The tides of war are not receding. The Harvard psychiatrist Steven Pinker, in hisbestselling book The Better Angels of our Nature offers a detailed explanation of mankind’s evolution from a Hobbesian world of brutish, short and violent lives to today’s benign environment. Pinker offers a multidisciplinary approach with a swirl of statistics.
It’s a popular book despite some counter-arguments on causation and Euro-centrism. Several authors have embraced Pinker’s research to extol policy implications about strategy and security resources, without absorbing his caveats against predicting the future. For example, one author quipped that “war as we know it, long thought to be an inevitable part of the human condition, has disappeared.” According to others, “we live in a remarkably safe and secure place, a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history.”
There are grains of truth in the upbeat assessments of some of these analysts. Human violence was in significant decline for many years, and especially so in the developed world. The end of the Cold War ushered in a remarkably rare period of peace, with a sharp drop in the number of wars and reductions in the duration and costs of wars. That said, the last 25 years are quite a unique era, and U.S. security and the risks we have to manage are not measured by aggregated global statistics. Moreover, as this posting argues, the prognostications above fail to account for possible changes in the emerging security environment. Pinker was clear on this point, the substantial progress to date is not irreversible.
In fact, the recent decline in major conflict frequency and overall reduction in battle deaths, is a positive reflection of what we and our Allies have been doing for a generation in terms of working to sustain a rules-based international order. If true, the use of Pinker’s argument as evidence to embrace retrenchment and reduce U.S. defense spending is perversely counter-productive. A less robust military component of U.S. strategy would be less engaged, increasingly less forward deployed, and offer less deterrence to would be aggressors.
We need to develop a prudent sense of awareness of the geopolitical context that could evolve from…