The Decline of War: What Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech Should Have Said

No, a telegram would not do. That was the means of communication chosen, one imagines in an off-hand way, by the previous two sitting presidents bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize. Theodore Roosevelt fired off a terse message, expressing his gratitude to the distinguished Norwegian committee, before making the bizarre announcement that the award monies would go to an organization entrusted with reducing trade union unrest. Woodrow Wilson's epistle was rather more vacuous, and expressed nothing except humility. The top-hatted apostle for the League of Nations was being publicly recognized for ending the war to end all wars, and all he could muster was a meek word of thanks.

But, Barack Obama? No, the great orator of Hyde Park was not about to send a Western Union to Scandinavia. Nor, indeed, was he was he about to do the modern equivalent and Twitter away such a golden opportunity. He was going to fly to Norway and deliver an address. Not just a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, but an old-fashioned presidential address. In other words, he gave a rather too-long, formal speech outlining state policy. The meat of the speech, once he had finessed his way through the controversy surrounding his award, provided a theory of just war and what's already being ominously referred to as the "Obama Doctrine".

The foundations of this doctrine were laid bare in Oslo, and can be abbreviated as follows: even after the agony of the Iraq War and the debacle in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to employ war as an essential element of foreign policy, either in concert with other nations or unilaterally, and not only for reasons of self-defense, but whenever civil strife, ethnic violence, or state oppression in some far-off land beckons. To quote from his address:

The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.

Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.

These are common themes, repeated ad nauseam by ex-diplomats and former senators at Washington think-tanks and Sunday morning talk shows: that we live in an era of small wars and ethnic cleansing, a time when fanatical non-state actors can threaten entire nations with acts of terror. Of course, nobody expects the President of the United States to quote statistics in a major address to support these assertions, so it is left to us to sort out truth from half-truth, common sense from common delusion. So, what can we say about the validity of the President's claims regarding war in the modern age?

In fact, there's an entire genre of scholarly literature devoted to the question of whether war has declined in recent decades, and out of it a near consensus has emerged: armed conflict is less frequent than ever and in particular has undergone a precipitous descent since the end of the Cold War. One study from international researchers at the Human Security Center revealed that there's been a 40% drop in armed conflict since 1992. And this figure includes minor conflicts in which less than 1000 battle deaths occurred; when focusing only on major wars, the decline is an extraordinary 80% during the same time period.

The numbers continue to astonish and finally dumbfound: while ethnic cleansing in Darfur has rightfully awakened the world's conscience, the data indicates that the number of genocides, like that of all conflicts globally, has plummeted about 80% since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This "peace epidemic" has contributed to a fall in the population of refugees worldwide by about 45%, as formally displaced people have returned to their homes. Moreover, the wars that still transpire are less deadly than before. While the average death-toll per war in 1950 was a brutal 38,000, more than half a century later it's down to 600.

In fairness, it must be admitted that the most recent data as reported by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), indicates that the diminution in conflict was arrested in 2005, when an uptick in civil violence occurred, and has only just been renewed since then. Nevertheless, there are strong reasons for believing that the secular downward trend will continue. Despite the recent setback, interstate wars, that is to say, wars between nations, have not made a comeback and there are none ongoing. Moreover, despite what the President suggested in Oslo, civil internal strife is also still less frequent than it was during the Cold War. And finally, the fall in the number of casualties per conflict has not been reversed in recent years.

So, with qualification, it's possible to declare that what at first appeared to be a remarkable downward trend in conflicts worldwide, appears upon closer inspection to be nothing less than the virtual disappearance of war over the last couple decades. And this is why President Obama's performance while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize seemed so inappropriately bellicose and dour. The arguably premature award could have been refashioned into an opportunity to call the world's attention to the remarkable progress being made in eradicating militarized conflict and in developing an international order where differences are settled in the mundane confines of the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, rather than on the more gallant terrain of the battlefield. For, despite the unwarranted pessimism and stern moralistic posturing that characterized the president's speech, the scarcely believable truth is, that for the first time in recorded history, the end of war appears to be more than just an unrealizable dream.

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