Give Peace a Chance

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

May 28, 2005

You would never guess it from the news, but we're living in a peculiarly tranquil world. The new edition of "Peace and Conflict," a biennial global survey being published next week by the University of Maryland, shows that the number and intensity of wars and armed conflicts have fallen once again, continuing a steady 15-year decline that has halved the amount of organized violence around the world.

Those statistics are no solace for mourners in Iraq and Darfur. But so many other people are now living in peace that you don't have be a dreamer like John Lennon to take seriously the question raised by Gregg Easterbrook in this week's New Republic cover story, "The End of War?"

I posed that question nearly a decade ago to my favorite prophet, Julian Simon, the economist who spent his career refuting doomsayers' predictions. He was convinced that three horsemen of the apocalypse - famine, pestilence, death - were in rapid retreat, and he suspected that the fourth was in trouble, too.

"I predict that the incidence of war will decline," he told me in 1996, two years before his death. He based his prediction on the principle that there is less and less to be gained economically from war. As people get richer and smarter, their lives and their knowledge become far more valuable than the land, minerals and natural resources they used to fight over.

The Iraq war is sometimes described, by both foes and supporters, as a pragmatic venture to keep oil flowing, but not even the most ruthless accountant can justify the expense. Even before the war, America's military costs in the Persian Gulf were much greater than the value of all the oil it was getting from the region, and now it's spending at least four times what the oil's worth.

Of course, wars are also fought for noneconomic reasons, but those, too, seem to be diminishing. The end of the cold war left the superpowers' proxy armies without patrons, and the spread of democracy made nations less bellicose. (Democracies almost never fight each other.) Mr. Easterbrook calculates that the amount of military spending per capita has declined by a third worldwide since 1985.

Meanwhile, the number of people fighting has plummeted, even though population has grown enormously. "From what we know about war, we can only conclude that it's a much lesser problem today," said Monty Marshall of George Mason University, a co-author of the "Peace and Conflict" report. "War between countries is much less likely than ever, and civil war is less likely than any time since 1960."

These benign trends may be hard to believe, especially if you've been watching pictures from Iraq or listening to warnings about terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. One explosion could indeed change everything.

But before you dismiss the optimists as hopeless naifs, you might ask yourself if you're suffering from the malaise described in a book by Mr. Easterbrook called "The Progress Paradox": the better life gets, the worse people feel. The more peaceful and wealthy the world becomes, the more time we all have to watch wars and warnings on television.

The only antidote is to look at long-term trends instead of daily horrors. For a really long-term trend, consider that of 59 skeletons found in a Stone Age graveyard, at least 24 died from violence. Or that a quarter of the male population died fighting in some pre-agricultural societies.

In the 20th century, despite two world wars, humans had less than a 2 percent chance of dying in war or a mass killing, according to John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State. Today the risk is lower still - about a quarter the chance of dying in a car accident.

I mention these numbers not to minimize today's tragedies. I plan to be at a parade on Monday honoring the soldiers who have fallen, especially the more than 1,600 in Iraq. But I will also be thinking about the Progress Paradox and the origin of Memorial Day.

It started after the Civil War as Decoration Day, an occasion for widows wearing red poppies to decorate graves and memorials in virtually every town. If a war of that scale happened now, there would be nearly five million graves to tend. Sixteen-hundred is still too many, but if the trend continues, Memorial Day may eventually become a memory itself.