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The Evolution of Violent Conflict

By Brian Van Oosterum

The UN is no stranger to criticism. There is still a shocking amount of poverty on earth, and violence still destroys families and nations in every corner. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world spends 13% of its GDP on violence containment, from defensive military initiatives, to policing, to dispute settlements and education campaigns. In America, the figure is 15% [1], making it the only developed nation to pay more than the global average. North Koreans put 27% of their GDP into violence containment, meaning if you make $1000 a month in North Korea, which you do not, you would be paying a monthly tax of $270 dollars just to deal with violence, where a German would pay $30. These figures are worrying, but a brief historical tour can do wonders to refocus our attention to the specific problems of today.

As the Second World War came to its devastating end, the architects of the new international order were already busy laying the groundwork for the United Nations. The number one priority was to establish a lasting peace among the most powerful nations in the world. It might be noted that this objective has been achieved for 72 years and counting [2]. The international community has since expanded the scope and scale of its activities, pursuing a comprehensive development agenda with a proactive emphasis on keeping and building peace. The battle against violence is never definitively won, and while the world has thus far been spared nuclear war, this does not mean the UN can pack up and go home. The challenges are no smaller; instead they have changed in nature. How has the international community adapted to a new reality, and what does the new reality of violence look like?

There are two forms of violence that stand out in the present century. The most salient is terrorism. With its psychological strategy of spreading fear, and its relative cost-effectiveness, terrorism costs us more in political conflict and threat containment than in actual lives. Dealing with terrorism is not a case of identifying a threat and neutralizing it. It is a comprehensive effort that involves the practical challenge of security, and the ideational challenge of keeping populations that suffer terrorism from becoming bigoted and reactive.

The other form of violence is now the most common type of war, and dwarfs terrorism in physical damage and casualty figures. Civil war is the new war, and it is the main problem UN peacekeeping efforts are targeted at. In many ways civil wars are more difficult to deal with. They are statistically twice as long,[3] and stopping them involves a tremendous amount of trust building among warring factions. Most importantly for international efforts, they invariably arise under circumstances where governments are failing to provide security or other basic necessities.

A weak government that does not fulfil its core functions rarely has the resources or political legitimacy to deal with a rebellion on its own. Sending arms and supplies is expensive, but helping a bad government gain the respect of its people is a much more complicated thing. The very presence of international actors signals governmental weakness, and the reliance on foreign expertise has the downside of removing the population’s involvement in reconstruction. Without experts from abroad, however, countries may be stuck in an unresolvable civil war for an indefinite period of time. Luckily, social scientists have spent many decades determining the features of societies where war is common and where it is non-existent [4]. High male unemployment, cheap weapons, dangerous neighboring states, poor rule of law, restricted press, and many other societal woes make up a list of determinants for violent conflict. The difficulty of eradicating war altogether is that it requires serious progress so many fronts.

On the flip side, this affords many talented individuals and effective organizations the opportunity to divide their labor and expertise among a great diversity of efforts known to reduce the likelihood of violence. A range of trivial sounding activities, such as teaching Chinese children English online [5], spreading a powerful statistic, or traveling somewhere in central Africa and sharing your cultural knowledge, become an indispensable part of the struggle against violent conflict. So while there are many new challenges to peace, the UN knows the solutions, and opportunities to help are more available than ever. What can you do? Look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals website for inspiration:

[1] Institute for Economics and Peace (2015) The Cost of Containing Violence[2] S. Pinker (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined[3] Paul Collier, 2009, Wars, Guns, and Votes[4] D. Acemoglu and J. Robinson (2012) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty[5] Teach English Online at


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