A member of the Islamist Syrian opposition group Ahrar al-Sham fires against a position of the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG), a militia set up to protect Kurdish areas in Syria from opposing forces, during clashes in the countryside of the northern Syrian Raqqa province on August 25, 2013. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on August 27 the UN mission investigating alleged chemical weapons attacks in Damascus has been delayed until the following after rebels failed to guarantee the experts' safety. AFP PHOTO/ALICE MARTINS (Photo credit should read ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images)

The cold war has been called the “long peace”. In fact, the two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union look a lot more peaceful. Indeed, it might make more sense to call 1991-2010 the short peace. It was an era that inspired some to speculate that the “better angels of our nature” might be gaining the upper hand. The bad news is that this short peace appears to be over.

To study the 1970s is to be reminded just how hot the cold war actually was. More than 2m battle deaths resulted from state-based armed conflict in the 1970s, compared with about 270,000 in the 2000s. For the US, Vietnam was a vastly more lethal war than Iraq (47,424 US combat deaths compared with 3,527).

After 1956, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo, the peak years for battle deaths resulting from state-based armed conflict were 1971 (about 380,000 fatalities; and the years from 1982 to 1988, when the annual average was close to 250,000. Between 2002 and 2007 the average was just under 17,000.

At least six explanations have been suggested for this decline. The psychologist, Steven Pinker, attributes it to a long-run civilising process. Another theory credits the spread of democracy and the growth of supranational institutions. Demographic trends — in particular, the relative decline of youth in the world’s population — may have reduced the constituency for violence. Technology, from the atomic bomb and television to the internet, has also reduced the incentives for large-scale warfare.

Alongside these structural explanations is the historical answer that the leaders of the superpowers did a remarkably good job of ending the nuclear arms race and ultimately the cold war itself. Finally, the ideologies that did so much to encourage violence in the 20th century — fascism and communism — have been emphatically defeated, a point made as long ago as 1989 by Francis Fukuyama.

So is this the advent of “perpetual peace”, as envisioned by Immanuel Kant? Or is it something much more ephemeral? The answer depends on how enduring one considers those pacifying forces to be. The trends identified by Professor Pinker have been challenged as statistical illusions by Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.

In absolute if not in relative terms, we do not face a shortage of young men. The history of the 20th century suggests that advances in democracy and in supranational institutions can be reversed, particularly in the wake of big economic shocks. Technology may make new kinds of conflict easier, while proliferation may in fact be increasing the risk of a nuclear war. As for the good judgment of superpower leaders, few serious students of foreign policy would claim that the standards of the 1980s have been maintained.

But the biggest argument against the “perpetual peace” hypothesis is ideological. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, we have been witnessing the revival of an old ideology — political Islam — that may ultimately prove to be as violent and menacing to western values as fascism and communism once were. Already that ideology has been in large measure responsible for a marked upturn in war, political violence and especially terrorism since around 2010.

War is back, and much of it is holy war. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, total fatalities resulting from armed conflict have increased by a factor of four since 2010. In 2000, according to my calculations, 35 per cent of the fatalities in armed conflicts were in wars involving Muslims. In 2014 it was 79 per cent.

This is not the clash of civilisations Samuel Huntington prophesied. Much of today’s conflict is between Muslims. Religion is certainly not the sole cause for increasing conflict, but it is more than a coincidence that global warfare is so concentrated in the Islamic world.

We have been here before. Fyodor Dostoevsky brilliantly anatomised the secular extremists of the 19th century in his novel, Demons. Fanatical nationalists and communists wreaked havoc in the 20th century. In our time, however, the Koran has displaced Das Kapital. Today’s demons pose as religious purists.

It would take a new Dr Pangloss to predict an imminent reversal of the trend of increasing violence in the Muslim world. A more likely scenario is a continuing escalation in what might be called a fractal geometry of sectarian conflict, occurring all the way from the Maghreb to the Hindu Kush, and spilling over in the forms of massive population displacement and also terrorism wherever extremist groups can recruit.

The world’s short peace is ending. Errors of western policy — from bungled intervention in Iraq to non-intervention in Syria— only partly explain the return of conflict. More important is the lethal combination of economic volatility, a youth bulge, disruptive technology and the viral spread of a lethal ideology.

The west had its peace dividend after 1991. We blew it in a two-decade party of consumption, leverage and speculation. First came the financial hangover; now comes the geopolitical reckoning. Dealing with it will mean relearning the arts of grand strategy and war.

I shall miss the better angels of our nature. But, throughout the short peace, I always had the sneaking suspicion Dostoevsky’s demons would be back.

The writer is a professor of history at Harvard and author of ‘Kissinger: 1923-1968’

Letter in response to this article:

True peace requires justice for all nations and peoples / From Chin-Tai Kim and others

Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article