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Global Conflict Trends

This web page was last updated on April 4, 2006.
Global Conflict Trends graphs include information through the year 2005.

Measuring Systemic Peace
Perhaps, the most important, and challenging, task for the peace researcher is to establish and maintain a systematic perspective on the general condition of peace in the global system. Without that, progress toward greater peace can not be gauged and social policies can not be properly evaluated. Measuring systemic peace is a necessarily holistic endeavor. Peace is an absolute term and, therefore, a universal condition. The quality of peace can not be improved simply by displacing violence and war to a different setting, or separate category, or by concentrating misfortunes with the less fortunate (ghetto-ization). At the "state-level of analysis" this distinguishes peace from war (and "not-war"), which is a conditional event, and security and insecurity, which are relative terms. At the more general "individual-level of analysis" the quality of peace contrasts directly with the total incidence of violence in the global system, that is, a "human security" perspective. There are many dimensions to violence but only a few are currently measureable at the holistic, global level. The most prominent dimension of violence is lethal violence, and the most dramatic form of lethal violence is organized, military action, or war. Much of what we know about the systemic qualities of peace derives originally from the classic study of inter-state war. More recently, systematic research in organized violence has expanded to cover internal uses of organized violence, that is, situations where organized violence takes place within the sovereign boundaries of a "state." However, it has only been with the advent of the 20th century's "world wars" that the problem of organized violence has been extended beyond the immediate, dyadic focus of research to the regional and global foci. Globalization is not simply an economic process but, rather, the term for the technological movement away from the dyadic analysis of "independent events" toward complex, inter-dependent, "systems analysis." The most fundamental questions for peace researchers at the present time include: "What is the general quality of peace and is it improving, stagnating, or deteriorating?" Where, and under what conditions, is organized violence most likely to occur?" "How do we understand the quality of peace in its many systemic variations, both successes and failures?"
Complex, societal systems defy comprehension but they are not immeasureable. Information and communication resources and technologies continue to improve and, as a result, there are some very general observations concerning the quality of the peace that can be made with reasonable confidence. The ending of the Second World War in 1945 provides a good beginning point for measuring the general quality of the peace. It also marks a turning point in the ways that information is generated, collected, and distributed. The rise of the independent media has been crucial in establishing a more objective perspective on the human condition and it is probably no accident that the rise of the independent media has paralleled a global trend toward greater democracy, the so-called "third wave of democratization."
The following charts provide both contextual and dynamic bases for evaluating the quality of peace. They are constructed from information covering all countries in the world with populations greater than 500,000 persons in 2005 (161 countries in 2005). The theoretical foundations for the systemic peace perspective are explained in Monty G. Marshall, Third World War: System, Process, and Conflict Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999). The methodology for measuring armed conflicts is explained in greater detail in Monty G. Marshall, "Measuring the Societal Impact of War," in Fen Osler Hampson and David M. Malone, eds., From Reaction to Conflict Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002). Further analyses of conflict trends are published in Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr, Peace and Conflict 2005: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy (College Park, MD: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, 2005).

Figure 1
Global Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946-1991
The red-line charts the trend in general level of interstate war in the global system; that measure includes all wars of independence from the Colonial System and has remained fairly constant at a low level through the Cold War period. We can see from the graph that the UN System, that was designed to regulate inter-state war, has been reasonably effective in providing inter-state security. However, the UN System has not been effective in regulating societal (or civil) warfare. The level of societal warfare increased dramatically and continuously through the Cold War period. Separate research indicates that the increasing level of societal war results from the protractedness of societal wars during this period and not from a substantial increase in the numbers of new wars.Click here for a brief description of the methodology used to create the trend graph.
Figure 2
Global Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946-2005
The end of the Cold War, marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, had an equally dramatic effect on the general level of armed conflict in the global system. The levels of both interstate and societal warfare declined dramatically through the 1990s and this trend continues in the early 2000s, falling over 60% from their peak levels. To review the complete listing, "Major Episodes of Political Violence, 1946-2005," used to construct the warfare trends, click here. You may also view regional trends graphs by clicking here.
Figure 3
States Experiencing Warfare, 1946-2005
A second look at the global trend in armed conflict comes from charting the number of states experiencing any form of warfare in each year. Figure 3 charts three different metrics but the trends that emerge remain consistent with those charted in Figure 2. At the peak in 1991, one in every three countries was experiencing some form of serious armed conflict. This has dropped by over one-half since the peak, registering at less than 15% with ongoing armed conflicts in 2005.
Figure 4
Refugees and Displaced Populations, 1964-2004
Figure 4 graphs the annual numbers of transnational refugees (including asylum seekers) and internally displaced civilians for all countries, as reported in the United States Committee for Refugees' annual series World Refugee Survey. The enormous increase in the global population of forcibly displaced persons beginning in the mid-1980s is difficult to ascertain. There are surely some reporting issues involved but it appears that the magnitude of the increase may be best explained by a confluence of at least four factors: 1) armed conflicts are more likely to be located in poorer countries; 2) the protractedness of societal conflicts progressively challenge the ability of societies to meet and maintain basic needs production; 3) there is a breakdown in distinctions between combatants and non-combatant populations; and 4) there is a tremendous expansion in the numbers and capacities of non-governmental organizations willing provide humanitarian assistance to war-torn societies.
Figure 5
Societal Capacity and Warfare, 1946-2005
The Poorer Countries
Figure 5 presents a comparasion of warfare trends in the bottom three quintiles countries, based on state capacity. Wheras the "long peace" enjoyed by the world's more affluent states is strikingly evident in Figure 6, below, this figure shows that war became concentrated in the bottom two quintiles of states (i.e., the weakest 40 percent). The poorer countries account for a disproportionate share of the global warfare totals across the period. Warfare totals for the bottom two quintiles of states increase steadily through the contemporary period, reaching their peaks in the 1980s. The poorest countries are distinguished from the middle quintile of states in which warfare remains fairly steady until a dramatic increase in the latter 1970s. Countries in the second quintile experience the highest magnitudes of warfare throughout the period. This may be explained simply by pointing out that they have more capacity than countries in the bottom quintile to make war but less capacity than the upper quintiles to manage conflict. At the peak, over half of the poorer countries are consumed by societal warfare. What distinguishes the lowest quintile is the persistence of warfare in the 1990s; this helps to explain the perceived dramatic increase in serious humanitarian crises in the 1990s.
Figure 6
Societal Capacity and Warfare, 1946-2005
The Richer Countries
Figure 6 displays the warfare totals for the top three quintiles of state capacity (the third quintile is included to facilitate comparison with the bottom quintiles presented in Figure 5). Readily apparent are the much lower levels of warfare in the upper quintiles. Especially fortunate are the states in the upper quintile where little or no serious political violence takes place for the entire time span. Of course, this good fortune goes a long way to explaining the difficulty of mobilizing "political will" in the richer countries to recognize, let alone meaningfully address, the complex problems associated with armed conflicts in the poorer countries.
Figure 7
Trends by Armed Conflict Type, 1946-2005
Ethnic warfare became the hot topic in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War as a virtual cornucopia of these seemingly intractable (and previously "invisible") social identity conflicts exploded onto the world scene and captured the public and policy eyes. In order to more fully assess the impact and importance of ethnic conflict in the post-Cold War period it will be helpful to place that particular type of societal conflict into the larger context. Figure 7 compares trends for three distinct types of warfare, ethnic, revolutionary, and interstate. The perceived "sudden rise" in ethnic wars in the 1990s appears to be a curious outcropping of the more general, systemic changes. As the Cold War ideologies wax and wane in the late 1980s, the support they lend to both interstate and revolutionary intrastate wars is eroded and those types of warfare greatly diminish. Ethnic wars, which had previously paralleled the trend of revolutionary war, continue to rise through the late 1980s and early 1990s as separatists and other political entrepreneurs attempt to take advantage of the vast changes in political arrangements that accompanied the transformation of the post-Cold War world system. Ethnic wars stand out like a "sore thumb" in the 1990s' security environment. Also, notice that the long-term trend in ethnic warfare increases relatively smoothly as compared to the other warfare trends. As the goals of social identity conflicts are suffused with non-negotiable identity issues, these conflicts tend to persist and, so, are less susceptible to settlement or resolution by warfare. Thus, ethnic warfare trends are less ammenable to periodic fluctuation.
Figure 8
Global Democracy and Autocracy, 1946-2004
Figure 8 simply sums Polity IV scores of institutional authority for democracy and autocracy for each independent state for each year; Polity IV special codes (-66, -77, -88) are treated as missing data here. In the Polity IV data each country is given annual scores (10-point scales) on each of two basic types of regime authority. Although the two types of authority are opposing, many countries exhibit mixed authority traits (i.e., they have middling values on each scale). The graph in figure 8 shows global changes in total "units of democracy" in contrast to total "units of autocracy" in the global system.
Figure 9
Global Regimes by Type, 1946-2004
Figure 9 provides a second perspective on the global trend in governance. This graph was originally designed for inclusion in the UN Secretary General's Millennium Report. It also uses Polity IV data on institutional authority for all independent states in the world from 1946-2003. The trend lines denote the annual number of states with each of three general authority patterns: democracy, autocracy, and anocracy. The Polity score combines the separate Autocracy and Democracy scores mentioned above into a single indicator of governance, ranging from -10 (fully institutionalized autocracy) to +10 (fully institutionalized democracy). In this rendition, Democracies are designated by having a Polity score of +6 or greater; Autocratic states have a combined score of -6 or less. Anocracies are a middling category of states with incoherent or inconsistent authority patterns: partly liberal, partly authoritarian (i.e., -5 to +5 on the Polity scale). The Anocracy category also includes countries with any of the three special Polity codes: -66 (interruption), -77 (interregnum), and -88 (transition). Anocracies are relatively vulnerable and volatile states that often lack effective institutions and/or the capacities to establish and maintain social order.
Figure 10
Armed Conflict in Muslim Countries, 1946-2005
With the global "War on Terrorism" holding our attention since the infamous 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the territorial isolation and icons of US global power, interest has often focused on discontent, hosility, and militancy in the "Muslim World." The question arises whether the general trend in armed conflict in the "Muslim World" differs from the trend in the "non-Muslim world." Figure 10 presents a graphic comparison of armed conflict trends in three subsets of the world's countries: 1) countries with Muslim majorities (red line); 2) countries with substantial Muslim minorities (greater than 5% of the population; green line); and 3) non-Muslim countries (purple dotted line). The Muslim majority countries account for about one-sixth the world's population. The Western democracies of Europe and North America have experienced very little armed conflict, on their territory, during the contemporary period and, so, this subset of countries and global population (about one-sixth) can be discounted from the trends graphs. The other two subsets represented in the graph account for roughly equal portions of the global population (about two-sixths each). With this in mind, we can see from the graphs that the armed conflict trend for Muslim majority countries (about one-half the population of non-Muslim/non-Western countries) runs at about one-half the magnitude for the non-Muslim countries until the late 1970s, making the two subsets roughly equal in levels of armed conflict during this period. However, the trend in Muslim majority countries increases very sharply in the late 1970s and early 1980s and very quickly surpasses the level for non-Muslim countries. On the other hand, armed conflict in the Muslim minority countries is substantially lower than that in the non-Muslim countries until the late 1980s, even though they are roughly comparable in population. All three trends have diminished in recent years and are now, in 2005, at roughly the same level (however, this means that the general level of warfare in Muslim majority countries is about double the level in the non-Muslim and Muslim minority countries when considered on a "per capita" basis)..

Figure 11
Annual Numbers of International Terrorism Attacks, 1990-2005
Figures 11 and 12 draw upon data provided by the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base (www.tkb.org) in order to chart recent trends in international terrorism. The RAND-MIPT database is one of two comprehensive compilations of international terrorism events; the other being the ITERATE database. Figure 11 shows a general decrease in the numbers of attacks during the decade following the end of the Cold War; this trend is corroborated by similar analyses of the ITERATE data. The incidence of attacks increases substantially in the post-9/11 period. RAND-MIPT provides the following definitions of these events:
Terrorism: "For the purposes of [the Terrorism Knowledge Base (TKB)] data, terrorism is defined by the nature of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of the cause. Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. These acts are designed to coerce others into actions they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take. All terrorist acts are crimes. Many would also be violation of the rules of war if a state of war existed. This violence or threat of violence is generally directed against civilian targets. The motives of all terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity. Unlike other criminal acts, terrorists often claim credit for their acts. Finally, terrorist acts are intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage of the cause, having long-term psychological repercussions on a particular target audience. The fear created by terrorists may be intended to cause people to exaggerate the strengths of the terrorist and the importance of the cause, to provoke governmental overreaction, to discourage dissent, or simply to intimidate and thereby enforce compliance with their demands."

International Terrorism: "Incidents in which terrorists go abroad to strike their targets, select domestic targets associated with a foreign state, or create an international incident by attacking airline passengers, personnel or equipment."

Figure 12
Annual Numbers of Deaths from International Terrorism, 1990-2005
Figure 12, then, uses the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base to chart the annual numbers of deaths that resulted from the attacks charted in figure 11 above. One can immediately see the extraordinary impact of the 9/11 attacks on the USA; these four attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Somerset County PA account for 2,982 deaths (all but 200 of the death total in 2001). The average number of deaths in the eleven years preceding 2001 is 276; the average for the four years following 2001 is 665, more than double the average for the earlier period. Still, these annual totals are extremely low when compared to other forms of political or criminal violence. The CSP study on "Global Terrorism: An Overview and Analysis" proposes that "international terrorism" accounts for less than ten percent of global terrorism since 1990; the vast majority of global terrorism is local, or national, terrorism. The rates for international terrorism are further qualified by the tremendous increases in international activity that has accompanied "globalization" and the post-Cold War expansion of the free market system.
Figure 13
High Casualty Terrorist Bombings, 3/11/1997 - 3/10/2006
Figure 13 provides a unique examination of recent, global trends in "high casualty terrorist bombings" (HCTB; that is, bombings that result in 15 or more deaths); each bar charts the total number of HCTB deaths in successive six-month periods pre- and post-9/11/2001. While the frequency and lethality of "international terrorism" does not appear to have increased much in recent years and, in any case, remains at extremely low levels when compared with any other form of political or criminal violence, the tactical use of "low-tech, smart bombs" (mainly car bombs and suicide bombers) against "soft targets" (mainly political and civilian targets) has increased dramatically since the 9/11 attacks. However, most of the increase is these "high profile" terrorist attacks have been confined to three localities: Russia, Pakistan, and, especially, Iraq. The rise of the "super-empowered individual" as an innovation in tactical violence is certainly a disturbing trend.

To view a PDF copy of the HCTB events list, click here.

Regional Trends in Armed Conflict and Governance
Regional warfare and governance trends are presented for ten politically-relevant "neighborhood" contexts
(click the relevant area of the global map, or the hyperlinks in the table below, to view the regional graphs):
The Armed Conflict and Intervention (ACI) and Polity IV projects are part of both CSP and the Integrated Network for Societal Conflict Research (INSCR) Program at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), University of Maryland, College Park. Both the ACI and Polity IV projects are directed by Monty G. Marshall. The Polity IV project codes annual data on Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions over the period 1800-2003 for all countries in the world with populations over 500,000 in the most recent year recorded (2003). For more information, click here.
The ACI project codes levels of violence in all types of major armed conflicts in the world during the period 1946-2004. Major armed conflicts involve at least 500 fatalities and may be of any type: inter-state or intra-state; they include all episodes of international, civil, ethnic, communal, and genocidal violence and warfare. Episodes are coded on a scale of one to seven according to an assessment of the full impact of their violence on the societies that directly experience their effects; the effects of political violence and warfare include fatalities and casualties, resource depletion, destruction of infrastructure, and population dislocations, among other things such as the psychological trauma to individuals and adverse changes to the social psychology and political culture of affected social identity groups. The resulting categories represent standardized event magnitudes based on levels of societal affect (i.e., a measure of the general magnitude that a society's normal networking and functioning is affected by violent disruption); the categories are considered comparative units of measurement. Global and regional trends in warfare are visualized graphically by aggregating the coded scores for all ongoing episodes of major armed conflict in a given year in all independent states. For a more detailed explanation of the coding methodology, click here. CSP presents the global and regional warfare trends graphs with great confidence in their accuracy, reliability, and comprehensiveness and contends that the foundation for the trends (i.e., the global system) provides a constant "universe of analysis" through the contemporary period. To review the complete listing, "Major Episodes of Political Violence, 1946-2004," used to construct the warfare trends, click here. The ACI project also produces the annual lists of Internal Wars and Failures of Governance used by the US Government-sponsored State Failure Task Force (now renamed the Political Instability Task Force). For more information on the data resources and ongoing research of the Task Force, click here.
Although the general global trend in armed conflict continues to decrease in the early years of the 21st century, there are some counter-trends that should be acknowledged:
  • Escalation of Long-Standing Disputes or Rivalries. Nearly all of the armed conflicts that crossed the threshold to serious warfare in the late 1990s involved an escalation in a long-standing dispute rather than an outbreak of a new conflict.
  • Separatism. Many of the most serious incidents of warfare in the late 1990s involved escalations in attempts by distinct ethnic groups to gain (or maintain) separation from a central authority unwilling to accept it.
  • Black Market Control. Many of the late 1990s' most serious wars involved conflicts over the control of black market commodities and assets that can be easily liquidated through illicit trade, such as drugs and diamonds. Wars have become a "pay-as-you-go" proposition as the global arms trade becomes increasingly "privatized."
  • Bad Neighborhood Effects. Only four new armed conflicts broke out in the late 1990s and each of these new wars occurred in regions already beset by warfare: armed conflicts in Albania and Kosovo in the Balkans and Congo (Brazzaville) and Guinea-Bissau in Africa. In general, new outbreaks and escalations of serious warfare in the late 1990s tended to occur in particular regions, or "bad neighborhoods," where ongoing, serious armed conflicts were already taking place just as they have throughout the contemporary period.
  • War on Terrorism. In response to the September 11, 2001, unconventional attacks by hijacked, private airliners on symbolic targets in New York and Washington, DC, US President Bush launched a series of "pre-emptive" engagements against agents of "global terrorism." These engagements have included the forcible ousters of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the Saddam Hussein-led Ba'athist regime in Iraq in 2003. The full course and effects of the still emerging "war on terrorism" will have on the global system are not yet known.
For more information please contact the Center for Systemic Peace.

Center for Systemic Peace
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(410) 519-1702

This web page was last updated on April 4, 2006.
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