World May Be Entering a New Age of Peace

As the media keep reminding us, the world seems as violent as ever. Armed conflicts rack more than a dozen nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, and Colombia. We are awash in weapons, from AK-47s to nuclear-tipped missiles. The eight declared nuclear states possess more than 23,000 warheads among them, and efforts to persuade Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions have failed. The U.S. still spends almost as much on defense as all other countries combined, while growth in global military spending has surged 44 percent since 1999, led by Russia (173 percent) and China (194 percent). "The past year saw increasing threats to security, stability, and peace in nearly every corner of the globe," the Stockholm International Peace Re-search Institute recently warned.

The economic crisis was supposed to increase violence around the world. The truth is that we are now living in one of the most peaceful periods since war first arose 10 or 12 millennia ago. The relative calm of our era, say scientists who study warfare in history and even prehistory, belies the popular, pessimistic notion that war is so deeply rooted in our nature that we can never abolish it. In fact, war seems to be a largely cultural phenomenon, which culture is now helping us eradicate. Some scholars now even cautiously speculate that the era of traditional war—fought by two uniformed, state-sponsored armies—might be drawing to a close. "War could be on the verge of ceasing to exist as a substantial phenomenon," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

That might sound crazy, but consider: if war is defined as a conflict between two or more nations resulting in at least 1,000 deaths in a year, there have been no wars since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and no wars between major industrialized powers since World War II. Civil wars have also declined from their peak in the early 1990s, when fighting tore apart Rwanda, the Balkans, and other regions. Most armed conflicts now consist of low-level guerrilla campaigns, insurgencies, and terrorism—what Mueller calls the "remnants of war."

These facts would provide little comfort if war's remnants were nonetheless killing millions of people—but they're not. Recent studies reveal a clear downward trend. In 2008, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the University of Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000).

Uppsala's figures exclude deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine, but even when these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 are still low by historical standards. Acts of terrorism, like the 9/11 attacks or the 2004 bombing of Spanish trains, account for less than 1 percent of fatalities. In contrast, car accidents kill more than 1 million people a year.

The contrast between our century and the previous one is striking. In the second half of the 20th century, war killed as many as 40 million people, both directly and indirectly, or 800,000 people a year, according to Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland. He estimates that 190 million people, or 3.8 million a year, died as a result of wars and state--sponsored genocides during the cataclysmic first half of the century. Considered as a percentage of population, the body count of the 20th century is comparable to that of blood-soaked earlier cultures, such as the Aztecs, the Romans, and the Greeks.

By far the most warlike societies are those that preceded civilization. War killed as many as 25 percent of all pre-state people, a rate 10 times higher than that of the 20th century, estimates anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois. Our ancestors were not always so bellicose, however: there is virtually no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression by humans prior to 12,000 years ago. Then, "warfare appeared in the evolutionary trajectory of an increasing number of societies around the world," says anthropologist Jonathan Haas of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. He attributes the emergence of warfare to several factors: growing population density, environmental stresses that diminished food sources, and the separation of people into culturally distinct groups. "It is only after the cultural foundations have been laid for distinguishing 'us' from 'them,' " he says, "that raiding, killing, and burning appear as a complex response to the external stress of environmental problems."

Early civilizations, such as those founded in Mesopotamia and Egypt 6,000 years ago, were extremely warlike. They assembled large armies and began inventing new techniques and technologies for killing, from horse-drawn chariots and catapults to bombs. But nation-states also developed laws and institutions for resolving disputes nonviolently, at least within their borders. These cultural innovations helped reduce the endless, tit-for-tat feuding that plagued pre-state societies.

A host of other cultural factors may explain the more recent drop-off in international war and other forms of social violence. One is a surge in democratic rather than totalitarian governance. Over the past two centuries democracies such as the U.S. have rarely if ever fought each other. Democracy is also associated with low levels of violence within nations. Only 20 democratic nations existed at the end of World War II; the number has since more than quadrupled. Yale historian Bruce Russett contends that international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union also contribute to this "democratic peace" phenomenon by fostering economic interdependence. Advances in civil rights for women may also be making us more peaceful. As women's education and economic opportunities rise, birthrates fall, decreasing demands on governmental and medical services and depletion of natural resources, which can otherwise lead to social unrest.

Better public health is another contributing factor. Over the past century, average life spans have almost doubled, which could make us less willing to risk our lives by engaging in war and other forms of violence, proposes Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. At the same time, he points out, globalization and communications have made us increasingly interdependent on, and empathetic toward, others outside of our immediate "tribes."

Of course, the world remains a dangerous place, vulnerable to disruptive, unpredictable events like terrorist attacks. Other looming threats to peace include climate change, which could produce droughts and endanger our food supplies; overpopulation; and the spread of violent religious extremism, as embodied by Al Qaeda. A global financial meltdown or ecological catastrophe could plunge us back into the kind of violent, Hobbesian chaos that plagued many pre--state societies thousands of years ago. "War is not intrinsic to human nature, but neither is peace," warns the political scientist Nils Petter Gleditsch of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

So far the trends are positive. If they continue, who knows? World peace—the dream of countless visionaries and -beauty--pageant -contestants—or something like it may finally come to pass.