Among the most well-accepted ideas in political science is “democratic peace theory”, which basically theorizes that democracies are less likely to go to war with one another. Although there is significant disagreement over the definitions used (for democracy, war, peace, etc.) and over the reasons why, the theory is generally borne out well in terms of quantifiable data, regardless of how it is examined. Like so much of political science though – with its massive scope – democratic peace theory struggles to establish controls on the vast mountain of data it draws from. Far beyond simple political motivators, there are numerous other factors that cloud the simple distinction between states and how they interact with one another.
Perhaps the most overlooked alternate explanation though is the one that optimistic science fiction has been hinting at for years: technology. Science fiction has long envisaged a future free of war; liberated by remarkable advances in technology. As much as this notion – a sort of technological peace theory – has come to be mocked in dystopian fiction, the crazy fact is that it appears to be true. Looking at the data, it seems like a quantifiable certainty that the more technologically and industrially advanced a state is, the less likely it is to go to war, particularly with other, similarly-advanced states.
Using the states within the uppermost quartile of the UN’s Human Development Index as our basis for industrially and technologically advanced states, we can then examine their participation in the 89 distinct armed conflicts that took place between 1990and 2010. Of all these conflicts, states within the sample body were only involved – in some way or another – in 19 of these conflicts. That is to say, they were only 85% as likely to engage in armed conflict as less advanced states. If you restrict the focus to conflicts in which those states were key belligerents (contributing a strategically significant military presence), they were only directly involved in 11 conflicts. That means that the most highly-advanced quartile of states in the world were only 49% as likely to be a key belligerent in armed conflicts as lesser-advanced states. Most remarkably, during that entire 21 year period, no two of those highly-advanced states were drawn into conflict with one another. While this is only a very basic analysis, and it fails to account for changes in the uppermost quartile of states over the past two decades, the results are so statistically significant that even with various refinements they still hold true.
The obvious conclusion of all this is simple: the more technologically and industrially advanced a state is, the less likely it is to engage in armed conflict, especially with other states it views as similarly advanced. Extrapolated over time, it also becomes obvious that as the world in general becomes more well-developed and industrialized the trend is towards peace in a growing number of states. The apparent endstate is one that many have hoped for but few have considered realistic: world peace. It would appear as though one of the wildest fantasies of science fiction is slowly becoming true, and that we might one day see a peaceful world united through the miracles of technology.
All this begs the question, “Why? What is it about technology and industrialization that makes states more peaceful in general, and towards one another?” Although there are numerous answers to these questions, there are two particularly compelling ones.
Cost of War
As states become increasingly interconnected and reliant on massively-expensive and fragile technologies, the cost and consequences of war become increasingly high. Advanced states also have advanced economies, which are often reliant on large, sometimes-fragile networks of trade. In short, the costs of war are dramatically and proportionally higher for technologically-advanced states than less-privileged ones.
To illustrate this, use the favorite hypothetical scenario of a war between China and the United States. Although China is still a developing nation, its level of military and economic development are sufficient to make it a fitting test state. Limiting the scope of this potential conflict to just the first day – in order to make the analysis manageable – it is still stunning just how costly such a war would be.
The immediate effect of war would be the instant loss of foreign trade between the US and China, which amounted to over $525 billion in 2012. Forgetting conventional military targets for a moment, it likely that one of the earliest blows would be to each respective state’s satellite networks. With the low cost and high effectiveness of anti-satellite missiles, especially when matched against the high cost, vulnerability, and mission-essential nature of an opponent’s satellites, they are an obvious choice. Imagine the global economic impact if every single imaging, weather, and GPS satellite were destroyed in the space a single day. Other crucial but highly-vulnerable networks would also be likely targets of Day 1 attacks: cellphone networks would be subject to massive jamming, news and government websites would be targeted by massive DDoS attacks from botnet-compromised computers, and in some cases even supposedly secure systems might be compromised by efforts similar to the Stuxnet worm. The point being that even without resorting to conventional military tactics, the result of two technologically-advanced states going to war would be immediately catastrophic to both parties.
Reasons for War
George Santayana said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As far as quotes go, that sounds good, but I buy into a quote of my own making, “War will exist as long as there is something worse than war.” Essentially, so long as things like genocide, famine, and crushing poverty continue to exist, war will too.
The reverse is also true though; if you can eliminate those things that are worse than war – the reasons for war – you can put an end to war as well. This is where technology and industrialization are the most plainly important. Advanced states tend to suffer from less of the day-to-day misery that often drives nations to conflict, and the citizenry of advanced states tend to be better educated, more worldly, and less likely to subscribe to genocidal or sectarian violence. As technology produces an increasingly interconnected world, free of the worst aspects of the human condition, then war becomes increasingly pointless and unappealing.
While humanity is still ages away from some kind of golden age of world peace, the signs and data are encouraging. As the world continues to develop, more states will be confronted by the increased consequences of war and see a simultaneous decline in its apparent necessity. Science fiction often paints a picture of an evolved humanity denouncing war and creating a better society, but perhaps peace will come about in a different way, with an evolved society creating better people.