Is the World Getting Safer?

New research debunks the theory that wars are becoming less deadly and less frequent.

A Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain.
Smoke billows following a Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakah province along the Turkish border on October 9. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
the psychologist Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature, a bestseller with a bold thesis: Almost every form of violence, including war, was on the decline. Thanks to the spread of Enlightenment values, Pinker argued, humans had become more peaceful and less bloodthirsty. Asked in a 2014 interview whether humans would ever return to their violent past, Pinker replied, “Well, how likely is it that we’re going to start throwing virgins into volcanoes to get good weather or that you’re going to have a return of slave markets to New Orleans? I think pretty unlikely.”
Pinker was not the first to forecast the end of war. The political scientist John Mueller made a similar argument in the late 1980s, maintaining that great-power war, like slavery, had gone out of style. As early as the first decade of the 20th century, no fewer than three books were published heralding the decline of war. The most famous of them, The Great Illusion, by Norman Angell, was published just four years before the start of World War I. (“How can we possibly expect to keep alive warlike qualities,” he wrote, “when all our interests and activities … are peace-like?”)
Into this debate steps Bear F. Braumoeller, a political scientist and statistician at Ohio State University, whose newest book, Only the Dead, undermines the decline-of-war thesis. Amid pages of data and statistical analysis, Braumoeller writes in prose lucid enough to be accessible to a lay audience. “For the last two hundred years at least,” he writes, “I can find no general downward trend in the incidence or deadliness of warfare. If anything, the opposite is true.” He warns, “It’s not at all unlikely that another war that would surpass the two World Wars in lethality will happen in your lifetime.”