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The New Peace

| Thursday, February 21, 2019

We are a part of the generation of the “Long Peace,” a time of unprecedented lack of global conflict since World War II. The term was coined by John Gaddis in his novel “The Long Peace” (1989), and the period is well known because of the Cold War (1945 – 1991), which was marked by a lack of direct military conflict between major powers, the United States and the USSR. Few Americans during this time saw combat, at least relative to the two World Wars that preceded it. Now, the Cold War is over, but the Long Peace persists. The USSR is no longer a political entity, and Russia lacks the global, political and economic presence of its predecessor — but proxy wars continue. “Low intensity conflict” continues, but the “sides” are less clear.

This is the New Peace moment of the Long Peace.

If the term fits, we need to be clear about what that means. It doesn’t mean a lack of conflict, it can’t — the youth of today have never lived a day without war. The U.S. has been at war in the Middle East since Aug. 2, 1990, a total of 29 years of fighting in and around Iraq. Still, this is not a “total war” in the sense known by past generations. There were more military deaths in World War II than all of the wars since combined, and they took place in a much shorter period of time. In that sense, the New Peace is real for Americans, even while it remains devastating for those directly involved.

Why are we in a New Peace? What is making it stick? Political scientist Christopher Fettweis believes that “whether these trends represent a fundamental change in the rules that govern state behavior or a temporary respite between cataclysms is not yet clear, but there is no doubt that—thus far at least—the post-Cold War era has been more stable and peaceful than any that preceded it.” Many things could have caused this stability: a post-Cold War deterrence effect of massively unequal militaries, incentives toward global cooperation caused by high levels of economic growth, global reduction of poverty, women’s empowerment or the global increase of democracies. However, it is unlikely that any of these is sufficient on their own, and counter examples of peace without any of these elements are easy to find.

Some historians credited the New Peace to U.S. hegemony, but it appears unlikely: stability has occurred even where U.S. influence and investment was minor. Africa, for example, has experienced a reduced number of armed conflicts, despite reduced U.S. involvement. And Africa is hardly the only region where states are free to go to war with one another without fear of U.S. intervention. But they do not, at least not at former rates. From this, we can conclude that “the New Peace can in all likelihood continue without U.S. dominance and should persist long after [this] unipolarity comes to an end.”

While some may be surprised by the idea that stability will continue without U.S. prompting, the number and size of conflicts has continued to decline with the U.S. share of global wealth. This helps explain why the U.S. continues to spend so much of its income on military hardware and still leads the world in arms sales. Historians of the last 30 years might suggest that such trends run counter to the increasing interest of the states today, even where they are seen to be only rational and self-serving — to pursue global peace, instead of running the risk of damaging their economies with war.

So, where do we go from here? The good news is that the effect of changes in U.S. policies and strategies — often driven by inward-looking rather than outward-looking concerns — are less likely to have an effect on this trend. “The New Peace will [likely] persist for quite some time, no matter how dominant the United States is, or what policies President Trump follows, or how much resentment its actions cause in the periphery, Fettweis states. For those of us living in these tumultuous political times, it is reassuring to think that global peace is not dependent on the United States. Of course, many Americans would see this as a loss of control, but cooperation (even where forced upon us by a lack of hegemony) has increased equality, women’s opportunities and global health. That fact that none of our generation has known a world without these things means that we are the living representatives of that global cooperation. In a sense, we are the New Peace.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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