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Reasons for Optimism
Mike Treder   Oct 14, 2005   Responsible Nanotechnology  

The world is winning the war on war.

So says this article from the Washington Times.

  In terms of the number of armed conflicts worldwide and their intensity, the world is living through a period of relative peace not seen in about 40 years.

Ted Robert Gurr of the University of Maryland and Monty Marshall of George Mason University co-authored “Peace and Conflict 2005,” continuing the work of two surveys the researchers issued in 2001 and 2003.

  “You always want to temper the good news with a measure of caution,” Mr. Gurr said. “But you should also recognize that there is good news here, good news that we think a lot of policy-makers don’t really appreciate.”


  Researchers Victor Asal of the State University of New York at Albany and Amy Pate of the University of Maryland looked at global patterns for discrimination by governments against some ethnic groups and found additional positive news.

  The percentage of countries practicing political discrimination against an ethnic group fell from 64.6 percent in 1950 to 38.2 percent today. The percentage of countries employing economic discrimination declined from 59.5 percent in 1950 to 37.3 percent last year, while the number of countries with policies aimed at remedying discriminatory policies quintupled.

  “It was a consistent finding throughout every region we looked at,” Miss Pate said.

Why all this good news?

  Conflict specialists say they are still trying to understand the factors causing the unexpected decline in global conflict, wars and military spending worldwide.

Explanations include the end of the Cold War, the creation of the European Union, and the work of the United Nations. But is this welcome shift part of a long-term trend, or just a temporary aberration?

John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist, predicted in a 1989 book that the shifting international scene meant the great-power wars of the first half of the 20th century were becoming less and less likely.

  “I do not hold that everything is getting better in every way,” Mr. Mueller wrote in an essay published in 1991, “nor do I hold that everything people generally consider bad will vanish from the earth.

  “But things do change. Slavery used to be an institution as venerable and apparently as natural and inevitable as war. Formal dueling used to be widely accepted as an effective method for resolving certain kinds of disputes. Both became thoroughly discredited and then obsolete. There is reason to believe the institution of war could eventually join their ranks.”

We agree that there is cause for some optimism. In addition to the general abolishment of dueling and human slavery, improvements can be cited in the recognition of women’s rights, a decline in child labor, reduction of capital punishment, and near universal education in many nations.

All this makes us cautiously hopeful that we humans, as a species, are maturing rather quickly. We managed to avoid mutual annihilation during the Cold War. Can we do as well with the coming prospect of even more powerful nano-weapons?

It is well for us to congratulate ourselves on many successes. At the same time, we must not overlook the millions who still suffer from violence, oppression, disease, poverty, and starvation.

  Mr. Gurr and Mr. Marshall say in the conclusion to their 2005 survey that there is some danger in reporting the good news of the decline of war, with some worrying it “may contribute to complacency and undermine the progress being made.” About a fifth of the world’s countries still face a “serious risk” of civil war or political collapse, according to the survey.

Potential flashpoints include Sudan, Burma, Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, the North-South Korea divide, the China-Taiwan dispute, and the India-Pakistan tensions.

Still, the overall picture looks brighter than at any time in recent history.

Researchers Marshall and Gurr emphasized that although “serious disagreements and enormous challenges” remain, “to underestimate the overall progress being made would be a disservice to those who have worked so hard and contributed so much.”

Indeed, we salute them all and thank them for their invaluable efforts.


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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