Since the end of the Cold War, the average number of people killed by war each year has gone down significantly. Worldwide, deaths caused by war-related violence averaged about 180,000 per year during the Cold War, 100,000 per year in the 1990s, and 55,000 per year in the 2000s, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
Source: Peace Research Institute Oslo
Despite the carnage in Syria, there’s no reason to think that the long-term trend is reversing.
The UN Human Rights Office announced on Friday that the Syrian conflict had killed 191,369 people over the past three years. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s latest dataset, in all countries besides Syria, there were 21,358 battle deaths in 2013, 22,936 battle deaths in 2012, and 21,789 battle deaths in 2011. Put all the numbers together and you get around 85,000 worldwide battle deaths per year over the past three years. That’s 85,000 too many, of course, but the violence still isn’t nearly at the level of the Cold War.
The decline in the number of war deaths is particularly astonishing considering that world population has tripled since 1950. When looking at death rates instead of absolute numbers, the post-Cold War calm is even more apparent.
So why doesn’t it feel as if war is declining? There is a vast disconnect between the findings of those who study conflict and the public perception of war. In the mainstream conflict research community, it is uncontroversial that international wars have decreased since the 1950s and civil wars have decreased since the end of the Cold War. But public perception is sometimes different.
One reason for the widespread pessimism is that the rise of television and the internet has allowed gruesome images of the casualties of war to be disseminated around the world. Images of journalist James Foley’s horrific execution spread like wildfire through Twitter. Every reporter or blogger knows that videos of explosions and dead civilians will attract more viewers than any positive news, especially when that positive news is about a long-term trend rather than a particular event. Since consumers of media can so easily bring to mind the horrors they’ve just seen on TV or the internet, they overestimate the amount of violence taking place today compared to the past. Psychologists call such a bias the availability heuristic.
While the majority of peace researchers agree that violence is trending downward, it is more controversial to theorize why exactly this is happening. The Human Security Report 2013 offers a few explanations, including the end of great power conflict and colonialism, increased economic and financial interdependence, and the gradual spread of stable democracies. International institutions have undoubtedly played a role as well. Once free of Cold War-inspired vetoes, the UN Security Council was able to beef up its peacekeeping operations and help mitigate multiple civil wars, even if it couldn’t be successful in every single case. Meanwhile, international conventions have banned non-discriminatory weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons.
Whatever the reason, we live in a relatively peaceful world today. In Winning the War on War, Joshua Goldstein writes:
“In the first half of the twentieth century, world wars killed tens of millions and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half of that century, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the worst wars, such as Iraq, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically.”
Some might criticize conflict researchers for declaring a premature victory over war when so many lives are still torn apart by violence. However, these researchers aren’t trying to say that war is no longer a problem; they are just trying to understand it. A proper grasp of historical trends is essential to making the right decisions for the future. And it’s heartening to know that even though the international community has a long way to go in eradicating the scourge of war, we are making progress.