Giving Peace a Chance

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Is the world becoming a more peaceful place? Given the continuing high level of terrorism in Iraq, now verging on civil war, that may seem a rather idiotic question. And yet there is strong evidence that the amount of conflict in the world as a whole is going down. According to the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management, “global warfare has decreased by over 60 percent since peaking in the mid-1980s, falling . . . to its lowest level since the late 1950s.” In the last three years alone, 11 wars have ended, in countries ranging from Indonesia and Sri Lanka in Asia to Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola, and Liberia in sub-Saharan Africa.

The two most striking features of war in our time have been the decline of traditional interstate warfare and the rise and fall of civil war. Since the end of the Cold War there have been just a handful of wars between separate states, and most of these were very short. Far more common in recent decades have been civil wars; they increased yearly from the early 1960s to reach a bloody peak in the early 1990s. But in the last 10 years there has been a sharp decline. The University of Maryland center lists only eight “societal wars” as ongoing.

This summer I visited three of the late-twentieth-century’s worst civil war zones: Bosnia, Guatemala, and the former killing fields of Cambodia. These three countries used to be bywords for horrific, internecine violence. Yet the killing in each has stopped.

It is a strange sensation to walk across the magnificent bridge on the Drina River at Visegrád where, between 1992 and 1994, scores of Muslims were slaughtered by Serbian militiamen who had once been their neighbors. I felt a similar shudder as I stood by Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Like the gorge at Visegrád through which the Drina runs, it is a beautiful spot. Majestic volcanoes tower over it. Yet thousands of the Mayan Indians who lived in the towns and villages around the lake were murdered there during Guatemala’s civil war.

Historians love to ask why wars begin. Yet we write much less about how and why wars end. One deceptively simple explanation for the recent decline of war is that the world is getting more democratic. In 1977, just 35 of the world’s 140 independent states were democracies. Today, democracies account for 55 percent of the total. Why should this make peace more likely? The reason is that two democracies are less likely to go to war with one another than, say, two dictatorships or a democracy and a dictatorship. And democracies are also much less likely to descend into civil wars.

But why has democracy spread to countries such as Guatemala? One possibility is that the American “empire,” which generally gets such bad press, is actually doing a good job of spreading democracy. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, so too has the temptation to turn every civil war into a proxy for the Cold War. In the mid-1990s, by contrast, it was U.S. intervention that helped end the war in Bosnia and paved the way for democratization in the Balkans.

That’s the kind of argument neoconservatives love. The trouble is that American intervention has been responsible for ending dictatorships or wars in only a few cases. As much, if not more, credit should probably go to the much-maligned international community. The United Nations has certainly done more to end wars in Africa than the United States.

Yet maybe there’s a third explanation for the recent peace wave. Maybe local people, regardless of foreign intervention, are simply opting for peace because they’re sick of war. War, after all, is attractive only to a minority of people: bored young men and the cynical politicians who see violence as a route to power. That’s why only a handful of the post-1989 civil wars lasted longer than seven years. This is certainly the impression I have taken away from Guatemala and Bosnia, where the people I met seemed at once exhausted by the past and excited by the prospect of a peaceful future. They were, nevertheless, also apprehensive, keenly aware that the cycle of violence could resume if the forces of darkness are allowed to recover their former strength. After all, it is far from clear in either case that the underlying causes of ethnic conflict have been removed. And few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

So although it would be nice to think of the recent decline in global conflict as presaging a golden age of peace, I am inclined to be skeptical. It is not only Iraq that today seems doomed to suffer the miseries of civil war. Even in Bosnia and Guatemala—to say nothing of Cambodia—today’s peace may turn out to have been no more than a cease-fire.

Visit the Drina River and Lake Atitlán while you can.