Hide table of contents

Next week for The 80,000 Hours Podcast I'll be interviewing Professor Bear Braumoeller about his book 'Only The Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age'.

It argues that comprehensive data collection and modern statistical analysis suggest that interstate wars are about as likely to break out as they have been in the past. And having broken out, they're about as likely to escalate as at other times in history.

So major international conflicts are nowhere near disappearing and Bear finds himself very troubled by the risk of future wars between great powers.

Bear's work has previously been mentioned on this Forum, in Stephen Clare's post 'How likely is World War 3?'

What should I ask him?

Here's the book blurb:

"The idea that war is going out of style has become the conventional wisdom in recent years. But in Only the Dead, award-winning author Bear Braumoeller demonstrates that it shouldn't have. With a rare combination of historical expertise, statistical acumen, and accessible prose, Braumoeller shows that the evidence simply doesn't support the decline-of-war thesis propounded by scholars like Steven Pinker. He argues that the key to understanding trends in warfare lies, not in the spread of humanitarian values, but rather in the formation of international orders--sets of expectations about behavior that allow countries to work in concert, as they did in the Concert of Europe and have done in the postwar Western liberal order. With a nod toward the American sociologist Charles Tilly, who argued that "war made the state and the state made war," Braumoeller shows that the same is true of international orders: while they reduce conflict within their borders, they can also clash violently with one another, as the Western and communist orders did throughout the Cold War.

Both highly readable and rigorous, Only the Dead offers a realistic assessment of humanity's quest to abolish warfare. While pessimists have been too quick to discount the successes of our attempts to reduce international conflict, optimists are prone to put too much faith in human nature. Reality lies somewhere in between: While the aspirations of humankind to govern its behavior with reason and justice have had shocking success in moderating the harsh dictates of realpolitik, the institutions that we have created to prevent war are unlikely to achieve anything like total success--as evidenced by the multitude of conflicts in recent decades. As the old adage advises us, only the dead have seen the end of war. "




New Answer
New Comment

2 Answers sorted by

1. This one is very in the weeds, but I was very confused about some conflicting results Pinker and Braumoeller get in testing for the hypothesis of a break in war incidence after 1945. Pinker (2011: 252) writes: "Taking the frequency of wars between great powers from 1495 to 1945 as a baseline, the chance that there would be a sixty-five year stretch with only a single great power war (the marginal case of the Korean War) is one in a thousand. Even if we take 1815 as our starting point, which biases the test against us by letting the peaceful post-Napoleonic 19th century dominate the base rate, we find that the probability that the postwar era would have at most four wars involving a great power is less than 0.004, and the probability that it would have at most one war between European states (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956) is 0.0008." Braumoeller (2019: 27-8) gets different results by modelling the onset of great power war in a given year as a binomial distribution with p = 0.02, based on the rate of great power war in the last five centuries: “the probability of observing seven continuous decades of peace …. is 24.3%.” (28) He also writes: “it would still take about 150 years of uninterrupted peace for us to reject conclusively the claim that the underlying probability of systemic war remains unchanged.” (28) Both Pinker and Braumoeller are relying primarily on Levy ([War in the Modern Great Power System] 1983) to estimate the rate of great power war, so I don’t understand why they get such radically different results. What's going on?

2. Battlefield deaths generally do not count civilians killed directly or indirectly as a result of military conflict. Apparently, it is extremely difficult to reliably measure total excess mortality due to war, and as a result battlefield deaths are used as the standard measure (Pinker 2011: 299-300; Braumoeller 2019: 101). At the same time, authors like Kaldor ([New and Old Wars] 1999) argue that civilian deaths have increased significantly as a share of all war deaths, with civilians now typically the majority of those killed as a result of war, and Roberts ['Lives and statistics'] records estimates that roughly 40% of casualties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991-5 were civilians, and between 75-83% in the Second Gulf War. Given that we do not have reliable data for so important a part of the overall picture, are contemporary debates on trends in the severity/intensity/prevalence of battle deaths of the kind between Pinker and Braumoeller actually telling us very much at all about whether wars are getting better or worse as a 'public health problem'?

3. Braumoeller (2019: 179) asserts that “[t]he four decades following the Napoleonic Wars were, by a significant margin, the most peaceful period on record in Europe.” I didn't feel he said very much to explain the grounds of this assertion in the book. On what basis can it be said that the period between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of the Crimean War was significantly more peaceful than that between the end of World War II and Perestroika? I don't know the former period well, but just looking at the list of conflicts in Europe during these periods from Wikipedia, this didn't seem to me especially plausible. (Possibly I'm just misunderstanding what he's saying, and the claim is that the decades after the Napoleonic Wars were a lot more peacefully than any before then.)

Here's some real world evidence that I find convincing.

To my knowledge, every ideology ever invented has inevitably sub-divided in to competing internal factions which then come in to conflict,  rhetorically, violently, or both.

The seeming universal nature of this division process seems very useful information because it suggests the division and conflict arises not from the properties of particular ideologies so much as it does from that which all philosophies and philosophers have in common.   And that would be, that which all philosophers and philosophies are made of.   Thought.   

Point being, division, conflict and ultimately  violence arise from a deep fundamental property of the human condition which is to a significant degree beyond the reach of editing.   We can tinker, we can nudge, we can make improvements here and there, but in the end, we're going to have wars.   

So far I see no credible evidence that any technology currently considered has a chance of making such fundamental changes to our most fundamental nature (ie. thought) as to bring an end to wars.

Once that is understood, it should quickly become clear that a knowledge explosion which generates ever more, ever larger powers, at an ever accelerating rate is unsustainable.   No one can predict exactly how or when such emerging powers will overwhelm our most fundamental nature, we can only predict that on the current course, it will happen.

Finally, I'll conclude with my most unpopular insight.  Almost all of the violence that so threatens us is committed by men.  The consistent, persistent, stubborn, near hysterical resistance to squarely facing this inconvenient fact is so beyond rational as to be approaching criminal.