Analysis & Opinions - Power & Policy Blog

What's the Most Critical and Under-appreciated Issue in International Security? World Peace

| February 7, 2013


This commentary was republished by Global Post on February 20, 2013.

The very phrase "world peace" has become something of a synonym for naiveté. Yet in recent years, compelling evidence has emerged to suggest that at least one important aspect of world peace, the absence or rarity of inter-state warfare, may in fact be the predictable result of observable, long-term trends. Scholarly work on what might be called the "decline-in-violence" phenomenon emerged following the conclusion of a surprisingly peaceful Cold War, but has lately garnered greater popular attention from journalists and public intellectuals like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

In a world faced with the ever-present risk of terrorist attacks and a looming Iranian nuclear capability, the decline-in-violence proposition is often treated with skepticism. But it's time for the international security community to think seriously about preparing for a durable world peace instead of the constant threat of world war.

To be clear, we cannot expect a violence-free world any time soon. Instead, the data suggests that certain kinds of violence, most notably inter-state wars, are becoming less common even as other forms of conflict increase. Of course, there are good reasons to be cautious in accepting this interpretation: it's difficult to categorize and count acts of violence across countries, and many proposed explanations for declines in violence, such as the spread of cultural norms against war and conflict, don't seem to apply in all cases. But one trend in violence is sufficiently robust to give even skeptics pause: the long-term decline in the number and intensity of inter-state wars. Indeed, it is a striking and little-appreciated fact that despite no shortage of violence of other kinds, the world is at present entirely and blessedly free of traditional, state-on-state warfare.

On-going discussions about the future of international security must include the remarkably low prevalence of inter-state warfare in recent history. To be sure, the international community has made great progress in broadening the focus of security beyond state-state conflict. The US State Department's 2010 "Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review," which laid out a concept of "civilian power" integrating traditional diplomacy, public engagement with civil society actors, and development aid, stands out as a sterling example. But the fact remains that the basic architecture of international security is ill-equipped to function in a world in which organized, inter-state warfare is rare. Although inter-state wars will still occur in the future, they will be of less importance to international security than during any previous period. It is often said that soldiers prepare to fight the last war instead of the next, but the international security community has an even bigger problem: preparing for war when the future is more likely to be peace.

The threat of peace to an international security community fixated on war is illustrated in the history of the Cold War period and its aftermath. Indeed, the last time international security scholars and policymakers seriously envisioned a stable international peace was right around the time that the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons and exposed an intention to occupy Eastern Europe indefinitely. In response, western leaders erected national security structures designed to confront the threat of a theater war in Europe within the context of a global struggle for influence. Subsequently, many hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in proxy battles and inter-state wars, but not in Europe. There something quite unexpected happened: nothing. Despite millions of troops facing one another across the Iron Curtain, a Third World War was averted, and western leaders gleefully turned to reaping a "peace dividend" by scaling back their far-flung entanglements to focus on re-integrating the former Soviet bloc.

But these efforts were upended when the rest of the world exploded in new forms of violence, for which the disarming great powers were distinctly unprepared. The Balkans were consumed in vicious internecine warfare which UN peacekeeping forces were powerless to control, and the tiny mountain country of Rwanda became the scene of unimaginable ethnic slaughter in which western countries, haunted by the specter of a failed mission in Somalia, dared not intervene.

In retrospect, it is clear that the international community possessed neither the analytic tools nor the institutional capabilities to deal with a world order in which ethno-religious groups, and not nation-states, were the primary operative actors. Which brings us back to the question: what if organized state violence and warfare is the exception rather than the rule in international security?

The short answer is that the international community remains exceptionally unprepared. Despite a decade in which the United States and many of its allies have been focused on counterinsurgency campaigns, and the US Army boasts that its junior officers routinely run municipal governments, the foreign and security policy apparatus of the great powers remain overwhelmingly focused on state-state conflict. Washington’s rapid strategic re-positioning toward the Asia-Pacific region and the promulgation of an "Air-Sea Battle" doctrine is perhaps the most vivid example of an enduringly myopic focus on traditional geopolitics and the prospect of inter-state warfare. But the real risk of this approach is that it marginalizes the type of long-term capacity-building which relies much more on civilian and non-governmental actors than militaries and Foreign Ministries—and which is necessary in a world where unorganized, intra-state violence is the dominant issue in international security.

Doing so requires reform on at least three basic principles.

First, systemic socioeconomic issues, particularly income inequality, access to basic infrastructure and services, and political participation, should become the central concerns of international security, with a correspondingly greater engagement of disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and geography.

Second, the traditional functional barriers between militaries, diplomatic bureaucracies, and development organizations should be broken down and re-organized to focus more on different time-scales, with some focused on short-term emergency operations like disaster relief and humanitarian intervention, and others completely devoted to long-term, cooperative institution-building.

Third, fora like the UN Security Council, which traditionally represent nation-state actors, should broaden their participatory structures. Particular emphasis should be given to sub-national leaders whose portfolios are primarily social and economic, rather than explicitly political or military, in order to bridge the traditional divide between the study of international and domestic affairs.

Violence is not dead, but certain forms of it, particularly inter-state conflict, are in long-term decline, and that remarkable fact should be a much greater part of discussions about the future of international security. The Munich Security Conference possesses a distinguished history of broadening discussions about international security, particularly by including new stakeholders. This positions it perfectly to help foster a serious discussion about the decline of inter-state warfare as a critical issue for the future of the international security community—and how it can prepare for such a happy though tentative prospect.

Scott Moore is a Giorgio Ruffolo Doctoral Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Moore, Scott.“What's the Most Critical and Under-appreciated Issue in International Security? World Peace.” Power & Policy Blog, February 7, 2013.

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