Imagine for a moment all the wars of the world have come to a peaceful conclusion. The worst outbreak of violence in the world in the past 24 hours has been a fight in a bar in Irkutsk, Russia. What item do you think will lead the international news for the next 12 hours or however long it takes until something fresher come along?
The bar fight in Irkutsk, of course. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says the axiom, and the world’s media follow it slavishly, so they will always give you the impression the world is drowning in violence. It is not.
There are close to 200 independent countries in the world, and only one in a hundred is currently at war. They are both primarily civil wars, although there is some foreign involvement in each case. The Syrian civil war is extremely destructive of lives and property, the war in Afghanistan less so, and in both cases the fighting occasionally slops over their borders but that’s it.
There are other countries where there is a lower level of civil conflict: the Congo, for example, or Colombia. There is terrorism in places such as Boko Haram’s bizarre campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria and the Naxalites’ long and forlorn struggle to make a Communist revolution in India. But the Sri Lankan civil war is over, the Iraqi civil war is over for the moment, at least, and the many little wars of West Africa are all over.
So that’s it: two real wars, and a clutter of lesser conflicts that really do not merit the term. Why, then, do so many people think that the world is still overrun by war?
The media are partly to blame but they are also manipulated by governments raise the spectre of war for their own ends. Wars that have not happened and are never likely to happen haunt the public’s imagination: a war in Korea, an Israeli attack on Iran, Western or Israeli intervention in Syria, a war between China and South-East Asian countries over islands in the South China Sea, a US-Chinese conflict in the Pacific, and on and on.
A lot of people, some in uniform and some not, make a living off these mostly phantom fears, and they contribute to the general impression that the world is still a place where war is the normal state of affairs. Nonsense. We live in an era where, for the first time in history, no great power genuinely fears attack by any other, and where the number of actual wars can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand.
Almost 90 million people died in the world wars and the big civil wars of the first half of the 20th century, out of a world population that was one-third of what it is now. In the second half of the century the death toll dropped steeply to 25 million or so, most of whom died in colonial independence wars and civil wars.
And so far, in the 21st century, the total is less than one million people killed in war. What we have on our hands here is a miraculous and mostly unsung success story. There will doubtless be more wars but they may be small and infrequent. We are obviously doing something right. We should figure out what it is, and do more of it.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.