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Research Questions

  1. What is the security threat environment likely to look like?
  2. Are current heightened levels of instability and conflict likely to prove short-lived or might they worsen?
  3. Was the near absence of war between states in the aftermath of the Cold War merely a fleeting moment before the onset of new rivalries between major powers?
  4. Will continued advances in prosperity, economic interconnectedness, democracy, and other factors continue to drive down the incidence of violent conflict?

Has the relative peace of the immediate post-Cold War era been replaced by a world of escalating conflict and threats to U.S. security? What is the security threat environment likely to look like in the long-term future?

To answer these questions, this report analyzes trends in violent conflict and discusses their broad implications for long-term defense planning. It presents statistical models that estimate the incidence of violent conflict — both within and between countries — and that project conflict trends over the next 25 years under different scenarios. The analysis concludes that violent conflict is likely to return to long-standing trends of gradual decline in most regions of the world in most plausible futures. However, certain regions are likely to experience continued high or increasing levels of violent conflict (in particular, the area stretching from the Maghreb through South Asia). A handful of plausible, though extreme, scenarios could also produce a substantial spike in the likelihood of conflict globally, leading to levels of violence approaching (although not reaching) the worst periods since World War II. This report recommends five indicators as the most important sources of warning that conflict trends may be increasing.

These findings should help inform U.S. defense decisions concerning long-term investments, such as major weapons systems and broad force structure. They also can help the Army to make decisions related to such issues as leader development and contingency access.

Key Findings

Armed Conflict Has Declined

  • In broad terms, the incidence of armed conflict has declined in both number and intensity since the end of the Cold War, with particularly sharp declines in higher-intensity conflicts.
  • There has been an uptick in some forms of intrastate conflict in 2013–2015, but the current spike in armed conflict is likely to prove relatively short-lived. It could easily last for several more years, but it is unlikely to represent a "new normal" — that is, a decades-long increase in the incidence of war.

The Trend of Declining Conflict Is Likely to Continue

  • Approximately a dozen key factors together explain much of the historical variation in levels of war and conflict, and the long-term trends in nearly all of these factors have been conducive to peace.
  • Unless the wars of the future have different causes than those of the past, for the conflicts of the past few years to represent the beginnings of a long-term rise in conflict, the decades-long trends toward higher levels of development, more open economies, more democratic governance, and stronger international institutions and norms of peaceful conflict resolution (among others) would have to suffer large and sustained reversals — reversals that have occurred only in crises such as the Great Depression or the early years of the Cold War.

Recommendation

  • This report recommends using five indicators as the most important sources of warning that conflict trends may be increasing over our baseline projections: recent power transitions (which increase the likelihood of interstate wars); new, higher-salience territorial claims (which are also positively correlated with interstate war); ratios of trade to gross domestic product (GDP) (where greater economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of interstate war); recent democratizing transitions (which are associated with an increase intrastate conflict); and annual GDP growth rates (where increases in growth rates reduce the likelihood of intrastate conflict).

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Grand Strategy, Long-Term Threat Projections, and the Future of War

  • Chapter Three

    Historical Trends in Conflict and War

  • Chapter Four

    Methodology for Projecting the Incidence of Conflict and War

  • Chapter Five

    Projecting the Future Incidence of Conflict and War

  • Chapter Six

    Identifying Signposts of Changing Conflict Trends

  • Chapter Seven

    Assessing Criminal Violence: State of the Field and Implications for the Army

  • Chapter Eight

    Analysis of U.S. Military Interventions

  • Chapter Nine

    Conclusions and Implications for U.S. Defense Policy

  • Appendix

    Details on Conflict Projection Models

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2 (Intelligence), Headquarters, Department of the Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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