Can We Eliminate Violent Conflict?

Apparently John Bolton deems it objectionable to cite conflict-reduction as any kind of worthwhile aspirational value:

BOLTON: He says we have to acknowledge the hard truth we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. Well, no kidding. You know, homo sapiens are hard-wired for violent conflict, and we’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species. And the whole notion you could even think about eliminating it not just in our lifetime but soon thereafter I think reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.

For comparison’s sake, note that homo sapiens are hard-wired to use stone spears to hunt and kill grazing animals for food. And yet, hunting grazing animals has become a pretty marginal phenomenon in human existence. Doing it as a primary means of subsistence, as opposed to a hobby, has become even more marginal. Doing it with stone tools is even more marginal, though it does of course still happen.

Friedman figure

In much the same way, the murder rate in contemporary industrialized societies is dramatically lower than what it was before the industrial revolution. And as Benjamin Friedman observed in his post on Obama’s speech, the reality, documented by the Human Security Brief, is that both interstate and intrastate wars have become rarer and less deadly in recent decades.

These are important elements of human progress. Whether or not it’s ever possible to truly eliminate violent conflict will have to remain a subject for speculation, but violent conflict has been massively reduced in the recent past and all signs point to the possibility for future large reductions. There’s a real danger than an attitude of cynicism will create self-fulfilling prophesies of violent conflict and renewed superpower rivalry.