Micah Zenko

Dempsey’s Paradox

The world is getting less violent. So why do we feel so threatened?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has leveraged his authority to tackle some tough questions. Much like his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen (and the former vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright), Dempsey has not shied away from controversial topics, ranging from what the Israeli military could do to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program (delay "probably for a couple of years") to the growing scourge of sexual assaults in the military (which "deeply scar our profession"). You might question some of what Dempsey says (I have), but he deserves credit for raising the public profile of critical issues to a degree that is rare among his civilian counterparts.

One of his favorite and oft-repeated issues is the security paradox, which he expanded on in a public speech in October:

We live in an era where we’re at an evolutionary low in violence.… State-on-state conflict is far less likely than it has been in the past. The problem is that other kinds of conflict, other kinds of violence, are exponentially more likely as technology spreads, as the information age allows organizations and individuals, middleweight nations, if you will, to have capabilities that heretofore were the purview of major nation-states. So it’s a paradox … — large conflict is less likely … but the chance of violence and those using violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater.

It is worth unpacking this observation, because it presumably underpins his remarkable claim that the world is more dangerous than at any point since (at least) 1952. As Dempsey declared in April, "I believe I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous, but it’s actually more dangerous." However, recent data about armed conflict trends to paint a very different picture and has important implications for the proper role of the U.S. military in preventing, mitigating, or responding to such violence.

The marked decline in human violence was made prominent by Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, whom Dempsey has quoted directly. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker draws on a seemingly inexhaustible survey of research to demonstrate that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence." This trend applies to interpersonal violence, criminal violence, pogroms, and war. (The one form of violence that has increased substantially is self-inflicted. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates increased almost 50 percent for men and 33 percent for women between 1950 and 2000. Framed another way, for every one person who is killed by another person, two more kill themselves — for a total of 1 million global suicides each year.)

The drastic drop in violence seems counterintuitive given the unrelenting news coverage that promotes and sensationalizes terrorism, ethnic violence, and deadly riots around the world. As Pinker notes, "We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age." The statistical evidence that Pinker summarizes, however, shows that people have never been less at risk of dying at the hands of another person than today.

Dempsey is also correct that the number of armed conflicts — and particularly state-on-state conflict — has trended toward a historical low after reaching a zenith in 1992. Armed conflict is defined by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program as a "contested incompatibility which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths [per year]." In 1992, there were 53 ongoing armed conflicts around the world. By 2010, this number had fallen to 31, though it increased to 37 in 2011. Moreover, for the past 67 years, the great powers have not fought wars directly against one another, in the "longest period of major power peace in centuries," according to the Human Security Report Project.

When armed conflicts do erupt, they are far less bloody than in the past. Among all state-based armed conflicts, the number of battle deaths has fallen dramatically. After peaking at 596,086 deaths in 1950, there were 153,485 in 1975 and 92,485 in 2000. To put it another way, in the 1950s there were 65,000 deaths per conflict/per year; now there are less than 2,000.

Dempsey also claims that the information age and the spread of technology increases the likelihood of organizations or individuals using violence. There is just one (big) problem with this argument. If his logic is correct, the world should have witnessed a growth of all forms of conflict as lethal technologies and modern communications expanded over the centuries, but in fact the opposite has happened. The number of ways to kill a person is innumerable, and over time such innovations have been adapted and improved upon to create increasingly lethal weapons. At the same time, thanks to railroads, the telegraph, transoceanic cables, telephones, airplanes, and the Internet, communication is now near instantaneous. Why would this trend reverse itself now?

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of all deaths have nothing to do with armed conflict. The latest Global Burden of Armed Violence report offered this snapshot from 2004 to 2009: "At least 526,000 people are killed each year as a result of lethal violence. This includes an estimated 55,000 direct conflict deaths, 396,000 intentional homicides, 54,000 so-called ‘unintentional’ homicides, and 21,000 killings during legal interventions." The latter category consists of deaths of civilians by law enforcement and state security forces in routine policing. In short, just over 10 percent of all deaths are the result of armed conflicts, political violence, and terrorism.

Given that levels of violence have fallen across virtually all categories (with the notable exception of suicides) and 90 percent of all lethal violence is not related to armed conflicts, this raises a larger question: What is the role of the U.S. military in preventing violence? The U.S.-led alliance system, based on its unmatched conventional military assets and reliable second-strike nuclear weapons capabilities, have likely deterred some interstate wars, though deterrence is inherently difficult to prove. Through theater security cooperation plans, regional combatant commands claim that their military-to-military engagement and soft-power activities "shape" the regional order — though I’ve never seen data to support this widely-held claim.

There are targeted countries where U.S. military, intelligence, and capacity-building efforts played some role in marked declines in violence. For example, between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in Colombia fell from 83 per 100,000 people to 33.4. Over the same period, the United States spent upwards of $10 billion in Colombia on military, police, judicial, and development assistance. Although correlation is not causation, the massive influx of funds into the security sector likely played a role. On the other hand, there are many more instances in which civilian policymakers deployed the U.S. military into conflicts and exacerbated (at least in the short term) political instability and armed violence within those regions (see the U.S. intervention in Iraq).

Not only have humans never been less at risk from dying at the hands of another human, but we know more and more about what early risk factors make individuals more likely to use violence and which preventive efforts are most effective at reducing criminal violence — by far the leading of all non-self-inflicted deaths. It boils down to four major prevention strategies: developmental (interventions in early development when criminal potential is identified), situational (reducing opportunities to commit crime and increasing the risks of criminal activities), community (fostering positive social conditions and institutions), and criminal justice. If policymakers were interested in protecting people from "the chance of violence," as Dempsey terms it, they might want to divert their time and resources away from aircraft carriers and into these preventive programs.

At the end of the day, despite Dempsey’s security paradox warnings, the U.S. military plays a minimal role in preventing, responding to, and addressing the vast majority of lethal violence in the world. Yet the United States remains structured, funded, and predisposed to seek military, rather than developmental or diplomatic solutions to many foreign-policy challenges, including reducing the likelihood and severity of all forms of lethal violence. In an April 2009 exchange about how to deepen cooperation between the Pentagon and the State Department, Gen. David Petraeus acknowledged: "Sir, again when it comes to the conflict prevention, that one I have to put my thinking cap on and figure out."

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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