Hope everyone had a happy new year! As we move into 2006, it seems a good time to reflect a bit on where we’ve been the last few years. A new report from the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia has been released that deals with a new concept in international relations theory known as “human security.” As the Human Security Report details, in contrast to traditional understandings of national and international security, which focus on the security of states and the prevention of large-scale inter-state war, “human security is about protecting individuals and communities from any form of political violence.” There are two main frames for human security: A narrow one, articulated in the Report, which focuses on “violent threats to individuals, while recognizing that these threats are strongly associated with poverty, lack of state capacity and various forms of socio-economic and political inequity” and a broader one, preferred by the UN, which “argues that the threat agenda should be broadened to include hunger, disease and natural disasters because these kill far more people than war, genocide and terrorism combined.” Human security is a controverisal concept, as traditional IR scholars believe it detracts conceptually and in policy matters from more relevant and dangerous security threats.
Nonetheless, the Report has some very interesting findings about the state of international security. Namely, that the world is becoming, year by year, more peaceful and less bloody. The number of armed conflicts around the globe has dropped by almost 50% since 1992, when 50 wars raged world-wide. 100,000 people died in those wars (and 340,000 died in 1972), but only 20,000 died in armed conflicts in 2002. Military coups are disappearing, down to 10 failed coups in 2004 from 25 in 1963. Terrorism is the one form of international violence on the rise, growing from 17 incidents in 1987 to 175 in 2003 and 651 in 2004. However, even as the number of terrorist attacks rise, the death toll — an average of 1,000 people a year over the last 30 years — is but a small fraction of the cost of large-scale war.
Why the decline in violence? The Report identifies four main reasons: the spread of democracy, an increase in economic interdependence, a decline in the economic utility of war (that is, modern economies are no longer fueled by raw materials and territory, and thus war has become less profitable), and the growth of international institutions and international law, that have produced a ideational shift away from the use of violence as a tool of statecraft. The report concludes that “the best explanation for this decline is the huge upsurge of conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding activities that were spearheaded by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Cold War.” Of course, the end of the Cold War, in which the US and the USSR fought “proxy wars” across the globe is cited as well. I have no doubt that these factors have been critical in the reduction of interstate violence.
However, I also have a hunch that these factors are intervening variables that hint at a more important and fundamental cause of increasing international peace: US hegemony. It is US hegemony that allowed NATO to cement the democratic status of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, US hegemony that allows the EU, Japan, and other democracies to focus on economic expansion rather than military spending, US hegemony and its attendant military supremacy that has made large scale conflict almost unthinkable, and US hegemony that allows the UN and other international bodies the space to operate and build functioning legal institutions. It is hard to imagine any of these things occurring in a multi-polar, or even a bi-polar, world in which traditional security problems would likely dominate national agendas. The US, in essence, provides the monopoly of force that any government needs to enforce its laws. Of course, the US is not answerable to the UN, nor does it always act in the interests of international law. The system is not perfect. But in the absence of that hegemony, I believe international law would be even more enfeebled than it is today. Before criticizing US hegemony for blocking or undermining the spread of international law, ask yourself: Where would international law be without it?