“Peace on earth, good will toward men” is a phrase we associate with the Christmas season. One bit of good news that you will probably not see in the newspaper or on cable TV over the holiday is that the world in recent decades has actually been moving closer to that ideal, and free trade and globalization have played a role.
In its latest “Trade Fact of the Week,” the pro-trade Democratic Leadership Council reminds us that “The world has become more peaceful.”
Citing a recent report from the Human Security Center in British Colombia, the DLC memo notes that wars are less frequent and less bloody than in decades past. The average annual death toll from armed conflicts has been declining since the 1950s, from an average of 155,000 down to 17,000 in 2002-2008. None of the world’s “great powers” have clashed since the 1969 border conflict between Russia and China, and none of the major European powers have exchanged fire for 65 years—-the longest intervals of peace for centuries.
In Chapter 8 of my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I describe this phenomenon as “Free Trade’s ‘Peace Dividend’” (pp. 140-143). There are two main ways that globalization promotes peace: The growing network of global trade and investment has raised the cost of war, so that now if two nations go to war, they not only lose soldiers and tax dollars, they also lose markets and cause lasting damage to their economies. Globalization has also reduced the spoils of war by allowing people to acquire resources through peaceful exchange rather than conquest.
The DLC Trade Fact memo shares the credit with decolonization, the end of the Cold War, the spread of democracy, and peacekeeping missions, while also recognizing the contribution of economic openness:
[L]ower trade barriers, more open economic policies, more efficient logistics industries and better communications technology speed up and deepen integration across borders through trade and investment, strengthening mutual interests and reducing reasons for conflict. The [Human Security Center] report suggests that a 10 percent increase in FDI reduces a nation’s chance of international or civil war by about 3 percent, and that globalization reduces the reasons a country might want to fight:
“[T]he most effective path to prosperity in modern economies is through increasing productivity and international trade, not through seizing land and raw materials. In addition, the existence of an open global trading regime means it is nearly always cheaper to buy resources from overseas than to use force to acquire them.”
Eliminating all remaining trade barriers would be one of the best Christmas presents our politicians could give us.