Yet as the centenary of World War One approaches it is striking how peaceful the world is rather than how violent. At the level of conflict between nation states at least. Though as the World Development Report 2011 reminds us:
21st century violence does not fit the 20th-century mold. Interstate war and civil war are still threats in some regions, but they have declined over the last 25 years. Deaths from civil war, while still exacting an unacceptable toll, are one-quarter of what they were in the 1980s. Violence and conflict have not been banished: one in four people on the planet, more than 1.5 billion, live in fragile and conflict-affected states or in countries with very high levels of criminal violence.War has been 'internalised' - or rather it has metastasised in many parts of the world into a grim mixture of civil war and organised criminality. We are sadly familiar in Ireland with the manner in recent times which 'freedom fighters' have become 'drug barons' when the war is finally over...
There is a way out for the world's victims of organised violence: for as the WDR report makes clear, strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to provide citizen security, justice, and jobs is crucial to breaking recurring cycles of violence. But how? The short answer is free market capitalism with a strong dose of globalisation. Though there is rather more to it than that. For as Larry Arnhart observes:
Recently, some scholars have argued for a "capitalist peace theory": the correlation between democracy and peace arises not because democracy causes peace, but because modern democracies tend to be capitalist, and it's really capitalism and its attendant prosperity that fosters peace. Capitalist societies benefit from free markets and free trade, both within and between societies, which create networks of global interdependency and exchange that are disrupted by war.Once again we have seen here in Ireland how a failure to evolve from a 'clientelist economy' to a 'contract-intensive economy' can hurt and even reverse our economic progress. Though so far not our peace.
Moreover, in capitalist societies based on contractual relationships with strangers based on social trust and the rule of law impartially enforced by the state, individuals are habituated to peaceful cooperation rather than violent aggression. Michael Mousseau argues that what promotes peace is the move from a "clientelist economy" to a "contract-intensive economy." In clientelist economies, individuals depend on their families, their friends, and their group leaders--their patrons--to provide economic and physical security, which promotes a xenophobic psychology of in-group/out-group conflict that fosters military conflict. In contract-intensive societies, individuals are habituated to making contracts with strangers with the expectation that those contracts will be enforced impartially by the state under the rule of law. Citizens in such societies are inclined to see the advantages of bigger markets with more contracting opportunities, and so they support foreign policies of international cooperation under an international rule of law that facilitates global trade and mutual exchange.
But I agree with Arnhart: "war will always be an option when human beings are caught in tragic conflicts over the objects of desire". The challenge will be to avoid a zero sum outcome that results in 'tragic conflicts'. Nevertheless, as the Rational Optimist - Matt Ridley - has argued, war will be with us in one guise or another for the rest of the 21st century, so we will just have to ensure that we build and support those institutions that create a positive sum world.
Like most Irish people I would never go to fight another country's war abroad, even though my grandfather did, along with 17,000 other Ulster Catholics at the Battle of the Somme. It helps of course that I'm too old for such an eventuality - and anyway I'd happily just take the white feather. Maybe one consequence of the intervening century is that there would be a great deal more than 20,000 conscientious objectors in the event that Britain re-introduce conscription to fight a foreign war. And maybe that's one sign of hope for the future.