On September 25, 2019, the Modern War Institute hosted an MWI Speaker Series event featuring Bear Braumoeller. A professor in the department of political science at The Ohio State University, he conducts research in the areas of international relations, political methodology, and complexity and human behavior.
Braumoeller’s latest book, Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, takes a critical look at something called the decline-of-war thesis—the idea that armed conflict, especially between developed states, is becoming less frequent than it has historically been. Braumoeller explained to cadets and faculty at the MWI Speaker Series event why he chose to take a quantitative approach, describing “the utility of thinking about data in the context of history and history in the context of data, and the rich interplay that can exist between theory and numbers.”
By taking this approach, he reached several important conclusions. “First,” he said, “you don’t see any long-term decline of war, regardless of how you measure it.” Especially since Harvard University professor Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in 2011, an argument has gained traction that not only has war become less deadly since the mid-twentieth century, international conflict itself has been in decline over the course of millennia. But as Braumoeller describes, the data simply does not support this conclusion.
“Second,” he told the audience, “one of the things that was really brought home to me in the course of this research is that war has vastly more escalatory potential than most people realize, and we don’t know why.” This he described as one of the most worrying conclusions the data reveals.
His third takeaway focused on international order. In short, international order can help to limit international conflict, but it’s important to understand that “the relationship between the two is not straightforward.” In fact, he described international order as “a double-edged sword” when it comes to its impact on conflict.
Braumoeller’s final conclusion also leads to a recommendation. He made his point with an analogy, arguing that at this moment in history, “we are a lot like people in an earthquake-prone region that just hasn’t seen a lot of earthquakes recently. . . . Nothing fundamental about the way earthquakes happen has changed, but because we haven’t seen them recently we’ve decided to let our earthquake insurance slide.” This, he said is a mistake. “We really need to think hard, especially now, about what the next wars are going to look like and what we can do to mitigate the danger.”
You can watch a video of Braumoeller’s remarks in their entirety by clicking here.