The future of war is looking bleak

Predictions based on population data suggest conflict will become increasingly rare

Nairobi

Headlines are dominated by the slow-burning wars in Tanzania and Mozambique. An asymmetrical battle, fought in the offshore gas fields of the Indian Ocean grinds on. A changing cast of radical Islamists, coastal separatists and sophisticated pirates have intensified their fight with governments along the Swahili coast even as the hydrocarbons themselves begin to peak.

The world’s last great carbon energy bonanza off the coast of East Africa brought uneven benefits to what had been peaceful, if largely impoverished, nations. The vast discoveries of natural gas softened the decline in oil production in the drying wells of the Middle East during the second and third decades of the 21st century, but the proximity of poverty and extreme wealth unstitched the fragile countries that hosted them. It is now 25 years since Africa’s population surpassed that of China and India: it now stands at 2.8 billion.

This mix of futurology and fiction is one of the possible answers to what the world will look like in 2050. Part of the reason that future wars in now relatively peaceful countries such as Mozambique – whose civil war is now 30 years in the past – and Tanzania is the contention that war itself is going to become far less common.

Havard Hegre, a professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, is the latest academic to devise a statistical model capable of reaching into the future and telling us what is likely to happen next. His study, in collaboration with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, claims that in five years’ time India, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Uganda and Burma will be at the greatest risk of conflict, while in 40 years, it will be China, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

For the purpose of the model, war is defined as being between governments and political organisations that use violence and in which at least 25 people die.

“The number of conflicts is falling,” the professor observes. “We expect this fall to continue. We predict a steady fall in the number of conflicts in the next 40 years. Conflicts that involve a high degree of violence, such as Syria, are becoming increasingly rare.”

In other words, the number of wars will halve. In 2009, some 15 per cent of the world’s countries were suffering from armed conflicts. That proportion will fall to 7 per cent midway through this century, according to the Norwegian researchers’ predictions. At its core, the study has taken a history of global conflicts over the last 40 years and added United Nations predictions for key indicators such as infant mortality rates and population structures up to 2050 to data on probable education rates.

Professor Hegre says “war has become less acceptable, just like duelling, torture and the death penalty”. His conflict model shows the combination of higher education, lower infant mortality, smaller youth cohorts, and lower population growth are a few of the reasons why the world can expect a more peaceful future. The population is expected to grow, but at a slower pace than today, and the proportion of young people will decrease in most countries, with the exception of African ones.

Unfortunately, the model has already had to be tweaked to take account of the Arab Spring and renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The authors admitted that since the first findings of the model were published in 2009, conflicts in the Middle East had weakened the clear correlation between socio-economic development and the absence of civil war, while the fighting in Syria and Libya had shown that “we also have to include democratisation processes in the model”.

The statistician’s approach to understanding the past, present and future chimes with other schools of thought, such as that of the experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker. His work The Better Angels of Our Nature, published last year, argued human beings have become less horrible with time. He found that murder rates have been dropping everywhere, and deaths in warfare have also declined as a percentage of total population. The writer argues the decline of violence is the greatest sign of human progress and that we have lost our “thirst for cruelty”.

While statistics and psychology have been used in the service of optimism, geographers and historians have also been considerable proponents of pessimism. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums takes many of the same indicators fed into Professor Hegre’s model and finds a future in which vast proportions of humanity have been warehoused in shanty towns and exiled from the formal economy. Mr Davis describes a radically unequal and unstable urban world awaiting us.

Much of the variance in what is seen in the crystal ball comes down to differing analyses of what impact the “bottom billion”, as Oxford-based economist Paul Collier calls them, will have on the remainder of the world. Professor Hegre’s detached data-based approach will have its supporters. But there is, of course, a limit to what you can learn about the future, even from a “dynamic multinoniminal logit model”.

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