The distinguished historian, this year’s Reith lecturer, argues we can never be complacent about global conflict
Many of us – and as a Canadian I certainly include myself – have lived so long in what historians are starting to call the Long Peace that we have come to assume that war is an abnormality. Something that may afflict others, from different cultures in far-off places. War for us, we think, belongs firmly in the past. And it is true that large parts of the world have not had to endure state-to-state wars for decades. The majority of the world’s nations have also been spared the scourge of civil wars, although many have known violence from revolutionary insurrection. Stephen Pinker and others have also argued that we are conducting our internal affairs with greater civility and point to declining levels of homicide and physical assault around the globe. (His own country, the United States, is an outlier here with much higher murder rates than in Canada or Europe.)
In my BBC Reith Lectures, I am arguing that we should be careful not to assume that the peaceful parts of the world are particularly virtuous or that they represent a clear trend for humanity’s moving away from war. We have been fighting each other for a very long time – as far as we can tell, from the moment we started to organise ourselves and settle down as agriculturalists. And much of the world today is at war: in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, the great lakes district of Africa or Sudan. There are also the “frozen” conflicts so favoured by Vladimir Putin’s regime – in eastern Ukraine, for example – that at any moment could ignite wider struggles.