War and peace

A graphic snapshot of world peacekeeping trends from Dan Smith.

Source: State of the World Atlas, Myriad Editions, 2020

Any war is too much war. That said, from 1995 to 2010 there were fewer, less lethal wars each year. This was the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War in 1990, along with a reduced risk of nuclear conflagration and the use of more economic resources for peaceful purposes. It was possible because international co-operation increased and helped end wars and monitor peace agreements.

But those gains have not been sustained. Since 2010, the number of wars has increased, the number of international peace operations has declined, the number of new peace agreements has fallen away, and the rate of casualties from war has risen sharply.

Military spending also picked up pace in 1999, increasing every year until 2012, when it stabilized following the 2008 to 2009 financial and economic crisis, before starting to increase again in 2015. The global total is now as high as just before the end of the Cold War. Whether the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will slow spending again has yet to be seen.

Geopolitics is increasingly toxic, both at the global level – USA vs China, NATO vs Russia – and in regional rivalries such as between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and India and Pakistan. That toxin hinders co-operation to end armed conflicts. It is the reason why the global system of conflict management is weaker than at any time since 1990. And it means that the appetite for co-operation is declining at the very moment when the world faces a range of challenges – climate change, pandemics, potential cyber vulnerability – to which responding co-operatively is the realistic way forward.

A UN study found that in the first 12 or so years after the end of the Cold War, as many peace agreements were signed as in the previous 200 years.

The number of peace missions also increased, because the end of the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union freed the United Nations to do more.

The number of peacekeeping missions plateaued in the mid-2000s and, although the trend is not yet clear, it looks as though it is now tailing off. This is partly an indication that several peacekeeping missions have been successfully accomplished – but may also be a sign that rich states are less willing to pay for peacekeeping in tougher economic times.