Wars steadily increase for over a century, fed by more borders and cheaper conflict

Jun 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- New research by the University of Warwick and Humboldt University shows that the frequency of wars between states increased steadily from 1870 to 2001 by 2% a year on average. The research argues that conflict is being fed by economic growth and the proliferation of new borders.

We may think the world enjoyed periods of relative freedom from war between the Cold War and 9/11 but the new research by Professor Mark Harrison from at the University of Warwick’s the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and Professor Nikolaus Wolf from Humboldt University, shows that the number of conflicts between pairs of states rose steadily from 6 per year on average between 1870 and 1913 to 17 per year in the period of the two World Wars, 31 per year in the , and 36 per year in the 1990s.

Professor Mark Harrison from the University of Warwick said: “The number of conflicts has been rising on a stable trend. Because of two world wars, the pattern is obviously disturbed between 1914 and 1945 but remarkably, after 1945 the frequency of wars resumed its upward course on pretty much the same path as before 1913.”

One of the key drivers is the number of countries, which has risen dramatically – from 47 in 1870 to 187 in 2001.

Professor Mark Harrison added: “More pairs of countries have clashed because there have been more pairs. This is not reassuring: it shows that there is a close connection between wars and the creation of states and new borders. Besides, no matter how you divide it, we have only one planet. Our planet has already seen two world wars. As that experience suggests, you can The fact that inspired the research is illustrated in the figure above. The number of conflicts between pairs of states around the world has been rising since 1870. (“Pairwise conflicts” are measured by the number of pairs of countries in conflicts. Conflicts include everything from full-scale shooting wars and uses of military force to displays of force such as sending warships and closing borders. This doesn’t measure the intensity of violence, but it does capture the readiness of governments to settle disputes by force. Because we look only at wars between states, civil wars are not counted.)

When the researchers have discussed their work with colleagues, the most frequent questions have been about the extra wars since 1945: “Aren’t these just America’s wars?” and “Aren’t these just coalition wars in which many far flung countries join symbolically, yet most never fire a shot?” “No” is the answer to both these questions. If one removes “America’s wars” altogether from the data, it makes no difference: the rising trend is still there. Other scholars have shown that the average distance between countries at war has fallen steadily since the 1950s.

Looking specifically at the countries that have initiated disputes, the researchers show, larger countries (defined by GDP) have tended to make more frequent military interventions, but there has been no increase in this tendency over the 130 years of their study. They also show there is no tendency for richer countries (defined by GDP per head) to make war more often than others, and again this has not changed over 130 years. In other words, the readiness to embark on military adventures is scattered fairly uniformly across the global income distribution.

This raises two sorts of problems. One is that it’s somewhat alarming. The other is that it’s a bit of a puzzle. Much of what we know, or think we know, says this should not be happening. The countries of the world have tended to become richer, more democratic, and more interdependent. The thinkers of the Enlightenment held that these things ought generally to make the world more peaceful. Much political science is built on the idea that the political leaders of richer, more democratic countries have fewer incentives to make war and are more constrained from doing so.

Professor Mark Harrison said: “We do not think these ideas are wrong, but they are incomplete. Without being certain of the answer, we think political scientists have focused too much on preferences for war (the “demand side”) and not enough on capabilities (the “supply side”). Capabilities may be the missing factor in the story of the rising frequency of wars. We argue that the same factors that should have depressed the incentives for rulers to choose are also increasing the capacity for war. In other words, we are making war more frequently, not because we want to, but because we can.”

The research gives three explanations for this. Firstly, has made destructive power cheaper, not just absolutely cheaper but cheaper relative to civilian goods. Second, the key to modern states’ acquisition of destructive power was the ability to tax and borrow more than ever before, and the growth of fiscal capacity was hugely assisted by the rise of democracy. Third, war is disruptive of trade, but those countries that succeeded in maintaining external trading links in wartime could wage war more effectively.

Professor Mark Harrison concluded: “In other words, the very things that should make politicians less likely to want war – productivity growth, democracy, and trading opportunities – have also made war cheaper. We have more wars, not because we want them, but because we can. Finally, under present international arrangements this deep seated tendency is not something that any one country is going to be able to control.”never be quite sure what little conflicts will not suddenly snowball into much wider, more deadly struggles.”

The full paper entitled the “The frequency of wars” by Mark Harrison and Nikolaus Wolf , is forthcoming in the Economic History Review.

Explore further: New research shows sportswomen still second best to sportsmen... in the press

Related Stories

Historian revises estimate of Civil War dead

Jun 06, 2011

The Civil War — already considered the deadliest conflict in American history — in fact took a toll far more severe than previously estimated. That’s what a new analysis of census data by Binghamton University ...

Better military technology does not lead to shorter wars

Mar 29, 2010

It is generally assumed that military technology that is offensive rather than defensive in nature leads to shorter wars. Yet, a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that this assumption is ...

Explained: Currency wars

Nov 15, 2010

This month’s G-20 meeting of industrialized countries was rife with talk of potential "currency wars," in which states try to devalue their currencies to help their economies. While a central tension ...

Map sheds light on English Civil War

Mar 02, 2011

A geographical map depicting landowners’ loyalties to the restored King Charles II after the English Civil War has shown that contrary to popular opinion, peace was not assured in the 1660s, long after ...

Recommended for you

Beyond human: Exploring transhumanism

Nov 25, 2014

What do pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, Iron Man and flu vaccines all have in common? They are examples of an old idea that's been gaining in significance in the last several decades: transhumanism. The word ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gblaze41
1.3 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2011
I do not see how they can say that war has been increasing when the 20th Century actually had less wars than any century previous. I really suggest fact checking this article.
xznofile
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2011
if taxable carbon is realistic, why not taxable arms trade, both take an international agreement that benefit populations over governments.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2011
if taxable carbon is realistic, why not taxable arms trade,

Because it would be inefficient of governments to tax themselves. What would they pay with? The taxes they already collected?
stealthc
1 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2011
conflicts are up, fed by globalists, and not by more borders. In fact, we need more borders just to deal with this globalization trend that is damaging our society as a whole, making it vulnerable to "GLOBAL" disasters and depressions.
frajo
not rated yet Jul 05, 2011
Much political science is built on the idea that the political leaders of richer, more democratic countries have fewer incentives to make war and are more constrained from doing so.
Contrary to the underlying assumptions of the researchers, countries are not agents that act according to the statistical mean inhabitant. They act, instead, according to the will and profit of their ruling class - which usually is representing the wealthy minority.
This wealthy minority doesn't see any problem in waging social wars against their not-so-wealthy compatriots (by influencing and bying ("sponsoring") the government and the legislators) and military wars against other countries - as long as their profits rise.

Wars are caused by an overly unequal distribution of goods and by those who want to maintain and widen these unequalities in order to feed their greed.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2011
connection between wars and the creation of states and new borders.

Maybe those borders were artificially created by the world powers, like Yugoslavia?

Free peoples who trade with each other have no reason for war.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.