This is a version 2.0 of a legendary article written here back on March 19, 2006, noticed and linked by Hugh Hewitt, which led to The Futurist getting on the blogosphere map for the first time. Less than four years have elapsed since the original publication, but the landscape of global warfare has changed substantially over this time, warranting an update to the article.
In the mere 44 months since the original article was written, what seemed impossible has become a reality. The US now has an upper hand against terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, despite the seemingly impossible task of fighting suicidal terrorists. As regular readers of The Futurist are aware, I issued a prediction in May of 2006, during the darkest days of the Iraq War, that not only would the US win, but that the year of victory would be precisely in 2008. As events unfolded, that prediction turned out to be precisely correct. As readers continue to ask how I was able to make such a prediction against seemingly impossible odds, I claim that it is not very difficult, once you understand the necessary conditions of war and peace within the human mind.
Given the massive media coverage of the minutia of the Iraq War, and the fashionable fad of being opposed to it, one could be led to think that this is one of the most major wars ever fought. Therein lies the proof that we are actually living in the most peaceful time ever in human history.
Just a few decades ago, wars and genocides killing upwards of a million people were commonplace, with more than one often underway at once. Remember these?
Second Congo War (1998-2002) : 3.6 million deaths
Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) : 1.5 million deaths
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89) : 1 million deaths
Khmer Rouge (1975-79) : 1.7 million deaths from genocide
Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) : 1.5 million deaths from genocide
Vietnam War (1957-75) : 2.4 million deaths
Korean War (1950-53) : 3 million deaths
This list is by no means complete, as wars killing fewer than one million people are not even listed. At least 30 other wars killed over 20,000 people each, between 1945 and 1989.
If we go further back to the period from 1900-1945, we can see that multiple wars were being simultaneously fought across the world. Going further back still, the 19th century had virtually no period without at least two major wars being fought.
We can thus conclude that by historical standards, the current Iraq War was tiny, and can barely be found on the list of historical death tolls. That it got so much attention merely indicates how little warfare is going on in the world, and how ignorant of historical realities most people are.
Why have so many countries quitely adapted to peaceful coexistence? Why is a war between Britain and France, or Russia and Germany, or the US and Japan, nearly impossible today? Why are we not seeing a year like 1979, where the entire continent of Asia threatened to fly apart due to three major events happening at once (Iranian Revolution, Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Chinese invasion of VietNam)?
We can start with the observation that never have two democratic countries, with per-capita GDPs greater than $10,000/year on a PPP basis, gone to war with each other. The decline in warfare in Europe and Asia corelates closely with multiple countries meeting these two conditions over the last few decades, and this can continue as more countries graduate to this standard of freedom and wealth. The chain of logic is as follows :
1) Nations with elected governments and free-market systems tend to be the overwhelming majority of countries that achieve per-capita incomes greater than $10,000/year. Only a few petro-tyrannies are the exception to this rule.
2) A nation with high per-capita income tends to conduct extensive trade with other nations of high prosperity, resulting in the ever-deepening integration of these economies with each other. A war would disrupt the economies of both participants as well as those of neutral trading partners. Since the citizens of these nations would suffer financially from such a war, it is not considered by elected officials.
3) As more of the world's people gain a vested interest in the stability and health of the interlocking global economic system, fewer and fewer countries will consider international warfare as anything other than a lose-lose proposition.
4) More nations can experience their citizenry moving up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, allowing knowledge-based industries thrive, and thus making international trade continuously easier and more extensive.
5) Since economic growth is continuously accelerating, many countries have crossed the $10,000/yr barrier in just the last 20 years, and so the reduction in warfare after 1991 years has been drastic even if there was little apparent reduction over the 1900-1991 period.
This explains the dramatic decline in war deaths across Europe, East Asia, and Latin America over the last few decades. Thomas Friedman has a similar theory, called the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, wherein no two countries linked by a major supply chain/trade network (such as that of a major corporation like Dell Computer), have ever gone to war with each other, as the cost of losing the presence of major industries through war is prohibitive to both parties. If this is the case, then the combinations of countries that could go to war with each other continues to drop quickly.
To predict the future risk of major wars, we can begin by assessing the state of some of the largest and/or riskiest countries in the world. Success at achieving democracy and a per-capita GDP greater that $10,000/yr are highlighted in green. We can also throw in the UN Human Development Index, which is a composite of these two factors, and track the rate of progress of the HDI over the last 30 years. In general, countries with scores greater than 0.850, consistent with near-universal access to consumer-class amenities, have met the aforementioned requirements of prosperity and democracy. There are many more countries with a score greater than 0.850 today than there were in 1975.
Let's see how some select countries stack up.
China : The per-capita income is rapidly closing in on the $10,000/yr threshold, but democracy is a distant dream. I have stated that China will see a sharp economic slowdown in the next 10 years unless they permit more personal freedoms, and thus nurture entrepreneurship. Technological forces will continue to pressure the Chinese Communist Party, and if this transition is moderately painless, the ripple effects will be seen in most of the other communist or autocratic states that China supports, and will move the world strongly towards greater peace and freedom. The single biggest question for the world is whether China's transition happens without major shocks or bloodshed. I am optimistic, as I believe the CCP is more interested in economic gain than clinging to an ideology and one-party rule, which is a sharp contrast from the Mao era where 40 million people died over ideology-driven economic schemes. Cautiously optimistic.
India : A secular democracy has existed for a long time, but economic growth lagged far behind. Now, India is catching up, and will soon be a bulwark for democracy and stability for the whole world. Some of the most troubled countries in the world, from Burma to Afghanistan, border India and could transition to stability and freedom under India's sphere of influence. India is only now realizing how much the world will depend on it. Optimistic.
Russia : A lack of progress in the HDI is a total failure, enabling many countries to overtake Russia over the last 15 years. Putin's return to dictatorial rule is a further regression in Russia's progress. Hopefully, energy and technology industries can help Russia increase its population growth rate, and up its HDI. Cautiously optimistic.
Indonesia : With more Muslims than the entire Middle East put together, Indonesia took a large step towards democracy in 1999 (improving its HDI score), and is doing moderately well economically. Economic growth needs to accelerate in order to cross $10,000/yr per capita by 2020. Cautiously optimistic.
Pakistan : My detailed Pakistan analysis is here. The divergence between the paths of India and Pakistan has been recognized by the US, and Pakistan, with over 50 nuclear warheads, is also where Osama bin Laden and thousands of other terrorists are currently hiding. Any 'day of infamy' that the US encounters will inevitably be traced to individuals operating in Pakistan, which has regressed from democracy to dictatorship, and is teetering on the edge of religious fundamentalism. The economy is growing quickly, however, and this is the only hope of averting a disaster. Pakistan will continue to struggle between emulating the economic progress of India against descending into the dysfunction of Afghanistan. Pessimistic.
Iraq : Although Iraq is not a large country, its importance to the world is disproportionately significant. Bordering so many other non-democratic nations, our hard-fought victory in Iraq now places great pressure on all remaining Arab states. The destiny of the US is also interwined with Iraq, as the outcome of the current War in Iraq will determine the ability of America to take any other action, against any other nation, in the future. Optimistic.
Iran : Many would be surprised to learn that Iran is actually not all that poor, and the Iranian people have enough to lose that they are not keen on a large war against a US military that could dispose of Iran's military just as quickly as they did Saddam's. However, the autocratic regime that keeps the Iranian people suppressed has brutally quashed democratic movements, most recently in the summer of 2009. The secret to turning Iran into a democracy is its neighbor, Iraq. If Iraq can succeed, the pressure on Iran exerted by Internet access and globalization next door will be immense. This will continue to nibble at the edges of Iranian society, and the regime will collapse before 2015 even without a US invasion. If Iran's leadership insists on a confrontation over their nuclear program, the regime will collapse even sooner. Cautiously optimistic.
So Iraq really is a keystone state, and the struggle to prevail over the forces that would derail democracy has major repurcussions for many nations. The US, and the world, could nothave afforded for the US mission in Iraq to fail. But after the success in Iraq, all remaining roads to disastrous tragedy lead to Pakistan. The country in which the leadership of Al-Qaeda resides is the same country where the most prominent nuclear scientist was caught selling nuclear secrets on the black market. This is simply the most frightening combination of circumstances that exists in the world today, far more troubling than anything directly attributable to Iran or North Korea.
But smaller-scale terrorism is nothing new. It just was not taken as seriously back when nations were fighting each other in much larger conflicts. The 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 Americans did not dominate the news for more than two weeks, as it was during the far more serious Cold War. Today, the absence of wars between nations brings terrorism into the spotlight that it could not have previously secured.
Wars against terrorism have been a paradigm shift, because where a war like World War II involved symmetrical warfare between declared armies, the War on Terror involves asymmetrical warfare in both directions. Neither party has yet gained a full understanding of the power it has over the other.
A few terrorists with a small budget can kill thousands of innocents without confronting a military force. Guerilla warfare can tie down the mighty US military for years until the public grows weary of the stalemate, even while the US cannot permit itself to use more than a tiny fraction of its power in retaliation. Developed nations spend vastly more money on political and media activites centered around the mere discussion of terrorism than the terrorists themselves need to finance a major attack on these nations.
At the same time, pervasively spreading Internet access, satellite television, and consumer brands continue to disseminate globalization and lure the attention of young people in terrorist states. We saw exactly this in Iran in the summer of 2009, where state-backed murders of civilian protesters were videotaped by cameraphone, and immediately posted online for the world to see. This unrelentingly and irreversibly erodes the fabric of pre-modern fanaticism at almost no cost to the US and other free nations. The efforts by fascist regimes to obstruct the mists of the information ethersphere from entering their societies is so futile as to be comical, and the Iranian regime may not survive the next uprising, when even more Iranians will have camera phones handy. Bidirectional asymmetry is the new nature of war, and the side that learns how to harness the asymmetrical advantage it has over the other is the side that will win.
It is the wage of prosperous, happy societies to be envied, hated, and forced to withstand threats that they cannot reciprocate back onto the enemy. The US has overcome foes as formidable as the Axis Powers and the Soviet Union, yet we managed to adapt and gain the upper hand against a pre-modern, unprofessional band of deviants that does not even have the resources of a small nation and has not invented a single technology. The War on Terror was thus ultimately not with the terrorists, but with ourselves - our complacency, short attention spans, and propensity for fashionable ignorance over the lessons of history.
But 44 months turned out to be a very long time, during which we went from a highly uncertain position in the War on Terror to one of distinct advantage. Whether we continue to maintain the upper hand that we currently have, or become too complacent and let the terrorists kill a million of us in a day remains to be seen.