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Canadian Study Reports New Threats to Global Security but Reveals Encouraging Long-Term Trends

02 Dec 2010

The new Human Security Report (Report) from the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University argues that long-term trends are reducing the risks of both international and civil wars. The Report, which is funded by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and will be published by Oxford University Press, also examines recent developments that suggest the world is becoming a more dangerous place. These include the following:

  • Four of the world’s five deadliest conflicts––in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia––involve Islamist insurgents.
  • Over a quarter of the conflicts that started between 2004 and 2008 have been associated with Islamist political violence.
  • In the post-Cold War period a greater percentage of the world’s countries have been involved in wars than at any time since the end of World War II.
  • Armed conflict numbers increased by 25 percent from 2003 to 2008 after declining for more than ten years.
  • Intercommunal and other conflicts that do not involve a government increased by more than 100 percent from 2007 to 2008.
  • The impact of the global economic crisis on developing countries risks generating political instability and increasing the risk of war.
  • Wars have become “intractable”––i.e., more difficult to bring to an end.

Some of these developments do indeed provide a cause for concern. It is not just that the decline in conflict numbers reported in the 2005 Human Security Report has been reversed. The real worry is that rising Islamist violence, the intractability of the conflicts that remain, and the impact of the economic crisis on developing countries may mean that the recent increase in conflict numbers will continue and the future could resemble the Cold War years which saw conflict numbers triple over four decades.

But Project Director, Professor Andrew Mack, a former advisor to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, argues that a closer analysis of the data leads to a much less pessimistic conclusion. He notes that:

  • The recent increase in the number and deadliness of conflicts associated with radical Islamist movements and the US-led “war on terror” is perhaps the single most worrying trend today. But the level of armed conflict in Muslim countries is far lower today than it was two decades ago, and support for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups has declined substantially throughout the Muslim world.
  • The 25 percent increase in conflict numbers is largely due to an increase in minor conflicts that kill very few people.
  • There has been a modest increase in battle death numbers in recent years, but this needs to be seen in context. The average annual battle-death toll per conflict in the 1950s killed almost 10,000 people; in the new millennium the figure is less than 1,000.
  • The doubling of intercommunal and other conflicts that do not involve government forces between 2007 and 2008 is a real concern, but these conflicts rarely last longer than a year and their death tolls are only a small fraction of those of wars that involve a government as a warring party.
  • A major study by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2005 stressed that many of the remaining armed conflicts were intractable––i.e., very difficult to resolve. But a new measure of intractability created by the Vancouver research team shows that conflicts have actually become steadily less intractable since 1970––and that 40 percent of the conflicts that USIP had identified as intractable in 2005 had ended by 2008.
  • A greater number of countries have indeed become involved in armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War than at any time since 1946. But this is not because there have been more conflicts––there have been fewer. The increase arises entirely as a consequence of large numbers of countries sending token forces that have no combat role to three US-led coalition wars––the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan.
  • The economic crisis that started in 2008 had a strong negative impact on parts of the developing world, but did not lead to the expected increase in political violence. There was, in fact, one fewer conflict in 2009 than 2008. In 2010, all regions of the developing world were experiencing remarkably robust rates of economic growth.
  • Perhaps the most reassuring finding is that high-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78% since 1988.

The Causes of Peace in the 21st Century

The first Human Security Report detailed changes in the incidence and deadliness of armed conflicts around the world from 1946 to 2003. The new Report reveals why those changes took place.

The demise of colonialism, the end of the Cold War, a dramatic increase in the number of democratic states, and a shift in elite attitudes towards warfare are among the key political changes that have reduced the incidence of international warfare since the end of World War II.

Equally important, argues Professor Mack, has been the dramatic long-term increase in levels of global economic interdependence. “Interdependence,” he says, “has increased the costs of war while reducing its benefits.”

The decline in civil wars has rather different causes. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN-led upsurge of international efforts to negotiate peace agreements in ongoing conflicts and to prevent wars that have ended from starting again has been associated with a significant decline in the number of wars fought within states.

The long-term risk of civil war has been reduced by rising levels of economic development that have increased the resources governments can deploy to co-opt adversaries, redress grievances, and defeat insurgencies that can’t be prevented or ended by negotiation.

Key Findings: International Conflicts

In the 1950s there was an average of six international conflicts (including anti-colonial wars) being fought around the world each year; in the new millennium the average was less than one. Recent international wars have also been far less deadly than those of the Cold War era, and the major powers have not fought each other for more than six decades—the longest period of major power peace in centuries.

Why the decline?

  • Two seismic political shifts, the demise of colonialism, and the end of the Cold War removed major sources of tension and conflict from the international system.
  • The percentage of countries with democratic governments doubled between 1950 and 2008, from 29 percent to 58 percent. Since democracies almost never go to war against each other, there have been progressively fewer countries around the world likely to fight each other.
  • Since the 1930s, public and elite attitudes towards war have changed substantially. Wars of colonial conquest would be unthinkable today. And, whereas in earlier eras war was seen as acceptable, even desirable, now it is proscribed except in self-defence, or with the authority of the UN Security Council.
  • Aggressive hyper-nationalism is non-existent in the developed world and very rare elsewhere, though the glorification of warfare is characteristic of some radical Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda.
  • Greatly increased levels of international trade and foreign direct investment have raised the costs of conquest and shrunk its benefits. One recent study found that, on average, a 10 percent increase in foreign direct investment reduced the risk of net conflict numbers by 3 percent. In today’s open global trading system, it is almost always cheaper to acquire goods and raw materials by trade, than to invade a country in order to steal them.

Identifying the determinants of peace with any degree of precision is difficult––not because there are too few plausible explanations, but rather there are too many. This complicates the task of analysis, but the range of causes suggests that—other things being equal—the decline in interstate warfare is likely to prove enduring.

Key Findings: Civil Wars

Civil wars are important because they constitute by far the greatest number of conflicts being fought around the world today.

Overall conflict numbers, the overwhelming majority of which have been conflicts within states in recent years, started to decline in 1992, dropping by some 40 percent by 2003. Since then conflict numbers have risen again with almost all the increase being in minor intrastate conflicts. High-intensity conflicts—those with 1,000 or more battle deaths a year—have declined steadily since the ending of the Cold War––in 2008 there were some 78 percent fewer than in 1988. As is the case with international conflicts, the decline has been driven by political and economic changes.

Why the Decline?

  • The end of the Cold War catalyzed a series of changes that have had a major impact on the global security environment. When the ideological hostilities of the Cold War came to an end the flow of superpower economic and military resources to the warring parties in “proxy” wars across the developing world dried up completely. These changes led, among other things, to the end of nearly all the large-scale communist insurgencies being waged around the world.
  • The UN, liberated from four decades of political stasis, lead the huge increase in international initiatives directed at stopping wars and preventing those that had stopped from re-starting. The UN was joined by other international agencies, donor governments, governments of the war-affected countries. Countless international and national NGOs were also actively involved.
  • The scale of the increase in international activism in the post-Cold War era was extraordinary. The number of UN peacekeepers increased sevenfold between 1991 and 2007; the number of countries contributing troops to UN peacekeeping operations jumped from 35 to 114 between 1988 and 2007; multilateral sanctions rose thirteen-fold from 1991 to 2008. In other areas similarly large increases were recorded.
  • Critics have been quick to point to UN failures—and there have indeed been many. But even initiatives with a low success rate have far more impact than no initiatives at all—the case for most of the Cold War years. Even if success rates remain low over time, the absolute number of successes will increase if the number of initiatives shoots up dramatically, which is what has happened over the past two decades.
  • The strongest finding to emerge from statistical studies of the causes of civil war is that as levels of economic development rise, the risk of war falls. It is no accident that civil wars have been concentrated in the poorest countries in the world.
  • Rising national incomes increase the resources of governments more than those of insurgents who operate outside the mainstream economy in remote rural areas. Increased state income provides governments with the resources to cut deals with adversaries, address grievances, and crush militarily those insurgencies that cannot be ended through negotiated settlements.
  • This also means governments are increasingly likely to defeat insurgencies. Since 1946, governments defeated insurgents in over two-thirds of the civil conflicts that ended in victories; and the trend is increasing. Since 1980, there have been no insurgent victories in East Asia—the region with the world’s highest rates of economic growth. Sub-Saharan Africa, a region which has seven out of 10 of the world’s most fragile states according to the Fund For Peace, also has the highest rate of insurgent victories.
  • The report includes an analysis of East Asia’s post-World War II history that exemplifies both the huge human costs that tend to be associated with major power interventions and the findings of statistical research that revealed the relationship between national income and the risk of war. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, GDP per capita in the region doubled; conflict numbers more than halved.
  • As states become more capable they are not only better at stopping wars and winning those that can’t be stopped, but they are also better able to prevent them from starting in the first place. We can see this clearly in East Asia. From 1951 to 1979, 12 new conflicts started in the region; from 1980 to 2008 there were just three—a 75 percent reduction.
  • The evidence suggests, in other words, that development is a powerful form of long-term conflict prevention. In developing countries this means that national economic policy is also, in effect, a de facto national security policy.

Key Findings: The Shrinking Costs of War

Part II of the Human Security Report focused on the causes of the remarkable changes in death tolls from armed conflict around the world over the past six decades.

Since 1950, worldwide battle death numbers have declined steeply, yet unevenly. The decline in death tolls is determined, in part, by the long-term decline in international conflicts that tend to kill more people than civil wars. However, other factors have also played an important role:

  • In the Cold War years, the major wars were driven by the geopolitics of the Cold War and were characterized by massive external interventions and prolonged engagements between huge armies equipped with heavy conventional weapons.
  • In the post-Cold War world, most wars are fought within, not between, states and by small armies mostly equipped with small arms and light weapons. While often characterized by tactics of extreme brutality, they kill relatively few people compared to the major wars of the Cold War period.
  • In poor country wars, deaths from conflict-exacerbated disease and malnutrition have been reduced by dramatic long-term improvements in public health, notably immunization. These have not only steadily reduced mortality rates in peacetime, but also saved countless lives in wartime.
  • Since the end of the Cold War, major increases in the level, scope, and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance to war-affected populations in countries in conflict have reduced wartime death tolls still further.

It is these changes that explain the apparent paradox of nationwide mortality that continue to decline during periods of warfare.

Other Findings in the New Report

  • France, the UK, the US, Russia/USSR, and India (in that order) were the world’s most war-prone countries between 1946 and 2008 in that they have been involved in most the state-based armed conflicts.
  • If we rank countries by the number of years of conflict they have experienced since 1946, Burma comes first with an astonishing 246 conflict years––an average of four conflicts a year for the entire period. It is followed by India, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and the UK (in that order).
  • In 2008, the estimated number of civilians killed by organized violence was the lowest since data started being collected in 1989.

For more information, read the full report or review the online press kit.

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