TOP ARTICLE It's Only Getting Better-Editorial-Opinion-The Times of India Vikram Sinha 7 March 2009
With the sharp decline of interstate conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been thought to be a concurrent rise of a more insidious threat. Starting with Afghanistan's civil war and the break-up of the erstwhile Yugoslavia, analysts and the media have perpetuated the idea of ethno-religious conflict and its offshoots as the new scourge of global order. Much has been made of the intra-state conflicts that have seemed to dominate the international arena since, with the Balkans, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia all providing adequate fodder to bolster this world view. Not surprisingly, it has gained a fair amount of currency. This model of conflict is, after all, the oldest transnational threat in existence today.
But now consider the truth. Between 1991 and 2001, 43 conflicts revolving around self-determination were contained or stopped while only 28 started or restarted. The number of armed secessionist conflicts in 2004 was the lowest since 1976 and the number of genocides globally fell by 80 per cent between 1988 and 2001. The paucity of reliable data means that it is more difficult to gain an exact picture of matters as they stand today, but extrapolation is not difficult. Iraq and the Afghanistan/Pakistan morass are the only new major conflicts to have flared up in the intervening years. The general trend is one of increasing human security and peace. And the pity is that this has gone largely unnoticed. The old paradigm of proxy conflict fuelled by superpower rivalry has given way to the rhetoric of internationalism with peacemaking and conflict resolution as its currency. Not even George W Bush could alter this in any fundamental way as the global response to his successor has shown.
Yet, myths abound. Grave-faced talking heads periodically conclude that civilised society is teetering on the brink of an extremism-fuelled conflagration, that wars are getting deadlier and genocide is rife. International organisations, NGOs and governments reiterate it, either due to a lack of data or because of their political agendas. And the public accepts it because it dovetails neatly with common assumptions, and then reinforces them.
The fundamental shift for the better in the international order goes beyond the old definition of human security as an absence of conflict. The UN has increasingly defined the concept in a positive sense, looking at enabling factors. And economic trends reflect the improvement here as well. Caveats about increasing income inequality aside the issue at stake is human well-being which may not always be concurrent with wealth the decrease in conflict and the growth of the globalisation process mean that the average person today is exponentially better off than he was a few decades ago. Infant mortality rates, child labour and malnutrition have all shown an uninterrupted decline since the middle of the 20th century while life expectancy and education levels have been on the rise. And eventually, these tie into secondary indicators like the rule of law and political freedom that govern conflict trends.
Neither is there cause for pessimism if one looks to the future. The peace that has existed between the major powers since the end of the Second World War is the longest uninterrupted stretch in several centuries. This is not likely to change. For all the crystal-gazing about a clash between the champion of the old world order, the US, and the emerging power, China, few analysts lend much credence to the possibility of open conflict. Once seen merely as an adjunct to the democratic peace paradigm, the economic interdependence theory is coming into its own. The incremental rapprochement between China and Taiwan bears testament to this as, in a perverse way, does the global financial crisis.
From the religious wars of Europe to colonial exploitation; from the games of power triggered by the Treaty of Westphalia to their inevitable culmination in the World Wars; from independence to partition and through the horrors of 1969, 1984, 1993 and 2002, global and Indian society have charted a bloody course. But it has been one that would have disappointed Clausewitz, increasingly moving away from conflict as a legitimate means of policy and political expression. Problems remain. Terrorism, that South Asian bugbear, is enjoying a resurgence of sorts. But it is difficult to believe that the trends of six decades and more can be reversed when, at last, we are moving towards a global consensus on the issue. Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that we might not, after all, be locked in a circle of violence.