"Since I have been at the Foreign Office," Britain's permanent under-secretary for foreign affairs announced in May, 1914, "I have not seen such calm waters." He was wrong, of course. Just three months later, Europe began an orgy of killing. By 1945, more than 100 million had died violently, and a nuclear arms race had begun. In 1983, U.S. government war games suggested that an all-out war with the Soviet Union would kill a billion people — one human being in five — in the first few weeks.
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As we stand at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, with civil war raging in Syria and tanks massing on Ukraine's borders, the last hundred years seem to have been the worst of times — and yet they also seem to have been the best of times. Difficult as it may be to believe, rates of violent death were lower in the 20th century than they had ever been before, and those in the 21st are lower still.
The Stone Age world, we now know, was a rough place. Ten thousand years ago, if someone decided to use force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids; but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people.
This puts the last 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocide and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century as a whole, roughly 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world's population died violently. If you were lucky enough to be born in the 20th century, you were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than if you had been born in the Stone Age; and since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.
These are astonishing statistics, but thanks to books such as Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" and Jared Diamond's "The World Until Yesterday," they are increasingly widely recognized. There is less agreement, though, on why violence has declined, but I believe the explanation is even more astonishing than the pattern itself. In perhaps the greatest paradox in history, what has made the world safer is war itself.
This is an unsettling claim to make. After all, war is mass murder; what sort of person goes around saying that mass murder has had positive consequences? The answer: the sort of person who has been very surprised by the results of his own research. Thomas Hobbes reasoned his way to a similar idea back in the 1640s, writing his philosophical classic "Leviathan" as the English Civil War raged around him, but only now do we have the evidence to prove the case.
What happened, it seems, is that starting about 10,000 years ago, the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies. The victors then found that the only way to make these larger societies work was by developing stronger governments; and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.
The men who ran these governments were no saints. They cracked down on killing not out of the goodness of their hearts but because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that they kickstarted the process through which rates of violent death fell by 90 percent between the Stone Age and the 20th century.
This process was brutal. Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacification could be just as bloody as the savagery it stamped out. Nor were all governments equally good at it. Democracies may be messy, but they rarely devour their children; dictatorships get things done, but they shoot, starve and gas a lot of people. And yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over the 10,000-year long run, war made states, and states made peace.
War was hell, but the alternatives were worse. Unpleasant as this conclusion is, while war is the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way we have found. If the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans — in these and countless other cases, if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity would have reaped the benefits of larger societies without paying such high costs.
But that did not happen. It is a depressing thought, but the evidence again seems clear. The reality is that people almost never give up their freedoms, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.
The civilizing process was also uneven. Violence spiked up and down. For more than 1,000 years — beginning before Attila the Hun in the 400s A.D. and ending after Genghis Khan in the 1200s — mounted invaders from the steppes actually threw the process of pacification into reverse, with war breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones. Only in the 17th century did large, settled states find an answer to the nomads, in the shape of guns that delivered enough firepower to stop horsemen in their tracks. Combining these guns with new, oceangoing ships, Europeans then exported unprecedented amounts of violence around the world. The consequences were terrible; and yet they created the largest societies yet seen, driving rates of violent death lower than before.
By the 18th century, vast European empires straddled the oceans, and in 1776, the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw that something new was happening. For millennia, conquest, plunder and taxes had made rulers rich, but now, Smith saw, markets were so big that a new path to the wealth of nations was opening up. Using it, however, was complicated. On the one hand, markets would work best if governments got out of them, leaving people to truck and barter as they saw fit; but on the other, markets would only work at all if governments got into them, enforcing their rules and keeping trade free. The solution, Smith realized, was not a Leviathan but a super-Leviathan, a kind of globocop that would police global trade.
After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, this was precisely what the world got. Britain was the only industrialized economy on earth. It bestrode the world like a colossus, projecting power as far away as India and China. And because its wealth came from exporting goods and services, it used its financial and naval muscle to deter any rival power from threatening the international order of free trade. For 99 years, the planet grew more peaceful and prosperous under the globocop's watchful eye.
Like everything to do with war, however, the Pax Britannica rested on a paradox. To sell its goods and services, Britain needed other countries to be rich enough to buy them; which meant that, like it or not, Britain had to encourage other countries to industrialize and accumulate wealth. The economic triumph of the 19th-century British world system, however, was simultaneously a strategic disaster. Thanks in significant part to British capital and expertise, the United States and Germany had also turned into industrial giants by the 1870s, and doubts began growing about Britain's ability to police the global order. The more successful the globocop was at doing its job, the more difficult its job became.
In the 1870s, no power on earth dared challenge Britain directly, but by the 1910s, Germany's leaders had concluded that war was no longer the worst of their options. The violence this decision unleashed bankrupted Britain and threw the world into bloody chaos. Not until 1989 did the wars and rumors of wars finally die down, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as a much more powerful policeman than Britain had ever been.
Like its British predecessor, the American globocop oversaw a huge expansion of trade, intimidated other countries from making wars that would disturb the new world order, and drove rates of violent death lower than before. But again like Britain, America made its money by helping trading partners get richer — above all China, which, since 2000, has looked increasingly like a potential rival.
In the 2000s, no one (apart from Saddam Hussein) was foolish enough to challenge American power directly, just as in the 1870s no one was foolish enough to take on Britain. But if present trends continue, by the 2040s that may have changed — just as it had changed for Britain by the 1910s.
We seem to be getting the worst of all possible worlds, combining instability similar to that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with weapons even more appalling, thanks to today's robotic technologies, than those of the Cold War. It is hard to avoid concluding that the next 40 years will be the most dangerous in history.
The lesson of history, however, seems to be clear: Peace has always depended on having a strong government, and in the 21st century global peace will depend on having a strong globocop. And since the United States is the only plausible candidate for the globocop's role, it remains, as Abraham Lincoln said a century and a half ago, "the last best hope of earth." The only alternative is a rerun of the script leading up to World War I, but this time with nuclear weapons.
If the United States fails, the whole world fails.
Ian Morris is the author of "War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization From Primates to Robots."
"War! What Is It Good For?"
By Ian Morris, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 495 pages, $30Copyright © 2015, CT Now