"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Tendency to wage war not on the wane, analysis finds

Sept. 2, 2013
Courtesy of Ohio State University
and World Science staff

While some re­search­ers have said war be­tween na­t­ions is in de­cline, a new anal­y­sis sug­gests we should­n’t be too quick to cel­e­brate a more peace­ful world.

The study finds that there is no clear trend in­di­cat­ing that na­t­ions are less ea­ger to wage war, said Bear Brau­moeller, au­thor of the study and as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Ohio State Uni­vers­ity.

Con­flict does seem to be less com­mon than it once was, he said. But that’s due more to an in­abil­ity to fight than to un­will­ing­ness. “As em­pires frag­ment, the world has split up in­to coun­tries that are smaller, weaker and far­ther apart, so they are less able to fight each oth­er,” Brau­moeller said. “Once you con­trol for their abil­ity to fight each oth­er, the pro­cli­vity to go to war has­n’t really changed over the last two cen­turies.”

Brau­moeller pre­sented his re­search Aug. 29 in Chi­ca­go at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence As­socia­t­ion.

Sev­er­al re­search­ers have claimed in re­cent years that war is in de­cline, most no­tably Ste­ven Pinker in his 2011 book “The Bet­ter An­gels of Our Na­ture: Why Vi­o­lence Has De­clined.” As ev­i­dence, Pinker points to a de­cline in war deaths per cap­i­ta. But Brau­moeller said he be­lieves that’s a flawed meas­ure.

“That ac­cu­rately re­flects the av­er­age cit­i­zen’s risk from death in war, but coun­tries’ cal­cula­t­ions in war are more com­pli­cat­ed than that,” he said. Moreo­ver, since popula­t­ion grows ex­po­nen­tial­ly, it would be hard for war deaths to keep up with the boom­ing num­ber of peo­ple in the world, he added.

Be­cause we can­not pre­dict wheth­er wars will be quick and easy or long and drawn-out (“Re­mem­ber ‘Mis­sion Ac­com­plished?’“ Brau­moeller said) a bet­ter meas­ure of how war­like we as hu­mans are is to start with how of­ten coun­tries use force—such as mis­sile strikes or armed bor­der skir­mish­es—a­gainst oth­er coun­tries, he said.

“Any one of these uses of force could con­ceivably start a war, so their fre­quen­cy is a good in­dica­t­ion of how war prone we are at any par­tic­u­lar time,” he said.

Brau­moeller used the Cor­re­lates of War Mil­i­ta­rized In­ter­state Dis­pute da­tabase, which schol­ars from around the world study to meas­ure uses of force up to and in­clud­ing war. The da­ta shows that the uses of force held more or less con­stant through World War I, but then in­creased steadily there­af­ter. This trend is con­sist­ent with the growth in the num­ber of coun­tries over the course of the last two cen­turies, he said.

But just look­ing at the num­ber of con­flicts per pair of coun­tries is mis­lead­ing, he said, be­cause coun­tries won’t go to war if they aren’t “politic­ally rel­e­vant” to each oth­er.

Mil­i­tary pow­er and ge­og­ra­phy play a big role in rel­e­vance; it’s un­likely that a small, weak coun­try in South Amer­i­ca would start a war with a small, weak coun­try in Af­ri­ca.

Once Brau­moeller took in­to ac­count both the num­ber of coun­tries and their po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance to one anoth­er, the re­sults showed es­sen­tially no change to the trend of the use of force over the last 200 years, he said.

While re­search­ers such as Pinker have sug­gested that coun­tries are ac­tu­ally less in­clined to fight than they once were, Brau­moeller said these re­sults sug­gest a dif­fer­ent rea­son for the re­cent de­cline in war. “With coun­tries be­ing smaller, weaker and more dis­tant from each oth­er, they cer­tainly have less abil­ity to fight. But we as hu­mans should­n’t get cred­it for be­ing more peace­ful just be­cause we’re not as able fight as we once were,” he said.

“There is no in­dica­t­ion that we ac­tu­ally have less pro­cli­vity to wage war.”


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers

EXCLUSIVES

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

While some researchers have claimed that war between nations is in decline, a new analysis suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate a more peaceful world. The study finds that there is no clear trend indicating that nations are less eager to wage war, said Bear Braumoeller, author of the study and associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University. Conflict does appear to be less common than it had been in the past, he said. But that’s due more to an inability to fight than to an unwillingness to do so. “As empires fragment, the world has split up into countries that are smaller, weaker and farther apart, so they are less able to fight each other,” Braumoeller said. “Once you control for their ability to fight each other, the proclivity to go to war hasn’t really changed over the last two centuries.” Braumoeller presented his research Aug. 29 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Several researchers have claimed in recent years that war is in decline, most notably Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. As evidence, Pinker points to a decline in war deaths per capita. But Braumoeller said he believes that’s a flawed measure. “That accurately reflects the average citizen’s risk from death in war, but countries’ calculations in war are more complicated than that,” he said. Moreover, since population grows exponentially, it would be hard for war deaths to keep up with the booming number of people in the world, he added. Because we cannot predict whether wars will be quick and easy or long and drawn-out (“Remember ‘Mission Accomplished?’“ Braumoeller said) a better measure of how warlike we as humans are is to start with how often countries use force—such as missile strikes or armed border skirmishes—against other countries, he said. “Any one of these uses of force could conceivably start a war, so their frequency is a good indication of how war prone we are at any particular time,” he said. Braumoeller used the Correlates of War Militarized Interstate Dispute database, which scholars from around the world study to measure uses of force up to and including war. The data shows that the uses of force held more or less constant through World War I, but then increased steadily thereafter. This trend is consistent with the growth in the number of countries over the course of the last two centuries, he said. But just looking at the number of conflicts per pair of countries is misleading, he said, because countries won’t go to war if they aren’t “politically relevant” to each other. Military power and geography play a big role in relevance; it’s unlikely that a small, weak country in South America would start a war with a small, weak country in Africa. Once Braumoeller took into account both the number of countries and their political relevance to one another, the results showed essentially no change to the trend of the use of force over the last 200 years, he said. While researchers such as Pinker have suggested that countries are actually less inclined to fight than they once were, Braumoeller said these results suggest a different reason for the recent decline in war. “With countries being smaller, weaker and more distant from each other, they certainly have less ability to fight. But we as humans shouldn’t get credit for being more peaceful just because we’re not as able fight as we once were,” he said. “There is no indication that we actually have less proclivity to wage war.”