Best of times

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am


I wonder how many journalists covering Libya are aware that the African continent is the world's most peaceful when it comes to interstate wars. Moreover, its number of civil, ethnic and tribal wars has been on the decline for some time. Levels of conflict in Africa have never been so low in all the centuries African history has been written.

We are brainwashed by headlines and the television news to think otherwise, not just about Africa but about the world at large.

During the US presidency of George W. Bush, we were so battered by his approach to the world that we began to see, if not reds under the bed as in the old days of the cold war, big black horrors of one kind or another. Under Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, his military chief, Colin Powell, said: 'I'm running out of villains.' Under Bush, as his secretary of state, Powell kept quiet. But he had hit the nail on its head.

Who in the world is threatening whom at the moment? The number of interstate wars has never been so low. Neither has the number of territorial disputes. The number of coups has fallen dramatically.

Even in the time of Bush, who appeared to manufacture the reasons for warfare, these trends were well under way. Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, the world was largely at peace. In Latin America, there was no conflict between its nations, which has been true for a long time. In Asia, there was some rubbing of shoulders in the South China Sea between China and its neighbours but no military exchange of fire. Iraq aside, the Middle East has had no all-out wars in recent years.

In Europe, since the wars of ex-Yugoslavia, there has only been one war - the short-lived one between Russia and Georgia in 2008. But fewer than 1,000 people died, which doesn't qualify it as a 'war' in the statistical tables recording war compiled by the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Looking ahead, where can we reasonably expect war in the next decade? Could it be between Syria and Israel, the US and Iran, Pakistan and India, Vietnam and China, Uganda and Sudan, North Korea and South Korea?

All are plausible candidates. But all are dead set against it. All are long-standing antagonists but none show signs of stirring the waters. Moreover, the world's political climate is against it, and this is the important thing. Unlike in previous centuries, it is no longer an honourable thing to make war.

Ethnic conflict has been falling steadily since 1960, according to Sipri. Repression and political discrimination have been declining, according to the Minorities at Risk Project at the University of Maryland. The average number of battle deaths per conflict has been steadily going down. Mass slaughter is sharply down. Likewise, the number of large-scale human rights abuses, one-sided violence against civilians, continues to decline. The number of terrorist attacks is far smaller than it was during the cold war. Most important, non-violence as a tool of change is on the up - witness the 'Arab spring' - but unfortunately not in Libya.

We can dare to say there has never been a time like this in recorded history. For the present, we have the worst aspects of human nature under some sort of control. We have to make sure we keep it that way.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist