The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What’s the Status of the Decline of War?

March 20, 2014

In light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Josh raised the question this morning about how we are all feeling about the war decline thesis. Also in reaction to Russia’s actions, Mlada Bukovansky issued a strong call to end the complacency regarding the acceptance and influence of global liberal norms and institutions. These comments appear to contrast with John Mueller’s post last week on the profound differences between attitudes on war today from a century ago and this week’s release of the 2013 Human Security Report which notes the continuation of the decline of conflict.

So, what to make of it all? Do Russia’s actions this week suggest we are returning to a more “normal” history — one in which interstate war is more likley, more frequent and common? Are we headed toward some kind of major interstate conflict between Russia its neighbors? How does this fit in the broader context of the overall trends in interstate war and the decline of war thesis?

These are some of the questions we’ll be looking at next week at ISA. My colleague, Kavita Khory, and I are coordinating an ISA Working Group in Toronto next week that will examine the global trends on war, conflict, and political violence. This June marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed episodes of extreme interstate and intrastate violence as well as a more recent period of relative stability. This more recent trend — the dramatic decline in interstate war — is striking. The Working Group will bring together a great line-up of scholars from a diverse set of theoretical, methodological and geographical approaches to look at the broad trends in interstate war, intrastate war, and political violence over the past century, where we are today, and what the future trends might look like.

We’ll be focusing on four broad areas: First, what are the trends in war, conflict and political violence? Does everyone accept that there has been a decline? Does it matter what timeframe we examine — the past century, since the end of WWII, since the end of the Cold war? Are there disagreements between major datasets? How strong is this data? Are we seeing a real decline or just a shift in the types of violence?

Second, what are the trends of violence within war — in particular, we’ll be looking at the trends on civilian targeting, mass atrocities, and gender-based violence. What kind of data do we have on these trends? Is regime violence towards civilians declining, increasing, staying the same? How has the concept of civilians changed over time? What are the trends in gender-based violence and how, it at all, is it different from other forms of violence towards civilians?

Third, we’ll be exploring the various explanations for all of these trends. In particular, what are the role of norms, institutions, and state practices in controlling or mitigating war? And,to what extent have material factors vs. cultural or ideational factors contributed to these trends?

And, finally, what are the likely future trends. How has, and will, war and political violence manifest itself in an era of globalization, liberalization, and global power transition? Who are the new actors? Is war being replaced by other forms of violence? Are the fundamental drivers of violence the same or changing?

Obviously, this list of questions represents a very large task. Our initial goal is simply to survey the “state of the field.” Our roster for next week’s Working Group is already set. But, from here, we will be developing an ongoing network for scholars to better coordinate scholarship on patterns of war and political violence across methodologies, theoretical perspectives, and geographic regions. We’ll also be developing a set of strategies to facilitate better transmission of scholarship to various policy communities. I’ll write a post when I return from Toronto with with a wrap-up of the Working Group discussions and more information about where we’ll be going from here.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.