Chris Blattman in the Boston Review: The globe is a patchwork of rival territories. Controlling them brings wealth and status. Different groups covet their neighbors’ resources and prey on the weak, but most do their best not to wage war.
Now, when I say war, I don’t just mean countries duking it out. I mean any kind of prolonged, violent struggle between groups. This includes villages, clans, gangs, ethnic groups, religious sects, political factions, and nations. At every one of these levels, compromise typically wins for the same reason it does in Medellín: war is ruinous.
Nothing destroys progress like conflict. Fighting massacres soldiers, ravages civilians, starves cities, plunders stores, disrupts trade, demolishes industry, and bankrupts governments. It undermines economic growth in indirect ways too. Most people and business won’t do the basic activities that lead to development when they expect bombings, ethnic cleansing, or arbitrary justice; they won’t specialize in tasks, trade, invest their wealth, or develop new ideas. These costs of war incentivize rivals to steer clear from prolonged and intense violence.
Of course, it seldom feels like peace is our natural state. “The story of the human race is war,” said Winston Churchill, “except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world.” Certainly it often seems so, especially today as a major conflict rages in Ukraine and the number of civil wars in the world climbs to levels not seen since the 1990s.
But that sentiment is misleading and comes from ignoring the quieter moments of compromise. One example of peace came two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan. Pakistan was outraged, but violence did not break out. Calm ensued, as it has for decades. War would have been so costly that both sides strove to avoid it.
Likewise, for two decades, President Vladimir Putin tried every means possible to co-opt Ukraine without invasion: dark money, propaganda, political stooges, assassinations, and support for separatists. War was his last resort. He succeeded in subjugating neighbors such as Belarus and Kazakhstan without a major fight, and he hoped to repeat the trick in Ukraine.
Look around and tense instances of peace appear everywhere, whether it’s the gloomy impasse between North and South Korea or the constant deadlock over Taiwan. We see it at lower levels too. Take ethnic and sectarian groups, who are mostly covered in the news when they purge or pillage their neighbors. When social scientists tallied the number of rivalries in the world and counted how many turned violent, however, they found that fewer than one in a thousand actually fight.
We forget this because few people write about the conflicts avoided. Instead, our gaze is often pulled to the horrific, violent struggles that do happen. That’s natural. We have to pay attention to wars, but we shouldn’t focus solely on the hostilities that do occur.
Solely examining the times that peace failed is a kind of selection bias—a slanted accounting of the evidence that distorts our view of the world. It is a mistake that has two important consequences. One is that we exaggerate how much we fight. Yes, our natural condition is conflict and competition, but most of the time this jostling is not violent. Enemies prefer to loathe in peace.
The second and greater harm of selection bias is that we mistake the roots of war and follow fruitless paths to peace. When we trace the steps leading up to a fight, we find familiar features: ancient hatreds, poverty, historical injustices, and an abundance of arms. But when we look at the times rivals did not fight, we often see many of the same preceding conditions. We ought to be skeptical, then, that these are the causes of the violence. To discern why we fight wars, we should begin with why we do not.
Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Haseeb Warsi, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Javed Abbasi, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mushtaq Siddiqui,, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Shareer Alam, Syed Ali Ammaar Jafrey, Syed Hamza Gilani, Shaheer Alam, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail, Tariq Chaudhry, Usman Nazir