News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Winning the War on War?

  • Dominic Contreras
| February 1, 2012

At a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Monday (Jan. 30), a panel of experts in international relations and psychology debated the question: “Is War on the Way Out?”

Moderated by Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. and sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Harvard’s F.A.S. Department of Psychology, the discussion featured Steven Pinker of Harvard University and Joshua A. Goldstein of American University, who have both written recent books arguing that the world is growing more peaceful. The Belfer Center’s Monica Duffy Toft and Stephen M. Walt joined in the discussion and questioned some elements of the two authors’ conclusions.

In a jointly authored December 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, Pinker and Goldstein wrote that “the departure of the last American troops from Iraq brings relief to a nation that has endured its most painful war since Vietnam. But the event is momentous for another reason. The invasion of Iraq was the most recent example of an all-out war between two national armies. And it could very well be the last one.”

Speaking at the forum, both echoed their assessment that war is less and less often being used as a tool for societies and states to resolve conflicts, but they  differed in their views of what brought about this change.

Speaking to the main argument of his book “Winning the War on War: the Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide,” Goldstein, professor emeritus of international relations at American University, largely credited international institutions for the pacification of the international community, stating that “After World War II we did something new…we founded the United Nations…and we’ve developed this tool, peacekeeping…that has successively, progressively, over a number of years, made it possible to resolve more conflicts without violence, to reduce violence when it has already occurred, and to sustain peace when you’re able to negotiate a peace agreement.”

“The international community is not an oxymoron,” Goldstein said, “it actually works.”

Pinker, the Johnstone family professor of psychology at Harvard and author of the much heralded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” concurred with Goldstein’s assessment of a new peace taking hold. But he went a step further, arguing that in addition to the international community promoting peace, interpersonal norms and the development of social restraints have fostered a shift away from violence.

Pinker cited “psychological changes through cosmopolitanism and literacy… [and the] expansion of empathy and the consideration of others,” as driving forces in the societal tilt away from war. He also pointed to changing attitudes towards violence as explaining this shift. “Violence is seen as something to be solved and something we can throw our wits against… society sees it as a problem, not a solution,” Pinker said.

Pinker and Goldstein both declared that they are not optimists and had approached trends in warfare as pessimists, only reaching their conclusions through rigorous scholarly analysis. Toft and Walt, however, were not so easily convinced that the data bear out the hopeful view.

Toft, an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School and director of the Belfer Center’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, praised both authors and their books, but pointed to what she perceived as a Eurocentric tilt in their data pools. She also cited changing global power dynamics, and wondered if the trend would hold.

Responding to Pinker’s argument that societies have become more civilized Walt, the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international affairs and faculty chair of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program, said, “It’s not obvious to me that the civilizing instinct at the interpersonal level translates to more civilized behavior between states or between states and other people.”

Walt pointed to Bosnia and Iraq as examples of cases in which boundary conditions change and violence quickly emerges from seemingly peaceful societies. Devoid of a strong central state, both Yugoslavia after the fall of Tito, and Iraq after the toppling of Saddam both descended into civil war as competing groups vied for control and power. Furthermore, Walt pointed to the post-Cold War U.S. that has gone to war four times through democratic processes and has choosen warfare as a rational and preferred option.

The panel largely agreed that global war on the scale of World War I and II is unlikely to occur again, because, according to Goldstein, “trade is now basis of prosperity [whereas] conquering land used to be.”

However, they agreed, modern exceptions abound; in some cases the United Nations, which is charged with upholding peace, can sanction war, and in others, states can decide that war is in their interest. Whether or not war is on the way out in the long-term is up for debate, but according to Pinker, “you can’t miss the trend line.”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Contreras, Dominic. “Winning the War on War?.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 1, 2012.

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