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World Grows More Peaceful – Except for the Middle East

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Written by Dana McKelvey, DC Correspondent

The Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual Global Peace Index (GPI) reported an increase in world peace after two consecutive years of decline. The change was driven by slight reductions worldwide in terrorist acts, military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, military sophistication, and aggregate number of heavy weapons per capita. As the sixth edition of the study, the 2012 GPI ranked the peacefulness of 158 nations, marking an increase from the 2011 ranking of 153 nations. As Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University remarked at the GPI’s release, the study has great potential for “draw[ing] correlations” and encouraging collaboration between think tanks, universities, policymakers, and civil society in their study of global peace. The IEP will distribute the study to the World Bank, the OECD, the U.S. Congress, American University, and Club de Madrid, among other leading organizations.

Professor Slaughter explained that researchers defined peacefulness not only as the absence of war or violence, but also as the absence of fear. The study addresses three major themes: the level of safety and security in society; the extent of domestic or international conflict; and the degree of militarization. The IEP researched these themes in the context of both “positive peace,” a “culture of peace” that values human rights, gender equality, democratic participation, and open communication, as well as “negative peace,” or the absence of violent conflict.

In its study of “negative peace,” the GPI used twenty-three indicators, spanning topics from deaths in organized conflict, to political instability, to perceived criminality. The IEP’s Positive Peace Index (PPI), which addresses 108 countries, used twenty-one indicators categorized into eight “pillars of peace” that researchers identified as key to a peaceful society. The IEP emphasized the contrast between the PPI and other studies’ extensive focus on conflict and civil unrest. According to the IEP’s executive summary, the PPI becomes especially important during state-building, as in the recent cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. “The pillars of peace,” the summary states, “provide a foundation for thinking about how to establish the optimal environment for human wellbeing and potential to flourish.”

The PPI concluded that North America and Western Europe are the most positively peaceful regions, and that full democracies have the highest average levels of peace both on the PPI and the GPI. This finding contributes to the ongoing debate about the efficacy of hybrid regimes versus democracies, suggesting that liberal democracies in fact produce more peaceful societies. In other key findings, the Middle East and North Africa scored lowest on “Acceptance of the Rights of Others” and “Free Flow of Information,” while “Good Relations with Neighbours” was the only positive peace indicator for which North America did not receive the highest score. Sub-Saharan Africa was reported as the least positively peaceful region, followed by the Middle East and North Africa.

But the GPI’s study of negative peace found that the Middle East and North Africa replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the least peaceful region in the world — and was the only region to experience a decline in peacefulness. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, perceived criminality rose and violent demonstrations became more likely. Uprisings in Syria were reflected by a steep decline in several other GPI measures, as was post-revolution tumult in Egypt and Tunisia. Sub-Saharan Africa, while retaining the unfortunate title of second-least peaceful region, experienced improvements in twenty-three of the twenty-eight countries surveyed, particularly in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Gabon.

The most peaceful countries, Iceland, Denmark, and New Zealand, shared the characteristics of harmonious society, very little internal and external conflict, and especially, low military spending. With its high military spending and involvement in external conflicts, the U.S. slipped seven places last year to the 88th most peaceful country. Moreover, in the indicators of military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, number of deaths from organized conflict, and weapons exports, the U.S. was ranked in the bottom 25 percent.

Reflecting upon the U.S.’s relatively low rankings, Professor Lawrence Wilkerson of the College of William and Mary and Chief of Staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, “We need a lot of work in this country…in our democracy, as it were. And secondarily, we need to be very circumspect about what we think we can do in these countries, and the money we spend in doing it, and the people we support in doing it.”

Emily Cadei, a foreign policy reporter with Congressional Quarterly and 2011 Top 99 Under 33 Young Professional, echoed Wilkerson’s concerns. Cadei stated, “I don’t think that there are the tools, or that people are really conceptualizing how to approach these crises with any level of great understanding or expertise, particularly on the Hill. There could be a lot more attention paid by policy makers on developing better approaches, more emphasis, better tools, better funding mechanisms” to address issues of conflict resolution. Cadei also stated that a re-assessment of America’s military philosophy would improve the nation’s peacefulness — but is highly unlikely.

“The whole idea of militarization as a negative correlation of peace is really something that hasn’t sunk in here,” she explained at the GPI release. “I think it’s pretty entrenched, the whole ideology of peace through strength. I think for the U.S. there is always, on the Hill, more impetus to spend money on arms, on security. Even on foreign aid you look at the areas that get the most funding on the Hill and they’re associated with security. It’s very easy to make an argument that we need more aid money for Afghanistan, that we need to spend money for foreign military assistance to Israel and Egypt and Jordan. Those tend to find a lot more support in Congress than funding for global health or conflict prevention or humanitarian aid.”

Researchers and foreign policy experts hope that the GPI’s release will foster interest in and dedication to peacefulness in the U.S. and worldwide. Increased peacefulness boasts not only the clear benefit of happier and healthier societies, but also the benefit of redirected economic activity: a 25 percent reduction in violence globally would yield an additional US$2.25 trillion , and the U.S.’s share of that amount would be approximately $500 billion. Professor Wilkerson also noted the study’s vast potential for predicting crises, and said that it might transform America’s current policy of “handl[ing] the crisis du jour.” After recalling that Colin Powell once told him – “I’ve never managed a crisis I expected” – Wilkerson concluded, “Well, that says a number of things about the way the government works, but it also says something about the way life works. You usually don’t see the crisis coming until it’s upon you. [The Global Peace Index] would be a marvelous tool to help you see crises coming a little bit better, and deal with them, perhaps so they didn’t become a crisis.”

Photo: Ian Murphy (cc).