Studying War to Achieve Peace: A Summer at the Nobel Peace Institute

July 29, 2016

Studying War to Achieve Peace: A Summer at the Nobel Peace Institute

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Bear Braumoeller Giving Talk at Nobel Peace Institute
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Professor Bear Braumoeller spent May and June as a fellow at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, where he worked on his manuscript on the decline of war thesis. During that time he delivered a public lecture at the Institute entitled "The Spread of Peace and the Spread of War: Explaining an Apparent Paradox." In mid-June, along with other scholars from the United States and Europe, he took part in a three-day Nobel symposium on the causes of peace. Below he discusses his inspiration for his research, the way in which he hopes his research could apply to policy, and his biggest surprise about Norway.

How did you become interested in studying war and peace?

I wanted to end war, or at least reduce the amount of war in the world. And I always believed the best way to try and change something was to understand it. I thought about going into the diplomatic corps, but the opportunities for analysts are few and far between. Mostly, you are carrying out decisions made by somebody else. I wanted to increase the body of basic research that was out there so people who are in a position of trying to defuse wars or defuse conflict would be able to make use of it.

You state that analyzing data on war is incredibly complex and it is likely we can “Be fooled by randomness”. How do you try to avoid this and how can other people avoid it?

The only way to really avoid it is to learn statistics. The U.S. Presidential race is a good example. You see all these news stories about how Donald Trump has overtaken Hillary Clinton in the polls. This is probably a news story only because that poll is an outlier. In the next couple of days, Hillary Clinton overtakes Donald Trump and no one blinks. The challenge is being able to tell the difference between what Nate Silver calls "the signal and the noise." That one poll that puts Trump in the lead is probably just noise, but you can't really tell unless you know how to analyze data.

Do you believe your research actually helps people who are working on figuring out solutions for peace to be able to say, "This is still an issue?"

Yes. My biggest concern about previous research is that it might lead us to become complacent. If decision makers really believe that war is coming to an end and that people just don’t fight international wars anymore, then they may fail to deter a threat or address dangerous issues like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. They may not be worried about the EU unravelling because we won’t fight each other anymore since we have become nicer people. I don't think either of those conclusions is warranted at all. So it is very concerning to me that this has become conventional wisdom.

If you were in the room with a group of world leaders, what would you say to them? What is the biggest takeaway you have for people who are creating policy about war would find helpful?

The main point that I would make is that, when we're trying to understand the direction in which the world is moving, we have to start by recognizing that peace is more than just the absence of war. There is some evidence that peace, in the sense of stable expectations of nonviolent change, spread throughout the Cold War and into the post-Cold War years. That's good news.

But because peace is more than just the absence of war, the spread of peace doesn't automatically imply a decrease in war or warlike behavior. And in fact, there is no evidence that I have been able to find that improvements in human nature have led to a decline in international conflict. As much as I would like to believe that argument, I can’t find any evidence that supports it.

The key to understanding this apparent paradox, I think, is to understand the nature of international order. During the Cold War, peace spread and became more consolidated within the Western liberal international order. (I should note that "liberal" here refers to the broad intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment, not to the narrower Democratic-party liberalism that most Americans associate with the word.) It also did so, to an extent, within the Soviet bloc. But at the same time that peace was growing within those two international orders, there was a lot of conflict between them. And in the post-Cold War world we saw peace spread as the Western liberal order expanded in the wake of the Soviet collapse. But it looks like it has reached its limits, and with populism on the rise and Russia actively working to undermine it the Western liberal order might be in real trouble in the not too distant future.

In addition to giving a talk at the Nobel Peace Institute, you were able to stay as a fellow. Can you tell me about your experience?

They give you an office and access to their really impressive library on war and peace. You’re invited to lunch every day. They have interesting spontaneous activities: one morning we received word to bring our swimsuits because we were going to go and jump in Oslo Fjord. But mostly, it’s the opportunity to have really interesting stimulating discussions and work on your research.

What was one surprising thing you found during your time there?

I was surprised at how powerful a different philosophy of governance can be. The Norwegians, even Norwegian conservatives, take it for granted that women should have a lot of time off after they have children. The most diehard conservatives believe they should have electric cars and that should be state subsidized. The hospitals are amazing. The health care is top notch. I saw more Teslas in one day here than in my entire life. And taxes, of course, are quite high. But the main point is that the philosophy of governance as making the world a better place is so pervasive that the entire society has been shaped by it.

Help me understand why this was such an honor for you.

It was a thrill for me to be a part of this conference. Three of the members of the Nobel committee, the people who make the decision on the Nobel Peace Prize, were there. The group of scholars was really extraordinary. There were some legends in the field of political science, people like Bruce Russett and Joanne Gowa and Paul Diehl. There were famous historians like Niall Ferguson and Fred Logevall. One of the most interesting people I met, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, is also working on the decline-of-war problem. We came to the same conclusion using different data and methods, which is always a good sign. And talking to him outside of the formal meetings was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. It'll take me months to really absorb all of the stuff that we discussed. All in all, it was an amazingly stimulating intellectual environment and I was incredibly grateful to have been included.

For a full video of Professor Braumoeller's talk, watch here. To purchase a copy of his book, The Great Powers and the International System: Systemic Theory in Empirical Perspective, visit here.