President Obama observed this June that “if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history…you’d choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been.” While his proposition may seem incongruous with the present cavalcade of crises across Eurasia, the evidence suggests that the world is indeed becoming more secure. With Thanksgiving just behind us and the new year fast approaching, we should all give thanks.
Consider nuclear dangers. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously called “the most dangerous moment in human history,” John F. Kennedy believed there was at least a one-in-three chance of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union; 20 years later, a top adviser to Ronald Reagan, Richard Pipes, put that figure at two-in-five. Recently declassified documents establish, moreover, how close the Americans and Soviets came to the precipice of nuclear war in September 1983. Leading U.S. officials of the Cold War period spoke with equanimity about civilization’s ability to survive a nuclear exchange—so ingrained was the concept of mutually assured destruction in establishment defense planning. In July 1981, speaking at his hearing to be confirmed as Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Eugene Rostow reassured Senator Claiborne Pell that “[t]he human race is very resilient.” “Some estimates,” he went on to note, “predict that there would be ten million casualties on one side and 100 million on another. But that is not the whole of the population.”
Today, thankfully, the probability of a nuclear war is closer to zero than it has been at any other point since the dawn of the atomic age.
Armed conflicts offer another benchmark for gauging our progress. While some observers wax nostalgic for the “long peace” of the Cold War, the reality is that proxy wars, civil wars, and genocides exacted a staggering toll between 1945 and 1991. That we enjoy unprecedented security today is further apparent if one considers World Wars I and II: 20 million perished in the former, and roughly three times as many died in the latter. All told, organized violence is estimated to have claimed at least 160 million lives in the 20th century. Milton Leitenberg, the first American to work at the distinguished Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, places that figure at 231 million.
The 21st century appears to be moving in a better direction. The Human Security Report Project notes that “[f]rom the early 1990s to the present day, [the total number of armed conflicts has] dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.” Between 1950 and 2007, moreover, the annual rate of reported battle deaths per million people fell from roughly 240 to fewer than ten. A growing body of research in political science corroborates such findings. In its latest report, for example, the Center for Systemic Peace concludes that “the general global magnitude of warfare decreased by over sixty percent since peaking in the mid-1980s, falling by 2010 to its lowest level since 1961.” It also found that deaths from political violence fell from roughly 200 per million people in 1946 to fewer than 40 in 2011.
These realities do not, of course, diminish the dangers we face. While the global stockpile of nuclear weapons is dropping, India and Pakistan are assiduously building their arsenals and delivery systems; furthermore, America’s top military commander in South Korea fears that North Korea may have succeeded in building a nuclear weapon small enough to be mated to a ballistic missile. Meanwhile, organized violence continues to exact a significant toll: the rampages of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, internecine fighting in Syria, clashes between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, and humanitarian crimes in the Central African Republic, among other horrors, remind us that “collective action” is too often an unfulfilled promise.
Still, one would have to search hard to find someone who would trade today’s threats for those of the previous century. Why, then, is the perception of greater global insecurity so pervasive? It is difficult to neglect the role of social media, which are far more effective at fanning fears than at contextualizing threats. Had Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube existed in the first half of the 20th century, they would likely have portrayed the world wars as harbingers of civilizational collapse, even though the greatest gains in global prosperity have occurred in the postwar period.
Another possible explanation is growing uncertainty in world order. The existence (more accurately, the perception) of U.S.-Soviet bipolarity and the possibility of mutually assured destruction combined to impose an enduring high-level framework on world affairs for nearly half a century. Today, however, as both relative U.S. decline and the inability of another country or coalition to replace it become more apparent, there is growing concern about the possibility of a vacuum in world order and its presumptive concomitant: global disorder. Compounding this concern is the increasing sway of non-state actors—whether terrorist outfits, hacking units, or drug cartels—which have leveraged the fruits of globalization far more effectively than governments.
Of the infinite number of forms disorder could take, it is anyone’s guess as to which ones will prevail. Mathew Burrows—former director of analysis and production at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and arguably the most regarded futurist alive today—believes we are entering “a new era that we are only just beginning to understand.” Perhaps it is our innate fear of uncertainty that explains the contemporary tendency to conflate disorder with insecurity. In the new issue of Foreign Policy, George Packer notes that “[b]y the metric of corpses, the catastrophes of 2014 have hardly been more severe than those of any given year in the past 100; in some cases, they’ve been much less so.” Still, he explains, they have “produced an unmistakable sense of disintegration. What’s gone is…any sense of a framework, an order, a system in which [peace and stability] could be restored.”
Henry Kissinger has called the renewal of world order “the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time.” At least three tasks are built in to that enterprise: reconciling the aspirations of the present system’s architects with the ones of those countries that regard it as an imposition; devising a structure that accommodates not one foundational unit, but two (the nation-state and the nonstate actor); and, perhaps most vexingly, bringing urgency to the undertaking—world ordering—in the absence of immediate existential threats.
Pope Francis lamented this September that “[e]ven today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.” While the centenary of World War I has focused enormous attention on the possibility of another world war, the pope’s insight suggests that world order is actually more vulnerable to piecemeal decay than sudden disintegration. With some exceptions (climate change, for example), the pressing challenges on today’s agenda—whether the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program or China’s approach to resolving maritime disputes with its neighbors—do not pose overarching challenges to that order; instead, they chip away at its norms and arrangements gradually. Rousing the world to stop slow-drip degradation is much harder than mobilizing it in the face of global perturbations (for example, the financial crisis of 2008–09).
Few labor under the illusion that renewing world order will be easy, and many esteemed observers question if such a task can even be accomplished. Still, contending with the disorder that is likely to attend this enterprise is preferable to staving off nuclear Armageddon and ending world wars.