Commentary

Peace on Earth? Try Free Trade among Men

By Daniel Griswold
December 28, 2005
Buried beneath the daily stories about car bombs and insurgents is an underappreciated but comforting fact during this Christmas season: The world has somehow become a more peaceful place.

As one little-noticed headline on an Associated Press story recently reported, “War declining worldwide, studies say.” According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the number of armed conflicts around the world has been in decline for the past half-century. In just the past 15 years, ongoing conflicts have dropped from 33 to 18, with all of them now civil conflicts within countries. As 2005 draws to an end, no two nations in the world are at war with each other.

The death toll from war has also been falling. According to the AP story, “The number killed in battle has fallen to its lowest point in the post-World War II period, dipping below 20,000 a year by one measure. Peacemaking missions, meanwhile, are growing in number.” Those estimates are down sharply from annual tolls ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 in the 1990s, and from a peak of 700,000 in 1951 during the Korean War.

Many causes lie behind the good news — the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy, among them — but expanding trade and globalization appear to be playing a major role. Far from stoking a “World on Fire,” as one misguided American author has argued, growing commercial ties between nations have had a dampening effect on armed conflict and war, for three main reasons.

First, trade and globalization have reinforced the trend toward democracy, and democracies don’t pick fights with each other. Freedom to trade nurtures democracy by expanding the middle class in globalizing countries and equipping people with tools of communication such as cell phones, satellite TV, and the Internet. With trade comes more travel, more contact with people in other countries, and more exposure to new ideas. Thanks in part to globalization, almost two thirds of the world’s countries today are democracies — a record high.

Second, as national economies become more integrated with each other, those nations have more to lose should war break out. War in a globalized world not only means human casualties and bigger government, but also ruptured trade and investment ties that impose lasting damage on the economy. In short, globalization has dramatically raised the economic cost of war.

Third, globalization allows nations to acquire wealth through production and trade rather than conquest of territory and resources. Increasingly, wealth is measured in terms of intellectual property, financial assets, and human capital. Those are assets that cannot be seized by armies. If people need resources outside their national borders, say oil or timber or farm products, they can acquire them peacefully by trading away what they can produce best at home.

Of course, free trade and globalization do not guarantee peace. Hot-blooded nationalism and ideological fervor can overwhelm cold economic calculations. But deep trade and investment ties among nations make war less attractive.

Trade wars in the 1930s deepened the economic depression, exacerbated global tensions, and helped to usher in a world war. Out of the ashes of that experience, the United States urged Germany, France, and other Western European nations to form a common market that has become the European Union. In large part because of their intertwined economies, a general war in Europe is now unthinkable.

In East Asia, the extensive and growing economic ties among Mainland China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan is helping to keep the peace. China’s Communist rulers may yet decide to go to war over its “renegade province,” but the economic cost to their economy would be staggering and could provoke a backlash among Chinese citizens. In contrast, poor and isolated North Korea is all the more dangerous because it has nothing to lose economically should it provoke a war.

In Central America, countries that were racked by guerrilla wars and death squads two decades ago have turned not only to democracy but to expanding trade, culminating in the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. As the Stockholm institute reports in its 2005 Yearbook, “Since the 1980s, the introduction of a more open economic model in most states of the Latin American and Caribbean region has been accompanied by the growth of new regional structures, the dying out of interstate conflicts and a reduction in intra-state conflicts.”

Much of the political violence that remains in the world today is concentrated in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa — the two regions of the world that are the least integrated into the global economy. Efforts to bring peace to those regions must include lowering their high barriers to trade, foreign investment, and domestic entrepreneurship.

Advocates of free trade and globalization have long argued that trade expansion means more efficiency, higher incomes, and reduced poverty. The welcome decline of armed conflicts in the past few decades indicates that free trade also comes with its own peace dividend.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies.