The Global Peace Index: Can data tell us if the world is becoming more peaceful?

A few days ago, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted a link to the 2012 Global Peace Index (GPI), a metric published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, saying "the world is more peaceful in 2012." The GPI calculates peace using 23 indicators, including political terror, internal conflicts, crime, incarceration rates, relations with neighbors, and military expenditures.

It may seem counterintuitive given the news coming out of Syria, but the GPI claims that the world is more peaceful this year than in recent times—the first positive assessment in three years. The world was less peaceful in 2010 and 2011 due to the internal conflicts of the Arab Spring and civil unrest in Europe. Due in part to military spending and incarceration rates, the United States ranks 88 (out of 150) on the list. The most peaceful country is Iceland.

Pinker is not surprised by the GPI's conclusion. He has maintained for years that humans are now more peaceful, not less. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence is Declining,he uses historical data on violence to show that we are living in a period of unprecedented peace and docility—and that even the modern horrors of terrorism and violent video games don't ruin that record. In real numbers, the deaths from terrorism, he says, are very small.

In one survey, Pinker presented people with sets of two time periods and asked them which they thought had higher rates of violence. In each case everyone thought the modern cultures were more violent, by a factor of 1.1 to 4.6. In reality, the earlier cases were actually more violent, by a factor of 1.6 to more than 30.

Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist by training, had noticed in his earlier work on linguistics that violence has declined. So, does the GPI support Pinker's argument? It's too soon to tell. Pinker's historical study of physical aggression dates back to Biblical times, while the GPI has only been calculated over the past six years and includes concepts less tangible than violence.

As Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter said at the GPI launch in Washington on June 12, "Peace is defined not only by the absence of war, or only the absence of conflict and instability, but rather by the absence of violence and the freedom from being afraid of violence, such as dangers from drug cartels, insurgents, gangs and domestic abuse."

Also, six years of global GPI data are not enough to discern an overall trend. The positive news of 2012 follows a decline in 2010 and 2011, which in turn reversed three years of steady improvement. GPI's creator Steve Killelea, an Australian IT entrepreneur and philanthropist, concedes that the 2012 score brings us to more or less the same levels as 2007, when the GPI launched.

The 2012 GPI recorded an increase in internal conflicts (which includes deaths caused by terrorism, which have risen since 2003) but the most significant trend is that relations between countries are improving, with leaders increasingly turning to diplomacy over conflict. "The improvement in relation with the states and a greater reluctance to resort to war is very profound," Killelea said in an interview with Reuters after the index launched. "You've seen a very significant reduction in conflict ... When I first went to Uganda 15 years or so ago, for example, they were fighting four wars. Now they are fighting none."

Pinker also notes in his book that the decline in interstate wars after 1946 was accompanied by a surge in civil wars, but that "the less bad news is that civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between states. And the best news is that…organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, terrorist attacks—have declined throughout the world, and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously."

The GPI is not without critics. The Economist noted in 2007 that an emphasis on "penalizing" states for their military expenditure might skew the results—those receiving protection from treaties or larger countries would score better in the ranking than those, like the United States, who spend more on defense precisely to protect others.

Others point out that the index lacks a gender dimension. Riane Eisler, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, said that this "blind spot" makes the index inaccurate. Some peaceful nations, she argues, are the most violent to women and children. Defenders of the GPI—which is endorsed by Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, and other human rights heavyweights—argue that its real merit will be revealed over time as more information surfaces and one can analyze why countries or regions become more or less peaceful over time.

In the six years since it launched, the index has recorded a global decline in military spending, a fact that Harvard professor and international relations expert Joseph Nye noted in a 2011 lecture at Carnegie Council. Nye also noted the rise of China's military spending, which has made the country slip in the GPI rankings.

Even if scholars like Pinker are correct that we are becoming more peaceful, they have found it much more challenging to pin down why. Pinker points to a combination of historical circumstances that favor peaceful behavior, commerce, and cosmopolitanism. In particular, he says our latest phase of peace coincides with what he calls the "rights revolution," which has led societies to more peaceful ways of engaging not just with enemy states but with our own children. Science writer John Horgan, author of The End of War,cites gender equality, prosperity, and globalization—but these are not conclusive explanations, and may be byproducts rather than causes of a more peaceful society.

While causality may be elusive, the GPI does try to identify key drivers of peace. Latin America, for example, has been steadily improving despite trouble spots in Mexico and Honduras. Why is this? Are the reasons regional, economic, or social? Anne-Marie Slaughter and IEP Vice President Michael Shank observed at the GPI launch that there seems to be "tipping point" where countries that strengthen institutions and eliminate sources of violence can decrease corruption and make larger than expected gains in gross domestic product.

Perhaps given enough iterations the GPI will eventually provide some ideas for policymakers to implement.

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Tags: ethics, global, index, international, military, peace, rights, terrorism, violence, war

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