Imagine for a moment that all the wars of the world have come to a peaceful conclusion. Most violent crime against people and property has also been eradicated. 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 that the world is drowning in violence. It is not – but people think it is.
Stop people at random and ask them how many wars they think are going on in the world right now. Most people would guess around a dozen, although they wouldn’t be able to name them. The right answer is two, and one of them, Afghanistan, is probably approaching its end.
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 a number of other countries where there is a lower level of civil conflict: the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, or Colombia (although the latter is now engaged in peace talks to end the fifty-year conflict between the state and the FARC guerillas). But the Sri Lankan civil war is over, the Iraqi civil war is at least over for the moment, and the many little wars of West Africa are all over.
Then there is Somalia, the world’s only failed state, where twenty years of violent anarchy may finally be drawing to an end. But the actual scale of the fighting has rarely risen to a level that would qualify what has been happening there as a full-scale war. Not, at least, what would have qualified as a full-scale war back in the days when that sort of thing was still common. Most of the time Somalia’s conflict has been more like gangland wars on steroids.
There is terrorism in various places, like Boko Haram’s bizarre campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria (where only half the population is Muslim), the Pakistani Taliban’s campaign of murder against their Shia fellow-citizens, and the Naxalites’ long and forlorn struggle to make a Communist revolution in India. All nasty, but none of them real wars.
And there is, finally, the famous “war” on terror, which these days amounts to little more than over-zealous law enforcement at home and selective assassination by drones abroad. Like the “war” on drugs in Mexico, it is only a metaphor for an activity that is not really a war at all.
So that’s it: two real wars, and a clutter of lesser conflicts that really do not merit the term. In a world of seven billion people, only a few hundred million have even the slightest experience of organised violence for political ends. 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 various governments that raise the spectre of war for their own ends. Wars that have not happened and are never likely to fill the imaginations of the public: a war in Korea, a US and/or 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, however deplorable, is the normal state of affairs. It is not. 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 other big wars (including the Russian, Chinese and Spanish 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 a London-based independent journalist