Peace For Our Time? Explaining War's Decline
'cracks are showing in this liberal world order'
Edmund Wilson | 9 July 2018

“The tide of war is receding,” President Obama proclaimed in 2011. Which is ironic, because Obama was referring to the seemingly intractable war in Afghanistan, which President Trump is set on continuing. But ultimately, Obama was right. Since the Second World War, the tide of war has receded—worldwide. Annual battle deaths have fallen 90% since 1950. War between countries has declined, the 2003 Iraq invasion being the only conflict this century meeting the criteria of a deadly inter-state war (though there remain a fair few civil wars with outside involvement). But why has full war between states become virtually extinct?

One explanation is democratisation. Between the 76-odd democratic states, peace prevails for two reasons, according to proponents of democratic peace theory such as Yale’s Bruce Russett. Firstly, politicians could simply be voted out of power if they use force against the public’s will, so the political cost of using force is greater in democracies than in non-democracies. Secondly, democracies expect to resolve domestic conflicts by compromise, leading them to “externalise” these internal norms and behave peacefully with other democracies. The last decade of relative peace may therefore be due in part to the sheer number of democracies. But inter-state war is uncommon worldwide, not just in the democratic sphere. To understand this, we need a more truly global explanation.

Such an explanation might be found in the process of globalisation, or the growing interdependence of the peoples of planet Earth. Economic interdependence has expanded apace this century, creating trade interests which do not favour war, argues Columbia University’s Michael Doyle. Maybe ‘perpetual peace’, in Kant’s famous phrase, requires commercial ties and free trade. So capitalism may be ‘a more powerful force for peace than democracy’, as academic Michael Mousseau put it.

For example, in 2014 the non-democratic regimes of China and Russia agreed a $400bn thirty-year contract to supply China with Russian gas. This economic interdependence should help to pacify relations, since commerce between countries reduces the incentive to go to war. But sometimes economic interdependence can exacerbate tensions: for instance, the EU fears that Russia will use Europe’s dependence on Russian energy to blackmail Europe, according to one recent analysis. Nevertheless, the fact that no EU member state has fought a war with Russia demonstrates the ability of some other mechanism to pacify relations.

This mechanism is liberalisation, or the creation of a liberal world order. Liberal institutions such as the EU, the OSCE and the UN employ soft power to make aggression seem more costly to a state’s reputation than pacifism. As Kant predicted, a “pacific union” is forming, established by various treaties of international law, softening normative conflicts between hostile states. These institutions also provide a home for a broad, constant conversation among nations. The development of the human rights regime has also bolstered cooperation and reduced the probability of inter-state war. The liberal world order, propped up for 70 years by the democratic, liberal-minded US, has contributed to the decline in violence between countries.

But cracks are showing in this liberal world order. Mirroring the US’s recent critiques of liberal institutions such as the EU, the UN and NATO, in 2016 China condemned a UN-mandated court’s rejection of Chinese claims to the South China Sea. From the rise of populism in Europe and the Trump-led US to the demagoguery of Putin, Erdogan and Duterte, identity-driven tribal politics within states issued  fuelling aggressive power politics between them. This threatens all three of the forces for peace we have discussed. The US’s democracy can hardly prevent the possibility of conflict with a rapidly growing China; in any case, the US is one of 89 countries in which the quality of democracy declined in 2017, according to The Economist. Globalisation is threatened by understandable though often misguided popular protests. And the US can hardly prop up a liberal world order which its leader views as unfair and anti-American. As the liberal empire of the post-war era retreats, so the spectre of war might advance.

But the collapse of peace is not unstoppable. Just as democratisation, globalisation and liberalisation progressively reduced conflict in past decades, they could do so in decades to come. Only by tackling inequality within and between states can we reduce the populist pressures that threaten the considerable achievements of the liberal world order. And only with awareness of the virtues of democracy, interdependence and liberal values can we make the future resemble the peaceful present rather than the conflicted past.


Original Image by Teddy Ashworth.

James Routledge 2016