Professors Debate Future of War

Although world peace may be a utopian ideal, those living in fear of World War III have reason to exhale, psychology professor Steven A. Pinker and American University professor Joshua S. Goldstein asserted Monday night at a Harvard Kennedy School forum.

Speaking to a packed audience, Goldstein and Pinker explained the central arguments of their recently released books on dramatic declines in violence in the modern world. The forum, moderated by former Dean of the Kennedy School Joseph S. Nye Jr., pitted Goldstein and Pinker against Monica D. Toft and Stephen M. Walt, professors at the Kennedy School.

“I don’t see the endpoint here being world peace, harmony and understanding, or the Age of Aquarius. I see war becoming rare, small, and socially frowned on. I think we could have half as many wars as we had last decade in the coming decade, and half that again in the next,” said Goldstein, echoing the thesis of his book “Winning the War on War.”

Goldstein and Pinker based their arguments for the decreasing prevalence of armed interstate conflict largely on data collected over the past 60 years since the end of World War II. They cited the United Nations and humanitarianism as significant causes of this trend.

Goldstein in particular called for increased UN funding, stating that “the United Nations has accomplished a huge amount, always with too little money....The average American family pays about $700 a year to support the army compared to just $2 for the UN.”

A major theme in the forum was the role that cross-cultural interaction plays in increasing empathy. “Once you have the ground rules for diplomacy in place, people start to realize the stupidity of violence,” said Pinker. “The development of a stronger international community...has discouraged the notion that the unilateral pacifist is a sitting duck.”

Toft and Walt raised a number of concerns about the theories presented in both books and questioned the central contention that today’s world is significantly less prone to violence. Walt described a phenomenon he termed the “democratization of violence,” by which smaller groups of people can do more harm than ever before in history.

“9/11 was caused by 19 people on a budget of about $500,000,” said Walt, adding that Goldstein’s and Pinker’s books were “not a very reassuring recipe for complacency.”

Goldstein defended his work by stressing the dangers of excess optimism and stated that, despite the relative peace of the past 60 years, a new catastrophic war is still a possibility. Both Goldstein and Pinker emphasized the positive long-term trends presented in their books and acknowledged the dangers that persist.

“We’re not contrarians—we’re scientists,” said Goldstein. “We’ve taken all this evidence and discovered that the world is not going to hell in a hand basket, but it’s hard to convince people of that when you can turn on the news and see violence.”

—Staff writer Ethan G. Loewi can be reached at ethanloewi@college.harvard.edu

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