Peace has a golden reputation. Worshippers pray for it. A Norwegian committee awards a celebrated prize to individuals and organizations that it believes promote peace. The central figure of Christianity bears the honorific “the Prince of Peace.” Yet peace on Earth has proven elusive. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, however, the world has learned a great deal about peace, and what we have learned makes it, if not simpler to establish, then at least easier to understand. It is not a mythical beast, the unicorn of international history. It has been sighted, in the post-Cold War era.
We have learned what peace looks like and how it comes about. The 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall were the most peaceful in history. During that period, while there was certainly violence in such places as the Balkans, central Africa, and Syria, the major countries did not fight each other. In these countries, in fact, war fell to the bottom ofthe national agenda. Their governments ceased to feel an urgent need to prepare for war and to gear their foreign policies to the likelihood of war, as governments had done since time immemorial. They enjoyed a deeper peace than ever before.
This new and different condition of international politics came about because of three monumental global developments. First, the military dominance of the United States discouraged aggression by other powerful countries. Second, the expanding volume of trade, combined with the rapid increase in international investment, also discouraged war. It meant that armed conflict, by interrupting commerce, would impose particularly high costs on the warring countries—even on those that won. Third, the spread of democracy—which combines free, fair, and regular elections with the protection of religious, economic, and political liberty—reduced the capacity for war by giving people the means to check their sometimes bellicose rulers at the ballot box and by fostering a political culture of peaceful compromise that, when extended beyond a democracy’s borders, curtail warlike intentions.
To be sure, these three features of post-Cold War international politics cannot guarantee peace. Nothing can. The events of political life, including war, are determined by the interplay of many forces, which vary in strength from one time and place to another. Still, the three did make major war a far more distant prospect than ever before.
The years since the end of the Cold War have taught us not only that deep peace is possible but also that it is fragile. For that peace no longer exists. It ended because an important country in each of three crucial regions conducted policies, including the use of force, aimed at overturning the prevailing, peaceful, political and military rules and norms there. In Europe, Russia invaded and occupied neighboring Ukraine. In East Asia, China claimed as its own sovereign territory—contrary to international law—most of the western Pacific and built artificial islands there on which it placed military installations. In the Middle East, Iran spread its influence throughout the region by subversion and violence.
The leaders of the three countries had more than one motive for embarking on their campaigns of aggression but they all shared a common desire to enhance their standing with the people they ruled by presenting themselves as the defenders of the nation against dangerous enemies and as the architects of an expansion of their power, influence, and respect in their home regions and in the world. Seeking success abroad as a way of reinforcing a political position at home is a strategy of long standing. In no other period, however, has this tactic loomed as large in international politics as it has in recent years.
We know, too, what is necessary to restore the lost peace: democratic governments. Of the three forces making for peace in the international arena, democracy exerts the strongest effect. Numerous studies have found that modern democracies have a powerful tendency not to go to war, at least not with each other. A wholly democratic world would surely be a more peaceful one than is the world of 2019, with war less likely and preparations for war less urgent and costly. If Russia, China, and Iran were to become democracies they would not give up their ambitions for international influence but would be far more likely to seek it by peaceful means than are the current governments of those countries. Prediction is hazardous, but it seems safe to say that the political transformations of Russia, China, and Iran into stable democracies would do more to make Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East zones of peace than any other development.
We cannot know when or indeed whether any of the three countries will have democratic governments. While none of them is a democracy now, a popular impulse for it does exist in each. An ongoing struggle is taking place between the forces of democracy and the government’s efforts to suppress them. The struggle occasionally breaks through to public awareness, as with the protests against Vladimir Putin’s rigged elections in 2011, the large demonstrations in Tienanmen Square in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, and the Green Movement protests in Iran in 2009.
While the long-term outcome of each struggle is uncertain, we do know that it depends, in each case, on the people of the three countries. We have learned that democracy cannot be established from the outside. The United States tried and failed to do this in far weaker countries than Russia, China, and Iran, indeed countries that it actually occupied—Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Those efforts failed because democracy must rest on particular social and economic traditions, which not every country possesses, and they must be home-grown rather than imported from abroad. Countries do become democracies, as many have over the last four decades, but they cannot be made to be democratic by even powerful and well-intentioned outsiders.
This leads to the final, bittersweet lesson about peace that emerges from recent history. After millennia of warfare we now possess a plausible formula for peace. We now know that peace emanates, above all, from democratically-governed countries. But we lack the means to implement that formula. We know what must be done, but only the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian people can do what is necessary to turn the hopes and prayers for peace on Earth into reality.