The complicated task of measuring the world’s most ‘peaceful’ countries

(Institute for Economics and Peace)
(Institute for Economics and Peace)

Right now, the world doesn't appear very peaceful. Whether we're looking at eastern Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, or even the streets of a Missouri town, conflict seems to be everywhere.

Where do you have to go to find peace? Earlier this summer, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its annual "Global Peace Index" report. The Sydney-based group, founded by technology entrepreneur Steve Killelea, has been tracking the peacefulness (or its lack) of the world since 2007. This year's report notes that the various conflicts we've seen recently have contributed to the "continuing the global slide in peacefulness which has now been in effect for the last seven years."

Some of the findings are striking. As the Independent has noted, the index found that just 11 countries were actually free from conflict, whether internal or external, over the past year. Switzerland, Japan, Qatar, Mauritius, Uruguay, Chile, Botswana, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Panama and Brazil made the depressingly short list.

However, per the index, these nations are not necessarily the most "peaceful" countries. Iceland tops that list, followed by Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, Canada, Japan, Belgium and Norway. The difference lies in what the Global Peace Index considers truly "peaceful." The methodology lists 22 variables that it uses when making its list, including such things as the number of people in jail and levels of political instability. Perhaps most notably, there are seven factors related to the "militarization" of the different countries, including "military expenditure as a percentage of GDP" and the "volume of transfers of major conventional weapons as recipient (imports) per 100,000 people."

That's because the index aims to measure not just "negative peace" (i.e. the lack of conflict) but also positive peace (how the country acts to prevent conflict). This means that a country such as Switzerland, for all its lack of conflict, can't really be the most peaceful, as the small nation has a relatively large and profitable arms industry.

The complicated measure of peacefulness has led to some criticism. Jay Ulfelder, an academic who studies conflict, explained why he felt the index fell flat in a 2012 blog post:

The basic problem is one that confounds our best efforts to develop summary measures of complex concepts in many fields. Complexity implies multi-dimensionality; the complex whole is composed of many different parts. As a result, no single indicator will capture all of the elements we believe to be relevant.

To try to overcome this problem, we can mathematically combine measures of those separate elements in a single scale—an index. Unfortunately, with truly complex phenomena, those parts do not always move in lock step with each other. As a result, we often wind up with a summary measure that obscures as much as it clarifies because it blinds us to those tensions.

Take military expenditure. As the Economist noted in 2007 when the index first started, any country that lives by the Roman motto “If you want peace, prepare for war” is considered inherently not peaceful.

One obvious example of that motto in action is the United States, which is ranked 101st out of 162 countries in the index. The United States spends a huge amount on its military, which influences conflicts both internationally and domestically. (For example, you could argue that the militarization of the police in Ferguson, Mo., was a result of this.)

There are also instances where the influence of military expenditure ends up producing more ambiguous results, however. The recent use of U.S. military force in Iraq, for example, could hopefully stave off further conflict. That military force was only possible due to a large military expenditure.

The situation also favors countries that are protected by others: Iceland, the most peaceful country of them all, has no army, but it is a member of NATO, and it also has a number of military agreements with other nations -- including the United States. That situation gets even more complicated when you consider such things as peacekeeping forces. (Iceland's tiny peacekeeping force in Afghanistan appears to be why it is not considered a conflict-free country, for example.)

Peace is complicated, it seems. But there are some glimmers of hope -- the Institute for Economics and Peace notes that while its own report has found an increase in conflict since 2007, the broader trend seems to show the world has been getting more peaceful since the end of World War II. Hopefully, the past few years are an aberration.

You can read more about the Global Peace Index here.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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