World War Three?

I think people are too quick to invoke World War Three after every diplomatic scuffle, arms race, or rising tensions.

Over the last two centuries, since the advent of the international system, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potential flash points for global war. Only twice did it result in global conflict, and each of those were interrelated and stemmed from the intersection of factors unique to that time and place. Plus, it is obviously easier to notice the wars that occurred rather than the numerous potential wars that were averted or preempted.

Granted, those two wars killed over 70 million people and unleashed a level of destruction and barbarity that still remain incomprehensible. So, fear of something like that happening again is perfectly justified, and we mustn’t be complacent – war has long been the natural state of humanity, and the last few decades have been unusual in their relative peacefulness.

But we should be measured in our caution and tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, which all too often feels dangerously fatalistic, if not eager (there is a subset of people, generally religious, who seem to welcome world-ending events).

What are your thoughts?

The Men of Bronze

The 369th Infantry Regiment was an all-African American and Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army that served with distinction in both World Wars. Prior to its formation, any black man wishing to fight in the First World War had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies; indeed, despite the disproportionately high turnout of African Americans to recruitment centers – many of whom wished to prove themselves to a nation that little of them, at best – the U.S. initially rejected them. But as the war grinded on and the Allies found themselves facing a shortage of manpower, the U.S. relented and formed a new regiment to be specially comprised of blacks and Puerto Ricans.

However, because many white Americans refused to fight alongside blacks and Hispanics, and often harassed and denigrated serviceman of color, the U.S. Army decided to assign the regiment to the exhausted and decimated French Army – albeit with a warning to the French that African Americans were inferior and prone to rape. Continue reading

Violence Worldwide

While citizens across the Western World lament a growing sense of fear and vulnerability to violent crime and terrorism, the World Economic Forum has issued a report showing that most of the world’s lethal violence, be it homicide, war, or terrorism, is concentrated in only a handful of countries and regions.



Indeed, as the above visual data show, terrorism has only become “global” in the sense that while it does span different countries, it is far from being geographically dispersed; the same few regions and subregions have more or less accounted for most of the world’s violence for the past few decades, with some dropping out (Colombia and India) and some recently joining (Libya and Ukraine).

It turns out that extremist violence is much less pervasive than you might think. As other analysts have noted, it is significantly more prolific outside Western countries than in them. A recent assessment of terrorist risks in 1,300 cities ranked urban centres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia as significantly more vulnerable than those in Belgium, France, the UK or the US. At least 65 cities were described as facing extreme risk, with Iraq – especially Baghdad, Mosul, Al Ramadi, Ba´qubah, Kirkuk and Al Hillah – fielding six of the top 10. Consider that between 2000 and 2014, there were around 3,659 terrorist-related deaths in all Western countries combined. In Baghdad there were 1,141 deaths and 3,654 wounded in 2014 alone.

It is true that there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in recent years, but how are they spread around the world? The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) tracks terrorist-related fatalities between 2005 and 2014 in 160 countries. In a handful of cases where there is ongoing warfare – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – the GTD sometimes conflates terrorist and conflict-related deaths. The authors of the database go to great lengths to avoid this from happening, but it is unavoidable. There are alternative datasets that apply much more restrictive inclusion criteria, but they are not as broad in their coverage and also suffer flaws. Rather than focusing on absolute numbers of violent deaths, it may be more useful to consider prevalence rates.

On the one hand, most countries at the top of the list of most terrorism-prone are clustered in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. They include war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Other countries in the top 15 are more unexpected, not least the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Central African Republic, and Kenya. Belgium comes in at 86th place while France and the United States come in at 98th and 105th respectively. These latter rankings will obviously shift upwards given recent attacks in 2015 and 2016, but not by as much as you might expect.

Unfortunately, noncombatants are for more likely to be killed in today’s wars, nearly all of which are civil conflicts taking place within countries, often with the involvement of paramilitary forces that blend in with civilian populations and thus make them likely targets of all sides. This is to say nothing of the fact that civilians are also the primary and explicit targets of nearly all terrorist and criminal acts.

Yet, however awful they are, even these wars are not as bloody as they otherwise could be:

It turns out that the risk of dying violently from war is considerably higher than the probability of being killed in the course of extremist violence. Although in some countries this risk is an order of magnitude higher, the overall conflict death rate in conflict zones is still far lower than many might have predicted. For example, the average conflict death rate is sky-high in Syria – site of some of the most horrific warfare over the past decade. But it is comparatively lower in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Chad and Yemen, countries that have been exposed to industrial-scale violence. The conflict death rate of course varies according to the ebb and flow of warfare, but the average prevalence is surprisingly low.

In fact, for all the attention geared towards war and terrorism, it is homicide — shorn of any ideological or political motive — that is the biggest threat to human life today. And as with other forms of violence, it is disproportionately concerned in a select number of places, albeit still more widely distributed than war and terrorism.


Although homicidal violence is steadily declining in most parts of the world, it still presents one of the greatest threats of what public health experts call external causes of mortality – especially among young adult and adolescent males.

As in the case of terrorist and conflict-related violence, there are also hot spots where murder tends to concentrate. People living in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Southern Africa are more at risk of dying of homicide than in most other places. The most murderous countries in the world include El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Venezuela, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil.

About 46 of the 50 most violent cities are concentrated in the Americas. Also included in the top 15 most murderous countries, though located outside the Americas, are South Africa, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And beyond these pockets of extreme homicidal violence, the risk of murder is also more widely distributed than violent deaths associated with terrorism or war. There are roughly 85 countries that are consistently above the global average of around seven homicides per 100,000 people. In fact, about nine in every 10 violent deaths occurring around the world over the past decade were due to murder; just a fraction can be attributed to either war or terrorism. This is not to minimize the real dangers and destruction associated with these latter phenomena, but rather to ensure that we keep our eye firmly on the ball.

In nearly half the world’s countries, murder is a far bigger and more prevalent threat to the average person than any other form of deadly violence. This morbid fact renders several important lessons:

First, it is a reminder that a relatively small number of countries are dramatically more at risk of terrorist and conflict-related violence than others – especially Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. While they must protect their homeland from terrorist events, diplomats, development experts and defence specialists would do well to double down on preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention in the most badly affected countries. Doing so could have a dramatic effect on reducing the global burden of terrorist and conflict violence and related humanitarian consequences such as refugee flows and internal population displacement.

Second, there are also a handful of countries – most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean – where homicidal violence is off-the charts. Most of the murders in these states are concentrated in fast-growing large- and medium-sized cities. If homicides are to be reduced there, it is essential that federal and municipal planners focus on risk factors that are driving urban violence – not least social and economic inequality, high rates of youth unemployment, poor and uneven governance, and the limited purchase of the rule of law. There is mounting evidence of data-driven strategies that work – including focused-deterrencecognitive therapy and targeted prevention, but they need sustained leadership to have lasting effect.

Finally, we need to get better at nurturing resilience – the ability to cope, adapt and rebound in the face of adversity – in high-risk communities. While obviously distinct in their causes and consequences, there are still many commonalities connecting terrorist, conflict and homicidal violence. When communities are disorganized and suffer from neglect, there is a higher likelihood of politically, criminally and ideologically motivated organized violence erupting. Governments, businesses and civil society groups need to make sure that political settlements are inclusive, that marginalized groups and broken families are taken care of, and that resilience is designed in to communities from the get-go.

What are your thoughts?

Nuclear Weapons in the World Today

There are five countries that are legally recognized as nuclear weapons states, according to the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been signed by 191 nations: the U.S., Russia, France, U.K., and China.

Additionally, three other countries that are not signatories of the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — while one country, Israel, has not signed the NPT and is not positively known to have nuclear weapons, although it is believed by most analysts to possess them. (For its part, the Israeli government pursues an official policy of “deliberate ambiguity“, in which it refuses to either confirm or deny rumors that it posses nuclear weapons.) Continue reading

The Disparity in Terrorism Between the West and the Rest

It goes without saying that North America, Europe, and the wider developed world are much safer in all sorts of ways than anywhere else on Earth.  Terrorism in particular is especially rare nowadays, to the point that it captures a disproportionate amount of our attention despite being one of the least common forms of death or injury (e.g., you are three times more likely to die of rabies than of Islamic extremism).

However, to see this disparity visualized in data is a far more impactful reminder of the massive gap in fortune that exists between huge swathes of humanity. The following graph from a New York Times piece by Lazaro Gamio and Tim Meko looks at just the past year and a half.


Out of the rest the world, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia — all with predominantly Muslim populations — account for the vast majority of terrorism targeting noncombatants. (Indeed, the primary victims of Islamic terrorism, the source of most of these deaths, have long been other Muslims.)

Terrorism IITerrorism III

According to the Global Terrorism Index, as of 2015, close to 80 percent of deaths from terrorism occur in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. Given recent spate of terrorism in all these nations, that proportion has likely remained the same, if not increased.

The top ten terrorism-affiliated countries is rounded up by India, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Thailand. Israel is the only developed country to be anywhere near these figures, and even then it is in 24th place out of 50. The U.K. and Greece are the next runners up in the developed world, coming in at 28th and 29th place respectively — though their rankings are several points less than the worst hit countries, driving home the disparity in terrorist violence.

For its part, the United States comes in at 35, although the events of the last few weeks may bump up that figure. Even so, it will still be far and away from the almost weekly occurrence of terrorism in many other parts of the world. I cannot even begin to fathom what it is like trying to go about one’s life amid an almost normalized pace of random bombings and shootings.

Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading

One of the Deadliest Wars in History You Never Heard Of

One of history’s deadliest conflicts in proportional terms is the little known War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War, fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, the Empire of Brazil, and Uruguay.

Resulting in over 400,000 deaths in total, it is Latin America’s deadliest war, though it caused the most suffering for Paraguay: in addition to losing a large chunk of its most resource-rich territory, the country may have lost 60 to 90 percent of its total population, including 70-90 percent of males. Continue reading

The World Has Never Been More Peaceful

Over at Slate, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, two leading proponents of humanity’s moral progress, make their provocative case as to why the world is far safer and less violent than ever before.

First, they explain why the vast majority of people think the world is in an historically worst state than it really was. A lot of it comes down to human psychology.

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Cohen laments the “annexations, beheadings, [and] pestilence” of the past year, but surely this collection of calamities is a mere coincidence. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.

Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

The rest of the article lays out a comprehensive, case-by-case explanation for why violence has generally declined in every form, from large-scale conflict to homicide to child abuse. It is a lot more data than I can present spare to go over here, but I will highlight some key points.

Homicide. Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.

England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.

The global average, to be sure, conceals many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it’s easy for the headlines to mislead. The gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico, for example, can create an impression that the country has spiraled into Hobbesian lawlessness. But the trend line belies the impression in two ways.

One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone a massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940, comparable to the reductions that Europe and the United States underwent in earlier centuries. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.

In short, murder is a rarity in a large proportion of societies, and is rapidly declining in most of the remainder of the world. The few places with a relatively high murder rate by today’s already lower standards, are generally doing better than they have historically, with the long-term trend continuing downward.

What about violence towards women, who for much of human history and in most large societies, fared poorly in every sphere — politically, economically, and socially. The writers admit that the data are harder to come by, but they do point to an encouraging and historically unprecedented global trend.

In 1993 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and polling data show widespread support for women’s rights, even in countries with the most benighted practices. Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

To be sure, women still have a long way to go until they are accorded more rights, dignity, and sociopolitical equality. But at least the world seems to be moving in that direction, and today’s seemingly idealistic advocacy campaigns are tomorrow’s momentous paradigm shifts, if the historical precedent holds.

Violence Against Children. A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape, and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published earlier this year, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.”

Similar trends are seen in other industrialized countries, and international declarations have made the reduction of violence against children a global concern.

Nowadays, we take it as a given that children are innocent and vulnerable members of society that must be protected at all costs. In many societies throughout history, children were regarded as inherently degenerate, and treated accordingly — corporal punishment and strident exploitation were the norm. In the developed world and much of the developing world, children enjoy both greater rights and more social support.

Democratization. In 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that “liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19thcentury: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there … but which has simply no relevance to the future.” Moynihan was a social scientist, and his pessimism was backed by the numbers of his day: A growing majority of countries were led by communist, fascist, military, or strongman dictators. But the pessimism turned out to be premature, belied by a wave of democratization that began not long after the ink had dried on his eulogy. The pessimists of today who insist that the future belongs to the authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China show no such numeracy. Data from the Polity IV Project on the degree of democracy and autocracy among the world’s countries show that the democracy craze has decelerated of late but shows no signs of going into reverse.

Democracy has proved to be more robust than its eulogizers realize. A majority of the world’s countries today are democratic, and not just the wealthy monocultures of Europe, North America, and East Asia. Governments that are more democratic than not (scoring 6 or higher on the Polity IV Project’s scale from minus 10 to 10) are entrenched (albeit with nerve-wracking ups and downs) in most of Latin America, in floridly multiethnic India, in Islamic Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the autocracies of Russia and China, which show few signs of liberalizing anytime soon, are incomparably less repressive than the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Mao.

To be sure, democracies of all shades and degrees are not without their problems; state violence and repression can and do still persist at all levels and forms, albeit to varying extents. But once again, it is all about the relative and historical picture, and by that token most denizens of the world are immeasurably freer and less oppressed than ever, even if that is still a tenuous gain. Indeed, the very concepts of consent of the governed, human rights, civil liberties, etc. were practically nonexistent in most of human history.

Genocide and Other Mass Killings of Civilians.The recent atrocities against non-Islamic minorities at the hands of ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and central Africa, have fed a narrative in which the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective, if only to identify and eliminate the forces that lead to mass killing. Though the meaning of the word genocide is too fuzzy to support objective analysis, all genocides fall into the more inclusive category of “one-sided violence” or “mass killing of noncombatant civilians,” and several historians and social scientists have estimated their trajectory over time. The numbers are imprecise and often contested, but the overall trends are clear and consistent across datasets.

By any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet, and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year. Stalin and Mao kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, and it has been falling ever since, though punctuated by spikes of dying in Biafra (1966–1970, 200,000  deaths), Sudan (1983–2002, 1 million), Afghanistan (1978–2002, 1 million), Indonesia (1965–1966, 500,000), Angola (1975–2002, 1 million), Rwanda (1994, 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995, 200,000). (All of these estimates are from the Center for Systemic Peace.) These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of the current horrors in Iraq (2003–2014, 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011–2014, 150,000) and interpret them as signs of a dark new era. Nor, tragically, are the beheadings and crucifixions of the Islamic State historically unusual. Many postwar genocides were accompanied by splurges of ghastly torture and mutilation. The main difference is that they were not broadcasted on social media.

The trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings, fortunately, point sharply downward. After a steady rise during the Cold War until 1992, the proportion of states perpetrating or enabling mass killings of civilians has plummeted, though with a small recent bounce we will examine shortly.

Granted, any number of people killed in warfare, especially noncombatants, is a travesty. But as morbid, not to mention logistically difficult, as historical comparisons of death rates may be, fewer deaths even when deaths occur points to steadier smaller and less brutal conflicts, and overall less suffering than there otherwise would be. Today’s civilians are literally several thousand times less likely to be targeted in today’s wars than they would have been in the mid-20th century.

And thankfully, the wars that usually form the backdrop to such mass killings are increasingly rarer and less deadly than ever:

War. Researchers who track war and peace distinguish “armed conflicts,” which kill as few as 25 soldiers and civilians caught in the line of fire in a year, from “wars,” which kill more than a thousand. They also distinguish “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against each other, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state. (Conflicts in which the armed forces of a state are not directly involved, such as the one-sided violence perpetrated by a militia against noncombatants, and intercommunal violence between militias, are counted separately.)

In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether. (The last one was the Korean War). Today the world rarely sees a major naval battle, or masses of tanks and heavy artillery shelling each other across a battlefield.


Though the recent increase in civil wars and battle deaths is real and worrisome, it must be kept in perspective. It has undone the progress of the last dozen years, but the rates of violence are still well below those of the 1990s, and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.

The author’s conclude that, overall, every kind of violence has declined in most of the world, and political and economic freedom is steadily, if tenuous, continuing apace. Again, this is all based on general global trends and comparisons to humanity’s depressingly poor precedent in these areas.

None of this is to say that the multitude of grave problems humanity still faces should not be taken seriously and addressed accordingly. Far too many people continue to suffer and die at the hands of other people in all sorts of wars, often beyond clear-cut violence — look at economic exploitation for example, or the costs of environmental degradation.

But to deny that humanity has not nonetheless made some measurable progress is both empirically unfounded and morally counterproductive. The more we see, acknowledge, and learn from our progress, the more we can keep it going. If we remain mired in fear, cynicism, misanthropy, and despair, it will be much harder to improve our condition and those of our fellow humans.

Let us celebrate how far we have come as a species without being complacent. Let us see our incredible potential for moral progress and continue pushing the boundaries further. For all our flaws and problems, we have come to far to give up now.

What are your thoughts?

The People Who Have Died in War the Last 600 Years

Even a cursory understanding of human history betrays our horrifically violent past. But the following chart from Our World In Data paints an even more vivid picture of both the frequency and cost of war over the last six centuries alone. (For a larger and zoomable version, click here.)


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