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When Realists Don’t Live in Reality: The World is Getting Safer

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

A few years ago, I wrote in an “On V Update to Old Ideas” that Eric C and I fall into the “optimist-idealist” camp when it comes to the future of war. Not only do we think war is decreasing over time, we think someday humans will be able to end all war. That makes us optimists.

But it feels strange to describe ourselves as “idealists”. Certainly a view of humanity as fundamentally good is idealistic. But is that inherently unrealistic? We didn’t come to that idea in a vacuum. Rather we found it in in academic research by Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, John Horgan, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko, Michael Cohen and John Mueller, who all wrote that--despite the constant war coverage in the media--the world is actually more peaceful and less violent than at any time in its history. The forces making it less violent and more peaceful, they also tend to argue, will likely continue in the foreseeable future. In essence, our optimistic views aren’t idealistic at all, but founded in a realistic view of contemporary events.

Yet, ironically, some international relations realists stand in front of this academic train yelling, “Halt.” For instance, Frank Hoffman writing on the realist website War on the Rocks, “Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing Our Better Angels”.

When it comes to debating war, the “realists” like Frank Hoffman may as well be the idealists. Instead of using facts, data or anything empirical, they rely on ideals...an idealism based in a pessimism. To show this, I am going to go through Hoffman’s 2,500 word article and show the (lack of) evidence he uses to support his worldview that the world isn’t getting less violent:

- A misattributed quote. That’s right, the central uniting theme of his article is a “quote” from Plato, an incorrectly attributed quote that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As we’ve written before, Plato didn’t say this; the unknown George Santayana did. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he googled the phrase to link to it. GoodReads.com doesn’t count as a reputable academic resource. If he had scrolled down, he might have stumbled across our article on “Quotes Behaving Badly.

- No academic citations or footnotes. Yep, after linking to Stephen Pinker, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, Hoffman doesn’t link to a single academic article that argues that war is increasing in frequency. He doesn’t link to them because they don’t exist. Instead, he simply argues that globalization makes interstate war more likely, but can’t provide the data to support this.

- No charts or graphs. As a student of history and business, I know better than most that line graphs can be easily manipulated to prove anything. Hoffman, though, doesn’t even bother because he doesn’t even have the basic data on his side. No amount of chart manipulation will make it seem as if the world is on the verge of cataclysmic war.

- Elevating current news stories to data points. The key to arguing against optimists who say the world is less violent is doubling down on what one sociologist has called, “mean world syndrome”. Because the constant news cycle emphasizes violent and particularly heinous crimes, it makes the world seem more violent and chaotic than it really is. Hoffman absolutely embraces this strategy in his second paragraph:

“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom...the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.”

And Hoffman wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine. (The article is from last year.) He takes four data points and says, “See the world is more violent than ever.” Hoffman, like most realists who insist the world is more dangerous than ever, do so by selecting certain current data points and ignoring the rest, all the countries not engaging in wars.

- An anecdote. Hoffman then tells a story how British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch all predicted peace and were proven wrong by World War I. He, of course, doesn’t mention the countless people who predicted a nuclear war in the 1950s, only to be proven wrong. The point is, the accuracy of past predictions isn’t evidence either way.

- Appeals to pessimistic beliefs about human nature. To cap off his argument, Hoffman, like most pessimists/realists, relies on the foundational belief that humans are naturally violent and self-interested:

“...human nature and history have not changed.  Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz.  They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer.  A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.”

For a website founded on realism that allegedly prefers personal experience to ideology as a starting point, Hoffman seems to start with Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz--again, his Plato quotation is completely inaccurate and contrary to much of Plato’s writings--and goes from there. Worse, as John Horgan completely demolished in The End of War, there is hardly any scientific evidence--either genetic, historical, anthropological or cultural--that human nature is fundamentally evil.

Unlike the times of Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz, we now have rigorous social science that can test hypotheses. And the hypothesis that human nature is fundamentally evil has failed.

So there you have it: quotes, single data points, anecdotes, and an over-riding pessimistic belief a la Hobbes that mankind is nasty, brutish and violent. Data is the enemy of the realists, so that doesn’t make them very realistic, does it?

sixteen comments

The long quote is actually a strawman attack.

Machiavelli, Thucydides, Hobbes, the concept of original sin, the cumulative weight of recorded history vs. modern social science and bar graphs. Count me convinced!

On a more serious note, I don’t know if man is basically evil, I lean toward not, but I do know that we are deeply flawed and those flaws manifest themselves over and over again in some big ways.

Lastly, the last 100 years have included World Wars I and II plus the reign of the Soviet and Chinese Communist states. Those things have resulted in rather a lot of violent deaths. Things may have been a bit more peaceable in the near past but before you go jumping to happy conclusions you probably should give it some time.

@ SO – Please explain more, I’m confused.

@ Carl – Carl, I’d recommend reading Pinker’s book. Or some of our older articles on the subject. In spite of World War I and II, the world is still safer and less violent.

Also, the violence in discussion is all violence. Rape, torture, slavery; none of them compare to how they were hundreds of years ago.

Eric C:

The world may be less violent is the way you speak of since the end of WW II but I think that is mostly the result of American military domination. For a few decades there we wouldn’t permit much misbehavior. Western cultural domination also mitigated against the more personal types of violence. It just wouldn’t look good if you didn’t pay at least lip service to being agin’ torture. We seem to be slipping and the beast is straining at that chain. Just because the chain hasn’t broken again doesn’t mean that beast isn’t still there.

Slavery is another illustration. The main reason I think slavery diminished in the last few hundred years is the Europeans came to view it as wrong and imposed that view on the rest of the world, often through the good offices of the British Empire and the Royal Navy.

My point really is that this diminution of violence hasn’t come about because man as a whole is just getting nicer; it came about because some groups of men forced other groups of men to knock it off with hard action to come if they didn’t. Maybe that can be viewed as men getting nicer. Either way it won’t last unless the groups of men who are inclined to protect are willing to continue to act to do so. They seem to less willing nowadays.

That is not a good thing.


“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s (…)”

By making clearly counterfactual statements this way he implied his political opponents would ignore facts.

Besides, he doesn’t list true hot spots, but ‘axis of evil V2.0”; IS, Assad, MB, NK and Iran.
Iran and NK are largely peaceful (some Jundallah violence in Baluchistan, occasional border or maritime skirmishes around NK). Muslim Brotherhood isn’t involved in warfare, though some smuggler clans on Sinai peninsula are causing troubles.

By the way; you don’t present Hoffman’s point accurately here: He claims that there is a relative lull in warlike violence, but it’s only short term and temporary, and one shouldn’t read much into it. So he claims folks like us are gullible and too much under influence of recent events, while he’s the serious person who experts history to go on and war to return.

I would look up whether he was among the crowd which trumpeted the end of conventional warfare and the age of COIN only a few years back – if I was more interested.

I’m not, so I can be satisfied having made my counter-point to him five years ago already: (see link in my name, since the comment is not allowed to have more than one)

@ SO – gotcha, I was just confused about which quote you were referring to.

Good points.

North Korea largely peaceful!? The peace of the prisoner by his graveside maybe, nothing else.

carl, how about some substance?
Name a battle which North Korea was involved in recently, or a country it invaded recently, or which country invaded it recently.

Repression isn’t warfare, it’s not even necessarily violence.

I meant to write “expects, not “experts”.

Repression isn’t necessarily violence eh. You have read about the lives those poor people lead and the conditions under which they live, and die, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands or millions even, like the during the famine in the 90s. Noting their suffering might not seem so substantial to you but it seems so to me. They live like that because of a gov that enforces its will through violence and the threat thereof. It’s kinda like a prison. All looks quiet and peaceful in a well run prison. And it is. But the ultimate enforcement of that tranquility is violence and/or the threat thereof.

Hoffman writes about warfare:

“The principal basis for positive and optimistic assessments about war and human strife comes from databases like those generated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. These indicate that for the past 20 years the number of conflicts has declined substantially. These research organizations show that the number of ongoing conflicts has dropped forty percent from 53 to 31 between 1992 and 2010. The statistics also suggest that wars are shorter and less lethal, measuring direct combat deaths and other human casualties.”

The repression in NK is no warfare because the people don’t fight back, period. You’re moving goal posts or straying off topic.

S O:

Somewhere up above Eric C mentions subject of discussion is the diminution of all violence, rape, torture, slavery. In the spirit of that comment, I submit that North Korea is one of the most violent places on earth, as only a slave state can be. Would that the people there had the capacity to war upon their tormentors, if the did, the part of God’s heart that favors justice would be gladdened just a little.

@ Carl – I’ll agree, Carl, that anti-democratic dictatorships like North Korea are essentially a form of violence.

That form of violence has also decreased.


At it’s core, North Korea is an anecdote. One example. Not a trend.

One reason people still believe the world is as violent as ever is because of anecdotes. Slavery still exists, but on a fraction of the scale it did hundreds of years ago. Torture still happens, but it’s not used a form a mass entertainment. And North Korea isn’t democratic, but that doesn’t prove a thing.

I think the data points to the world being safer, on almost every statistical level. Even little things like getting shot in the street, murdered by a stranger.

You can’t argue that slavery is increasing. One or two extremists groups—both at war with their country or other nations—reinstituting slavery doesn’t prove anything.

I believe that, as quality of life improves, even Islamic nations will become safer, less violent, and more democratic.

I hope your right. And things are safer perhaps at this moment, but the portents may not be good. The middle east is falling apart and Christian/Muslim conflict, religious conflict across the south edge of the Sahara is not getting better, it is getting worse. It seems to me we are seeing a cloud of dust on the horizon. That cloud of dust may be a herd of buffalo or it may be a Comanche war party, we don’t know yet. We do know, or at least it is my belief, that we had best be prepared because there are still figurative Comanches out there.

In an absolute sense, slavery is increasing. IS just increased it. The more important point is they are so up front about it. They openly admit it and back it religious verse. And my particular point had to do with Islam and slavery. Boko Haram further illustrates the point being a Muslim group.

@ Carl – “we had best be prepared because there are still figurative Comanches out there.”

What are those “Comanches” (BTW, I disagree with this term.) going to do? Invade America? How far away are they from taking the capitol? Is their military amassing on our borders? What countries have they allied with? England, France, Germany, China?

Oh, they might launch a terror attack that kills a few thousand people. Yawn.

And your last point, slavery today is the merest fraction of what it was a hundred and fifty years ago. That was my point, you haven’t rebutted it. Repeat: slavery today is not what it was in the past.