A World on Fire or Echoes of the Cold War?
By: Greg Sanders
The horrors of the war in Syria, terrorist attacks, burgeoning refugee crises, the annexation of Crimea, and South China Sea disputes continue to prompt fears about the world’s direction. But, earlier this decade, Steven Pinker argued violence was declining with the end of the Cold War and the success of some peacekeeping efforts. Is that good news story obsolete?
Tracking conflict deaths is difficult, as shown by the gap between Human Security Report (HSR) and Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) data. The enormity and complexity of Syria’s ongoing civil war makes it particularly hard to measure. However, certain regional trends are clear. Terrorism in aggregate has skyrocketed in countries in conflict, especially in Africa and the Middle East. More than 80 percent of the terrorism losses and 90 percent of the battlefield deaths occurred in eight countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Ukraine, and Yemen. Despite these conflicts, battlefield deaths on a regional and global level remain well below the tolls of the 1980s, a change the Human Security Report attributes in large part to decreasing numbers of interstate conflicts and the end of the Cold War.
We know the 2015 data will include the cease-fire in Ukraine, direct Russian intervention in Syria, and the metastasizing of ISIS terrorism beyond Iraq and Syria. While the global death toll in 2015 will likely remain below half that of three decades ago, significant unknowns remain. Will terrorism by ISIS supporters against Russian, Lebanese, French, and U.S. civilians prompt cooperation on deescalating Syria’s civil war or prompt doubling down on preferred outcomes of individual countries? Aggregate battlefield death statistics cannot tell us whether a specific approach is warranted, but they indicate that Syria can easily get worse should a proxy conflict escalate between the United States and Russia in ways reminiscent of the Cold War. 2014’s uptick in violence shows the real failures of current policy, but alternative policy approaches must consider great power relations to mitigate the risk of conflict escalation in places like Syria.