From the time I first got involved in politics as a young man, my Republican friends always wanted me to play a game that might be called Churchill and Chamberlain. Anytime the topic of discussion shifted to something involving international affairs, they wanted to cast me in the role of the weak, naïve appeaser who nearly lost Europe to fascism and they would assume the role of the wise, stalwart defender of freedom and world order. It didn’t matter that appeasement was never a strategy that I personally agreed with but if I was Democrat, I had to be Chamberlain.
That is why I feel slightly disoriented by the emerging populist right-wing of the Republican Party who now seem to insist that I play Churchill—-O.K., I’ll be Churchill.
If Winston could return for a short period and share his views on current events, the one thing I am sure he would emphasize is borders. Borders were a big deal to him—after all he drew most of the current borders in the modern Middle East. But more importantly he had a keen understanding of the sanctity of borders and their role in preserving world order.
Put more simply, he recognized that the minute the global community allowed one bully to tromp across an international border and steal land from his neighbor was the same moment that changed the rules for all nations. If violence was successfully used to redraw one international boundary, it placed all boundaries at risk and changed the security and military posture of all nations.
Churchill had a clear recollection of a world where borders were not sanctified by the global community. Four years before his birth, Europe had suffered nearly a million dead and wounded from the Franco Prussian War when Otto Von Bismarck marched across France, ultimately seizing the formerly French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The year he was born, Japan invaded Taiwan and Egypt invaded Ethiopia. When he was three, Russia led a coalition of seven nations that attacked the Ottoman Empire in a war that took well over a half a million lives. When he was five, Peru and Bolivia went to war with Chile over control of what is now Northern Chile. He was only 6 when England entered The First Boer War and was old enough to serve in the second.
Today, the reality of the world that Churchill grew up in is nearly impossible for us to imagine. Ninety-Five percent of Americans living today were born after World War II. They have no personal recollection of a world in which big nations routinely pushed across international borders to settle scores or seize territory. Perhaps more importantly, they have no notion of how different the world they live in would be if that behavior were to become once again acceptable.
Centuries of War
It is estimated that more than 60 million people died as the result of World War II. Old news reels reveal parts of Europe that looked more like a moonscape than a portion of planet earth. Germany was the epicenter of that destruction. But as badly pummeled as Germany was after World War II, many Germans might tell you that it was not the worst in German history. They would say that The Thirty Years War holds that distinction–and the official record would bear them out.
In World War II, Germany lost around 7 million or about 10 percent of its population. It is estimated that during the Thirty Years War, the overall population of the Holy Roman Empire (including the large majority of what is now Germany) declined by more than 30 percent. Some estimates indicate that certain regions of central Europe lost even more. Historian Philip Otterness describes the impact:
The population of the Palatine town of Kaiserslautern fell from 3,200 at the beginning of the 17th Century to 200 by 1635. Many towns and villages simply disappeared. The Palatine as a whole lost 75 to 80 percent of its population.
What had started out as a religious conflict in Bohemia exploded into a continental struggle in which more than a dozen nations sought to either redraw their own borders or strengthen their position vis a vis potential adversaries. The Thirty Years War ended with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, but it was almost immediately followed by a Swedish invasion of Poland and Lithuania—a conflict that cost an estimated 3 million lives. Warsaw’s population was slashed by 90 percent.
In the 1680s the Ottomans began yet another siege of Vienna and before that had ended, Louis XIV decided to take as much of southwestern Germany as he could grab while other European powers were preoccupied by the Ottomans. His expedition led to the excruciatingly brutal Nine Year’s War bringing yet another round of destruction to regions of Germany that had not yet recovered from the recent devastation of the Thirty Years War.
The next century was not a lot better. The Great Northern War involving Sweeden, Russia and a dozen other nations began shortly before the 18th Century even started and continued for more than two decades, costing nearly half a million lives. While much of Northern Europe was fighting that war, Central and Southern Europe erupted into a 13 year War of Spanish Succession costing more than one million lives. Those wars were followed by the War of Austrian Succession, the nearly global Seven Years War and numerous other wars including those spawned by the French Revolution.
During the 19th Century as many as 7.7 million people are estimated to have died in the Napoleonic Wars, Other wars during the 19th Century were so numerous it is difficult to keep track of them and impossible to estimate anything close to a reliable estimate as to the overall death toll. Wikipedia has tabulated more than 600 separate conflicts during that period. Among the largest of them are The Caucasian War, The Crimean War, the Astro-Prussian War, and the previously mentioned Franco-Prussian War.
The purpose of recounting all of this military history is to make one simple point. We may not feel that we live in an era of peace and tranquility but compared to virtually any period between the fall of Rome and the end of WW II, this is heaven on earth. We may feel that we have endured a large number of deadly conflicts during the three quarters of a century since WWII, but when compared with the horrific record of the world in the centuries that preceded those 76 years, it is a period of remarkable and unmatched peace and prosperity.
Statistics collected by the Global Change Data Lab of the United Kingdon indicate that between 1946 and 2020 a total of 10.8 million people died as the result of military conflicts in various parts of the world. While that certainly seems like a large number, it turns out to be very small when compared with other periods in recent history.
Take the first half of the 20th Century as one example. Excluding war deaths from famine and disease, more than 16 million are believed to have died in World War I and more than 60 million died in World War II.
Among the other wars during that period were the Mexican Revolution, the Turkish War of Independence, The Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the Sino Tibetan War. Together those wars easily amounted to more than 10 million additional fatalities bringing the total deaths during the period to more than 85 million. Over the first 45 years of the 20th Century the average yearly number of conflict related deaths exceeded 1.9 million.
The 10.4 million conflict related deaths over the 75 years since the end of World War II computes to 140,000 deaths a year. The annual death toll from war 13 times higher in the first 45 years of the 20th Century than in the 75 years since.
Even that remarkable statistic understates the full impact of how man’s improved ability to avoid conflict has impacted the world we live in.
Since 1900 the world population has grown from 1.6 billion to 8 billion. The average population during the period 1900 to 1945 was only about 2 billion while the average population during the 1946 to 2023 period was close to 5 billion. In other words, you had about two and a half times as many people sharing the same planet and yet the number of them who died from war declined by 92%.
Another way to look at it is that if you randomly picked individuals from across the globe during the first half of the 20th Century, they would have about a one in one thousand chance of dying in a war during each year of their life. If you randomly picked individuals from across the globe in the Post War Era, they would have one chance in 35 thousand of dying in a war during each year of their life.
We don’t have good statistics on the death toll from many of the conflicts in the 19th Century. In fact, we don’t have any estimates for war related civilian fatalities for most of them. One exception is the Napoleonic Wars which as stated previously is believed to have resulted in 5 to 8 million deaths. If we disregard the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, The Atro-Prussian War and all of the hundreds of other wars that occurred in the 19th Century and simply use the mid-range of estimates from the Napoleonic Wars as the total war related deaths of that Century we would have an annual per capita conflict death rate more than twice that which we have experienced in the past 76 years.
The same situation exists with respect to accurate estimates for conflict related fatalities during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are more estimates for The 30 Years War which was the deadliest but only one of many very deadly conflicts during the 17th Century. Even if we use only the deaths resulting from that one war, the 17th Century would have an annual per capita death rate four times that of the 76 year period we are now living in.
Three other points should be made when comparing conflicts since World War II as compared to those in the centuries preceding the end of that war. First, the conflicts prior to 1950 were largely about territory or redrawing international borders. Since 1950, very few of the wars that have taken place were about borders. They were either wars of colonial liberation, such as we saw in Algeria, Mozambique, Angola and Indochina or disputes over who would govern a country within the already established borders.
In certain very notable instances, the wars since 1946 have involved very substantial outside support of one or more rival factions struggling for political control. These included the Korean War, Viet Nam; Soviet involvement in behalf of the government of Afghanistan and the subsequently U.S. Involvement in behalf of yet another government in Afghanistan.
The Post World War II conflicts which involved significant cross border warfare include the 1948 Palestine War or Israeli War of Independence; the Indonesian invasion of East Timor; the Iran-Iraq War; The 1980 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent Gulf War and finally, the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.
Another point to be noted is that the regions of the world where the perponderance of state based conflict deaths occurred changed dramatically after WW II. According to the Global Change Data Lab statistics, nearly 10 million of the 10.447 million conflict related deaths between 1946 and 2020 occurred in Asia, Africa or the Middle East. Europe, which experienced the large majority of global conflicts and deaths before 1946, accounted for only 2.6% of such deaths over the past 75 years. Since 1946, Asia has accounted for 60% of such deaths.
Finally, not only did the number of deaths decrease in the post WW II period but the death toll declined significantly over the course of that period, despite a large increase in world population. During the first 25 years of the post WWII era (1946-1970), nearly 5 million people died in state based conflicts, a rate of nearly 200,000 per year. During the second period (1971-1995) deaths had declined to a little over 4.3 million. In the most recent period ending in 2020, the number of such deaths dropped to 1.2 million or less than 48 thousand a year.
What made our era so different?
In 1947 President Truman asked the Congress for economic and military assistance for both Greece and Turkey to help them fight Soviet supported insurrections. It was the first step toward building a policy to contain Soviet expansionism. Over the next several years, the containment policy grew to include the Marshall Plan which provided aid for all of the war torn nations of Western Europe; the formation of NATO and other security and economic institutions. Those efforts continued for more than four decades with presidents of both parties supporting both the policies of containment and the institutions created to support those policies.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, President George H. W. Bush was called on to decide how the policy of containment should be applied in a post-Soviet World. Just 9 months after the Wall came down and Eastern Europe was liberated, Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein decided to test the new world order by launching an invasion of Kuwait. Bush responded with an even bolder move. He formed an international alliance of 41 countries which put together a combined army numbering nearly one million to liberate Kuwait and sent Iraqi forces scrambling back behind their own borders.
The evolving containment policy was tested again only a few years later as the former Yugoslavia began to break into separate states and those states began to fight over their respective borders. The U.S., along with most of the European nations, helped establish boundaries and negotiated a peace agreement that the U.S., Europe and even Russia sent troops to help implement.
While new borders have been drawn since the immediate post war period, very few old borders have been altered. Bangladesh emerged from Pakistan. Singapore emerged from Maylasia. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia. South Sudan obtained independence from the Republic of Sudan. The Bekasi peninsula was transferred to Cameroon by Nigeria.
Nine separate nations emerged from the former Soviet Union. Slovakia separated from Czechoslovakia and 6 nations as well as the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina emerged from the former Yugoslavia.
In the Middle East, Jordan and Saudia Arabia peacefully settled a disputed border. In the Levant, the Six Day War left Israel as the occupying authority of the Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and most of the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Borders of virtually every country in Western and Southern Europe and all of the countries in both North and South America are very close to, if not identical to the borders they held in 1950. Even the borders of the former Soviet Bloc countries are almost exactly as they were before the breakup of the Soviet Union with two notable exceptions. One was involved the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia which resulted in two provinces of that country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, being declared by Russia as “independent states”. The other, is the current conflict taking place in Ukraine in which Russian troops occupy the Crimea and significant areas of Eastern Ukraine.
This did not happen because we suggested to the rest of the world that it would be a good idea. It did happen in part because many nations were ready for a new order and were willing to trade territorial ambition for peace. But it also happened because (a) nations that were interested in doing so, grew to believe that the United States had the economic, military and diplomatic clout to make it work; (b) nations that weren’t ready to trade territorial ambitions for peace were afraid of the growing coalition in firm support of border integrity.
The corner stone of this effort was U.S. credibility which was conveyed by very large investments. These included not only developing dominant military capabilities but also in developing a highly sophisticated global diplomatic network and a series of economic institutions which helped nations who wished to join the new world order but could also punish those who rejected it. These included the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund, and direct U.S. economic assistance. As time passed, the U.S. also played a central role in the development of a system international cooperation in the development of both fiscal and monetary policies that would strengthen global growth.
It is also important to note that the value of secure international borders, and the relative peace that has accompanied their presence, has not only saved lives but permitted the overwhelming share of humanity to live much fuller and more comfortable lives.
According to statistics compiled by the Our World in Data website, the global economic output at the end of the 10th Century was equal to about $167 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. That was sufficient to provide the 250 million people who lived on the planet at that time with the equivalent of approximately $650 a year to live on. OWID indicates that the economy remained relatively stagnant through the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with real (inflation adjusted) GDP growing at less than a quarter of one percent a year.
By the early to mid-1800s, it was on average growing by one half of one percent annually, a rate which increased to 1 percent a year in the later part of the 19th Century. During the first half of the 20th Century inflation adjusted GDP growth averaged about 2% per year. Still, in 1900 global GDP was only 2.7 trillion, offering economic output equal to only about $1,500 to each of the 1.6 billion people living at that time. Over the next 50 years, the pace of economic growth quickened but still total annual output equaled only $2900 a person.
During the late 1940s, something dramatic happened to this long slow pattern of growth. At the same time that the Truman Doctrine was adopted; NATO was created and the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came into existence, economic growth quickened dramatically. In 1950, global GDP was less than $7.4 trillion U.S. Dollars. Only 15 years later it had doubled and 18 years after that it doubled again. By 2023 global GDP had reached $105 trillion or more than 14 times what it had been 73 years before.
The global population over that same 73 year period increased from 2.5 billion to a little more than 8 billion. Despite that growth, per capita GDP increased from less than $3000 to more than $13,000.
Such growth levels have not only made the comfortable more comfortable but have reduced human misery by magnitudes that would have seemed unimaginable at the time the U.S. set this course. The Ohio State University online magazine Origins recently reported that the percentage of malnourished people in the world has dropped from 65 percent in 1950 to 25 percent in 1970 and only 9 percent in 2020. This despite the fact that the global population grew 220% during that period.
Obviously, more stable and secure international borders and the accompanying reduction in armed conflict between nation-states cannot take all of the credit for this growth. Science and emerging technologies it produced undoubtedly played a very large role. But many of the transformative advances in our ability to become more productive began to take place more than a century before the late 1940s. Steam engines, railroads, much faster and more reliable ships, more sophisticated crop rotation, new and better fertilizer and much improved farm machinery all date back the early and middle 19th Century. Other inventions such as the internal combustion engine, trucks and heavy equipment and assembly line production came into being 3 to 4 decades earlier.
The remarkable growth since the late 1940s is the consequence of a combination of factors which include not only those technologies but also the confidence and optimism that a new order which reduced the prospects of devastating wars gave to would be investors and entrepreneurs. It also reduced destruction plant and equipment needed for the production of goods and services; a reduced use diversion of manpower from activities that were destructive in nature to those that were constructive. It also protected young, able bodied members of the emerging workforce from being killed and disabled and allowed them to train to become better contributors to productive enterprises. Finally, it greatly enhance the ability of producers to should also be noted that wars both small and large play havoc with the ability of producers to reach across the globe and find markets for their products and transport goods to those markets.
U.S. Growth in the World Economy
The U.S. grew more slowly than the world as a whole during this period—particularly in the early years. This could be expected for several reasons. First, countries with highly developed economies tend to grow more slowly than economies in the developing world. Secondly, the U.S. experienced little or no destruction of its industrial and productive capacity during World War II and therefore did not experience the acceleration of growth that accompanied the restoration of that capacity.
None the less, U.S. growth by nearly any measure has been remarkable. U.S. GDP in 1950, measured in 2022 inflation adjusted dollars, was slightly less than $2.5 trillion. By 2022, it had grown to 25.7 trillion – nearly a 9 fold increase. Since the U.S. population increased from 151 million to 333 million during that period, GDP per capita grew from about $19,000 per person in 1950 to more than $77,000 per person today—certainly an unimaginable sum to the ordinary American in 1950. The U.S. continues to account for a little more than a quarter of the world’s total economic output.
So, if Sir Winston were to come back and meet with a group of House Republicans who are attempting to block the President’s $24 billion request for aid to Ukraine, what would he say?
My guess is that Sir Winston would take some moments to glare over the top of his spectacles at the group—not pretending to hide his disdain for those who could be utterly indifferent to Vladimir Putin’s marching his armies across another countries borders and trampling of a world order that he and others of his generation had sacrificed so much to create. Eventually Sir Winston would take a sip of Johnnie Walker; puff off of his cigar and tell the assemble group something like this:
For a long time, the world has been plagued by small men with big ambitions. It is impossible to calculate the damage that they do. But much of that damage should be credited to those who fail to stand up to them when it is still possible to prevent the devastation they may wreak.
Your grandparents or perhaps even your great grandparents suffered through the misery of a world war. In the wake of those horrific times, they helped establish a new order. For the past 73 years tyrants have not succeeded in using the threat of military might to expand their borders. You are the beneficiaries of their efforts and their sacrifice. You have not only enjoyed a period of relative peace not experienced on this planet for more than a thousand years but a concomitant period of prosperity, unimaginable to previous generations.
Don’t mistake your good fortune as being a God given right. Violence and deprivation are as distant in your future as your perceived will to stand up to would-be oppressors. Your anxiety over the expenditure of an additional $24 billion to send little Vladimir back to his side of the Russian border is patently absurd. During World War II your country managed to dedicate more than a third of its annual output to conquer fascism. In today’s world $24 billion is less than the output of your economy in a single morning.
You must also know that weakness has a distinct odor. If would-be empire builders around the world get the scent that you are no longer willing or interested in defending international borders, if your allies believe that you will not long help them in protecting their borders, you will suddenly be living in a very different world!
We wait for the Republican response to Sir Winston’s comments.