This summer marked the one hundred year anniversary of World War I. It means that for the first time in 75 years, only one world war was begun in the last century (presuming that any current regional conflicts do not flair up and become retroactively associated with the beginning of another). Even World War II is quickly fading into the farthest quadrant of the most recent hundred years.
That may sound like a trivial mathematical curiosity, but I believe it is a significant marker. Essentially, everyone alive today has experienced their entire lives in the shadows of two world wars, something that was previously not experienced in the entirety of human history. It was natural to wonder, especially after the second war and during the Cold uncertainties, if this was a new normal, if this previously uncharted territory would continue and take us to the end of the world. I suspect we do not appreciate how much that paradigm influenced decisions of the last several decades.
Yet many an eschatological timeline has since been foiled. World Wars are increasingly a distant memory, and they increasingly present fewer difficulties for Pinker’s narrative that humanity is following an arc towards peace. For the first time since global war burst onto the scene, a new generation is arising who will not know anyone who has lived through it. Globalization has connected us all, and it is now plausible to imagine that the steps on the above graph will turn out to be nothing more than a momentary blip in the course of history.
Not that I would not bet on it. Today’s nonpocalyptics may be as unrealistically optimistic as their apocalyptic counterparts were pessimistic decades ago. Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches Theory appears increasingly strained. Obama’s mockery of Romney’s Russiaphobia now appears hubristic. Markets may be swifter than missiles for limiting the upper bounds of Putin’s aggression, but the double-edged sword of global connectivity also may make them less capable of ending it altogether.
And so we plod on in this lukewarm era that is too complex for any certain predictions. Many have over-expected war, but I am also wary of under-expecting it. Human nature does not change, and it only gets more tools to use. Old Russia and new ISIS/L are simply the latest heralds of both wars and the rumors of them. Are we now living in an era with both the greatest potential for violence and the least manifestation of violence in history? Every day it proceeds I wonder if it increases the chance that it is self-stabilizing or if it increases the chance of correction. Assuredly I do not know.