by Richard Gowan

August 29, 2016

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

PDF version




Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

gives Senate President Mauricio Lizcano

the peace deal with FARC rebels,

Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 25, 2016

(AP photo by Felipe Caicedo).



Here is a moral dilemma:

Would you be happy to live in a world in which 80 percent of the population enjoys more or less peaceful conditions, but the remaining 20 percent are condemned to live with a worsening spiral of war and suffering?

This is a useful question, because it is a rough description of the actual world we live in. Most of the planet is pretty stable these days.


Last week, the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos underscored this point in an opinion piece celebrating Colombia's peace deal with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

With the deal, Pinker and Santos noted, the Americas are free of large-scale political violence.


But this is 'the new normal':

"The world's wars are now concentrated almost exclusively in a zone stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, an area containing only a sixth of the world's population."

As Pinker has argued elsewhere, the recent upsurge of violence in the Middle East and Africa should not distract us from the good news that most of the world is seeing historic declines in political violence.

This sort of argument tends to irritate analysts and officials who work on security issues.


It underestimates the risk of new conflicts in many regions, they say. While Colombia moved toward peace this year, for example, neighboring Venezuela has slid into chaos.


In other cases, such as Ukraine and South Asia, flare-ups of violence threaten to bring nuclear powers into conflict, potentially initiating massive killings.

But even leaving these worrying but realistic scenarios aside, there is a moral peril in emphasizing that "only" a sixth of the global population has to live with war:

We come to conclude that it is somehow okay, perhaps even normal, that the unlucky minority are experiencing aberrational levels of violence.

"If you are going to consider the most violent parts of the world," Pinker remarked in a recent interview, "they're going to be pretty violent."

On this at least, it is hard to disagree.

In the conflict-prone zone from Nigeria to Pakistan, violence is not merely steady but intensifying. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has concluded that 167,000 people died in armed conflicts in 2015, but that 107,000 of them took place in the Middle East and Africa.


While the global number of fatalities declined slightly from 2014, there were significant rises in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

The U.S., United Nations and many others have tried to 'stabilize' these countries. Yet there is a recurrent temptation to write off cases like Syria as lost causes, and perhaps even conclude that they should be left to their fates.


President Barack Obama hinted at this counsel of despair in a widely cited interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, in which he called for more focus on the successes of Latin America and Asia,

"because if the only thing we're doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we're missing the boat."


There is a moral peril

in emphasizing that "only" a sixth

of the global population

has to live with war.



This is at least half-right...


The U.S. president, or any other 'serious' leader, should engage with successful and hopeful parts of the globe.


But if we attribute the persistence of violence in other parts of the globe to a mix of malice and nihilism, policymakers have an excuse to accept second-best options - or worse - for managing or stabilizing them, on the grounds that they are fundamentally beyond redemption.

International efforts to "cordon off or control" crises such as those in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan have often looked heavy-handed, counterproductive or immoral. The U.S. has acquiesced to, and tried to work with, Russia's 'brutal intervention' in Syria.


Washington and its allies have also backed-up Saudi Arabia's equally ham-fisted intervention in Yemen.


As I have argued elsewhere, the European Union seems to be sliding toward a "post-humanitarian" mentality in which it focuses on patrolling its borders, rather than striving to halt wars in Africa or the Arab world.

There are political arguments for each of these policies. But, over time, they are legitimizing a broader sense of international indifference toward conflicts in parts of Africa and the Middle East.


Commentators have battened onto the argument that Arab states are now fighting their version of the Thirty Years' War that wrecked Europe in the 1600s.


This is a falsely reassuring comparison, as a more stable European states system finally emerged from that particular cataclysm, but it is not obvious that it would pass muster in an undergraduate history seminar.


As one academic has complained, it,

"paints a picture of a world where the Middle East is just a few centuries behind progressive Europe, and there's nothing we can do but wait for the laggards to catch up."

It is typically a bad idea to build policies on a mix of attractive statistics, dodgy historical analogies and ruminations on human nature.


In the 1990s, analysts attributed the Balkan wars to "ancient ethnic hatreds," justifying inaction in the face of the collapse of Yugoslavia. Current discussions about politics, religion and order in the Middle East and Africa often seem stuck in the same gear.


The net result is to offer us a collective alibi for giving up on serious efforts to stabilize "the zone from Nigeria to Pakistan," and sitting back and hoping that local forces will battle each other into stalemates, leaving the rest of the world in peace.

This is not, of course, what Prof. Pinker and President Santos advocate.


Instead, they believe that Colombia's peace process is evidence that,

"since the Americas have moved away from war, we know that this could happen even in the world's most stubbornly violent regions."

Sadly, many decision-makers living in the peaceful majority of the world seem happy to let the unstable rump remain chaotic.