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War May Be Closer Than We Think

A new analysis warns us that the period of relative peace since the end of World War II may be an aberration.
Fighter jets

For many of us, a war between superpowers seems almost unthinkable. Scholars have dubbed the era since the end of World War II "the long peace," and prominent thinkers such as Steven Pinker argue such factors as the economic benefits of interstate commerce make a major war less likely.

In a new analysis, Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado–Boulder argues that we should not get too sanguine just yet.

"The historical patterns of war," he writes in the journal Science Advances, "seem to imply that the 'long peace' may be substantially more fragile than proponents believe."

Using data from the Correlates of War Project, Clauset, a computer scientist who studies complex social and biological systems, analyzed trends in the size, scope, and frequency of armed conflicts pitting one state against another between 1823 and 2003. The data revealed a lot of fluctuation, which raised a key question: Given that there have always been extended periods of peace, does the "long peace" really represent a historical turning point?

Clauset's conclusion: It's too soon to tell.

"The post-war pattern of relative peace would need to endure in its current form for at least another 100 years before it would become statistically unusual enough to justify a claim that it represents a genuine trend," he writes.

Clauset asserts that "the optimistic perspective espoused by liberalism" is "not unreasonable." But he cautions that a clear-eyed view "must consider not only the mechanisms that reduce the likelihood of war, but also the mechanisms that increase it."

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These include "the unraveling of alliances, the slide of democracies into autocracy, or the fraying of economic ties." That's a pretty good rundown of global trends over the past few years.

Many analyses, Clauset notes, have linked "the persistent appeal of nationalism, the spread of which can increase the risk of interstate wars," with countries' "deepening economic ties via globalization." (See Brexit, or NAFTA.)

In other words, there are indications that the more globalized the world economy becomes, the more appealing nationalism becomes, at least for those who feel they are left behind. This draws into question the idea that increased global trade automatically leads to a more peaceful world.

OK, you might ask, but what about nuclear weapons? Given that nuclear war would result in mass devastation on both sides of a major conflict (as well as in much of the rest of the world), isn't large-scale war now unthinkable? Clauset doesn't see anything in the data to support that widely held belief.

"The presence of nuclear weapons in the post-war period has evidently not changed either the onset rate of new wars, or the size distribution of the interstate wars that do happen," he says. "Over the past 200 years, there have been enormous other changes in the world, both socially, technologically, and geopolitically, and my analysis shows that these have evidently not had a substantial impact on the statistics of interstate wars."

That's hardly a heartening thought.

"If the statistics of interstate wars are genuinely stationary," Clauset concludes, "the risk over the next century of a very large war is uncomfortably high. The results here thus highlight the importance of continued efforts to ensure that the 'long peace' endures, and to prevent fragile peace-promoting systems from failing."

Which is not exactly a priority for the Trump administration.