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Is the World Becoming More Peaceful?

From our Archives: 100 for 100

September 27, 2012

IMAGE CREDIT: Kate Ter Haar (CC)

Introduction

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening and welcome. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council. Our program this evening is a conversation with Steven Pinker and Robert Kaplan, discussing the question: Is the world becoming more peaceful?

From time to time, an idea comes up that is so central to the Carnegie Council's work that we stop everything, call the person responsible, and invite him or her to come and talk. This is one of those moments. Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, goes right to the heart of the Carnegie Council's mission.

Andrew Carnegie founded this Council nearly 100 years ago because he believed that violence was indeed in decline. Carnegie had a progressive view of history, famously summed up in his favorite phrase: "All is well, since all grows better." Mankind was improving. Science and technology were ascendant. In social life, all kinds of barbarous practices were being eclipsed by sweet reason. Practices like slavery and dueling were being outgrown. Next on the horizon, without a doubt, was the abolition of war.

In his New Year greeting in 1914, on the eve of the great calamity of World War I, Carnegie wrote, and I quote:

It is the killing of each other that still stamps man the savage. That this practice is not soon to pass away from civilized man is unthinkable, since history proves from age to age, by law of his being, he has slowly yet surely been developing from the beast. Hence, we are justified in believing that there is no end to his upward march of perfection.

Carnegie thought he could help this march along by building his Peace Palace at The Hague, lobbying presidents, prime ministers, Kaisers, kings, and czars to sign treaties of arbitration and join a league of nations, and creating educational forums like the Carnegie Council to enlighten public audiences.

Carnegie's efforts leave us with the obvious painful question: Why did the optimism of 1914 fade into the terrible history of the 20th century, giving us world war, genocide, ethnic cleansing? We are also left with the question of what to make of Carnegie's original hypothesis. Is it possible to leverage some kind of normative shift, a shift in expected and required standards of behavior, to delegitimize violence and reinforce moral restraint?

It is self-evident that norms and standards change over time. But what impact does a change in our values and standards have on the pursuit of peace?

Steven Pinker's work is at the frontier of knowledge in this area. It's my honor to introduce him to you tonight. A scholar of brain and cognitive sciences, language, and moral psychology, Steven has written books with titles such as The Language Instinct: How the Mind Works, an excerpt of which is wonderfully titled Hotheads, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

We're delighted that Steven has aimed his recent work toward our area of concern; that is, conflict and cooperation, war and peace.

I mentioned that from time to time we have these special moments when the Council's mission comes to the center of public debate. I realized that on several of these occasions Robert Kaplan has been present. This is no coincidence. One such moment was the publication of one of his previous books, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, and another was a conversation we engineered around the publication of Robert Wright's book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Robert Kaplan is one of the most thoughtful and accomplished analysts of world politics today. His new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, is characteristically philosophical and practical. I recommend it to you.

Our topic this evening is "Is the World Becoming More Peaceful?" Rather than a debate, point-counterpoint, we have decided to have a conversation. There are many ways to look at this issue and there are many perspectives to be shared.

We'll start off the conversation with Steven, who will introduce the main idea of his thesis. We'll then have a response from Robert, which will be followed by a rejoinder or two. We'll see how it goes. Then we'll open it up for questions.

I'm sure that Mr. Carnegie, rest his soul, would be thrilled to know that this conversation has been renewed.

Thank you all for coming, and I'll turn it over to Steve.

Remarks

STEVEN PINKER: The Better Angels of Our Nature advances the hypothesis that most people find literally incredible: That violence has declined over the course of human history, on a variety of scales of time and magnitude. Joel mentioned some of them—the fact that human sacrifice is no longer found in the world (we no longer throw virgins into volcanoes to improve the weather), legal chattel slavery, burning heretics at the stake, dueling, debtors' prisons, and rates of homicide have plunged since the Middle Ages. The book works through a number of declines, which I have tried to document with numbers presented in graphs.

But the one that I think will be of most interest to the people in this room, and the topic of my conversation with Robert Kaplan, is on the fate of war. A little-known fact is that war appears to be in decline. It's hard to discern this fact if you get your information from the news, because you never see a reporter in some part of the world saying, "Well, here I am, and there's no war here today." Wherever the war is, that's where the journalists fly to.

It's certainly not the case that rates of violence and war have fallen to zero. As long as they are not zero, there are always going to be enough of them to fill the evening news.

If your sense of the state of the world comes from the events you see on TV or on your computer screen rather than from the statistics, you can be misled about how many opportunities for war there are that don't actually result in war.

Let me back that up by my favorite method of communication, which is visual. We're primates. We're visual animals. So I like to tell the story with just a few pictures. The book itself has more than 100 graphs and maps. Let me just present four of them to establish what facts I'm talking about.

[Slide] The first graph comes from a political scientist named Jack Levy. It pertains to the war between great powers. These are the 800-pound gorillas of the day, the largest five to ten states or empires. This is relevant just because of the statistical distribution of wars. The big wars account for the lion's share of the deaths. "When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled." I think this is a saying attributed to countless African tribes, probably apocryphal, but it does establish a statistical point: that a few big wars kill a lot more people than lots and lots of little wars. So the great powers are interesting.

This graph spans half a millennium, 1500 to 2000, and it plots the percentage of years in every 25-year period in which the great powers were at war with each other. What the graph shows is that a few hundred years ago, the great powers were pretty much always at war with each other. That's what great powers did. They fought other great powers. More recently, they have almost never been at war with each other. The last great power war—that is, a war with one great power on each side—was concluded almost 50 years ago, namely, the Korean War.

[Slide] I'm going to now zoom in on the last 20 years. The 20th century has been called the most violent in history. For a number of reasons, I think this is quite dubious.

[Slide] This slide shows the rate of death from all wars in the 20th century, not just the great-power wars.

[Slide] What the graph shows is—this actually extends from 1900 to 2010—there were two unmistakable spikes of horrific bloodletting in the 20th century, concentrated on the two world wars. But contrary to many predictions that this was just the beginning of an escalating sequence—World War I, 15 million; World War II, 50 million; World War III, which is inevitable; the United States and the Soviet Union are bound to lock horns. When they do, they will use nuclear weapons. It will make World War II look like peanuts—but World War III never happened. In fact, if you look after the spike for World War II, you see that the graph wiggles a lot, but pretty much hugs the floor, and that the two world wars were not a sign of worse things to come, but something closer to a last gasp.

[Slide] I'm now going to zoom in on the post-war period. You could say, well, you're kind of grading on a curve if you say that the world hasn't been as bad as it was during World War II. That's not a very impressive standard. So let's just look from 1946 to the present. That will be in the next graph.

[Slide] This graph is a stacked-layer graph. I'll explain it before the colors start appearing. It runs from 1946 to 2009. The thickness of each wedge that you're going to see represents the rate of death in war on a per capita basis in each of four categories of war.

[Slide] Here we see the rate of death from colonial wars, where an empire tries to hang on to a colony that tries to become independent. As you can see, it tapers off to nothing as the European empires eventually relinquish their colonies.

[Slide] These wedges correspond to interstate wars. That's a war with a government on each side. It's a spiky progression. There are big spikes corresponding more or less to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Iran-Iraq War, with one little blip closer to the present for mostly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the trend is unmistakable. There are these horrible spikes, but the overall trend is downward. We haven't had a bad one for quite some time.

[Slide] Here we have the civil wars. There was a burst of civil war starting in the 1960s, in terms of the sheer number of wars. But civil wars tend to kill fewer people than interstate wars, and so, even superimposed on the other totals, it does not mask a downward trend.

[Slide] These are internationalized civil wars. This is kind of a hybrid where some third power butts into a civil war, generally on the side of the government.

The height of the entire stack represents the human toll from these wars. The post-war picture, then, overall is one that is uneven, but unmistakably downward, and if you look at the right tail of the graph corresponding to the 21st century, the decade we just lived through, it's a fairly thin laminate of layers hugging the floor.

So Carnegie was a little premature—he's ahead of his time—but in a very real sense, what he predicted might be coming to pass: namely, wars are becoming fewer and less lethal.

[Slide] What about genocide? It's often said that war is a misleading indicator of human violence, because more people were killed in the 20th century by genocide than war. Those statistics aren't completely clear. It depends on how you count genocide, how you count war, and so on.

[Slide] In this graph I have plotted from two different data sets estimates of the trajectory of death by genocide in the 20th century. It would be very callous, not to say incredible, to say that there is anything particularly good about this graph. But, in a sense, there is, in that it was often said that we were entering a new age of genocide in the 1990s and the 2000s, but statistically that is very far from the case.

There was an absolutely sickening burst of genocides concentrated in the 1940s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1950s, but once again the trajectory is unmistakably downward. Genocides, both in absolute and in relative terms, are a fraction of what they used to be. You can see a tiny little spike there for Rwanda. The fact that it's small should not minimize the horrific human costs. Nonetheless, it's a big world, and even a genocide of that magnitude means that the worldwide genocide trend is way down from what it was in the middle decades of the 20th century.

What went right? In the book I test a number of hypotheses. I don't think that human nature has changed. I believe that there is a human nature. I believe that it is flawed in many ways. We harbor many ugly, nasty impulses that can lead to human conflict, like dominance, honor, revenge, sadism, greed—I run through them all. However, I think that the human brain is a complex system, it has lots of parts, and, together with these nasty impulses, there are mental faculties that can be mobilized to combat our inner demons—namely, "the better angels of our nature," which gave the title to my book and which I stole from Abraham Lincoln.

History depends not on human nature being denied or eliminated, but just by the balance between these different parts of human nature. That's how I can be both a realist—indeed, almost a cynic—when it comes to the human species, but something of an optimist when it comes to human affairs.

So what went right? I go through a number of hypotheses:

  • Democratization had something to do with it. There's good evidence that pairs of democracies tend not to fight each other.
  • Liberalization of economic policies and globalization, free trade. Countries that trade a lot are statistically less likely to fight a war.
  • The rise of international institutions. Countries that both belong to an international/ intergovernmental organization are less likely to fight each other.
  • The increased costs of war, the fact that World War II proved that wars do an awful lot of damage to both sides that nullifies most anticipated gains.

But I think there's another factor that combines with the world's experience as to how destructive a war could be. I'm sitting next to this repeated slogan, "Ethics Matter," "Ethics Matter," "Ethics Matter" [referring to Carnegie Council auditorium's backdrop]. I think ethics matter, not in the sense of—obviously, they do by definition, just in a normative sense—but I think humans are moralistic animals.

That doesn't necessarily mean that our morals lead us to do the right thing—quite the contrary; I think the worst atrocities in human history were inspired by moralistic causes—but just that the nature of human moralization has changed. Namely, there is a shift, both within countries and in international relations, from a morality based on national grandeur, the supremacy of a race, a nation, a religion, a class toward a more humanistic ethics, where the flourishing of individual men, women, and children is elevated as closer to a cardinal virtue.

The reason that I think the carnage of World War II led to a change in sensibilities—but contrary to the predictions from the early 20th century that the invention of smokeless gun powder or dynamite or chemical weapons would make war obsolete, that didn't happen, because destructive technologies only give people second thoughts when they are combined with an ethic that says human life is precious. I think it's that combination rather than just the destructive technology by itself that's necessary to reorient nations away from war.

The change in norms has resulted in the fact that, certainly among rich, developed, and Western nations, and increasingly trickling down to other parts of the world, war is more and more removed from the set of live options, the kind of thing that you would even contemplate as a way of resolving disputes. I think that has led to fewer wars being initiated and the wars being terminated more quickly.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Steve, that was great.

In fact, his book is even richer than he lets it on to be, I can say, having read it and reviewed it positively, before I was even invited to do this.

In the early 20th century, there was a British writer, Norman Angell, who wrote a book, The Great Illusion. It was along the Carnegie angle about how war should be obsolete because it did not comport with human self-interest. It was a brilliantly argued book. Anyone who knows my work knows that I'm not a pacifist. But if I was going to be one, I would be one like Norman Angell, because he writes so brilliantly.

I first heard of Norman Angell's book because I had heard about 20 people at dinner parties, separately, denounce it, saying how it was all wrong. Whenever I hear a book denounced, rather than believe it, I read it. What I found was that this was a brilliantly argued book that, if human nature was just a little bit better than it was and if things had gone slightly differently in the 20th century, he would not have been humiliated the way he was. And, by the way, he didn't deserve to be humiliated, because he never wrote that there would be no more wars. He just said, here are the reasons why there should not be. The word "should" is often in the book.

Steve has written probably the best book since Norman Angell on this subject. And I hope it's not misunderstood.

What I would like to do is elaborate on it and challenge Steve, in a way.

The first thing I would like to say is, what were the reasons for this long peace, since 1946? Steve gives a lot of reasons. Some he didn't state—mass education, feminization of culture, just the rise of nation-states, because nation-states monopolize the use of violence. That's why Hobbes was actually a liberal, idealistic philosopher for his time, because he believed that his Leviathan could actually lead to peace and human progress. A lot of reasons.

One reason Steve doesn't go into, I would argue, is foreign policy realism. If you were to ask me, "What was the most moral initiative taken in the last few decades in foreign policy?" many of you would probably say Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia. And that would be a good answer. I'll give you a better answer: Richard Nixon in China.

Nixon's motives were very Realpolitik, not particularly uplifting. But what Nixon did was, he said to the Chinese, "You don't have to worry about Taiwan. We don't believe in the fiction that Taiwan is independent. You don't have to worry about the Soviets, because we're teamed up with you now against the Soviets. You don't have to worry about the Japanese," whose economy was just starting to boom then. "We'll take care of the Japanese. That's our responsibility." And he gave them a whole bunch of other assurances.

What did that do? For the first time in decades, since the high Qing Dynasty at the turn of the 19th century, China felt secure on the outside and could devote itself to internal development. That set the context for Deng Xiaoping's liberalization. Deng Xiaoping's liberalization not only lifted hundreds of thousands of Chinese out of stark poverty to approaching the middle class, but, because China became the largest trading partner of almost everywhere else in East Asia, it also lifted millions of Vietnamese, Malaysians, and others—Filipinos—into a much higher standard of living, so that literally billions of people saw their material lives and their safety improve dramatically because of this initiative.

Another reason: Why was the peace so long? Because you had realists like Dwight Eisenhower and others. You know, one thing about Eisenhower that people forget is that it was under him that all the hydrogen bombs were built. Why did he build it? Because he didn't want to fight a real war on land in Europe. He wanted something so terrible, but also so cheap—because nuclear weapons were cheap compared to preparing for actual conventional warfare. So the Cold Warriors, rather than be parodied in Dr. Strangelove, actually kept the peace in many ways.

So this is a good story. Steve writes in the book that one of the problems is that realists believe in this Hobbesian pathology of anarchy. That's not actually what they write. If you read Stephen Walt, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Sam Huntington, other realists, they define anarchy in a very specific, very narrow sense. It just means there's nobody in the world who is the night watchman, who guards over other nations. Anarchy does not mean violence. It doesn't mean necessarily Iraq in 2006 and 2007. It just means there's no higher order other than the nation-states themselves.

Let's bring this all down to earth and see what the real prospects are for a more peaceful world. Let me bring this discussion down to one part of the world. I don't want to use the Middle East, because, in a way, that's too easy. We know the horrors of the Middle East. I want to use East Asia. The reason is that East Asia has undergone an economic boom for decades. It has had mass education, women's rights, the feminization of culture. Almost everything that Steve writes about you can see in East Asia, from Japan to Australia.

What's the result? One of the greatest arms races in history now, even though The New York Times and others are not really covering it very well.

Japan is coming out of its quasi-pacifistic shell to become a real military power. Nationalism is on the rise in Japan. The Japanese Navy is four times the size of the British Royal Navy and much more deployable, with niche capabilities and submarines and special operations forces. China, since the mid-1990s, has built a great navy and air force. Everyone—the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Malaysians—they all have a shop-'til-you-drop policy on the acquisition of submarines, both nuclear and the latest quiet diesel electric. The Australians, with a population about the size of Canada, are putting an extra $20 billion just into fourth and fifth generation fighter jets and new submarines.

There is a vast arms race going on in East Asia. The Chinese are going to have more submarines deployed in the water than the United States in about 10 or 15 years.

What is driving this? Several things which are relevant to Steve's book. If you were to ask me, as a journalist on the ground, "What is the biggest underrated force out there in the world today?" I would say nationalism. Nationalism is de passé in the West. Europe is supposedly in a post-national era. America—if you use the word "nationalism," you're thinking of some Tea Party Republican somewhere. But nationalism is alive and well throughout the Indo-Pacific, from India eastward all the way up to Japan, and a very virulent nationalism, which is the direct result of the economic development and the mass education and all of that that has been going on.

It's really stark. You see it in public demonstrations. When the Chinese tell me in Beijing that they would love to compromise on the territorial claims they are making in the East Sea and the South China Sea, they tell me, "We can't," because the nationalist genie is out of the bottle and the party is afraid. The party is afraid to compromise, so it can't.

So nationalism is not dead. It may have passed its peak in the West, but it's rising at a great trajectory in a part of the world that is not minor, but, in fact, the geographical heart of the global economy and of global demography, too, if you call Asia everything from India eastward up to Japan.

And what are people fighting over? Not even islands, but rocks that are under the sea during high tide. Yes, these rocks may have oil and natural gas around them, but it's a contest for status, for king of the hill.

That's what I see it is about when I talk to people there. And I would like Steve to comment on that in a little while. The contest for status is still very much alive in the human psyche. Remember, we're talking about East Asia. We're not talking about a poor part of the world, where there are tribes fighting or this or that. We're talking about people who have bullet trains, who go to work in suits and ties, and who totally support bigger and bigger defense budgets.

You would say, "But this disproves Steve's thesis." I would say, "Not necessarily," because Steve is not saying that we're not going to have military expenditures. He's just saying the actual outbreak of war may be less because of decisions that people will make. They will walk back from the brink and all of that. We don't know that yet. All I can say is that we have taken the stability of East Asia, the Indo-Pacific for granted. We have reduced it to an economic story for too many decades, and it's emerging into something much larger than that.

Another unfortunate trend out on the horizon is something that Yale management professor Paul Bracken writes about. Paul is coming out with a new book in November called The Second Nuclear Age, how the second nuclear age will be different than the first nuclear age. [Editor's note: See Paul Bracken's Public Affairs talk on this book.]

The first nuclear age involved essentially two conservative bureaucracies, the United States and Moscow. The Russians were the most conservative, because they had all survived Stalin. They learned to survive Stalin by saying nothing and having no opinions. That's what the Soviet politburo was about, essentially. Two stodgy bureaucracies that were the opposite of emotional, who gave up their nuclear theory to the most bloodless academics and game theorists and all of that. So there was no emotion. You didn't have mobs in the streets in Washington or Moscow baying for American or Russian blood throughout the Cold War. The Cold War was cold. Nothing happened. It did happen—terrible wars in Vietnam and Ethiopia and elsewhere, but they were at the margins, so to speak.

But one of the things Bracken writes about is that the second nuclear age is going to be very hot. It's not going to be cold. It's going to be accompanied by mobs baying for blood because of the new countries that are acquiring nuclear weapons. It's going to involve countries like Iran that won't put their nuclear weapons in silos in North Dakota or something, away from population centers. They will put them right next to schools and hospitals and in the middle of big cities, so that if you take them out, you are going to kill large numbers of civilians as well.

The Iranians are very rational. It's not true that they are irrational. But their rationality is different. It's just different.

We have had this long peace that, I would argue, the people that deserve the most credit for are the realists—the George Shultzes, James Bakers, Henry Kissingers, and others—who were vilified in their time. But looking back now from the era where we are now and looking at where the Republican Party is now and where it was then, I think we can really appreciate them. But it's unclear that this long peace will survive because of some of the things I brought up.

I could go into Central Asia and how I think that's going to unravel in an even more tumultuous way than the Middle East has.

One last thing about the Middle East that is very troubling. You had relative peace in the Middle East, outside of very formal interstate warfare between Israel and some Arab countries, between Iran and Iraq, because most of the Middle East was run by authoritarians, and authoritarians had strong institutions, strong bureaucracies through which they could govern, and on which the United States could exert influence, as the Soviets did as well. But the Soviets were not a war-making influence. They also wanted stability, if you recall.

But now, with the collapse or weakening of authoritarian regimes, it has revealed an utter institutional void. So there are very weak institutions in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, et cetera. That provides a vacuum in which various forms of jihadism and other forms of radical, violence-prone groups can operate.

So the Middle East is going to be more and more tumultuous. Central Asia is about to burst onto the headlines, I believe. And I can go around the world as well. I'll stop here. Again, none of this disproves Steve's thesis, which is about the relative decline of violence, not the absolute decline. Again, all this posturing and submarine buying in East Asia may lead to just tension for decades to come or years to come. I don't know.

Discussion

STEVEN PINKER: Thanks for the generous words and all of those very thought-provoking comments. Let me see if I can work through some reactions to them.

I do talk a bit about the academic theory called realism. It's kind of a tendentious title, self-granted. One could actually debate how realistic realism is.

Not being a scholar in international relations, but being a social scientist who is quite familiar with statistical number crunching, I tried to base my arguments not so much on plausible scenarios, which I had no way of evaluating or weighing in on, but on the studies that try to make testable predictions from different theories and to identify what the contributors are to war and peace.

One of the problems is that so-called realism has predictions that are all over the map, literally and figuratively. One realist theory says you get peace when you have a single hegemon. That's what is really stable, because they can kind of bully everyone else. They can be a quasi-Leviathan. Another one says, no, no, no, you get peace when you have a balance of power. You need two. That way, each one keeps the other one deterred. Another one says multipolar—that's the best.

So it's not real clear what so-called realism actually predicts.

It seems to me that there are a lot of developments surrounding the long peace and what I call the new peace—that is, the spread of the long peace to the rest of the world since the fall of the Soviet Empire—that don't obviously fit any realist narrative, including the one that appeals to nuclear deterrence.

For example, the fact that non-nuclear states—Latin American states, for example, Germany and Italy or Italy and Spain—have not fought each other, even though I think it would be farfetched to think that if they started a war, the United States would nuke either of them in punishment; the fact that you have had a lot of non-nuclear states defying nuclear ones—Argentina trying to take back the Falklands, defying Britain, a nuclear power; Saddam Hussein thumbing his nose at the United States repeatedly; Sadat invading Israel-held Sinai—and the fact that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of relationship between military expenditures and probability of actually getting into a war—East Asia might be a perfect example.

For the last 25 years, I don't think there have been any shooting wars in East Asia—I guess North Korea and South Korea, with the sinking of that ship two years ago that did kill 40-odd South Korean sailors. But it has actually been a pretty stable part of the world if you actually tally up people killed in warfare.

China, contrary to all predictions that rising great powers always pick on their neighbors, hasn't been in a shooting war since 1987—a better track record than some countries we happen to belong to. The United States has been in a number of shooting wars.

The political scientist James Payne wrote a fairly obscure but I think very insightful book called Why Nations Arm that tried to correlate different measures of being on a war footing with actual likelihood of getting involved in a war and found that expenditures on military hardware had a very loose relationship. What did have a stronger relationship was number of men in uniform.

The decision as to whether to close down a shipyard is driven almost entirely by politics. Because of the paradoxes of democracy, those with the strongest local interest push policy. Those that pay the bill diffusely just don't notice. So you can have a ramping up of the defense budget because each military contractor, each state with a defense plant is in favor—the taxpayers in general. There isn't one constituency that opposes it. But if it's your son who is being drafted and sent in harm's way, then there is much more of a brake on nations' likelihood of picking fights and getting into trouble.

Worldwide, even though military expenditures have not been going down, percentage of the population in uniform has been going down.

In terms of prognosis for the future—rather than just playing out scenarios in your imagination, which I think is a very fallible method of prognostication—I have a whole list of predictions of wars deemed to be inevitable that never happened. And here I'm going to speak as a psychologist. Recalling anecdotes, visualizing scenarios is extraordinarily unreliable. It's a reflection of the imaginer's own psychology. It's a reflection of how vivid events are, how many inches of column space they get, how big a bang they make. But it doesn't take into account factors that really do predict war and peace.

Two different studies that look at probability of great power war based on predictors that have had a successful track record in the past—like democratization, trade, membership in international organizations, relative power, and so on, one by Bruce Russett and John Oneal, showing that the probability of a war involving a great power has never been lower, and another study from the Peace Research Institute Oslo that looks at the world as a whole rather than just the great powers, showing that if you look at all the different factors that statistically correlate with war versus peace in the past—they predict that the chance of war worldwide will continue to get lower and lower over the next few decades.

I tend to put more stock in that kind of analysis than just, "Well, I can imagine such-and-such happening," which I consider to be, and I think the historical record shows to be, pretty worthless.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Let me pick up on two of your points, Steve. One of the reasons why there are fewer and fewer people in uniform is because the nature of war is changing. The modernization of forces means you have smaller conscript militaries, but with higher-quality, smaller militaries of volunteers that are much better trained.

When the Warsaw Pact collapsed and NATO absorbed every country from Poland to Romania into NATO, the first thing NATO said was, "We want you to fight better, to be better killers. In order to do that, we're going to make your military smaller. We don't want you to have 1,000 jets, old, vintage jets. We'd rather you have 300 high-tech, fourth generation fighters. We don't want conscript armies that are good for just building roads and bringing in the crops. We want special operations forces."

So the nature of war itself is becoming more professionalized in a high-tech age, where soldiers and marines and sailors and airmen need to know so much more. They need to be better trained with different equipment. Therefore, because training is longer, the way to get a military that will actually fight and engage in a war is to make it smaller.

The best example of that is the Chinese Air Force. The Chinese Air Force has come down from many thousands of planes to just about 2,000. But guess what? They are all fourth and fifth generation fighter jets. So you have fewer pilots, but the pilots that there are, are more lethal.

So I would say just counting numbers doesn't show an understanding of how war itself is changing.

The other thing is democratization. Here's the problem with democratization. Democracies are less likely to go to war. But to get from an authoritarian system to a stable democracy could take years or decades, and you can have all manner of instability in between. What are most likely to get into a war are weak democrats who are paranoid, always looking over their shoulder.

The best example of that is Turkey and Cyprus in 1974. Turkey invaded Cyprus—a brutal invasion and occupation by democrats. The country was recently democratic. It was a minority government out to prove its patriotic bona fides, which, had the military been in power, it wouldn't have had to do. But a weak minority government stumbled into war.

What I see everywhere, from Tunisia to Palestine, is weakly institutionalized governments that are unable to control their own borders, unable to control extremists inside them.

For instance, China—let me get back to China. We have had it lucky with China the last few decades. We really have. We have had stodgy, collegial authoritarians who had no charisma, who purged anyone who did have charisma, making practical decisions that they telegraphed ahead of time to Washington and Tokyo and other places, and we had peace in Asia.

Now it gets rough, because China will go through political change. It has to, because when your economy develops that fast over 30 years, your society becomes more complex. As it becomes more complex, as Sam Huntington wrote brilliantly in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, a more complex society requires political reform and evolution. But it's never pretty. It's often never peaceful. Yet China is embarking on that road, and so China is going to be less predictable in the years to come, more nationalistic. As the party loses total authoritarian control, the military is going to be more autonomous.

One of the reasons why the Chinese may not have been fighting a war since 1987 or so—but they have certainly been threatening all their neighbors, more in the last 10 years than they have had in the previous four decades—they are doing it because the military is more out of control, because we are starting to see already the breakup of a one-man authoritarian system.

STEVEN PINKER: A few things. I agree that there has been, obviously, a very great shift in the composition of national forces and the mechanization, computerization of fighting, of the skill required of men and women in uniform. But part of that is itself a reflection of the fact that modern societies have much less tolerance for casualties than they used to and for diversion of human capital into the military sector, which is partly why so much investment has been put into robot warfare, drone warfare.

The fact that armies have been moving in that direction is itself a reflection of the increased value placed on human life. We still haven't reached the point where wars can be conducted just with robots, drones. Boots on the ground were the major factor that made the difference in the Iraq surge. It's one of the major differences in why we are not going all out into Syria, why the Libyan war was fought the way it was, without American boots on the ground.

You could imagine, even with a higher-tech armed forces, that a country could still draft a lot of its college graduates and postgraduates and have them do all of that high-tech work. The fact that the armed forces have gotten more selective means that there are fewer unskilled people, but it doesn't explain why nations don't just make up the difference by having more and more engineers, Ph.D.s, increasing the ranks of the people who are designing and manning this equipment.

Also it's much less of a factor in countries other than the United States and Israel and Britain. In Israel, of course, there's still a large percentage of the population in uniform, even with one of the world's highest-tech armed forces.

In terms of the democratization, again there's a danger in recalling examples without looking at the phenomenon worldwide and statistically. What you said about Turkey is certainly true. There are cases in which newly democratic states get their countries into trouble. But, of course, there are many, many countries that became democratic and were pretty wobbly in their early years that didn't get into wars—Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, a lot of the countries of Eastern Europe.

My understanding is that statistically—this again depending on data from Bruce Russett and John Oneal—there is a little bit of a blip of an increased chance of getting into a war, compared with other democracies, for brand-new democracies. That is, the democratic peace—that two democracies don't fight each other—is attenuated for new democracies, for the first couple of years. But then they join the rest of the democratic world in having an extremely low probability of getting into a fight with other democracies.

QUESTION: Bill Bruce.

I lived in Southeast Asia for 10 years, in Singapore, in the 1960s. I know a lot about it. A lot of the things that you seemed to imply, Bob, about China, China has already accomplished. Through the Chinese people living in Indonesia and Malaysia, they run the commerce there. What they might gain through a war or attacking them they already have anyway.

The second point. A lot of people, especially you in your writing, treat Southeast Asia as sort of a new thing. And it really isn't. In 1880, the commercial activity in Singapore—import, entrepôt, whatever—was 35 percent of the Port of New York. A lot has been going on out there for years. China did not need Nixon to do anything for them. They were shipping huge quantities of products all through—you couldn't go into a store in Singapore without buying canned goods made in China. You could go down to the Horn of Africa and see them in Zanzibar, all the ports. You could go into Amsterdam and places like that and see Chinese goods.

I think it has evolved much more slowly than your writings indicate. I don't have the fears about things happening.

ROBERT KAPLAN: I totally disagree. First, if you looked at China in 1972, with everyone wearing Mao suits, what they were exporting was low-quality goods, relatively low-quality goods—

QUESTIONER: We bought them.

ROBERT KAPLAN: The fact that we bought them didn't mean that they were—you cannot compare China in the early 1970s with 2010. It's a totally remade, different society, with the same cultural verities that have come through and have flowered and blossomed, but the economy—you didn't find tens of thousands of American businessmen in China in 1965. You didn't find tens of thousands of European businessmen or tens of thousands of American students in China in the early 1960s during Mao's Great Cultural Revolution. It's a totally remade society. The 1979 new economic mechanism by Deng Xiaoping was a real break in that country.

Yes, there has always been an entrepôt in Singapore. I wrote about its history. But the strides economically that Asia has made—in the mid-1960s, Singapore ranked on the level of some of the poorest African countries.

QUESTION: Mr. Pinker, at some point you mentioned that human beings are moralistic animals and that the nature of the human moralization has changed. Could you please explain a little bit more about how that happened and how what we call morality is related to things like historical circumstance and the world around us? Is morality something like a result of that?

STEVEN PINKER: I think humans have always been moralistic animals. And that's a big problem. I write in the book that the world has far too much morality. If you were to add up all of the individual homicides that the perpetrators believed at the time were morally justifiable, to exact revenge, to punish a transgressor, if you looked at the casualty of religious wars, of utopian ideologies, like communism and Nazism, they would vastly outnumber the deaths from just raw amoral predation.

But I do think that the basis for our moralization has been changing, particularly since the Enlightenment. It has become more humanistic in the sense of valuing the life and flourishing of individuals as opposed to abstractions, like religions, classes, nations, races, enforcing orthodoxies, enforcing deference to authority, enforcing moral purity, all of which go into the human moral sense.

I take it that your question is, "Okay, but why did those happen?" I think that's one of the most interesting questions in world history. I have some speculations, but nothing like the kind of statistical analysis that could strengthen the case for cause and effect.

I suspect that the rise of literacy, of education, of mass communication, journalism all played a role. The lives of other people became more immediate to us. We buy fiction, memoir, history, journalism. We enter the minds of other people, which makes it harder to demonize them and encourages more universalism. We travel more. We are more cosmopolitan and rub shoulders with people unlike ourselves.

Because of the rise of mass media, war has become less romanticized. It was said that the Vietnam War was the first war brought into people's living rooms in real time. In earlier wars, the government successfully censored war photography while the war was in progress, and so people's sense of war came from romantic poets who glorified it, often never having participated in it.

People have more of a sense that war is hell and they have a more articulated moral philosophy. Could you really justify the purity of the race or the glory of the tribe or the nation if you were forced to argue with someone unlike yourself, as people more and more are forced to do? It's hard to argue in the face of reality and in the face of people coming from different backgrounds that my nation is superior to yours just because I belong to it and you don't. And that pressure of intellectualization, cosmopolitanism, exchange of ideas, enriching of experiences, I think, over long periods of time, pushes the conventional wisdom about morality more in a humanistic direction.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Steve, that's all great, but here's the problem. The problem is that a lot of people don't read serious fiction. They don't read serious nonfiction. A lot of the people that I encounter, not just uneducated people in various countries, but people like people in the armed forces—last night I spoke at the Marine Club in San Francisco, and it's a totally different environment and atmosphere.

Let me take Poland for an example. Poland is dramatically increasing its military budget because they don't trust the Russians. You talk about European defense budgets going down. That's a generalization. It's not a real truth. The defense budgets in the countries closer to Russia are, in fact, increasing. Again, we're talking about more high-tech militaries, where the stronger the military, the fewer men you have in uniform, and you depend on cyber warfare, all kinds of things which are being developed.

So even in Europe, which we have reduced to being just a financial debt story—but where geopolitics are alive and well, because the Russians are flush with cash and are buying up all kinds of infrastructure now in Central and Eastern Europe—nationalism is alive and well, and a lot of people just don't think this way. A lot of people do. I'm just saying not everyone does.

STEVEN PINKER: And I don't think it has to be great literature. I think it can be soap operas and middlebrow literature.

But just to be concrete about what I had in mind, in this country during the Second War World, the Japanese were considered subhuman. My mother, who lived through it, told me that the Germans were an enemy; the Japanese were just a contemptible race, in the eyes of the West. It probably had something to do with some of the tactics in the way the war was fought—the firebombing of Tokyo, the nuclear strikes. According to one opinion poll, 15 percent of the American population, when asked what should be done to Japan after an allied victory, offered the solution of extermination. In our own country we rounded up 100,000 Japanese American citizens.

I think that's less likely now. The numbers certainly suggest that, and opinion polls, even in the more militant parts of, at least, the richer countries. The kind of demonization that would have been possible— that was possible—60 or 70 years ago probably—even in World War I, you had the English thinking of the Germans as Huns and as racially aggressive—those don't stand up to the kind of scrutiny that even middlebrow awareness nowadays—I'm sure in the Marines you would never find those kinds of contemptuous actions.

ROBERT KAPLAN: No, you don't among the Marines, because the Marines are great people who are very enlightened. I mean that very seriously.

STEVEN PINKER: I have a passage in the book on the ethical Marine warrior program, which tries to inculcate humanistic values in Marines by having them empathize with the people that they serve among. It's this touchy-feely thing in our leathernecks, which is, I think, a sign of the times.

QUESTION: Not to pick on Mr. Kaplan, but you mentioned a new book, The Second Nuclear Age, regarding the hot war, and you specifically noted Iran, if they acquired a nuclear bomb. How does that compare to, say, the two conservative bureaucracies, one of which, the United States, actually dropped a bomb?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Paul Bracken goes into this. One of the things he says about the second nuclear age is that countries, from India to Pakistan to Iran, want to acquire nuclear weapons for the same reasons the United States and the Soviets did. The primary use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War was not to drop them; it was to use them for influence and intimidation and for actual statecraft, actually preventing hot wars on the ground.

Now, in some of these cases this is what Iran and Pakistan and India want. They use nuclear weapons as part and parcel of their diplomacy the same way the U.S. and the Soviets did for decades during the Cold War.

But in addition to that, there's a new factor. The new factor is that, whereas the U.S. and the Soviets were separated by thousands of miles of Arctic ice and you had no emotional dislike between Americans and Russians during the Cold War to a very significant degree, the emotional dislike or insecurity between Indians and Pakistanis, whose high population centers are only 200 miles apart, between the Indus River Valley and the Ganges River Valley, is something else.

Then you have a country like Iran, which, as I said earlier, I don't believe is irrational, but it's a different kind of rationality. And if you factor into an Iran with six or twelve tactical nuclear weapons, imagine how much more fraught crises in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah would become.

Again, this does not negate Steve's point. This may even prevent war. Kenneth Waltz wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs saying if Iran had nuclear weapons, it would actually stabilize things. I don't agree with that, but it was just an interesting argument to read. It took you places where you hadn't been before.

QUESTION: Michael Lapid (phonetic).

I don't get a lot of comfort from knowing that there are so many countries arming so quickly. How do we adjudicate between these? How would international institutions settle issues between them and try to deal with the miscalculations that are inherent with so many centers of different weapons?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Let me use the South China Sea as an example. There's something called the Law of the Sea treaty, which the United States did not sign, but which it obeys, which China has signed, but which it doesn't obey. The Law of the Sea treaty really should be called the Law of the Land treaty, because it's based on where your coastline is and then it projects your territoriality outward 200 miles or whatever it may be. According to the legalities of it, China has no claim in many of the places that it's claiming. China says, "International law be damned. We have historical claims that go back before the Law of the Sea treaty."

When you actually look at all the claims, they are incredibly fraught, incredibly complex. Nobody I have spoken to thinks they will be resolved by legal means or arbitration means. The best that can be hoped for—and again, this doesn't contradict Steve—is a military balance of power that prevents war. As China's navy and air force get larger and larger proportionately to the navies and air forces of Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries, all those countries, especially Vietnam, are now calling on the United States to have more warships and planes in the region. The Vietnamese are redredging Cam Ranh Bay so that American warships will visit more often.

And so it goes. The Filipinos are inviting back the Americans to Subic Bay and Clark Airfield so that American warships and planes will visit.

In other words, the solution to keeping the peace, to keeping the long peace, seems to be more military deployments.

STEVEN PINKER: I'm not sure that that's true. You could make the argument both ways, that the balance of power keeps the peace, but there are these statistical studies by Russett and Oneal that show that an asymmetry of power keeps the peace because the weaker party doesn't want to mess with the stronger one. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, it's in the interests of both parties to back down.

So you could run the argument both ways. A lot of the changes, like the ones that I've shown on the graphs, such as after the fall of the Soviet Empire, weren't clearly related to an even balance of power with neither side probing the other. One of the powers just vanished. But it didn't lead to an increase in war; it led to a decrease.

ROBERT KAPLAN: There is an Australian strategist, Hugh White, who has just written a book about the challenge of China's rising military might. He makes the point, similar to yours, that the problem in coming years and decades is not China; it's America, because America will find it hard to adjust, to adapt to having another great military power in the region.

White says, "As Australians, we had it easy for three decades or so. We had the rise of China, which made us all rich, and yet we had American protection, which made us all safe."

But this period that he dates back to Nixon's visit, he said, is now ending. What's happening is, rather than a unipolar military environment in the Far East, it is becoming more of a multipolar or bipolar one, with America and China. He's almost calling for America to back down somewhat, to allow China to become the hegemon of the region.

So there's an argument in your favor.

However, here's the problem. The United States has treaty allies in Japan, in South Korea, and the Philippines that won't allow America to do that. And it has a new rising ally, Vietnam, which is essentially saying, "Don't you dare do that. We need you to balance against China."

So it may be that you're right, whether it's asymmetrical or not, what will keep the peace. But again, remember what we're really discussing here. We're not discussing the abolition of military force. We're just discussing how to apply it and in what proportion.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Along those lines, I have a question. We're all living through the traffic associated with the General Assembly here at the United Nations. Steven, when I was looking at your graph, I was thinking about 1945 to 1948, the establishment of the United Nations, but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I would be curious to hear from both of you, just in terms of the establishment of some sort of international moral norm or standard, whether we think of it as law or just some standard, in terms of accountability, whether, for political leaders and for military leaders. Does that play at all into your story? If so, could you elaborate a little bit?

STEVEN PINKER: Yes. The United Nations has a mixed role. Obviously, the soapbox orations in front of the General Assembly are just kind of theater to comedy. Those are irrelevant. The peacekeeping forces, though there have been some conspicuous disasters, on average do much more good than harm. A number of studies have measured that. If you put United Nations or other peacekeeping forces between warring parties, the war is much more likely to stop and it's much less likely to reignite. So the United Nations is not exactly an international Leviathan, but that role as international quasi-policeman, even if inconsistently deployed, does some good.

The third thing, though, that also matters is a norm that basically member states of the United Nations are immortal. They don't go out of existence. Unlike centuries of history in which states just gobbled each other up—Poland gets wiped off the map repeatedly—no United Nations member state has been eliminated through conquest. In fact, it's extremely rare even for any territory to have changed hands by conquest since the establishment of the UN. And the exceptions almost prove the rule. Iraq invaded Kuwait. It took short work for an international coalition to push them back.

So a new norm seems to have emerged that the boundaries ratified by the United Nations, no matter how illogical—drawn by drunken colonial administrators—you don't mess with them. It has probably done more good than harm, though it has undoubtedly done a lot of harm, as Robert has written about. But, still, the idea that you can't just say, "We have a lot of members of our ethnic group behind our border, so we're going to take that chunk of territory; by all moral reckoning, it ought to be part of our country"—that hasn't happened.

That, I think, the sanctity of international borders and the immortality of states, as a kind of norm—not something that's ethically necessarily justifiable, but just that we don't do that anymore, you don't mess with them; it's not thinkable—has probably been a stabilizing force.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Let me just say that that's true, but what's also true is that states have collapsed internally, and that has led to significant degrees of violence. You have had Somalia collapse, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union collapsed, violently in Tajikistan and in Nagorno-Karabakh and other places in the Caucasus, but generally nonviolently, in the Baltic states. So you have this sort of inverse problem here. A state is inviolable, but the UN can't keep it from collapsing internally.

But to answer your question, "Is there a moral ethic?" I would say—this is something I write in my recent book, The Revenge of Geography—just because you're a democracy and you hold elections and you believe in the global good, in advancing global civil society, does not mean that your use of military force will necessarily have a moral result. It could have a negligible result. It could have an immoral result. It could have a lot of results. Therefore, even democracies—especially democracies—have to be especially wary of getting involved militarily around the world.

Remember, to get approval from a democracy to go to war, you have to emotionalize the masses to a certain degree to get them behind it. And that can lead to miscalculation. This is something that Hans Morgenthau goes into in great detail in his book Politics Among Nations, and why I feel he is the most moral of the realistic writers, because he deals with these questions.

This is a hard question. Even though you're a democracy, even though you save the world from Nazi Germany, from fascist Japan, you still may have the best of intentions, but if you blunder, you can have the worst of moral results.

STEVEN PINKER: Iraq and Vietnam are two good examples. I think it's certainly true that the Iraq War would not have happened had it not been for 9/11. Even though there was no causal connection, there was enough spillover emotion that more of the population mobilized behind it than would have otherwise.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. And Vietnam—people forget the history. When we entered into Vietnam, it was for moral reasons, we told ourselves. The North Vietnamese communists, as ruthless a bunch of people as anyone can imagine, had killed tens of thousands of their own people before the first U.S. regular ground troops arrived. So there was a moral reason to do this, so we told ourselves.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I think with that, I'm going to adjourn the session with a mixture of moralism and realism, appropriate for us.

I want to thank Steven and Robert and all of you for participating.

STEVEN PINKER: Thank you.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you.

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