Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why war might really be over (and why it might not)

In his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steve Pinker demonstrates that war and violence have declined worldwide, and speculates as to possible reasons why this has occurred. Many people have criticized this conclusion: for example, see Nicholas Taleb. The thrust of all the criticisms is the same:

"Sure, war has declined recently, but the decline may not be structural. A new bout of war could occur any day now. In fact, the very factors that have suppressed war in recent decades may just make future wars more catastrophic."

And this is of course true, as far as it goes. Past performance is never a guarantee of future results; even if there has been a deep structural change that has led to a drop in war, what's to say there won't be another deep structural change that brings war back? And of course it's possible that the current decline in war is just as much an illusion as the macroeconomic "Great Moderation" turned out to be.

Then again, maybe not. Sometimes, structural changes happen that are, for all intents and purposes, permanent. For example, smallpox is now really and truly gone from the planet; it declined and never bounced back. Nor is there any sign of a return to high rates of infant mortality.

So I don't understand the critics of Pinker. Simply pointing out that Pinker does not have a well-verified scientific theory of what drives the grand sweep of history should not blind us to the real phenomenon of declining global violence. Instead of saying "Oh, the Great Moderation was an illusion, this must be too!", we should recognize the reality of the violence decline, and dig deeper in order to root out the structural causes (or lack thereof).

Why might war have declined? The common theories include:

1. MAD: The threat of devastating nuclear retaliation makes war too risky for any major power.

2. Commerce: Global supply chains are just too valuable to disrupt with a war.

These two ideas are often criticized. MAD might simply shunt all the risk of war into the heavy tails, leading to a brittle standoff that eventually snaps and results in a holocaust that more than makes up for all the decades of peace. Commerce has proven to be a flimsy peacemaker in the past, since global trade networks didn't forestall WW1 and WW2.

I agree with these criticisms. But I also see some other possible structural reasons why war might be on the way out. To wit:

3. Low reward of war: Economically, the main benefit of war (other than a stimulus to get one's economy out of a slump!) is seizing of natural resources. But nowadays, natural resources are just not a very valuable prize. Countries with very few natural resources - Japan, Germany, France, etc. - tend to be the richest, while most resource-rich countries are poor. And the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, widely thought to be motivated by a desire for oil resources, ended up not paying for itself via oil. It just wasn't worth it! In the modern economy, wealth comes mainly from physical and human capital, not from land - and you just can't easily seize and exploit an opponent's factories and PhDs (as the Nazis discovered). There's just no benefit to be had from fighting anymore. Of course, this was probably true in WW2 as well, but perhaps now nations have had enough experience losing money on wars to realize that there's no profit in smashing up the means of production.

4. The information age: In the past, countries going to war were highly uncertain about what kind of threat they faced, and so it was much more possible for two opponents to each believe they had a very good chance of victory. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet and other vast sources of free public information, countries probably have a lot more realistic assessments of how likely they would be to prevail in any given conflict. And since countries will tend not to choose war when they think it likely that they will lose, this will mitigate against military adventures. Look how extensively the Bush Administration had to deceive itself and isolate itself from reality in order to persuade themselves that Iraq would be a cake walk!

5. Low fertility rates: There is a clear and well-established correlation between high fertility rates and violence. Yet fertility has declined dramatically in most regions of the country since the 1970s; at this point, only some parts of Africa and a few scattered small countries elsewhere have fertility rates in the 4+ range, which used to be ubiquitous. Fewer surplus "angry young men", more cautious old people, more grandparents to take care all adds up to reduced impetus to war.

6. High monetary costs of war: Weapons are becoming more and more expensive, and so is the energy required to power them. Missiles and drones and ships cost insane amounts of money, but it is no longer possible for great powers to fight wars without these things. This raises the cost of war.

These are structural factors that usually go overlooked in discussions of the "end of war". But I think they're real. Of course, to be fair, I should mention some structural factors that might work in the opposite direction:

1. Nuclear terrorism: If people get the ability to build nukes in their basements, as in the Vernor Vinge story "The Ungoverned", then all bets are off, because it will be possible for personal rather than national grievances to start very high-casualty conflicts. The same goes for home-made super-viruses.

2. Resource scarcity: We've hit the age of "peak everything", and some resources are getting scarce. Food, in particular, has gone way up in price, and water is becoming scarce in many parts of the world. This will act against Reason 3 above, and raise the return to war, especially for poor countries.

3. Cyberwar combined with automation of nuclear arsenals: This risk should be pretty obvious.

So in conclusion, I see lots of structural factors lining up against war, and only a few lining up in its favor. This doesn't mean that the former will win, and it definitely doesn't mean that we won't see any more big wars. But it points us in the direction that I think we need to look if we want to confirm whether the trend observed by Steve Pinker is structural and durable.


  1. Nuclear terrorism is not really a war - unless it were a state sponsored act of terrorism. If a nuclear attack were carried out using a bomb from Pakistan, Iran or North Korea, with the complicity of the government of the source of the bomb, I expect that the rest of the world would stand back while the victim reduced the aggressor to a glowing parking lot.

    The biggest risk for a full on war would be an attempt by China to take Taiwan, or the South China Sea, by force. That would probably not go nuclear.

    We could still see lots of local, non-nuclear, civil wars - from the small scale like Libya or Syria to a full collapse of the state in China or North Korea.

    1. Anonymous9:57 AM

      I think local and civil was and that Noah has a great point on the larger matter. For some reason it seems like war has lost its benefits. I think he is also in the ballpark by suggesting that the rising importance of human capital in regards to what really drives economic growth (particularly in frontier economies) is the critical factor.

      The thing that bugs me, however, is that I cant imagine human capital ever not being the key. I mean, what made the Greeks, the Romans, the Islamic empire, the Chinese empires, the British empire, etc. what they were was their scientific advances. The only counter examples i can think of off the top of my head are the Mongols and the Vikings, which succeeded by pillaging, but those successes were short lived and were a function of advances in military technology and ways of fighting in any event.

      To your comment about China. If China were to take Taiwan, the US would get really pissed off, beat its chest like a gorilla right in their face, show off its awesome naval fleet right near their shores, try to get the world on it's side (which I bet would happen), and then do nothing overt. Reason being, it simply wouldnt be worth it.

    2. Anonymous9:59 AM

      I meant - I think your point about local and civil wars was a good one and that Noah has a great....

      Damn iphones.

  2. Here's a criticism of Pinker: it may not be that the structure is necessarily heading towards war ending. He probably thinks international trade will be the end of war. Well there are certainly cultures around the world that are wary of free trade, and those countries that stand in the way will just get mauled. Some of those countries may win their wars, some may lose.

  3. I think you give good reasons why nations would want to avoid war. However, I have another reason other than what you give for how war might seem unavoidable. Suppose the cultural differences between the two antagonists were so great that both sides believed the other to be ready to pull the trigger in spite of their own attempts to resolve differences peacefully. Differences in etiquette can make one civilizations polite behavior seem highly offensive to the other society. Think it can't happen that way? Try reading the poem From Now Until Muhammad Mahdi's War It is set in Iraq in 2006/2007 and demonstrates the cross cultural misunderstanding that can lead to intense fighting between groups that had every incentive to cooperate with each other.

    Ben Wheeler
    Sensational Sonnets

  4. I'm with Pinker on this and think that war will largely be a thing of the past in the not so distant future. Although there will probably be internal issues within states, I highly doubt there will be conflicts between states. The costs are just too high and the gains are too small.

  5. War is the extension of politics, and politics the extension of centralization. If we have indeed passed through one of the periods of a "revolution in military affairs" rather then merely a "military technical revolution," and if as I argued in a thesis this revolution would lead to the necessity of a more decentralized military, then it would follow politicians would be less rather then more willing to use war as an expression of politics. I doubt this on it's own would be enough to end war, but may be an additional factor that would. I will have to get the book as Pinker is one of my favorites.

  6. "For example, smallpox is now really and truly gone from the planet; it declined and never bounced back."

    Maybe not, since the U.S. and Soviet Union retained samples. And the DNA has been published, making it theoretically possible to add smallpox properties to existing smallpox-like viruses, and maybe even to completely re-create smallpox, without needing access to the samples.

  7. I haven't finished reading the book. It's a big one. But in regards to this statement you make:
    "Past performance is never a guarantee of future results"
    Pinker explicitly says he is guaranteeing any predictions about the future. Rather, his thesis is an historical one.

    1. Of course, which is why most of his critics are barking up the wrong tree.

    2. Present performance is most certainly never a predictor of future results either.

  8. Where do you get the "clear and well-established correlation between high fertility rates and violence"? I've studied both fertility and violence and not come across this work. Is this in the Pinker book?

  9. Anonymous7:32 AM

    here's a piece with a similar claim:

  10. Simon9:03 AM

    Noah, off topic, but Miles Quartz article kind of blew my mind.

    I'd love to see you write an article about a zero inflation economy, that is not stuck in a liquidity trap. Do you think that negative interest rates in a cashless world would make this a possibility?

    Supposing it is possible, would it make sticky-price/wages theories of business cycles more plausible? In an economy with zero inflation, firms could no longer cut wages in real terms by disguising the impact in nominal terms. Or would negative interest rates reduce the effects of sticky wages?

    Looking forward to hearing your take on this.

  11. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Taleb thinks we will return to a pre-industrial society this century, so I'm not sure to what extent he is worth responding to, or whether any of these arguments will work against him.

  12. Simon9:29 AM

    Noah, Miles also gives the buffer positive inflation allows for central banks to reduce rates as a major benefit of inflation. If we went to a zero inflation world, are there other benefits that would be lost? Or would they be outweighed by the benefits from a zero inflation economy?

    And don't be too hard on Taleb, remember that you both worship Richard Feynman.

  13. Anonymous10:14 AM

    I thought the most commonly cited reason for the drop in violence (if it is real) is that it is related to faith in institutions. There is I think a pretty strong correlation between and within countries with strong independent government agencies and honest police, etc., and low levels of personal violence. If you trust institutions to give justice and fairness, then you don't feel as inclined to go shoot your neighbour over that boundary dispute, or go to war over a disputed island.

  14. I need correct one point you made:

    "Look how extensively the Bush Administration had to deceive and isolate the US public opinion from reality in order to persuade the population that Iraq would be a cake walk!"

    The information age is a weak factor for force the decline the war and can just have a contrarian effect: the disinformation age can make wars easier.

    Too take note that low fertility rates and high monetary coust of war are linked: countries that have a low supply of "angry young men" are just the countries are investing at high thecnology war gear, as invisible jets and drones. Simply, lower supply make the "angry young men" more expensive that the new toys. However, I am not sure if the new toys make the victory easier, something wrong happened to the new toys at Lebbannon (2006) and Georgia (2008). Take note that Georgia war ended with the defeat of Georgia forces that used the advanced weapons that NATO give them before the russian army had time for make an effective offensive.

    Too take note that high thecnology with high monetary coust toys are not new to world history and they proved taht fail a lot of times. The ancient egiptians and the Hitite Empire made war t using high coust war carriots that were the most advanced thecnology at the end of the Bronze Age. Both empires were destroyed by the "People of Sea" that used tatics and non-expensive weapons made for destroy that carriots. From that date we can see that pattern repeat a lot of times along the History (sadly, history repeat itself a lot of times...). I fear that sooner or later a third world country will use strategies similar to the Millennium Challenge 2002 ( that will prove be extremelly effective against a first world high thecnology fleet.

  15. Seems like a mistake to omit possible sociological explanations. (I give you credit for including #5, but only partial credit.)

    I certainly buy the idea that that war is influenced by strategic considerations (like your #4) and economic considerations, but who's to say that there aren't more factors at work? The evidence that jumps out at me here is that many powerful countries appear to have grown considerably less violent *internally* over the past century or so. I think this is especially true if you look at dramatic examples of organized violence. E.g. it is extremely difficult to imagine anything at all like the Holocaust happening in modern Germany, or to imagine anything like our past epidemics of lynching happening in the modern U.S.

    Is it not at least plausible that whatever forces have been driving a decline in severe inter-group violence within nation-states might also be playing a role in the decline of severe violence between nation-state groups?

    Like I said, this need not crowd out other ways of theorizing about the problem, but it seems like a mistake to leave this type of explanation off the table. This type of cause does seem harder to put your finger on, harder to think about rigorously, and harder to guess at whether it might be a lasting structural change or not. But to echo something you've said about DSGE, the theories that are easiest to express and manipulate might turn out not to be the most truthful.

    1. "I certainly buy the idea that that war is influenced by strategic considerations (like your #4) and economic considerations, but who's to say that there aren't more factors at work?"

      You've hit the nail on the head there mate, see "The Causes of War and the Conditions of Peace" by John Garnett for a typology of 'wars' and their different 'causes'.

  16. Anonymous11:59 AM

    No Noah it is you that is barking up the wrong tree unfortunately. Students of history, such as yourself, know this. All you need to do is look around you.

    We here in the South learned this from the Cherokee Indians when we first stepped foot on their land. How did they react? They tricked us into doing their bidding. If not for germs they would have killed us all (guns and steel were irrelevant here in the South. Always have been, always will be).

    That is why folks up North don't know what's really going on in the world. You're fighting and clawing your way to the top, trying to fight everyone off. Well the financial crisis showed us that is as true to today as it has ever been.

    Wake up and smell the roses.


    Something Cleverish

  17. "Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face"

    — Mike Tyson.

    While mutually assured destruction has played a big role, I think the Long Peace is contingent upon the underlying economic fundamentals of the Long Peace — cheap, plentiful oil, increased agricultural returns, technological proliferation and growth, growth, growth (at least in the West). Any destabilisation of this will imperil the Long Peace — if the fundamentals go, the "peace bubble" is over, and nations will have things to fight about. Let's just say I find the fact that the Western world is in an economic depression deeply, deeply worrying.

    1. Well, maybe! I think the return of resource scarcity will cause an increase in war. But how many wars? And how deadly? I think the other factors still apply, and will mitigate the damage unless there's a nuclear exchange.

  18. Noah,

    Longtime reader, first time commenter. You frame your blog post as disagreeing with Taleb and defending Pinker, but I think you've done precisely the opposite.

    You note (correctly) that Taleb's point is that the very factors that make war less likely to occur as frequently are the factors that make its departures from the mean deeper (or more violent). But then you say that these structural changes of diminished violence might be permanent (you give smallpox as an example). Taleb is arguing that the very structural changes (many of which you put forward as potential causes fall into this category) that diminish violence are the same ones that foster more violent episodes. You agree that he's arguing this, and then say that this change might be permanent.

    I fail to see how your blog post is arguing that these structural factors (especially if permanent) do not push wars into being bigger and more violent than ever before.

    1. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with either one...

  19. @Noah,

    I think you missed a possible byproduct of more intense commerce: permeable/open political systems. If the cause of potential aggression is policy-related, then establishing an effective lobby in another country may be less costy than war. I guess this relates to the coost of war argument, but this is still conceptually distinct. Maybe you could argue it is not structural, but one could question commerce for much the same reason.

  20. "the advent of the internet and other vast sources of free public information, countries probably have a lot more realistic assessments of how likely they would be to prevail in any given conflict."

    Having trouble picturing how that one would play out.

    1. Well 'misperception' as a cause of war is well established in the literature,

      Less information asymmetry between states could conceivably lead to less conflict (if you assume that states act 'rationally'*).

      If you're having trouble read this to get a general idea

      *they do not

  21. Anonymous11:54 PM

    "Look how extensively the Bush Administration had to deceive and isolate the US public opinion from reality in order to persuade the population that Iraq would be a cake walk!"
    I'd say instead: "Look how easily the Bush administrations could deceive...." ..and it wasn't just Fox News, but the NY Times... which cooperated in the deceiving, and silencing of the voices of reason. And while US voters just rejected a candidate who proposed to 'draw a red line' and have military action against Iran...

    The arguments for the decline in war are those understood by reasonable people, but are we sure reasonable people win from now on?

  22. Hi Noah,

    You're leaving out 7. Multilateralism i.e.. international (UN) / supranational law (EU) and international norms.

    And 8. The 'Democratic Peace Hypothesis' (the closest thing to a general law that International Relations offers) - basically that democracies do not go to war with one another. Thus the proliferation of democracy in the modern era may be a contributing factor to the perceived decline in major wars.

    No. 6 only really applies to major powers, just look at the Congo, no drones there.

    Also theories I-6 all presume rationality on the part of decision makers - an assumption which is very problematic to say the least.

  23. I think most of those reasons are good explaining why war has declined and pretty much what most of what everyone who thinks about the issue would have concluded. However those reasons are not about war being over.

    Here are some factors that will cause wars or at least violence: Lack of as much trade in the area as others. Lack of democracies. hatreds from past wars and education teaching people to hate Israel and Jews in certain places in the world and tensions and people dreaming of violence against each other. Israel's capability to strike at targets. And others.

    Also war is certainly not over in the African Continent.

    What worries me particularly is what happens when our technology advances more and more, and more and more different entities have access to extremely destructive weapons. A fear of that might cause some wars in certain countries. While other countries that would be more trustworthy as well more integrated economically with each other will care less to fight each other.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. I would also like to add that there are also some additional reasons that war has declined that have to do with WW2 and its aftermath.

    With a lot of the world in ruins and American superpower in support and in influence of most of the 'free world' we had several countries which were already a part of an alliance or occupied countries looking to move forward, wanting support and afraid of a new enemy. And of course we also have creation of NATO, political alliances increased and we even had the creation of the european movement and first steps for european union. We had a political change in the 20th century that led to a lot of countries having a political relationship unlike ever before. Unlike the aftermath of WW1, WW2 had a quite different result on the world.

    And we also had MAD.

    The political circumstances, alliances are not going to change easily especially since I think all the other reasons mentioned are also valid.

  26. Anonymous5:09 AM

    Interesting to read this just after John Quiggin's post at crooked timber.

    I don't have the info right now, but there's an argument that since the world wars there's been a focus on isolating instability and preventing it from spreading. What this means in practice is that strong nations and regions "export" instability to weaker ones, contain it, and let them exist in permanent low-level conflict and occasional hot wars.

    You could argue that fewer people die in the long run, but that's cold comfort for anybody who happens to live in one of the chaos zones in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia or Central America.

    Sidebar: as with a surprising number of things, Israel's handling of the Palestinians turns out to be a model for this approach.

  27. Anonymous5:22 PM

    The Bush administration had many reasons to think a new Iraq war would be a cakewalk. Overwhelming firepower pretty much guaranteed easy victory in the conventional war phase. Where they failed was in discounting the possibility of effective guerrilla warfare. That depends on the will of the people to carry on the fight and is unknowable before you go in. The relative peace in Afghanistan at that point in time seemed to vindicate the notion that America as the great liberator is welcomed by the oppressed. It would after all be completely irrational to fight somebody who has come to improve your life. Furthermore, when you look at the Bush Administration's assumptions (number of troops, amount of aid etc) it's clear that they had anchored their expectations in the dangerously optimistic territory. Thus their idea of "worst" case scenario apparently ended up missing reality by a considerable margin.

    In essence, wrong assumptions can lead governments astray and make them think victory will be easy and therefore turn war into a viable policy alternative.

  28. The argument about costs and benefits is not only unsupported by the historical evidence (countries that go to war are usually neighbours- and so usually trade partners), but misses the essential point that war is mostly about conflicting estimates of relative power - with the definition of what constitutes power part of what is at stake. War has declined in those parts of the world where there are effective states and effective international institutions because those states and institutions define power, and so eliminate the need to fight over what it is and who has it.

    What might reverse this? One is that the prevailing definitions of power do not accord with common moral perceptions (a low level example might be file-sharing: if people do not see it as wrong, they will resent attempts to enforce IP rights. In the absence of an agreed settlement, they might resist attempts to import regimes like TRIPS, eventually refuse to enforce the law altogether and so on). The US currently has a major problem of this kind with the Islamic world; speculating, it or China might have a similar problem if some climate catastrophe led much of the rest of the world to enforce CO2 limits, or growing inequality might undermine the current institutional consensus. The leap to effective international institutions able to prevent disagreements on major challenges like climate spilling over into violence looks hard to make.