“Countries that slip in or out of the great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are out,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
When we try to study the history of armed conflict we have to look at more modern examples of war and project backwards. We don’t have to go too far into the human past to start running into problems with records. Writing systems have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that everything that was written down was preserved and saved to today. It also doesn’t mean that since the time that humans developed writing systems humans have been recording wars and violent conflicts. Warring political factions and state based (however loosely you define a state) coalitions have likely been engaged in violent conflicts as far back as humans have organized themselves into political units, but can we tell if violent conflicts have gotten more or less common over history?
Pinker argues that conflicts have gotten less common throughout human history, especially in more recent history. Studying great powers helps us see that. Historically, humans are better record keepers when part of a major political unit. Great powers are better at documenting what they do, so their wars and conflicts are more likely to have been recorded and more of those records are likely to have survived to today. The evidence, as shown by Pinker’s quote, is that great powers fight more than minor powers. This means that studying the great powers gives us a good sense of the frequency of violent conflicts between political entities throughout history.
When we study great powers we see that violence has declined over time. The two wars of the 1900s were outliers. They were immense great power conflicts, and while great powers fight more than lesser powers, they generally have fought less and less over time. While it often doesn’t feel like it, war is becoming less common in human history. We are better at recording and documenting war, and evidence shows that we turn to war with less frequency than we did in the past.