It may not feel like it, with wars and conflicts blasting through our screens 24/7, but a study from Tel Aviv University shows that war is on the decline and that we are actually living in the most peaceful time in human history. The reason: Peace is more profitable than war.
In a review of recent literature supporting the view that war has declined over history, Professor Azar Gat of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Political Science makes the case that it is not the costs of war but the profits of peace that have recently driven the trend. The article was published in the Journal of Peace Research in March.
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Gat endorses the view that two major events have contributed to the decline of human fighting since pre-history: the rise of the state and the industrial revolution. “The decline of war is intimately related to the process of industrialization that started in the beginning of the 19th century,” says Gat. “The patriot, as John Stewart Mill observed as early as the 1840s, now needs to think not only of his own country, but also of every other country that is his country’s trade partner.”
Peace is more profitable than war
According to Gat, until about 5,000 years ago, humans lived in almost constant anarchy and violence. The development of nation-states allowed for both the enforcement of internal peace and a reduced exposure to war for the civilian population.
War took its next major blow with the dawn of the industrial-commercial revolution around 1815. The growth of industry and international trade made war less attractive by steadily increasing wealth, promoting economic interdependence, and allowing states to profit from foreign resources without the need to conquer territory, Gat says. He points out that in the past two centuries, humanity has seen the three by-far longest periods of peace between the great powers: 1815-1854, 1871-1914, and 1945 to the present.
Gat rejects pacifist claims that war is futile, noting that humans evolved the impulse to use violence when it was beneficial to them and that war has historically been a winning strategy for some. Conflict, peaceful cooperation, and competition have always been interchangeable and complimentary strategies in the human behavioral toolkit, depending on the circumstances and prospects of success, he says. Historical data shows that, contrary to widespread belief, modern wars have not become more lethal and expensive than in the past, relative to population and wealth. Instead, in the past two centuries, it is peace that has become more profitable.
It is still a dangerous world
The World Wars, the two most significant exceptions to the downward trajectory of war in the past two centuries, occurred after the great powers resumed protectionist policies and expanded them to undeveloped parts of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with colonialism, says Gat. At present, in less developed parts of the world, ethnic and nationalist tensions continue to override the logic of the new economic realities, as they did in Europe before 1945. In addition to economics, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the spread of democracy have helped keep the forces of violence in check.
Gat cautions that despite the decline of war — and the general improvement of human life — ours is a dangerous world. States and non-state actors have unprecedented access to devastating biological and possibly nuclear weapons, and the rise of non-democratic and non-liberal giants, like China, threatens to reverse the more positive trends that have brought us to where we are today. Still, he notes, modern developments give much cause for hope.
Professor Gat holds the Ezer Weizman Chair in National Security Studies at TAU. He has spent much of his career studying war and is the author of many books, including the acclaimed War in Human Civilization (Oxford, 2006).
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