Since I was a child, I have marveled and despaired at mankind’s propensity and capacity for violence. Mostly through movies and television, since I grew up in a quiet, rural town, I was exposed to visions of wars both real and fictional, as the tail end of Vietnam on the nightly news streamed into our home, and visions of nuclear Armageddon dominated my nightmares. I dreamed of stopping this, and read rather obsessively about war and peace, about political history and especially the nuclear arms race because I felt that that was our greatest threat. I majored in political science, at the very end of the Cold War, and as the Soviet Union fell, it seemed briefly that at least that threat would wane. For a fleeting moment, as walls fell and freedom was being celebrated in former dictatorships, as velvet revolutions, and people’s revolutions, and student uprisings undermined the vestiges of crumbling, corrupt empires, it seemed that peace and freedom were both attainable.
But the 90s brought us back to the grim reality of conflict. A Europe that had harbored ethnic and religious tensions that were quelled by Cold War fears and authoritarianism, were allowed again to blossom and take their toll. A liberated Russia experienced chaos and a resurgence of a new form of authoritarianism, and proxy fights continued between the two superpowers, who have not, by the way, disposed completely of their nuclear weapons. Then terror seemed to explode into our lives in ways we hadn’t foreseen, with New York, now Paris, and Brussels, beacons of modernity, made unimaginably vulnerable. The veneer of civilization suddenly seemed so fragile, and while global conflict and even regional wars were distant and unlikely for at least a generation, our personal security and sense of safety became victim to a seemingly new reality, magnified by our instantaneous communications and media culture. Yet, despite that terror and devastating war that have marred our emergence into a new millennium, the world is somehow and remarkably more peaceful than the last century’s turn.
Cold War tensions continue in a new form, still primarily between the US and Russia who, while they have allegedly turned off their targeting of each other’s cities, maintain many thousands of active nuclear missiles capable of launching in a few minutes our mutual destruction. Reckless talk that inflames tensions between us and this former adversary ignores this grim reality. The nuclear stalemate still exists. We still live under a hair trigger.
It is small comfort for those currently under threat, but true that since the end of World War II, the global death rate due to armed conflict has been steadily falling, meaning that for any random person, the chance of death due to armed conflict is lower now than it has been in at least 70 years. To be sure, some parts of the world are more dangerous than others, and ongoing conflicts in various regions greatly increase the chances of people dying due to ongoing conflicts. A couple dozen ongoing areas of conflict exist now, some of which are interstate, and a number of which are ethnic and denominational. Still, there is reason to be hopeful. The number of interstate conflicts has fallen precipitously, and global warfare totals have fallen since the end of the Cold War. Systems of resolving and cooling tensions continue to be tried and abided by, including treaties and agreements limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and formalizing relations amongst once warring states and their proxies.
Today, President Obama is in Cuba, a nation that once nearly led to our first (and maybe last) nuclear war as a pawn, a proxy for the dangerous showdown between capitalism and communism. Normalizing relations with our former enemies, encouraging travel and dialogue, as well as the inevitable spread of ideas of secularism, freedom, and democratic values that follows freedom of travel and speech will continue, and while we may not have peace in our time, we will continue to follow that slope if we can avoid the trap of fear and authoritarianism, isolationism, and militarism that feeds off of it, and that closes off the means by which peace can perhaps finally be achieved.