The world is in a state of political turmoil. Rebel factions have sent governments in strategic locations around the globe into a constant state of instability. The United States and Russia have become entangled in a power struggle emblematic of a new Cold War.
Based on the media’s coverage of the various armed conflicts taking place throughout the world, the above statements would appear to be true. At least four wars — including the civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine as well as the current conflict between Israel and Hamas — were started in 2014. Other armed conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria, show no signs of slowing down.
A Google News search for "the new Cold War" returns 96,700 results, filled with articles about the power struggle between the U.S. and Russia as well as the back-and-forth sanctions both countries have imposed. At least one of those results — a New York Times op-ed — does provide a refreshing analysis of steps policymakers could take to avert a larger crisis, but even that article is given the ominous title of "The Risk of a New Cold War."
President Obama has already insisted that this is "not a new Cold War," describing the conflict as "a very specific issue related to Russia's unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path." Despite that statement, analysts, foreign policymakers and the media continue to frame the conflict as a potential catalyst for something larger.
Although it may seem to many as if the world is on the brink of political collapse, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how violent and disruptive things have gotten compared to times of relative peace. In the years following the Arab Spring, which began in winter 2012, it certainly seems as if political power has been shifting at an above average rate. Whether or not that’s actually the case may be too tough to determine.
It’s difficult to define the line between the public’s perception of political instability and the scale of violence that’s actually taking place in governments around the world. Conflict is essentially always occurring in some manner, and certain revolutions, regime changes and other instances of political upheaval can be difficult to pin down with statistical data for a variety of reasons (access to records, political affiliation, etc.).
Despite the inevitable imperfection of conducting such a study, Center for Systemic Peace Director Dr. Monty G. Marshall has compiled a map depicting “Major Episodes of Political Violence” that took place from 1946 to 2013. The map lists 331 episodes of armed conflict that occurred during that time period, including 32 conflicts which are ongoing. The continent with the most countries ranked as “High” (16-19 cases of war) or “Extreme” (20-25 cases) is Africa — which may come as a surprise given the relative lack of attention African wars receive in the mainstream media.
According to Dr. Marshall’s data, there were more than 1.2 million deaths that resulted from political conflict throughout the 1990s, not including the 2.5 million deaths caused in the Dem. Rep. of Congo since 1996 (because that data extends through 2013).
Syria’s death toll has reportedly surpassed 160,000 in three years of civil war, with Ukraine’s reaching 2,086 as of August 10 and Iraq’s civilian death total reaching 5,500 in the first six months of the year following ISIS’s rise to prominence in the country.
These numbers are already higher than the 12,750 death total amassed as a result of the wars Dr. Marshall listed as starting in 2013, including conflicts in Egypt, South Sudan and the Dem. Rep. of Congo.
Dr. Marshall's data suggests that the world has long been in a state of violent flux, with obvious spikes during major world wars and other serious conflicts as well as times of relative peace (despite still having some sort of violent death toll). Only time will tell as to whether the current wars will characterize this era as a relatively violent period, and it’s up to policymakers and leaders around the world to ensure that that does not happen.