Peace in the 21st Century: Steven Pinker

Videography: Jean-Pierre Larroque, Production Coordination: Andrea Jovanovic, Interviewed by Jessica Chapman, Flat Earth Media

Is the idea of peace in the 21st century an idealistic vision or an achievable goal?

OEF recently asked that question to notable thinkers who research trends in violent conflict and other key drivers affecting global stability. Their responses are captured in the series, "Peace in the 21st Century." In this video, Steven Pinker explores why the types of large-scale wars that were omnipresent through human history for hundreds and hundreds of years have suddenly gone to zero. Read the full transcript from the interview below.

Steven Pinker:

Until a few years ago, I would have thought that the idea of world peace was a romantic holdover from the 1960's. Someone maybe taking too much brown acid. Actually, looking at the numbers it's not at all unfeasible. I don't think we'll ever eliminate every last war, if you count war as just some insurgency that kills 25 people a year. I don't know if that'll ever go down to 0, because all it takes is a group of young men who decide to form the popular front for the liberation of whatever. If they're enough weapons floating around--and will be for the foreseeable future--there may be trouble spots here and there.

But big wars – that kill say 1,000 people a year – it's not inconceivable that those would vanish. Not only have the numbers come way, way down, since the 1990's, but whole categories of war seem to be either gone or obsolescent. Wars between two great powers. Wars between rich countries. Wars in Western Europe. The kind of wars that were omnipresent through human history for hundreds and hundreds of years and then all of a sudden went to zero.

The other reason I don't think it's impractical or romantic to hope for a drastic reduction is that other violent customs which people thought were a permanent part of the human condition have also vanished. For thousands of years, every civilization practiced human sacrifice. The proverbial throwing a virgin into the volcano to appease angry Gods. Then, that disappeared; went to zero.  Dueling among men of honor, another custom that was around for centuries.

We've got these big brains; we've got these big frontal lobes. We can figure stuff out. Just as we've gradually chipped away at disease and hunger, because those are scourges of the human condition. It gradually dawns on people that war is not such a great institution and maybe there are little steps that we can take that will bring them down, little by little. There's no reason that war couldn't be another triumph of human ingenuity, like public health and infectious disease.

The ideal that human flourishing is the greatest good has crowded out other ideologies: religious ideologies, nationalist ideologies, dreams of national or ethnic glory, rectifying past injustices. All the kinds of motives that have led countries to expand their territory; expand their ideology and to justify by thinking this is more important than whether people get killed in their 20's or live to a ripe old age.

Even though it sounds banal to say that human life is the ultimate good and human happiness and human family life and flourishing, it turns out historically it's not a banal idea at all. It's actually a kind of exotic, weird idea that has fortunately been expanding since the enlightenment, but it's not universal yet.

I would put that at the top of the list. There are other factors that probably push the probabilities around, like economic interdependence; the existence of an international community with peacekeeping forces; the spread of the norm that war is barbaric, disgusting, primitive, just not done among respectable people. All of those are in part consequences of this over-arching idea that what counts is human life and human happiness. That's why I mentioned it first.