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The World Is Much Safer Than 20th-Century Historians Would Have You Believe

Hulton Archive/Getty

With the centenary of World War I’s outset approaching, historians and foreign-policy experts are warning leaders to revisit its lessons, lest they allow such catastrophes to repeat themselves. Among those lessons: never underestimate the power of misbegotten ambition. "If we cannot determine how one of the most momentous conflicts in history happened, how can we hope to avoid another such catastrophe in the future?" Margaret MacMillan asked in the New York Times last December. "Instead of muddling along from one crisis to another," she concluded, "now is the time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago—in the hope that our leaders, with our encouragement, will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order." 

We should heed MacMillan’s wisdom. But we should also appreciate the progress that global security has made in the intervening century. 

Granted, it is difficult to assess whether the world is “safe” in an absolute sense—and after reading U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s latest threat assessment, it is easy to see why most people, if pressed, would say that it is not. If, however, one considers a very rough metric—the likelihood that calculated actions will kill millions of people in a short span of time—there are grounds for believing that the world is becoming safer. 

The emergence of international order from the horrors of the twentieth century can be difficult to appreciate, especially for those of us who came of age after the Cold War. Some 20 million were killed in World War I, and more than three times that number perished in World War II. The Cold War may have been a “long peace” at the highest level of analysis—a third world war did not occur—but that phrase conceals the toll of proxy wars, civil wars, genocides, and other conflicts. In 1993, Zbigniew Brzezinski estimated that “during the twentieth century, no less than 167,000,000 lives—and quite probably in excess of 175,000,000—were deliberately extinguished through politically motivated carnage.”

Surveying the threats on today’s global agenda, it is easy to envision how many of them could escalate into crises that stretch diplomatic restraint to its limit. It is, thankfully, more difficult to imagine how they could culminate in the destruction of international order. Consider the following four:

• Feeding off of the tumult that has been convulsing the Middle East and North Africa for over three years, Al Qaeda’s offshoots—as well as smaller outfits that have little or no affiliation with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—are strengthening their operational capabilities. There is good reason to expect that terrorism will remain a menace indefinitely. The record of the post-9/11 period suggests, however, that drone strikes, special-operations raids, law-enforcement activities, and a host of other instruments can keep it in check.

• While Russia’s annexation of Crimea may highlight the limits of U.S. influence, it also highlights the constraints that Russia would encounter if it were to undertake a revanchist enterprise. Fred Kaplan noted a few days ago the numerous difficulties that it would face if it tried to occupy “Ukraine’s easternmost cities” “for any length of time.” If Russia undertakes that effort, he concluded, Putin’s “isolation will widen and deepen politically, diplomatically, and economically,” and he will “do more than anyone ever has to rouse the European nations out of their post-Cold War stupor.” Today’s Russia—experiencing demographic decline, diplomatic isolation, and renewed resistance from NATO members—does not pose the sort of challenge to international order that the Soviet Union did during the 1970s and 1980s, when it exercised dominion over much of what is now NATO turf and its proxies were sweeping to power throughout Africa and Asia.

• North Korea’s reliably erratic behavior has become more concerning with young Kim Jong-un at the helm, and evidence suggests that the regime’s nuclear and missile capabilities are growing. While denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula may be unattainable, a combination of diplomacy and sanctions (and, on occasion, more forceful steps, such as Israel’s destruction in September 2007 of the Al Kibar reactor that North Korea had supplied to Syria) has managed to circumscribe the threat that it poses for the past two decades.

• The deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations is distressing, but each country is acutely aware of the risks that a military conflict would pose to its economy. China, in particular, has nothing to gain from a skirmish with the world’s third-largest economy that would inexorably draw in its largest one. Whatever long-term pretensions it may have to displacing the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power, China can ill afford a rupture in its relationship with the U.S. or the formation of a countervailing coalition in its backyard. The U.S. National Intelligence Council gets at this point in its “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” report: “Major powers might be drawn into conflict, but we do not see any such tensions or bilateral conflict igniting a full-scale conflagration. More likely, peripheral powers would step in to try to stop a conflict. Indeed…major powers are conscious of the likely economic and political damage to engaging in any major conflict.” 

We should take some heart from that judgment, for, as the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Jones and Thomas Wright note, “the irreducible core question of order” centers on a “set of stable relationships between the great powers.” The leaders of those powers have no interest in conducting industrial-scale purges within or outside of their borders: “If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today,” historian Paul Kennedy quipped last August, “they are not—thank heavens—to be found in Beijing, Moscow, or New Delhi.”

A cardinal analytic sin, though, is to imagine that present conditions will endure. If the world is indeed becoming safer, what might halt or even reverse that phenomenon? Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens, one of the most penetrating observers of international affairs, fears that as we shift from a “predictable order to…one in which established powers lose the authority to uphold a rules-based system and rising states resist any intrusion into national sovereignty,” globalization could “fracture as it did 100 years ago,” thereby facilitating “the return of might-is-right multipolar conflict.” 

But as the balance of influence shifts away from states to non-state actors, the latter will inspire more fears about threats to international order. Last month’s Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), the third so far, highlights one of them: an act of nuclear terrorism. The Summit organizers declared that if such an attack were to occur, “the global repercussions would be considerable.” Henry Kissinger believes that it would sow “tremendous new pressures for preemptive actions, some kind of imposed denuclearization of the world and an extremely substantially new approach to international order.” Though less discussed, bioterrorism could be even more dangerous. At least denuclearization is trending in the right direction: The world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material are decreasing. Innovation in synthetic biology, however, is occurring much faster than safeguards are being instituted. “All the key barriers to the artificial synthesis of viruses and bacteria have been overcome, at least on a proof-of-principle basis,” reports Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is much to worry about, then, and if some of these threats materialize, this piece may well appear Pollyannaish in retrospect. For now, though, our world is a far cry from the one that emerged from the ashes of 1918. We should be grateful for that.