We think of our age as one of clash and turmoil, but by historical standards the international scene is phenomenally calm. Television viewers see a world of violence, as every conflict is multiplied by hundreds of millions of screens. But none of the scores of modern or semimodern states is at war, and fighting occurs only between some of the most backward, as Ethiopia and Somalia, or in areas largely isolated from the civilized world, such as the Western Sahara or the interior of Burma. No modern state even raises a serious territorial or political claim against any other state -- a truly unprecedented situation.
All the significant international conflicts of the past 30 years have arisen from the sorting out of the results of the two world wars and the ensuing breakup of the colonial empires. The cold war was about the delimitation of the two spheres, especially in Central Europe. It was a standoff because neither side was prepared to risk global war to change things, and tensions eased as boundaries became accepted. In Korea, it cost many dead to settle the division. In Vietnam, the Communists were able to secure the French heritage only by a long war. India and Pakistan fought three brief wars to divide the subcontinent. The Arab-Israeli conflict came out of rival claims to a Turkish province. But by now the division has been accomplished, and the results fixed nearly everywhere.
New conflicts of interest are forever arising, of course, but there is little idea of solving them by force. For example, when oil was discovered in the North Sea, the riparian states allotted the fields without even raising voices. Typical modern squabbles are about Icelandic fishing zones, landing rights for the Concorde or Japanese trade barriers, matters that hardly raise blood pressures. The reason is clear. In former times, the chief purpose of aggression was to acquire territory, and the reward of victory was a province or a colony, perhaps sweetened by an indemnity. But use of force is too dangerous in the nuclear age, and territorial aggrandizement is obsolete in the industrial world. States raise themselves not by empire-building but by industry-building, and the problems of the technological age are not solvable by violence.
It is possible that someone with inadequate appreciation of these facts may yet start a global war. It would be well, however, to recognize the probability that international war makes no sense in this age and may be finally outmoded. War-related customs and institutions cannot quickly fade away because hundreds of billions of dollars yearly and millions of careers are directed toward them on both sides of the ideological divide. But if the memory of war recedes, violence in international relations will become ever less credible.
This prospect, the dream of ages, may seem too idyllic. But peace is not a total blessing. For example, wars in the past have helped keep population growth in bounds. Moreover, peace does not abolish the human propensity to violence; and in the boredom of tranquility there will probably be more murder, terrorism and the like. We may already be paying the price in the rising crime rates and terroristic waves of recent years. The senseless hijackings and shootings by German "leftists" and the Japanese "Red Army" would be inconceivable if their homelands were engaged in a dangerous contest with other nations. Materially sated young people especially need commitment and stirring action and, in the absence of external threat, easily turn against the system whose faults they know best their own.
War has been so much a part of the life of nations that a truly warless world would be very different from the world of our fathers, but we may be well on the way to discovering what it means and facing the problems as well as enjoying the blessings that it will bring.