A Very Long Peace: Potential solutions to armed conflict found in global governance?

In our work on the cooperation possibility frontier, we have demonstrated that as the framework for coordination and trust between nations increases, so too does our threshold for solving problems of a global nature. It is in humanity’s best interest to expand this frontier – thus improving global cooperation and coordination. But there is only reason to do so if the underlying assumption, that there are challenges of a global scale facing humanity, is valid. If that assumption is valid, then global governance in the form of a solid framework for the aforementioned coordination should be a major goal.

In a previous post, we talked about the need for global governance in order to effectively tackle said global challenges. In the next few posts, we’ll look at some of these challenges in detail, beginning with armed conflict.

Over the last few generations, we have experienced such a prolonged era of peace between great powers that it is tempting to dismiss armed conflict as a global issue worth further consideration. Why invest resources in solving this issue when it appears to have already been solved?

It’s important to understand how recent this peace is and why it is so unprecedented. Throughout the ages, humans have had the tendency to murder, maim, and torture one another. In fact, it’s really only in relatively recent history that violence and sadism has become the exception rather than the norm in the human experience.1

Over the past few centuries, violence has declined dramatically in various ways – two of which are particularly worth noting. First, there has been a decline in interpersonal violence within societies that began millenia ago and has continued up until the present day. Second, over recent decades there has been an enormous reduction in interstate conflicts, particularly between great powers.1

The reduction of interpersonal violence came in several waves, beginning millennia ago with the creation of the first states. Throughout history there have been several additional factors in the decline of violence, including the spread of civilizing norms like table manners, the invention of the printing press, and the Enlightenment, which began in Europe in the 18th century and spread to the rest of the world from there.2  The further implementation of strong centralized governments throughout much of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued the reduction in overall lawlessness.

The decline in interstate conflicts is much more recent. Crucial factors for this decline include norms against war, the spread of democracy, and the shattering destruction of the two world wars. The Long Peace following the conclusion of the world wars has been the most peaceful time in human history.3 Thus, it’s worth exploring why this peace came about in the wake of World War II.

The world wars were unprecedented in terms of their material destructiveness and ended with the unleashing of the most terrible weapon yet seen by humanity. As such, they serve as a profound cautionary tale for all great powers that no one is keen on repeating. It should be no surprise then, that at the conclusion of those wars, a body of incentives and political structures was assembled that could create significant and lasting peace – or at least peace that has at least lasted until the present. This peace has been maintained not only through Mutually Assured Destruction between nuclear superpowers, but also by other factors, such as the fact that democracies do not typically go to war with each other. This peace is significant in that no great powers have warred directly with each other in more than half a century.

Conflict, however, still exists – in the form of civil wars, proxy conflicts, genocides, and terrorism. External factors now play a major role in shaping hostilities around the world – often leading to their perpetuation or escalation.4  Major powers, unable to set aside their conflicting interests, are often unwilling to work together in order to prevent or end conflict. Even if they do so on the surface, they cannot agree about the strategy best taken. One only need look at the most recent and prominent international proxy conflict – the Syrian Civil War – for a potent example of this issue.5

There is also the issue of emerging technologies making conflict a greater threat to humanity. Ballistic missile defense and combat drones may weaken global military restraint – a false sense of security being granted by the idea that ICBMs could be shot down and that real soldiers do not have to be put in harm’s way in order to attack the enemy. Cyber-attacks on an unprecedented scale may be capable of radically destabilizing the world’s governments, infrastructures, communities, and markets. Biological and nanotechnological weapons could change the face of warfare and reshape the level of coordinated countermeasures that need to be rallied in order to protect the peace, which is ultimately more fragile than it might seem. As long as nations continue to be divided – as long as they call each other “rivals” or “enemies” – war will always be possible.

Government worldwide being consolidated into an agreed-upon structure, would of course not solve all of these problems right away. It would, however, allow for improved coordination between major powers to help deal with conflicts and resolve them instead of escalating them. The post-war settlement, which created the United Nations and its associated institutions, was profoundly important in setting the stage for the peacefulness and prosperity of the decades since.6  A renewed effort to invest in global governance institutions and and norms could likewise steer humanity toward peace. Governance institutions provide a forum for constructive dialog, centralized action, and an embodiment of norms as they evolve.7

Reformation of the Security Council is an oft-stated idea, but has not happened for a reason: It is a hard sell to the current Security Council, and therefore unlikely to happen in the near future. However, there are other options which can be explored. In Ruling Ourselves, we examine a few ways in which the UN can be expanded and improved.8  To close, we’ll describe a few of the most promising ways that global governance could be improved or modified such that it would reduce the risks of conflict.

One way to do this is to create new narrow-mandate institutions which aim to solve specific transnational problems that all major nations agree on, thus defusing some of the power conflicts that have arisen – and continue to rise – amongst them. For example, a UN institution aimed at combating piracy on the open seas, armed by a coalition of all major powers and staffed by all member states, could help fix a problem that plagues many nations. Cooperation in realms such as this is not as far-fetched as it may sound. There are plenty of problems that most nations agree should be solved, but for which there is currently no institution or agreement that is both trustworthy and powerful enough to accomplish the goal. This kind of trust can be earned by successful institutions over time, thus inspiring optimism about global cooperation.

Supplementing narrow-mandate institutions would be institutions that provide specific aid or information accessible to all nations. For example, acquiring, analyzing, and publishing information about existing and imminent conflicts is very helpful to national governments. Global institutions do some of this today, and it helps inform all nations and thus helps them act to achieve their goals – which of course are not always aligned. As trust is built up over time, these institutions can work in tandem with national governments to deliberately help prevent conflict.

Finally, while short term “global governance” refers to nations cooperating, there is of course the stretch goal of a unitary world government at some far-flung time in the future.9 If the entire world does unite at some point in the future under a single banner, that will greatly reduce the chance of conflict simply by virtue of there being no other nations to go to war with. The majority of conflicts throughout history have been conflicts between nations, while civil conflicts are a minority. This is no longer the case, of course – civil wars are now the majority. As civil wars break out, other nations stand by and watch as they disagree what to do about it or if anything should be done. However, the thought of a regional conflict breaking out while the rest of the world does nothing under a unitary world government is as unthinkable as a civil war being limited to a single state of the United States while the rest of the country does nothing. Beyond this, stability of government is also closely tied with a lack of internal conflict. A stable and unified world economic system where all nations share similar goals will make for an atmosphere where fighting over ethnic boundaries defining lines on a map will simply be obsolete. While that lies in the realm of science fiction for now, between here and there are many intermediate steps involving deeper ties between nations that have already begun to take shape. Think about how unlikely war would be between two European Union nations, for instance. It is almost impossible to imagine, yet a mere century ago, Europe was ground zero for the largest conflicts in history.

It must be stated that there is an element of “chicken or the egg” with regards to global governance being responsible for a further decline in conflict. Perhaps a decline in conflict and improvements in global governance simply go hand-in-hand. Certainly one could imagine that if all the great powers got along we’d live in a peaceful world. But, that is more or less what is necessary in order to build a powerful global institution/government with the ability and willingness to solve conflict. In reality, it is likely that baby steps will need to be taken, with each strengthening of global governance being accompanied by other factors that earn trust and deepen coordination between nations. This will lead to declines in violence that in turn lead to greater stability and trust, which in turn opens the door to a strengthening of global governance, and so on.

As conflict continues to evolve, so must our solutions. To create permanent global peace, humanity will need to navigate a tangle of incentives, beliefs, and technologies; yet it is undeniably in our interest to put aside geopolitical differences for the sake of self-preservation. The challenge now is to get global leaders to take meaningful steps toward the constructive resolution of conflicts, ideally via shared norms and global institutions.

  1. Pinker, S., 2012. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin Books. [] []
  2. Pinker, S., 2019. Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin Books. []
  3. Gaddis, J.L., 1989. The long peace: Inquiries into the history of the cold war. Oxford University Press on Demand. []
  4. Hironaka, A., 2009. Neverending wars: The international community, weak states, and the perpetuation of civil war. Harvard University Press. []
  5. Matar, Linda, Kadri, Ali (Eds.), 2018. Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War. []
  6. Held, D., 2016. Elements of a theory of global governance. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 42(9), pp.837-846. []
  7. Schelling, T.C., 1980. The strategy of conflict. Harvard university press. []
  8. Harack, B., Laskowski, K., Bailey, R., Marcotte, J., Jaques, S., Datta, D., and Kuski, S., 2017. Ruling Ourselves: The deliberate evolution of global cooperation and governance. Available online: http://rulingourselves.com []
  9. Bostrom, N., 2006. What is a singleton. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations, 5(2), pp.48-54. []

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