“Peace on Earth” is each year’s Christmas wish. But any realist or cynic can tell you that this wish is an empty hope that will never come true.
The world is awash in war. And whether you blame the military-industrial complex, the clash of civilizations, competition for natural resources, or human nature itself, peace on Earth seems further away than ever.
Except, actually, it isn’t. While TV images will always show us the most horrible parts of the human experience, the big picture has changed dramatically in our lifetimes.
Peace on Earth as a complete cessation of violence may never arrive, but the distance between the dream and the reality has been shrinking for decades. Worldwide, wars today are fewer, smaller and more localized than at any time in living memory.
Start with the bloodiest form of violence in history – wars between the world’s regular national armies, head-to-head with their tanks, artillery, airplanes, missiles and, currently, 20 million soldiers worldwide. For centuries, these armies fought regularly, several times a year on average, and the worst of these wars killed millions at a time.
Today, nowhere in the world are these armies fighting each other – a historic development that has received almost no notice. Countries are still armed to the teeth and still have conflicts, but they don’t go to war to solve them, mostly because it’s insanely expensive and doesn’t work very well. Exhibit A is the recently ended U.S. war in Iraq.
In Europe, where major interstate wars followed one after another for centuries, a continent has become a union where (despite monetary troubles) fighting is unthinkable. China, wracked by wars and revolutions throughout history, has not fought a battle in 25 years. Its leadership derives legitimacy from trade-based prosperity, and follows a “peaceful rise” strategy in the world system. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry no longer exists.
But has the violence of interstate wars merely been displaced onto civil wars that are more widespread and brutal than ever? The answer is “no.” Civil wars also have abated of late. Careful counts of battle deaths worldwide in the 21st century reveal levels half those of the 1990s and a third the Cold War average.
Whole regions consumed by war a couple of decades ago – Central America, West Africa, the Balkans – are now at peace. A stable peace also exists in East Asia, where the most lethal conflicts of the Cold War years occurred in China, Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. Today’s skirmishes in Burma, guerrilla raids in the Philippines and bombings in Indonesia are insignificant compared with Asia’s violent past.
Much as I hate to infringe on holiday gloom with a ray of sunshine, hard evidence shows that the media drumbeat of war and violence does not represent the direction of history. To be sure, one war anywhere is one too many. Our work is not done. But to greet progress toward peace on Earth with “Bah, humbug!” is to deny humanity’s ability to grow.
Generation by generation, people have left behind cannibalism, human sacrifice, legal slavery and public spectacles of sadistic torture and execution such as crucifixion – all of which were once widespread around the world. War could be next.
If we open our eyes to the new realities and stop living in the past, we can give our children the greatest gift of all, a more peaceful world.