A few days ago I was a participant in a well-attended academic panel on "the decline of violence and warfare" at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association held this year in San Diego, California. The two-part panel featured appraisal of the common argument of two prominent recent publications: Steven Pinker's bestselling The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined and Joshua Goldstein's well-researched and provocative Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.
Both books are disposed to rely upon quantitative data to back up their optimistic assessments of international and domestic political behaviour, which if persuasive, offer humanity important reasons to be hopeful about the future. Much of their argument rests on their interpretation of battlefield deaths worldwide, which according to their assessment have declined in recent decades.
But do battlefield deaths tell the whole story, or even the real story, about the role and dangers of political violence and war in our collective lives?
In this panel, I was assigned to be a part of the Goldstein half. Although I had never previously met Joshua Goldstein, I was familiar with his work and reputation as a well regarded scholar in the field of international relations.
To offer my response in the few minutes available to me, I relied on a metaphor that drew a distinction between a "picture" and its "frame". I found the picture of war and warfare presented by Goldstein as generally persuasive, conveying in authoritative detail information about the good work being done by UN peacekeeping forces in a variety of conflict settings around the world, as well as the work of peace movements in promoting war-avoidance.
Perhaps, the most valuable part of the book was its critical debunking of prevalent myths about a rising proportion of civilian casualties in recent wars and inflated reports of casualties and sexual violence in the Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). These distortions have led to a false public perception that wars and warfare are becoming more indiscriminate and brutal in recent years, while the evidence does point in the opposite direction.
'Winning the war on war'
Goldstein is convincing in correcting such common mistakes about political violence and war in the contemporary world, but less so when it comes to the frame and framing of this picture that is conveyed by his title "winning the war on war". Arguments to this effect are the centrepiece of his book and arouse interest.
The quantitative measures do not come to terms with the heightened qualitative risks of catastrophic warfare, or the continued willingness of leading societies to anchor their security on credible threats to annihilate tens of millions of innocent people, which if taking the form of a moderate scale nuclear exchange (less than 1 per cent of the world's stockpile of weapons) is likely to cause, according to reliable scientific analysis.
This has been called "a nuclear famine", resulting in a sharp drop in agricultural output that could last as long as ten years and could be brought about by the release of dense clouds of smoke blocking incoming sunlight.
Also on the panel were such influential international relations scholars as John Mearsheimer, who shared with me the view that the evidence in Goldstein's book did not establish that. As Mearsheimer put it, "war had been burned out of the system", or that even such a trend meaningfully could be inferred from recent experience.
Mearsheimer, widely known for his powerful realist critique of the Israeli lobby (in collaboration with Stephen Walt), did make the important point that the United States suffers from "an addiction to war".
Mearsheimer did not seem responsive when I insisted that part of this American addiction to war arose from the entrenched domestic militarism generated by a permanent war economy that disposed policymakers and politicians to treat most security issues as worthy of resolution only by considering the options offered by thinking within a militarist box of violence and sanctions, a viewpoint utterly resistant to learning from past militarist failures (as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now, Iran).
In my view, the war addiction is significantly a consequence of this blinkering of policy choice by a militarised bureaucracy in Washington that is reinforced by a compliant media and a misguided hard power realist worldview and by private sector lobbyists and corporate profits, and continuously rationalised by well-funded subsidised think-tanks such as the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
Back in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower, in his presidential farewell speech, famously drew attention to the problem that has grown far worse through the years when he warned the country about "the military-industrial complex".
What shocked me about the panel was not its claim that violence was declining and war was on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if they were positive contributors to establish a peaceful and just world, provided that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means "adversaries of the West", or more colourfully phrased by George W Bush as "the axis of evil") as a result of proliferation.
In this sense, although not made explicit in the conversation, Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons set forth in Prague on April 5, 2009, seems irresponsible from the perspective of achieving a less war-prone world.
I had been previously aware of Mearsheimer's support for this position in his hyper-realist account of how World War III was avoided between 1945 and 1989. But I was not prepared for Goldstein and the well regarded peace researcher, Andrew Mack, to blandly endorse such a conclusion without taking note of the drawbacks of such a "nuclear peace".
Goldstein in his book (p.42) writes: "[N]uclear deterrence may in fact help to explain why World War III did not occur during the Cold War – certainly an important accomplishment." Goldstein does insist that this role of nuclear weapons cannot explain other dimensions of the decline of political violence, which rests on a broader set of developments that are usefully depicted elsewhere in the book. But this does not offset his seeming willingness to celebrate nuclear weapons as important contributors to a more peaceful world.
Steven Pinker in his book takes a far much more nuanced position on nuclear weapons, arguing if it is correct to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III. He points out that it would be "a fool's paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse".
Pinker goes on to conclude that "[t]hankfully, a closer look suggests that the threat of nuclear annihilation deserves little credit for the Long Peace" (p.268). Instead, Pinker emphasises the degree to which World War III was discouraged by memories of the devastation experienced in World War II, combined with the realisation that advances in conventional weaponry would make a major war among leading states far more deadly than any past war, even if no nuclear weapons were used.
Pinker also believes that a "nuclear taboo" developed after World War II to inhibit recourse to nuclear weapons in all but the most extreme situations and it is the primary explanation of why the weapons were not used in the 67 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But even Pinker does not raise deeper questions about the continued possession and threat to use such weaponry that is retained by a few countries. Or, if the taboo was so strong, why these weapons remain on hair-trigger alert even after more than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall? (see for instance, Steven Starr, "On the overwhelming urgency of de-alerting US & Russian missiles") Or, why the United States fought so hard, it turns out unsuccessfully, to avoid having the International Court of Justice pronounce on the legality of nuclear weapons? (see ICJ Advisory Opinion, July 8, 1996.)
Most surprising than these comments on how the presence of nuclear weapons dissuaded the US and the Soviet Union from going to war was the failure of my co-panelists to surround their endorsement of the war-avoiding presence of nuclear weapons with moral and prudential qualifiers. At minimum, they might have acknowledged the costs and risks of tying strategic peace so closely to threatened mass devastation and civilisational – and perhaps, specie – catastrophe, a realisation given sardonic recognition by the widely used acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction).
Addicted to war
The questions put by the audience also avoided this zone of acute moral and prudential insensitivity, suggesting the limits of rational intelligence in addressing this most formidable challenge if social and political construction of a humane world order was recognised as a shared goal of decent people.
It is unimaginable to reach any plateau of global justice without acting with resolve to rid the world of nuclear weaponry; the geopolitical ploy of shifting attention from disarmament to proliferation does not address the moral depravity of relying on genocidal capabilities and threats to uphold vital strategic interests of a West-centric world (Chinese nuclear weapons, and even those few possessed by North Korea seem solely for defensive and deterrent purposes).
I doubt very much that such a discussion of the decline of war and political violence could take place anywhere in the world other than North America, and possibly Western Europe and Japan. Of course, this does not by itself invalidate its central message, but it does raise questions about what is included and what is excluded in an "Americans only debate" (Mack is an Australian).
Aside from the US being addicted to war, there were very few references to the new hierarchies in the world resurrected by indirect forms of violence and intervention after the collapse of colonialism, or of structural violence that shortens life by poverty, disease and human insecurity.
The significance of this discussion of nuclear weaponry in 2012, in an academic setting can be summarised: To witness otherwise perceptive and morally motivated scholars so succumbed to the demons of nuclearism; for me, this was an unmistakable sign of cultural decadence that can only bring on disaster for the society and the world at some indeterminate future point.
We cannot count on our geopolitical luck lasting forever! And we Americans cannot possibly retain the dubious advantages of targeting the entire world with these weapons of mass destruction without experiencing profound spiritual decline, which throughout human history, has always been the prelude to political decline, if not collapse. David Krieger and I explore this range of issues in our recently published book, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).
He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.