There Is One Thing More Lucrative Than War: Peace

Nowadays, serious wars take place mainly in regions where the wealth is of the old type the type that’s easy to steal.

Yuval Noah Harari
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

One of the most encouraging things in the history of our generation is the disappearance of wars.

We are living in the most peaceful era in history, at least by comparison with the past, when international wars were constant.

Almost every kingdom and tribe lived under constant threat that the neighboring kingdom might invade conquer them and wipe them off the map. Since 1945, not a single internationally recognized country has been conquered and erased from the map by an external enemy.

In 1949 China conquered and annexed Tibet, but Tibet was not a member of the United Nations and its sovereign status had not been internationally recognized. In August 1990 Iraq conquered Kuwait, but within half a year an international coalition expelled the Iraqis and reestablished Kuwait’s independence.

The disappearance of wars is not unique to the affluent, democratic West. In the 20th century South America was fertile ground for dictatorships, military juntas and benighted regimes. But since 1884 only two serious wars have taken place between South American countries: the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay   (from 1932 to 1935) (1932-and the Ecuadorian-Peruvian War in 1941.

Since the Arab countries gained their independence, there has been only one instance of an Arab country invading another Arab country in order to erase it from the map: Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait. If we extend our purview to include the entire Muslim world (which is far larger than the Arab world), the Iran-Iraq War (which lasted from (1980 to 1988) catches the eye. But even that war is an exception that proves the rule. With the exception of the Iran-Iraq War, there have been no serious wars between Muslim countries. There was no Turkey-Syria War, nor Pakistan-Afghanistan or Malaysia-Indonesia.

There have been previous periods of calm, as in Europe between 1871 and 1914, and they always ended in disaster. But this time it’s different.

Genuine peace is not the absence of war. Genuine peace is the implausibility of war. Never in history has there been genuine peace. In Europe in 1913, war was highly plausible, and everyone expected it and prepared for it. The iron rule of political history has always been that, “For every pair of nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go to war against one another within a year.” This rule was valid during all of history but that is no longer the case.

Today, for the first time, there is genuine peace in the world. For most states there is no likely scenario leading to war within a year. What could cause a war between Spain and Portugal in 2013? Or between China and Japan? Or between Brazil and Argentina? Not a small border skirmish, but an old-fashioned war with Argentine tank divisions at the gates of Rio de Janeiro and Brazilian carpet bombing pulverizing entire neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.

Of course, there are exceptions. Wars between Israel and Syria, or the United States and Iran, are a reasonable possibility in the coming year. But these are only the exceptions.

Nuclear deterrent

There are several explanations for the outbreak of peace. First, the cost of war has greatly increased, thanks mainly to nuclear weapons. The ultimate Nobel Peace Prize should probably be awarded to J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the Manhattan Project. Nuclear weapons have turned war between great powers into collective suicide, and have led to a situation where it is impossible to gain world domination by force. Were it not for nuclear weapons, nothing could have saved us from a third world war between the Soviets and the Americans.

It is a matter of great concern that peace is based on the threat of total destruction, but fortunately there are additional foundations. Not only has the cost of war increased, but the profits of war have declined. During most of history, kings and kingdoms could enrich themselves by looting or by annexing their rival’s territory. Most of the wealth in the world consisted of fields, cattle, slaves and gold things that are easy to conquer and steal. Today most of the world’s wealth consists of human capital, knowledge and complex social and economic structures such as banks. That is why it’s hard to conquer and steal wealth.

California, for example, is one of the wealthiest places in the world, thanks to Silicon Valley and the Hollywood film industry. What would happen were the Chinese to invade California, land a million soldiers on the beach and storm Silicon Valley? They wouldn’t gain a thing. Silicon Valley contains no silicon mines. Most of the capital is stored in the brains of Google engineers and Hollywood magicians, and they will be on the first plane to Bangalore or Mumbai long before the Chinese tanks roll onto Sunset Boulevard.

Serious international wars take place today mainly in those regions where wealth is still the old type of material wealth the kind that’s easy to steal. A prominent example is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Kuwaiti sheikhs could flee to Riyadh or New York, but the Kuwaiti oil fields were left behind.

While the gains of war have plummeted, the gains of peace have skyrocketed. Due to increasingly close economic ties, it is far easier today for us to enrich ourselves through trade with foreigners than through conquests. Chinese tanks cannot conquer Silicon Valley, but Chinese investors can. For Chinese investors, a war between China and the United States would be very bad news.

And finally, there is also a significant cultural factor. For the first time in history, war has become an absolute evil. In the past, many elites saw war as something positive and desirable. Other elites treated it as an unavoidable evil: We don’t want war but we can’t prevent it, so it’s preferable to use it to our advantage. Today the global elite consider war an avoidable evil. The world is run by pacifists. Former U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair may not strike us particularly as pacifists, but that’s only because we’ve already managed to forget what Genghis Khan and Napoleon looked like.

These factors fuel one another. The threat of a nuclear holocaust reinforces pacifism. The greater the spread of pacifism, the rarer the wars and the stronger the commercial ties. Stronger commercial ties increase the benefits of peace as well as the costs of war.

The more accustomed people become to living in a world without wars, the easier it becomes to prevent them. Increasingly strong international ties are eroding the independence of countries and reducing the danger that a single country can single-handedly let the genie out of the bottle.

Will this situation continue? There’s no certainty. We cannot anticipate the future, and we have no guarantee that the new peace will last. But there are good reasons for optimism, and there are even better reasons to do whatever we can to help.

The writer lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s history department. He is the author of “From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind” – a concise history of humans from the domestication of fire to the age of capitalism and genetic engineering.

Illustration: From hawk to dove.Credit: Yael Bogen