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War Is Not Over

What the Optimists Get Wrong About Conflict

U.S. soldiers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, December 2010 Tyler Hicks / The New York Times / Redux

The political turmoil of recent years has largely disabused us of the notion that the world has reached some sort of utopian “end of history.” And yet it can still seem that ours is an unprecedented era of peace and progress. On the whole, humans today are living safer and more prosperous lives than their ancestors did. They suffer less cruelty and arbitrary violence. Above all, they seem far less likely to go to war. The incidence of war has been decreasing steadily, a growing consensus holds, with war between great powers becoming all but unthinkable and all types of war becoming more and more rare.

This optimistic narrative has influential backers in academia and politics. At the start of this decade, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devoted a voluminous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to the decrease of war and violence in modern times. Statistic after statistic pointed to the same conclusion: looked at from a high enough vantage point, violence is in decline after centuries of carnage, reshaping every aspect of our lives “from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

Pinker is not alone. “Our international order,” U.S. President Barack Obama told the United Nations in 2016, “has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars, that the end of the Cold War lifted the shadow of nuclear Armageddon, that the battlefields of Europe have been replaced by peaceful union.” At the time of this writing, even the Syrian civil war is winding down. There have been talks to end the nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan. A landmark prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine has revived hopes of a peace agreement between the two. The better angels of our nature seem to be winning.

If this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Such optimism is built on shaky foundations. The idea that humanity is past the era of war

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