Canadian Study Reports New Threats to Global Security but Reveals Encouraging Long-Term Trends

The new Human Security Report (Report) from the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University argues that long-term trends are reducing the risks of both international and civil wars. The Report, which is funded by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and will be published by Oxford University Press, also examines recent developments that suggest the world is becoming a more dangerous place. These include the following:

  • Four of the world’s five deadliest conflicts––in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia––involve Islamist insurgents.
  • Over a quarter of the conflicts that started between 2004 and 2008 have been associated with Islamist political violence.
  • In the post-Cold War period a greater percentage of the world’s countries have been involved in wars than at any time since the end of World War II.
  • Armed conflict numbers increased by 25 percent from 2003 to 2008 after declining for more than ten years.
  • Intercommunal and other conflicts that do not involve a government increased by more than 100 percent from 2007 to 2008.
  • The impact of the global economic crisis on developing countries risks generating political instability and increasing the risk of war.
  • Wars have become “intractable”––i.e., more difficult to bring to an end.

Some of these developments do indeed provide a cause for concern. It is not just that the decline in conflict numbers reported in the 2005 Human Security Report has been reversed. The real worry is that rising Islamist violence, the intractability of the conflicts that remain, and the impact of the economic crisis on developing countries may mean that the recent increase in conflict numbers will continue and the future could resemble the Cold War years which saw conflict numbers triple over four decades.

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But Project Director, Professor Andrew Mack, a former advisor to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, argues that a closer analysis of the data leads to a much less pessimistic conclusion. He notes that:

  • The recent increase in the number and deadliness of conflicts associated with radical Islamist movements and the US-led “war on terror” is perhaps the single most worrying trend today. But the level of armed conflict in Muslim countries is far lower today than it was two decades ago, and support for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups has declined substantially throughout the Muslim world.
  • The 25 percent increase in conflict numbers is largely due to an increase in minor conflicts that kill very few people.
  • There has been a modest increase in battle death numbers in recent years, but this needs to be seen in context. The average annual battle-death toll per conflict in the 1950s killed almost 10,000 people; in the new millennium the figure is less than 1,000.
  • The doubling of intercommunal and other conflicts that do not involve government forces between 2007 and 2008 is a real concern, but these conflicts rarely last longer than a year and their death tolls are only a small fraction of those of wars that involve a government as a warring party.
  • A major study by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2005 stressed that many of the remaining armed conflicts were intractable––i.e., very difficult to resolve. But a new measure of intractability created by the Vancouver research team shows that conflicts have actually become steadily less intractable since 1970––and that 40 percent of the conflicts that USIP had identified as intractable in 2005 had ended by 2008.
  • A greater number of countries have indeed become involved in armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War than at any time since 1946. But this is not because there have been more conflicts––there have been fewer. The increase arises entirely as a consequence of large numbers of countries sending token forces that have no combat role to three US-led coalition wars––the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan.
  • The economic crisis that started in 2008 had a strong negative impact on parts of the developing world, but did not lead to the expected increase in political violence. There was, in fact, one fewer conflict in 2009 than 2008. In 2010, all regions of the developing world were experiencing remarkably robust rates of economic growth.
  • Perhaps the most reassuring finding is that high-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78% since 1988.

The Causes of Peace in the 21st Century

The first Human Security Report detailed changes in the incidence and deadliness of armed conflicts around the world from 1946 to 2003. The new Report reveals why those changes took place.

The demise of colonialism, the end of the Cold War, a dramatic increase in the number of democratic states, and a shift in elite attitudes towards warfare are among the key political changes that have reduced the incidence of international warfare since the end of World War II.

Equally important, argues Professor Mack, has been the dramatic long-term increase in levels of global economic interdependence. “Interdependence,” he says, “has increased the costs of war while reducing its benefits.”

The decline in civil wars has rather different causes. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN-led upsurge of international efforts to negotiate peace agreements in ongoing conflicts and to prevent wars that have ended from starting again has been associated with a significant decline in the number of wars fought within states.

The long-term risk of civil war has been reduced by rising levels of economic development that have increased the resources governments can deploy to co-opt adversaries, redress grievances, and defeat insurgencies that can’t be prevented or ended by negotiation.