A Less Peaceful World, Marginally


A. Edward Elmendorf

Over the last year, the world has become a less peaceful place, and although the rate of decline was not tremendous, the deterioration has been steady since 2008, says a new report, the Global Peace Index. The factors behind the negative trend include a rise in the number of internal conflicts, a widening gap in peacefulness between countries with authoritarian regimes and the rest of the world and more countries suffering from recession. Three indicators compel the decline: the number of homicides, military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product and political instability.

Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand landed in the top three spots for most peaceful nations. The least peaceful are, from the bottom, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

Despite all the work of the United Nations and hundreds of other international institutions and governments to instill peace worldwide, conflict is gaining the upper hand, according to the Global Peace Index, which measured “national peacefulness” through 22 indicators in 162 countries. The annual analysis was released in a report in June in London as well as in Washington, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney, Australia, a nonprofit organization founded by Steve Killelea, an Australian entrepreneur. The analysis is based on a compilation by the Economist Intelligence Unit and a review by an expert panel. The index defines peace as “the absence of violence and the absence of the fear of violence” as well as “positive” indicators — a set of markers that strengthen a society’s stability.

Although the decline of peacefulness was only 5 percent over last year, the long-running downturn is reflected in an index score of 2.046 in 2013 compared with 1.958 in 2008.

The shift in UN peacekeeping from preserving peace after interstate conflicts toward managing internal conflicts and preventing them from spilling into other countries is evident in the concentration of declining indicators of peace within individual countries. Besides murder rates and other factors, perceptions of criminality and violent demonstrations also pushed the indicators higher. The 2013 analysis also reveals a move away from interstate conflict with drops in militarization and the number of deaths from external conflicts. Strikingly, the index found that the five least peaceful countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Syria — are becoming even less peaceful and therefore more alienated from the rest of the world.

Large countries tend to be less peaceful than small ones; on average, the level of peacefulness decreases as the population increases. Of the 162 countries ranked, the United States landed at 99th place; China, 101; India 141; and Russia, 155 (placing it among the 10 lowest countries for peacefulness). China, Russia and the US are permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The reasons for the low rankings lie largely in a country’s degree of militarization, based on seven indicators, including accessibility of small arms, military expenditures, exports and imports of major conventional weapons, nuclear and heavy weapons ability and number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people.

The other two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France, ranked 44th and 53rd, respectively, partly reflecting their lesser engagement in other countries’ conflicts.

Mike Lofgren, a retired US Congressional staff member who was on the panel at the peace index report release in Washington, said that the permanent members of the Security Council did not appear to be models of peacefulness in the index. He speculated that this might have something to do with the poor UN showing in managing conflict.

In another striking finding, the index showed that the youthfulness of a country’s population is correlated with less peace. As the analysis says, “The so-called youth bulge is associated with propensities for conflict, violence and criminality.”

Only one internal indicator of safety and security has improved in the last five years: the political terror scale, which has experienced a steady drop and is based on Amnesty International and United States State Department measures. (Political terror measures the levels of state-sponsored violence.) The number of homicides deteriorated strongly (though this could be associated with better reporting). Many Latin American countries have homicide rates much higher than the global mean. Honduras and El Salvador claim the highest rates of all, and Venezuela ranks fourth.

The index includes a noteworthy positive peace index. While that covers only 126 countries, it identifies eight “pillars of peace”: a well-functioning government, equitable distribution of resources, free flow of information, a sound business environment, high level of human capital, acceptance of the rights of others, low levels of corruption and good relations with neighboring countries. The positive peace index — consisting of 24 indicators — is a proxy to measure institutional capacity and resilience or vulnerability to external shocks. In creating the peace pillars, the analysts for the Institute for Economics and Peace reviewed some 800 different indices, data sets and attitude surveys and undertook a literature review.

The institute found that “positive peace” increased 1.7 percent from 2005 to 2010. Five of the top 10 countries are Nordic. Nine of the top 10 are European. Singapore and France rank above the US. At the other end of the positive peace scale, six of the bottom 10 countries (in alphabetical order) — Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria — are from sub-Saharan Africa. It is not surprising that while country changes in the global peace index may occur quickly, positive peace scores change more slowly.

That index resembles some of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals recently proposed by a high-level UN-appointed panel. The panel’s proposed Goal 10, for example, calls for ensuring good governance and effective institutions and provides for the guarantee that people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information and the reduction of bribery and corruption. Goal 11 calls for ensuring stable and peaceful societies, with indicators to reduce violent deaths, stem organized crime and enhance the capacity of the security forces, police and judiciary.