When Goods Cross Borders, Armies Won't


Gene Healy is optimistic when it comes to war and peace:

Peace is da bomb.

"Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth," cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes.

Over the last half-century, in particular, the data on global violence "paint a shockingly happy picture" of dramatic declines in mass killing.

The latest Human Security Report, tracking trends in political violence, provides more good news: "High-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78 percent since 1988."

But hasn't the decline in mass killing by nation-states been matched by a rise in privatized violence by terrorist groups? Hardly.

In his 2008 book "The Science of Fear," Daniel Gardner points out that "in the last century, fewer than twenty terrorist attacks killed more than a hundred people." Sept. 11 was a horrific anomaly, and there's very little evidence to justify hysteria over weapons of mass destruction….To kill loads of people, it usually takes a state. And states in recent decades have been markedly more reluctant to do it.

Why is that?…"Greatly increased levels of international trade and foreign direct investment have raised the costs of conquest and shrunk its benefits," the [Human Security Report suggests]. "In today's open global trading system, it is almost always cheaper to acquire goods and raw materials by trade than to invade a country in order to steal them."

You can read the Human Security Report here. I made a complementary argument about the rise of nonviolence here. If you're worried about the health of that open global trading system, you can keep tabs on its condition here. If you'd like to point out all the exceptions to the trend, go here.

NEXT: Look What I See

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  1. If goods cross borders, armies don’t until they do. This same argument was made before World War I. It wasn’t true then and it is not true now. Free trade is a wonderful thing. But if you think that it will prevent wars, you are kidding yourself.

    1. Apparently the data say that has changed.

      1. No. we has something called the “cold war” which made it nearly unthinkable to go to war. Also, we have seen in the late cold war and the post cold war a shift away from conventional warfare to unconventional warfare via guerrilla movements and terrorism. None of that has anything to do with trade.

        1. Yeah but the article says :
          “High-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78 percent since 1988.”

          1. The cold war ended in 1989 and the proxy wars in Africa an Asia with them. Yeah, things have gotten a little more peaceful over the last 22 years. But that doesn’t say anything about the next 22.

            1. You beat me to it, John: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

        2. But doesn’t the shift from conventional warfare to unconventional warfare via guerrilla movements and terrorism support the article’s thesis? This is simply based off of my observations so I welcome evidence to the contrary, but the countries that engage in guerrilla warfare and terrorism tend to be underdeveloped countries that are least engaged in international trade.

          1. As I understand it, iternational commerce does have an incredible peace making effect, but that effect won’t be seen until there is enough law and order that business interests aren’t hijacked, terrorized or nationalized. I think there has to be a minimum of security before commerce can step in and do its thing.

    2. True, nukes skew the rules a bit.

    3. Right John, proven by the fact we’re about to go to war with China and Saudi Arabia. (Not.)

    4. I dont think the opponents during WWI were freely trading with each other (before the war, I know they werent during). I dont think it has been disproven.

      To put a different, but related spin on it – when have two countries with 1,1 scores from Freedom House ever gone to war with each other?

      1. I have read that Britain was Germany’s No 1 trading partner, and Germany was Britain’s No 2 trading partner. But I have no references.

    5. It may not prevent wars, but it does eliminate some reasons to start wars. No, trade is not the whole solution or reason for fewer wars, but it certainly helps.

  2. I would add that in recent decades, governments have discovered that it’s far cheaper and easier for them to oppress their own people than it is to oppress people in other nations and cultures.

    1. Did you see what he did there? Did you see him repressin’ me? STOP! I’m bein’ repressed!!

  3. I’m extremely surprised there are no U.S. stories on the most recent trade-related news section of global trade alert. If Congress isn’t passing laws to inhibit trade, and they certainly aren’t passing laws to increase freedom, what are they doing??

  4. What about things you can’t just trade, like vast amounts of water?

    1. Water is bought and sold every day. It’s why we build pipes.

  5. Another change is that information is crossing borders a lot more freely. Creeps like Hitler and Stalin went to great lengths to keep their crimes secret.
    Today’s multi tasking despot doesn’t want his place in history besmirched by nasty facts.

    1. Don’t forget about me.

      1. I’ll trade you the “world’s greatest health-care” for a bar of soap.

        1. I’ll handle the negotiations from here. How many boxes of cigars can you get your hands on?

    2. International embarassment hasn’t stopped China, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran and any number of other countries from having appalling human rights records. It also hasn’t prevented genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda. The world is no less brutal or nasty today than it ever has been.

      1. Like I said before, this data (if accurate) says otherwise.

        1. No. The data says we have had a relative time of peace. The part about that being due to internation trade is just conjecture. The period between 1815 and 1914 was also very peaceful. There was only one major war in Europe during the entire century. And like now, international trade exploded during that time. And like now, people said trade and commerce made it impossible or less likely for major wars to happen. And right on que, the worst tragedy in human history up to that point occurred.

          There is no reason other than wishful thinking, to believe that the proponent of this theory are anymore right now than they were in 1913. Correlation does not equal causation. And further, if you are angry enough to want to start killing people, the fact that it may be bad for business isn’t likely to deter you.

          1. Oh man what a buzzz kill you are!

            1. LOL. I hope they are right. I am just a natural pessimist about these things. people kill one another. That is their move. If only trade and wealth could stop them.

              1. Like the Scorpion: “Hey, it’s what I do.”

              2. People who grow up surrounded by trade and wealth, for the most part, reject violence. But I agree that the study doesn’t show that you could just start trading with Lebanon and expect Hezbollah to be overthrown by the new West-loving citizens.

          2. Which one was this only one major war? Crimean? Austro-Prussian? Franco-Prussian? Italian Independence Wars? Schleswig Wars?


            1. None of those you list were major wars sans the Franco Prussian. The Austro Prussian was a single large battle. None of those compared to the Napoleonic Wars or World War I which book ended the era. Yes, the Frano Prussian was a nasty affair and counts as the single major war by my definition.

              1. Ah, you mean that the military technology of this time made wars short and decisive. So, if the same countries that fought in 18th century for many years now were able to finish the war in few months (Franco-Prussian war lasted how long, one year?), this means that the wars were major in 18th century and minor in 19th.

                Well, as always, everything depends on what ‘is’ is.

                1. Ah, you mean that the military technology of this time made wars short and decisive.

                  As amply demonstrated by the Civil War.

                  1. Yes. Even though the theater was half a continent big, when North got competent commanders, the war ended soon. If at the very beginning the commander wasn’t McClellan but Grant, it would be over in few months – even though both sides didn’t have much of an army at the start of hostilities and had to create them first.

                    Anyhow, about the topic: the period of peace in Europe is real, of course. But it starts in 1871 (except Balcans). Over forty years of peace is not bad, too. I’ve just protested the overenthusiastic claim that it was a whole peaceful century.

          3. The period between 1815 and 1914 was also very peaceful

            ummm…. 19th Century Wars

          4. What evidence do you have that they are wrong? When was the last time we went to war against a trade partner?

            If anything, restrictions on trade have indirectly resulted in tens of thousands of American deaths (see also: Japanese oil embargo.)

          5. pretty powerful logic.

          6. The period between 1815 and 1914 was also very peaceful. There was only one major war in Europe during the entire century.

            Hundreds of thousands of dead Americans don’t count?

      2. Let’s keep the war machine going!!!

      3. Exactly. And the statement “in the last century, fewer than twenty terrorist attacks killed more than a hundred people.” strikes me as rather inane logic; I’m not sure what’s so special about 100 deaths. A terrorist attack that kills 99 people is just collateral damage and something civilization has to accept?

        1. Exactly, and he ignores the genocides that have occurred. I doubt there has been a single attack in the Sudan that has killed more than a hundred people. But that fact says nothing about the ferocity of the conflict. By his logic, Northern Ireland wasn’t a significant conflict because no more than a hundred people were killed at any one time.

      4. Yeah, we have a handful of truly brutal, genocidal regimes, but overall the world has largely been moving away from pure authoritarianism, monarchism, imperialism and dictatorship towards paternalist democracies and free trade.


  7. “In today’s open global trading system, it is almost always cheaper to acquire goods and raw materials by trade than to invade a country in order to steal them.”

    This is the key notion here.

    When three-quarters of a nation’s wealth is in intangible capital — ideas in people’s heads and social constructs that allow people to work together — one nation simply cannot carry away most of the wealth of another. Not only will you destroy the other country’s intangible capital: you will also stifle your own as you close off avenues of peaceful behavior.

  8. This is what has really spoiled the prospects for a splendid US-China war.
    If China attacks they know we will default on all that wonderful debt: for the Chinese it would be like burning the cash in their mattress.

    For Uncle Sam it means that millions of voters would not be able to by cheap shit at Walmart.

    1. I hope you are right about that, but I doubt it. If the Chinese ever get angry enough to want to go to war, the prospect of US debt default will not deter them. Wars are just not that simple. And they involve a lot of miscalcualtion and emotion. All of which ignores the bottom line. Look at it this way, England had the ability to starve out Germany. And Germany knew it. Yet, that didn’t stop Germany from going to war in 1914. And sure enough, Germany ended up being starved out.

      1. I agree but I’m in more of a unicorn mood this morning.
        I would ask you if you think that, given the enormous and growing amount of treasure we owe to the Chinese, might we not be approaching a point where our politicians decide that war with China is the only way to
        (1) hide their failure to control spending and maintain the welfare state.
        (2) Eliminate the debt by eliminating the debt holders.

        1. Sheesh, Tim. Now *that’s* a buzz kill!

          1. I blame John.

      2. I can’t imagine what we would go to war with China over. Taiwan, I guess, but an actual full-out shooting war? I don’t see it.

        If China crosses the straits to Taiwan, it will be over before we could get assets on the ground there, and the Chinese logistical advantage due to sheer proximity would be absolutely prohibitive.

        Is there another flashpoint? I don’t see one anywhere.

        We’re not going to war with China.

        1. North Korea would be the other flash point. And you greatly underestimate the dificulty of projecting force accross the straights. First, Taiwan has a first rate military. It would take multiple divisions and air support over a sustained campaign for China to take Taiwan. To do that, China would have to conduct opposed landings the size of the Normandy invasion well over a hundred miles from their coast. And they would have to sustain those troops once they got on shore. All the while fighting the US Air Force and US navy. They could probably keep the US carriers at bay with their submarines. But, US submarines could put the Chinese navy and their ability to sustain a ground force on Taiwan to the bottom. The Naval war would probably end in stalemate, which would equal a Chinese loss.

          If the Chinese thought they could successfully invade Taiwan before we got there, they would have done so by now. They know they can’t and probably won’t be able to anytime soon. That, not trade, is what prevents war.

          1. You guys are arguing China’s motivations. I’m postulating some future craven idiot US President faced with imminent default on debt and the wreck of the economy.
            Would he or she start a war and make default look like a necessary, even patriotic act?

          2. Ah, the Norks, of course.

            I have absolutely no idea why China would give the green light to a Nork invasion of South Korea, or support the Norks if they did so over Chinese objections. Still, I guess its possible that Korea could reignite as a proxy war.

            I couldn’t say what China’s logistical capacity for a Taiwanese invasion would be. I have to believe that if they wanted to pay the price, they could take the island; they have just decided (quite rationally), that its not worth the price.

            If we started shooting up the Chinese navy and merchant marine, the Chinese could destroy our economy in a day, by dumping their Treasuries. Would that hurt China? Sure. Would it put a permanent end to our ability to sustain military operations across the Pacific Ocean? Yes, it would.

            1. “I have to believe that if they wanted to pay the price, they could take the island”

              Why do you have to beleive that? Because it fits your prejudices? Read the history of anphimious invasion sometime. Most of them fail miserably. The British and American success at them in World War II was truly remarkable and happened in an age of much less lethal weapons. As hard as Normandy was in 1944, it would be ten times that now against a modern equipped army like Taiwan.

            2. I don’t want to go all Kum-by-yah/anarcho-capitalist fusion here, but another reason the Chinese keep their hands off Taiwan is that their economies have also become very intertwined. And, an invasion of Taiwan would very likely create a huge loss of human capital from Hong Kong and Macau over the following years.

          3. The Chinese aren’t gonna risk their own international standing or any of their own troops for Kim Jong-Il. Didn’t Wikileaks pretty much confirm this?

  9. The news about the declining deaths is great. I am still skeptical about the cause, because I’m skeptical about all social science research.

  10. Is that photo a peace sign or the Playboy bunny logo?

    1. Holy crap, you’re right… It DOES look kind of like a peace sign.

  11. We have always been at war with allied with Eastasia

  12. Yeah, things have gotten a little more peaceful over the last 22 years. But that doesn’t say anything about the next 22.

    You’re as bad as Tulpa. Some UNIMAGINABLY HORRIFIC thing might happen!!!!!

    Kill yourself now, and end the suspense.

    1. “You’re as bad as Tulpa. Some UNIMAGINABLY HORRIFIC thing might happen!!!!!”

      Because betting on human conflict, war and misery, has been such a terrible bet in the past. I mean that stuff never happens right. We have trade and the internet now. We don’t need to even defend ourselves. War is impossible. You guys live in complete denial of human reality.

    2. Crack open a history book some time.

  13. As far as China is concerned, *I* think the genie is out of the bottle. I suspect there would be civil war in China if the Central Committee declared war on anybody.

    1. That’s actually an interesting point. What if there *was* a civil war in China? The country has an “excess” young male population of over 30 million and growing. What would that mean in an internal conflict that came about for any reason? Social factors seem to have any potential upheaval tamped down for now, but that could change in a hurry if there was a dramatic shift in the leadership of the country.

    It’s your duty to peace.

  15. The major powers (with the possible exception of China, and the US), have abrogated the idea of anything but defensive war for the most part.

    China has discovered the benefits of trade, which does make them less likely to attack. They can get what they want far easier through trade.

    The Russians know their army would get the shit kicked out of it in a conventional war, and everyone knows that no one wins a nuclear war.

    Even leftist economist JK Galbraith stated (in one of his last books) that free trade was an enemy of war. The countries ready to go to war are 3d world shitholes with kleptocratic scum in power.

    1. “The countries ready to go to war are 3d world shitholes with kleptocratic scum in power.”

      And Russia is not included in that set why?

      1. *clap clap clap*

        Russia seems the most terrifying country to me right now. China’s much too smart and unstable to go to war.

      2. Their army would get the shit kicked out of it going after anyone stronger than Georgia.

        1. Hey, I come from Russia. I no like you say Russia is weak!

        2. Even against Georgia they could barely do it! It was a poorly executed invasion and the Georgians just retreated to the capital.

  16. So now would be a good time to launch a surprise attack, right?

    Everyone seems to be overlooking how trade can LEAD to wars. Watch Europe very closely on this one.

    1. He’s right, there’s been so many brutal wars between EU states over the past few decades of free trade between those countries. Also between the NAFTA/CAFTA states and the ASEAN states.

  17. There is one and only one counterexample I can locate off the top of my head where warfare broke out between trade partners, and that was Russia and Georgia (both members of CISFTA). Other than that, the correlation between peace and trade is pretty strong.

  18. Over the last half-century, in particular, the data on global violence “paint a shockingly happy picture” of dramatic declines in mass killing.

    I remember someone pointing out that since the invention of “the nuke” and its deployment death by war has dropped dramatically.

    Oh yeah i remember…that person was me.

    The fact is the better people get at killing poeple in war the less likely people are actually going to die by war.

    1. Your point is half-true. Nukes function as a deterrent to nuclear war, where reciprocation is guaranteed. Few have died from nuclear weaponry since the US was able to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima/Nagasaki with no threat of reciprocation because other rival countries have secured arsenals of their own.

      At the same time nukes are generally unlikely to prevent conventional warfare because everyone knows using nukes is likely suicidal, so normal warfare proceeds with increasingly advanced and precise technologies regardless of the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal.

    2. Also, I would argue more than anything we’ve gotten lucky that suicidal terrorists or unhinged dictators have not yet been able to use a broken arrow nuke to cause mass death, which would render your entire thesis null and void. This would be a not-surprising outcome of both our liberal distribution of nukes to assorted allies across the globe and our interventionism in other countries’ affairs that paints a target on our backs. A nuclear arsenal that can blow up the world 10 times only puts us at far greater risk than would ever be necessary.

      1. ” A nuclear arsenal that can blow up the world 10 times”

        I plan on surviving a nuclear war and not buying 10 times. Not even close.

      2. Our allies are not the ones to give nukes to terrorists, but rather the terror states we forever appease like Iran.

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