

Climate matters not only for practical reasons but because it cuts to the heart of IR as a field. IR is all about the governance of an “anarchic” system with weak central authority, in which power resides primarily in sovereign states whose individually rational decisions lead to bad outcomes for all. We call it the collective goods problem (public goods, collective actions, Prisoners’ Dilemma, etc.). It’s the central, pervasive theme of my IR textbook, shaping subfields from war to trade to international development. But the biggest example, the most difficult dilemma, and the case with the greatest impact is climate change.

Each actor’s economy benefits from burning fossil fuels, no single actor can affect the overall outcome alone, yet all will suffer catastrophic consequences as a result. The global governance mechanisms have proven very weak – the Kyoto treaty basically failed, targets are not being met, some leading economies are backsliding, and nobody has a workable plan for how to change our trajectory. Year by year, for our global institutions it’s “talk, baby, talk” while in the real world it’s “drill, baby, drill” from the melting Arctic to the American shale fields to the Persian Gulf.

The basic structural challenges to reaching agreement are amplified by several additional problems. Today’s generation would have to pay costs for the benefit of future generations – a hard sell whether in a democracy or an autocracy. Rich country would have to pay for the benefit of poor countries. And specific constituencies and regions will feel different costs and impacts:  multinational oil companies versus farmers in Bangladesh, for example. On top of it all, there is widespread public confusion about the issue, notably in its categorization as an “environmental” problem as though it will impact cute animals not cities.

This then is a prime area for IR scholarship in general and IR theory in particular.  The guru of IR theory, Robert Keohane, thinks so. But he writes, “In view of the magnitude of climate change, it is distressing to observe the slow response from political science as a discipline.” That’s an understatement. Consider the current issues of our leading IR journals. Let’s count the number of climate change articles and the total number of articles:

  • International Studies Quarterly, 0 for 16
  • Am. Political Science Review, 0 for 10
  • International Organization, 0 for 11
  • World Politics, 0 for 5
  • Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0 for 7
  • Journal of Peace Research, 2 for 8

Across these six journals, we have 2 climate-related articles out of 57. Both of those are about possible effects of shifting weather patterns on something we do study – armed conflicts. Not a single article deals with the challenge of an international system trying to come to terms with a massive collective goods problem that threatens civilization. This in a year when the world will gather in Paris to try for a new global agreement to grapple with the problem. Debra Javeline calls climate change “the most important topic political scientists are not studying.”

Climate change is not an environmental issue. It’s an existential issue – the slow-motion equivalent of an asteroid heading for earth. We have no effective global mechanism to develop and launch a mission to knock that asteroid off its trajectory. Yet every day it gets closer and harder to shift off its course. How would the world respond to that scenario?  Would a hegemon take the reins and implement a solution?  The G20?  The United Nations?  Would all countries have to contribute to an expensive solution?  Would competing programs by different states step on each other’s toes?  Would private companies abandon the profit motive to develop technologies to save us? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking about climate change in IR. Now would be a good time to start. The asteroid is not waiting.

[Photo credit:  COP 12 MAV by agenciaandes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The World’s Wars — An Update

Homs-tank feb 23 2012 reutersThe two most important wars currently are in Syria and Ukraine, but for different reasons.

The Syria war, now including Iraq, matters because it is by far the world’s deadliest current armed conflict, and because the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) has created a transnational challenge unseen in international politics in many years. The data team in Uppsala, Sweden, was unable to estimate battle deaths for 2013, and the data for 2014 will not be released for several more months, but we know the order of magnitude is tens of thousands per year and something on the order of 200,000 over the last four years. Apparently, somewhat more than half of these are military fatalities with the rest civilians. Many millions of civilians have been displaced and large numbers are suffering terrible deprivation. Humanitarian efforts are frustrated both by inability to reach populations in need and by inadequate funding.  (Contribute to UNHCR here.)

Peace efforts for Syria are near a standstill.  There are no peacekeepers, no agreements, no negotiations, no UN Security Council resolutions laying out the path to follow. Russia backs the Assad government and the West opposes it. The UN envoy has been trying to get local cease-fires in specific places (currently working on Aleppo) with limited success.

Meanwhile ISIS holds territory in Syria and Iraq, most importantly the city of Mosul, Iraq.  ISIS challenges the entire state system on which international relations has operated for centuries.  This unites all the countries to stop them, from the United States and European powers to Russia, Iran, and the Gulf states. However, peace negotiations are not a viable option, and the military campaign against ISIS raises a collective goods problem in terms of who bears the costs.  Currently Iran and Iraq on the ground, and mostly the USA in the air, are providing the bulk of forces.  Given its lack of allies, ISIS will not pose a long-term threat, and is over-hyped in the media owing to its spectacles of barbarism, in my opinion.

The war in eastern Ukraine is far smaller and less deadly (about 6,000 deaths) but matters for another reason – it breaches red lines that had contained armed conflicts in recent years.  For the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, two state armies have been directly fighting each other. This is a bit ambiguous, however, since Russia has sent its forces into battle with insignia stripped off, as “little green men,” rather than overtly.

The Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 represents a very, very rare case in recent decades of one member of the United Nations taking territory from another by armed force. Iraq did so with Kuwait in 1990 but the border was restored the next year by an international coalition in the Gulf War. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 but the matter remains highly contested still.  These days, borders disputes are far more often resolved through international law and arbitration – this has happened in several Latin American cases and in West Africa in the past decade.  In Crimea, the land-grab is mitigated by the fact that Russia traditionally owned the peninsula and still has its navy based there. When Russia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union, in 1954, Khrushchev abruptly transferred ownership to Ukraine. Still, many international borders have odd histories but using military force to readjust them would be an extreme step backward from the progress we’ve made over decades.

At the moment a shaky cease-fire (Minsk II) is in place in eastern
Ukraine, though it’s too early to say if it will hold up or just serve as a resupply lull.  Peace negotiations have included Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France.  Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are present, though often frustrated in their efforts.  The Ukrainian government would like to see UN peacekeepers but Russia probably will not allow this.  Ukraine and Russia have lived with a wide range of conflicts, ranging from natural gas prices to ethnic/linguistic differences, ideological divergence, and territorial disputes, ever since the USSR broke up in 1991.  There is some hope that a political process in the coming years will allow the two countries to coexist peacefully, perhaps with Crimea joining Russia under a legal framework approved by Ukraine, and eastern Ukraine firmly returned to Ukraine’s control with local autonomy. Economic sanctions on Russia are taking a high price but may or may not change Russian behavior.

The Ukraine war is also the main, though not the only, instance of armed conflict spreading beyond the zone of fighting that has characterized recent years.  That zone extends from central Africa through the Middle East to Pakistan. Beyond, and at the edges, wars had been winding down.  This is still true in Colombia, the only important armed conflict left in the Western Hemisphere, where peace talks have been going on for two years and a cease-fire is taking hold. But in West Africa, new and serious fighting has broken out in northern Nigeria; in northern Africa, Libya is descending into civil war; and in Southeast Asia, new fighting has broken out in the north of Myanmar/Burma.  These are all reversal in areas at the edge of the world’s zone of active warfare, where wars of recent decade had been fading away and peace had been taking hold.

Smaller wars in the heart of that zone continue.  Brutal ethnic conflicts in the Central African Republic and in the world’s newest country, South Sudan, are abating somewhat but settlements remain elusive.  In both cases, outside powers are engaged in working for peace, and UN peacekeepers are present (sizable missions, about 10,000 in CAR and 15,000 in South Sudan). UN peacekeeping also continues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (about 25,000 troops), where progress is being made slowly, and in Darfur, Sudan (about 20,000).  Somalia has made a lot of progress in the last few years, with insurgents pushed out of cities, but Yemen has become more violent in recent months and is in danger of splitting in half.  Israel and the Palestinians appear destined to fight recurrently as they did in Gaza last year. Afghanistan remains at war after the withdrawal of NATO combat forces (though direct talks with the Taliban are in the works).

The backsliding in recent years can only be discouraging.  This has accompanied an overall deterioration in top-level relations, especially between Russia and the West. China continues to be the most peaceful great power (in history, arguably), but has stepped up its alarming moves to claim large contested areas of the nearby seas. North Korea continues to add to its arsenal of at least a half dozen nuclear weapons, and Iran’s nuclear program could create a sizable arsenal within years, and a regional arms race, if current negotiations fail. The U.S. and Russian nuclear programs are “modernizing” after years of downsizing that saw stockpiles shrink by three-quarters over thirty years.

We should keep today’s wars in perspective, however.  Overall, the world’s armed conflicts are still smaller, fewer, and more geographically limited than during the Cold War.  Almost all of Central, East and Southeast Asia, southern Africa, Europe, and the Americas are at peace. In historical perspective, we just marked the 70th anniversary of the deadliest bombing raid in history, on Tokyo in 1945, which incinerated 100,000 civilians in one night – more than the total battle fatalities in the world last year.

Seeking a Job with the UN

The following guest post by Elisa dos Santos is reprinted for students interested in UN jobs, courtesy of PassBlue (whom I thank). The original is posted here (Feb. 4, 2014).

So.Sudan IDP camp Julio Brathwaite/UN photoApplying for a job at the United Nations requires a high degree of perseverance — “like trying to find a secret passageway from a brick wall — but eventually you get through,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the director of news and media at the UN Department of Public Information in New York.

The Center for Global Affairs at New York University presented a much-attended “Careers With the United Nations and Multilateral Organizations” panel in the fall, presenting several UN officials who gave insight into the process of applying for a permanent, temporary or consulting job at the world body.

The UN receives about 800 job applications for each post that is open annually through its digital employment portal, Inspira, which lists thousands of jobs at hundreds of “duty stations” throughout the world, among nearly 100 UN organizations, at any given time. These applications are scanned by the UN human resources department, with 200 to 300 making the cut to be sent to internal evaluators for further screening.

The UN’s Young Professionals Program, or YPP, is an alternative process to obtaining a job; it is open to people no older than 32 and is useful for those who have not accrued the five years of professional work experience that is required for many jobs listed in the Inspira database.

Because hundreds of people may be applying for any given job through Inspira, the most important thing you can do when filling out an online application on the portal is to “spend a lot of time on your personal history profile, put a lot of details about your work experience,” Dujarric, who is a former journalist and helps evaluate job applications of prospective candidates, said. “Your experience is what will make a difference.”

It takes about 10 months for applications to be evaluated for a position, a long time frame that involves following many rules and regulations to assess candidates, although consultancies and temporary posts are filled much faster. It is important to remain patient during the process and “follow as many parallel tracks as possible; apply to different places at the same time,” Dujarric said.

David Ohana, who runs the film and special projects at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is a model of patience. As a panelist at the event, he said that “it took over 10 years and 27 job applications” until he received a phone call for an interview at the UN.

Another way of getting a foot in the door is working for an organization that is involved in the UN indirectly. “Spending time at an NGO [nongovernmental organization] is a great way to get noticed by the UN, especially if it’s something in the same area,” said Kurt Chesko, a program officer at the UN Mine Action Service and a panelist. (An additional source for job information in the nonprofit world is

While languages other than English are vital for applying for a job in the UN Secretariat — which carries out the daily tasks of the world body through its base in New York and stations worldwide — it is critical that applicants can write clearly in English.

“Sometimes, the UN overlooks really great candidates because they don’t have the English background,” Dujarric said. If you are a native English speaker, he added, don’t forget to put that in your personal history profile. Inspira offers three kinds of entry-level jobs to apply to: consultancy, professional and general service.

It is also important to know that when people apply for a general service category job in the Secretariat, they can get stuck behind a “virtual wall” between so-called ‘G posts’ and the professional category, Dujarric said. “That’s something to keep in mind as you plan your UN career.”

Moreover, professional level posts generally require a master’s degree. The UN global staff is more than two-thirds male, so the organization encourages women to apply for positions to help make it a more gender-balanced operation.

“If you really are interested and you don’t think you have a great background, such as 20 years of experience, a piece of advice: network as much as possible, go to as many events as you can, do as many internships as you can,” said Isabel Raya, who worked as a consultant for the Sustainable Energy for All initiative in the office of the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Raya, who is a graduate of the Center for Global Affairs master’s program, with a concentration in international development, came from Spain to New York to ultimately seek a career at the UN. Like the other panelists, she advised the audience to network and to be persistent.

“Think outside the box,” she said. “The best thing you can do is to network as best as possible. Follow the UN agency you are most interested in, attend events open to the public, start networking, keep business cards.”

With her international affairs background, Raya worked at two separate unpaid internships at the UN, which she said was a “full-time job and difficult to combine with [her] studies,” but worth it. One of the internships involved traveling to Mexico to be a Spanish-English translator for three weeks.

Related articles

For ‘Young Professionals,’ How to Land a Job at the UN

For a Job at the UN, Start by Making Contacts

Two Resources for Job Seekers in Foreign Affairs

Elisa dos Santos is a business economics major and presidential scholar at Hofstra University Honors College and an intern at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Washington. She is also a co-founder and president of the Hofstra University Hunger Project and a member of the Hofstra Gold Leadership Program. She is fluent in Portuguese.

Philippines Storm and Climate Change

Super typhoon Haiyan: survivors walk past a ship that lies on top of damaged homesThanks to the BBC (again), we can watch in near-real time as desperate masses of Filipinos struggle to stay alive without water, food, or health care. The “super-typhoon” that hit them is possibly the biggest storm ever recorded.

On the other side of the world, in Poland, an international conference got underway to try to negotiate about precursors to a possible agreement to someday set targets to reduce the growth of the rate at which we are adding carbon to the atmosphere. The Philippine delegate cut through all that with an emotional speech that electrified the room, linking the devastation in the Philippines to the world’s failure to prevent climate change. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness,” he pleaded. He began fasting until the conference takes effective action.

The media coverage of this storm and other recent weather destruction always warns us that no particular weather disaster can be attributed to climate change. This is technically true, but misleading. If you are sitting on the beach while the tide is rising, you will notice that some waves come up much higher on the beach than others, unpredictably, and with no relation to the tide. But over time, for certain, your picnic is going to get soaked. Same thing with planet Earth – our picnic is for certain going to be completely soaked if we continue on our current path.

People wonder if the recent weather disasters will be the “new normal.” The answer is definitely no. The new normal will be far, far worse. The trends that will play out over the next few decades have only just begun. This is just a little taste of a future that will be truly catastrophic, barring a major change in the direction of human civilization.

The massive denial about climate change that now pervades our collective consciousness is reminiscent of the “nuclear numbing” of the public during the Cold War. We were aware of such matters as nuclear war planning, but their logical consequences were too horrible to look at. So we delegated the uncomfortable core issues to experts and policy makers, who could treat the issues surgically, with acronyms and euphemisms. The nuclear freeze movement upended that arrangement, and I wish the same would happen for climate change. The experts and policy makers are not solving it. The international governance institutions are not up to the job. And, embarrassingly, my own dear United States is on the wrong side of the issue, emitting way more than its share of carbon and failing to lead the push for change, indeed even undermining the world’s feeble efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol (unratified by the USA).

Climate change is the overriding moral issue of our time. So when I say the USA is on the wrong side of the issue, I mean the wrong side of history.

[Donations to help the people in the Philippines can be made through one of these groups.]

Syria War Reverses Trend in Battle Deaths

UCDP battle deaths to 2012The latest battle-deaths data, for 2012, have arrived from the researchers in Uppsala, Sweden, and the news is bad. With the civil war in Syria killing tens of thousands last year, the world total battle deaths jumped up about 70%, reversing the downward trend of recent decades, though not reverting to the high fatality levels of the Cold War years.

The big picture here is a long-term decline of armed conflict worldwide from the World Wars (a hundred times worse than today) to the Cold War proxy battlefields (several-fold worse than the post-Cold War era) to the most recent decade of fewer and smaller civil wars and generally no interstate wars. The Syria spike in 2012 marked the highest battle fatalities since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000. Since then, war deaths had been bouncing along at historically low levels, with some ups and downs. Other than the one-sided clashes of the U.S. coalition with Iraq in 2003 (several weeks) and of Russia with Georgia in 2008 (five days), the world has not had an interstate war since the early months of this century. Maintaining the taboo on interstate war is a prime imperative as the crises in Syria, and elsewhere, threaten to get worse.

There was a similar spike in battle deaths in 2009 when the bloody, brutal end of the Tamil Tigers insurgency in Sri Lanka pushed up the worldwide total. But that spike was smaller than the 2012 one, and lasted only two years before dropping down again. Syria might (or might not) go on for a lot longer than two years.

It is important to understand that the “battle deaths” measure is a partial estimate of total war deaths. Although it includes both military and civilian deaths, only those from violence are counted—be it a gun battle, air strike, or suicide bombing—and only those that occur in the context of a battle, where two sides are attacking each other. So, for example, a government massacre of peaceful protesters would not be included, nor would the many people who disappear and whose bodies show up dumped in the street (or never show up). Disease and starvation among refugees also are not counted, and only verified deaths are included.

The Syria battle-death total for 2012 was about 15,000—clearly just a subtotal of the war’s cost, but a useful subtotal for tracking change through time. That 15,000 was up from 1,000 in 2011, and was almost double the annual battle deaths in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. It was higher, per year, than either Iraq or Afghanistan at their worst (of course, they lasted for years and we have yet to see about Syria). It is possible the Syria number reflects in part a greater effort by several parties to document deaths in the war, compared with other armed conflicts around the world. But in my view this effect does not explain most of the striking rise in deaths.

Other than Syria, 2012 showed few changes from 2011. Battle deaths in Afghanistan remained around 7,000; those in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan each fell between 1,000 and 3,000; and those in Iraq were below 1,000. Other low-level armed conflicts sputtered along in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, D.R. Congo, southern Russia, South Sudan and Pakistan (in decreasing order of battle deaths, all between 300 and 1,200). The world total for 2011 was 23,000, and it increased in 2012 to 38,000.

Fundamentally, we don’t know the answer yet to the big question:  Is the 2012 spike the start of a sustained reversal of the declining war trend, back to the bad old days of the Cold War? Or is the 2012 spike like the 2009 spike but higher and longer-lasting, namely a temporary jump in war that reverts in a few years to a low world battle deaths level (and perhaps future temporary spikes)?

The most worrisome aspect of the Syria war is its potential to spread geographically and potentially spark much larger armed conflicts. Already low-scale but lethal violence has jumped borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently, the Syrian government receives weapons and soldiers from Iran and from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a client of Iran’s. Meanwhile the Syrian rebels receive weapons from Qatar, a Sunni emirate right across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran, and the Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria receive volunteers, weapons, and money from various foreign populations, notably Sunni areas of Iraq. If that weren’t bad enough, the old superpowers, America and Russia, are also lined up on opposite sides. One reason for the high battle deaths of the Cold War era was that outside weapons and money on both sides kept proxy wars going for years. This could all too easily happen in Syria.

Because there are so few good options to improve the situation in Syria, media and public attention tend to drift away from the issue. That is a mistake.

Unfortunately, the international community failed, earlier in the conflict, to use the United Nations effectively as the powerful tool that it could be.  Because Americans (public and officials) underestimate the potential of the UN, we do not put enough effort into using that potential. In October 2011, the Syria problem came before the Security Council. I thought the great powers should find what they agree on and pass a resolution to enact it. That would have meant deep compromises to get Russia on board. But it would have brought the Syria problem within the UN where the great powers could exert influence to contain and manage the problem.

Instead, the U.S. administration, in an exception from its generally solid foreign policy record, pushed an anti-Assad resolution that guaranteed a Russian veto. Then we passed a similar resolution in the General Assembly by a huge margin, having absolutely no binding effect but embarrassing Russia when few countries sided with it. The United States thus deftly used the Syria crisis to show how bad Russia is, and demonstrate the moral superiority of America and its allies. U.S. and western officials declared fervently that Assad must go. This may all be true, but it did not help the Syria people one bit. And when China took Russia’s side in the UN, the attempt to isolate Russia more or less failed too.

Now, so many months and so many deaths later, the United States is trying to get on the same page with Russia to work out some kind of solution in Syria.  It is vastly harder now. It still needs to be tried.

One point of my work on the decline of war is that the continuation of the recent trend is not inevitable. There is an ever-present potential for a reversal. What happens in the coming years will depend on the choices that people make. We’ve made some bad ones about Syria. But now the job of making the best of a bad situation is vitally important for the entire world, before Syria’s lethal wildfire intensifies and spreads along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and beyond.


[Data source:   UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2013, Uppsala Conflict Data Program,, Uppsala University.]

The World’s Most Important Wars Today

My recently-updated list of 14 wars in progress worldwide is a mixed bag, so here is a short list of the most important to pay attention to.

aleppo 2012 jameslawlerduggan.com1. Syria. Fighting is going on every day in multiple locations; armed forces face each other along many front lines; heavy weapons such as artillery and air power are in use regularly. This is the most lethal war now in progress, with the latest UN estimates suggesting 70,000 killed in two years. The ongoing rate of deaths is not diminishing. The war has also created the world’s worst current refugee emergency (donate here to help).

Syria also is the most important war strategically in world politics. Like in the old Cold War days, the United States and Russia are backing opposing sides in a war, the rebels and the government, politically and with weapons (the rebels being supplied by Gulf states, not the United States itself). If that weren’t enough, the war is a proxy for the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, with Syria’s government allied with Iran and Hezbollah while the rebels are allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

The Syrian war has been stalemated for so long, with neither side able to defeat the other, that the casualty and refugee numbers just churn on month after month. However, in the past few months there has been a shift of momentum toward the rebels. There are no known serious peace negotiations going on. Whether the Assad regime can continue to last, and for how long, are question marks hanging over the war — are the questions of what happens after the government falls (not necessarily the end of fighting).

2.  Afghanistan/Pakistan. The war is a mess, with two governments, lots of armed groups, and abundant outside military forces. Nonetheless it is much less lethal than the Syrian war. In 2012, the Afghan war killed fewer than 5,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians. The war has strategic importance as the international community’s biggest military deployment (NATO and others joining with U.S. troops). With the international force drawing down and largely departing by next year, concerns if the war does not continue to abate include a new rise of Islamist radicalism, and potentially even a threat to Pakistan’ s nuclear weapons.

3.  Congo. A new peace agreement has just been signed for the troubled eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Whether it will take hold or last is anyone’s guess. A few months ago, the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 went on the offensive and seized the key town of Goma. However, under international pressure they left the town and fighting has been sporadic since then. What distinguishes the Congo war is its length and persistence, along with the extreme poverty of the country, which magnifies war effects through disease, malnutrition, and other indirect effects. Eastern Congo hosts one of the UN’s two largest peacekeeping operations (a troubled mission over the years) and is a major focus of human rights activism.

Note: Congo is not, as NY Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman claims, “the world’s worst war.”  It is just the worst war that he has reported on for years and personally seen how horrible it is. But every war is the world’s worst war if you’re in the middle of its atrocities. By an objective assessment of levels of fighting, deaths, toll on civilians, atrocities, sexual violence, refugee flows, and the like, Syria rather than Congo is currently the world’s worst war.

4.  Somalia and Mali. In each country, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists challenged a recognized government and seized substantial parts of the country’s territory. In each, an internationally sanctioned force including African troops went in and defeated the Islamists, although fighting continues in both. The difference is that turning around the military momentum took about a decade in Somalia and about a month in Mali — the 21st-century French army accounting for the difference. Can these governments be strengthened and their economies developed so that al Qaeda in Africa becomes no more than a nuisance?

5.  Israel/Palestine. Right now, this conflict has one of the lowest levels of lethal violence of the world’s armed conflicts. And even back in November when Israel and Hamas were blasting each other with airstrikes and rocket attacks, the casualty levels were much lower than in the Syria war (and, unlike Syria, did not grind on for months on end). The importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict, however, is its symbolic importance in a region destablized by the Arab Spring revolutions.  It is the world’s longest-running armed conflict at 60+ years.  The current lull in violence should not inspire complacency, as the unstable mix could blow up at any time and even spread to other countries. Only U.S. leadership would seem to offer any hope of resolving the key conflicts between Israel and Palestine, but what U.S. president wants to spend capital on what may be a hopeless cause?

In the big picture, even the war in Syria is relatively small-scale. At the moment, the rate of killing in warfare worldwide remains, as it has for about a decade, historically low. If the world can find its way to a solution in Syria and continue to draw down the war in Afghanistan, and if no new big wars start in the meantime, the world’s low levels of war could drop even lower. It’s another reason, if we needed one, to redouble efforts on the Syria problem.