Peace epidemic?

Dan Drezner links to an article by Fred Kaplan in Slate. Kaplan questions the veracity of claims in the Human Security Report that the world has become a more peaceful place since the end of the Cold War.

Kaplan is unconvinced:

All the report’s graphs end in 2002, the final year for which the authors could gather data. The events of 2003-06—the war in Iraq and a possible civil war in the works, the slackening of dictatorship (but possibly the resurgence of ethnic conflict) in Lebanon and Ukraine, tensions rising with Iran, continued fighting in various hotspots of Africa—seem more discouraging than hopeful. The best thing that can be said about these conflicts, whether raging or brewing, is they could go either way.

Drezner disagrees though:

1) If you look at the figure, it seems like the world was more peaceful 60 years ago — but that’s only because the total number of states in the system was much smaller than today. It’s not surprising that the number of intrastate conflicts increased from 1946 to 1991 — that’s because the number of states in the system increased as well. What’s interesting about the post-1991 system is that it’s gotten more peaceful even as the number of states has increased. True, a lot of these new countries are microstates like Tonga — but they also includes the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics.

Kaplan’s focus is on the numerator — but you have to look at the denominator as well. That’s what makes the decline in wars so surprising.

2) Unstated in the Human Security Report, but vital to the perception of a “peace epidemic,” is the absence since 1945 of the most deadly form of international conflict — a genuine great power war. For the near future, the U.S. won’t be fighting China, India, Russia, or even the European Union. Great power wars are indeed rare, but the current peace of 60 years is the longest stretch of time without one breaking out since the birth of the modern state system.

Kaplan is correct to point out that the current downturn in armed conflict might not be permanent — but it’s still a downturn.