October 29, 2005
From a Historical Perspective, Things Just Aren't So Bad

By David M. Shribman

So -- and this will surprise you, because it sure shocked me -- happy days are here again.

We're living in an era of tranquility. Peace reigns. Sympathy and trust abounding, if you know what I mean. Look skyward: The moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

I know this not because I have been taking drugs, or watching a revival of "Hair," but because I just looked through a report from the Liu Institute for Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Its conclusion -- that the world is an ever more peaceful place -- is downright startling, coming as it does as we mark the 2,000th American death in Iraq, as the Pentagon is reviving its long-discredited Vietnam practice of releasing enemy body counts, and as there are new stirrings of insurrection in Afghanistan.

I have often thought that it may be irrational to feel less secure now that the United States is the lone, unchallenged superpower than we felt four decades ago, when the Soviet Union was truly a menacing rival with expansionist designs on three, and maybe four, continents. The threat to the United States was real then, and it came in the form of thousands of missiles specifically targeted at American cities, rather than the specter (no less real, and terrifying in its own right) that a terrorist group might smuggle a single, rudimentary atomic device into the center of an American city.

Be that as it may, this study, funded in part by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Great Britain, argues that the world is a pretty safe place right now. Armed conflicts are down by more than 40 percent, and the 25 armed secessionist conflicts under way last year represent the lowest number in three decades. International crises are down by more than 70 percent in 20 years; the number of refugees is down by 45 percent in a decade. Even genocides are down by 80 percent. My guess is that your doctor didn't have this kind of report for you the last time you went for your routine annual physical.

Maybe the world, which sometimes seems like such a frightening place, needs a kind of diplomatic Dow Jones average or conflict Consumer Price Index, something that incorporates such market-basket items as battle-deaths per conflict per year (down 98 percent in a half-century), number of actual and attempted coups (60 percent decline in 40 years), and trends in core human rights abuses (down in five out of six regions in the developing world in the past decade).

The key, of course, would be what to pack into that index. Ronald Reagan made great hay when he used the so-called misery index, which for our purposes this morning can be summarized briefly as rate of inflation plus interest rates equals a really big number and really big trouble for Jimmy Carter.

But the index rate would have to include something the Liu folks omitted, which is the intensity, not the frequency, of conflict. (You could argue that there was only one conflict between the years 1939 and 1945, but it sure was a big, intense one.) Then there would be the intractability coefficient, a phrase I just made up but that certainly has promise for any graduate students out there rooting around the Internet in search for a decent dissertation topic.

Here's what diplomatic expert Fen Osler Hampson, former assistant secretary of state Chester A. Crocker and Institute of Peace official Pamela Aal wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail last week: "The sad fact is that the 21st century has been left with fewer but more intractable conflicts. Many are stalemated as antagonists display an undiminished appetite for continuing with their struggle in the hopes of eventual military victory. And even where violence appears to be a thing of the past (in places such as Cyprus, Western Sahara, North and South Korea), a lasting political settlement remains elusive."

Two important developments occurred after 1945 -- the diminution of Western colonialism and the growth of civil wars. These two events often worked together to wreck havoc and to wreck the hopes of newly freed nations, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Given that many of the conflicts after 1945 were civil wars, the end of the Cold War is a great boon; the United States and the Soviet Union unwittingly conspired to intensify these conflicts, and here the words Korea and Vietnam come to mind. But now that the de-colonization process is basically complete, there are fewer festering ethnic problems to bubble to the surface. That helps, too.

Plus it doesn't hurt that there are more than four times as many democracies sprinkled across the globe in 2005 than there were in 1946. Globalization, so reviled on the left, at the very least has created an economic interdependence that depends on stability, the diplomatic and economic greatest victim of any war. And for all the criticism on the right of the United Nations and other international agencies, these organizations almost certainly deserve credit for acting as a brake on conflict.

Consider this: There are more than twice as many peacekeeping operations run by the U.N. today than there were in 1988. The number of international tribunals examining human-rights violations is at an all-time high. Both get much ridicule; they also might get results.

Of course we still have to worry about ethnic and nationalist resentments that smolder like the Centralia fire; indeed, some of them even predate the Centralia fire, which began in the first year of John F. Kennedy's presidency. We still have to worry about terrorism; our own experience and common sense dictate that.

But maybe in all of that we also have one fewer thing to worry about: the big-time international war. Next month, when you are sitting around the table counting your blessings, add this one. Your ancestors couldn't count it among theirs.

Copyright 2005 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman

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