Exactly a century ago, the leading lights of Europe seemed to believe that war was impossible. One of the era’s most successful books, “The Great Illusion” by journalist Norman Angell, asserted that trade, not violence, was the way of the future.
He was wrong, but not completely wrong.
Yes, in 1914 the Western world mobilized in August. World War I killed some 15 million people, and would be followed by World War II and a series of skirmishes during the Cold War. More than 100 million people were killed in conflicts during the 20th century.
Ian Morris, a professor at Stanford, noted recently in The Washington Post, about 2 percent of the planet’s population died violently in that century. Compare that to the Stone Age, when roughly 20 percent of a much smaller population died violently. Modern humans are living much longer, safer, more productive lives. Why?
Morris attributes this overall decline to the formation of nation-states. Beginning in the 1600s, “Europeans exported unprecedented amounts of violence around the world. The consequences were terrible; and yet they created the largest societies yet seen, driving rates of violent death lower than ever before,” he writes.
Such successful governments included the United States. It was powerful enough to civil rights and protect property rights, so citizens could own the fruits of their labor, yet limited enough in size and scope to encourage private innovation.
The planet enjoyed its first period of peaceful growth because of Great Britain, Morris argues. “Its wealth came from exporting goods and services, [so] it used its financial and naval muscle to deter rivals from threatening the international order.” When the age of British dominance finally ended during World War II, the United States stepped up to fill London’s role of maintaining global order. “Like its predecessor, the United States oversaw a huge expansion of trade, intimidated other countries into not making wars that would disturb the world order, and drove rates of violent death even lower,” Morris writes.
But in an unsettling way, 2014 looks a bit like 1914. For example, the global intelligentsia seem to think they’ve banished war. They’ve certainly banished most war-spending, which -- ironically – as history has shown, leads to more war.