Book coverLibrary Journal [pre-pub alert] — “Goldstein’s argument that we’re actually beating back war seems counterintuitive, but he marshals some impressive arguments…”

Kirkus Reviews — “A surprising study that suggests warfare is decreasing … Optimistic, useful history of diplomacy as counterweight to brutality.”

Publishers Weekly — “An optimistic, if controversial, assessment by a respected anti-war advocate.”

Gregg Easterbrook — “The most important political book of the year.”

Duck of Minerva / Charli Carpenter — “A must-read book, … draws the reader through available scholarly research in an entertaining way.”

Read Between the Lines / Carlyn Meyer — “If his new book is as insightful as his current article in Foreign Policy, I’ll run to get to the bookstore first.”

Foreign Affairs / G. John Ikenberry
“The book works best as a portrait of the far-flung, underappreciated UN peacekeeping system as it has grown and evolved.”

A Striped Armchair blog — “A great book…, smart and engaging and willing to challenge general assumptions about war, peace, and those involved in both. I can happily recommend it to everyone who enjoys popular nonfiction…”

LIBRARY JOURNAL — Prepub Alert — 3/21/11
Goldstein’s argument that we’re actually beating back war seems counterintuitive, but he marshals some impressive arguments: relative to population, 2010 had one of the lowest death rates ever; no national armies are currently engaged against each other; and despite what we think, UN peacekeeping efforts generally succeed. Okay, I’ll have to read the whole book to be truly convinced, but Goldstein won the International Studies Association “Book of the Decade” award for War and Gender, so he’s got good credentials.

KIRKUS REVIEWS July 15, 2011
A surprising study that suggests warfare is decreasing and growing less intense, coupled with a strident defense of peacekeeping and the United Nations.

Goldstein (School of International Service, American Univ.; The Real Price of War: How You Pay for the War on Terror, 2004, etc.) writes that most people believe “wars are getting worse all the time,” based on daily coverage of atrocities and misunderstood (but oft-repeated) statistics. “In fact,” he writes, “worldwide, wars today are measurably fewer and smaller than thirty years ago.” The author suggests the general public misses the significance of the post-Cold War decline of interstate wars, and focuses on isolated horrors in troubled, impoverished regions like the Congo, instead of perceiving how warfare is becoming less lethal overall. He supports this claim by providing an overview of the conflicts that have “cooled” since 1980, such as the “dirty wars” of Central America and other proxy conflicts between the superpowers, as well as depicting a zone of continuing violence that stretches from Iraq and Afghanistan through Somalia and Congo, which he terms “midsized” wars. Goldstein points out that the lethality of the two World Wars has distorted our historical memory; in fact, societies were exceptionally violent prior to the 19th century. Still, he argues that the complex downward trends he tracks are due principally to the influence of the UN and its peacekeeping endeavors. Thus, he presents a compact narrative of the UN’s post-WWII foundation and the unexpected influence of early leaders like Dag Hammarskjold, “the ideal of an independent, activist secretary-general” prior to his death in the field, as well as a lengthy examination of the organization’s clearest successes and failures. The UN’s first peacekeeping mission began in the Congo in 1960, in the chaotic aftermath of colonialism; since then, it has had both defused conflict successfully, as in Namibia and Cambodia, and suffered humiliating setbacks, as in Rwanda and Bosnia. Goldstein writes in an alert, clearly argumentative fashion, but barrages readers with long, somewhat repetitive chunks of analysis.

Optimistic, useful history of diplomacy as counterweight to brutality.


American University professor and international relations expert Goldstein argues that military conflicts are on the retreat globally. Using analysis and statistics, he rebuts the claim that the 20th century was among the bloodiest in human history, that civilian casualties in warfare have been increasing as a proportion of total casualties, along with violence against women, and that the number of wars being fought has been increasing since World War II. Goldstein contends that peace is a worthwhile objective for its own sake, even without other causes, such as social justice or economic reform. Goldstein reviews the history and development of U.N. peace keeping operations from their inception under Ralph Bunche and Count Bernadotte in Palestine, and while surveying the world’s ongoing armed struggles, he presents leading peace research institutes (such as the one in Uppsala, Sweden) and researchers (such as the late Randy Forsberg on nuclear weapons). In addition, he reveals the flawed nature of casualty estimates based on epidemiological models that were employed for the Congo and Iraq. The result is an optimistic, if controversial, assessment by a respected anti-war advocate.

GREGG EASTERBROOK blog — 12/1/11
This is the most important political book of the year. It deserves substantial attention and is worthy of awards. Goldstein, a professor emeritus at American University, shows in meticulous detail that Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are terrible exceptions to what is otherwise a trend of steady decline in incidence, intensity and severity of human combat. Cable news creates an impression of general carnage: yet with each passing year, nations and tribal groups harm each other less, both directly through war and indirectly through conflict. “Book trailers” are a mixed blessing; the trailer for “Winning the War on War” is worth watching.

Steven Pinker, a better-known writer, also published a book this autumn about the decline of violence. Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is also worth reading or giving. Pinker concentrates on the evolution of morality (how violence has gradually come to be seen as wrong), whereas Goldstein’s focus is politics (the policy choices that reduce conflict and prevent harm).

Either way, you should read both books. The decline of war and violence is the no. 1 overlooked story in the international media.

THE DUCK OF MINERVA blog — by R. Charli Carpenter — 6/6/11
Joshua Goldstein has a must-read book in press entitled Winning the War on War. I’ve seen the advance version and like many things about it, not least of which is the easy-reading style pitched at an informed lay audience, the way he begins with a thought experiment rather than with a bunch of statistics, then draws the reader through available scholarly research in an entertaining way to develop his argument.

The thought experiment: imagine you’re in a time machine moving backward from 2011 to prehistoric times, comparing a) the past ten years with the past twenty; b) the past twenty years with the previous twenty; c) the past fifty years with the previous fifty, d) the past century with the previous centuries and so on.

The argument: though the media and twittersphere often make it seem that the world is an unstable, dangerous place, we are in fact living through the longest and deepest period of peace in human history. According to the promo website: “Read the newspapers, and you’ll be convinced war is worse than it’s ever been: more civilian deaths, more rapes, more armed conflicts all around the world. But as leading scholar and writer Joshua Goldstein shows in this vivid, dramatic book, the reality is just the opposite…”

Part of the book shows this to be true, part of the book explains why it is true (with a heavy emphasis on the role of peacekeeping and peace-building missions worldwide). But my favorite part is where Goldstein explains why many people are so convinced it’s untrue.

In particular he breaks down a variety of socially constructed narratives about war and peace that have been promulgated by scholars, practitioners and the media over the years, including the statistic that 90% of war’s victims today are civilians, that the Congo war has killed 5.4 million people and that Congo is ground zero for the world’s worst sexual violence epidemic. (To quote Goldstein, “Not.”)

Joshua is also blogging nowadays and I urge readers to check out his posts. I expect the book will get lots of press and some critical reactions this Fall, and will be interested in readers’ thoughts as well.

Read Between the Lines blog / Carlyn Meyer August 16, 2011
Joshua Goldstein is professor emeritus of International Affairs, American University. If his new book, “Winning the War on War: the Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide” is as insightful as his current article in Foreign Policy, I’ll run to get to the bookstore first. Goldstein overturns seven conventional ‘wisdoms’ on war and peace starting with the false statements that the ‘world is a more violent’ place than it’s ever been, and war is ‘more brutal to civilians’.
. . .
I hope this book stirs all types of controversy. Goldstein’s thesis, that humankind may actually be progressing to an era in which war is passe, is based on facts, not idealism or grand philosophy. Yes, the assymetrical wars of late are frightening, but they don’t come close to the savage slaughters of WW1 and WW2.

I’ve been commenting a long time that cultural attitudes towards war and civilian deaths have undergone historical change. When in history have military operations been judged not just on how effective they were in killing the enemy, but how ‘surgical’ they were in not harming civilians? When have top generals apologized for civilian deaths? Professor Goldstein expands on this as a global trend and reflects how popular attitude 180 degrees opposite what it was when civilians accepted the destruction of London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagazaki as legitimate tactical moves in war strategy

This is a great achievement of mankind and should be celebrated as such. Of course, it’s not set in stone. But the revulsion of survivors of WW1 and WW2 and an opposition to the Vietnam War that brought about cultural revolutions throughout the West have had lasting impact. Despite attempts by neoconservatives to reverse the verdict on America’s disaster in Vietnam, so far they are failing. The opposition to the Vietnam war took many years to solidify during the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet, global opposition to the US invasion of Iraq preceded the invasion, and majority US opposition gelled within two years.

Mr. Goldstein’s point are especially provocative because they:

a) are made against a backdrop of seemingly endless war by the US

b) offer a plausible defense of unmanned drone attacks which should inform the ethic debate surrounding their use today; and

c) underscores the demagoguery of those war hawks peddling China as the next ‘enemy’ the US will face by noting that China has not shot a single bullet in military confrontation in 25 years and even with the ‘big naval build-up’ in the South China Sea, it’s defense budget is 1/9th of the US.

Foreign Affairs / G. John Ikenberry — Nov./Dec. 2011
Major states have not gone to war against one another since their guns fell silent in 1945, the longest great-power peace since the seventeenth century. Building on this observation, this book argues that war in general is on the decline. “More wars are ending than beginning, once ended they are less likely to restart, and the remaining wars are more localized than in the past,” Goldstein writes. This good news, he contends, is a result of the international community “doing something right” in trying to tame war. Following the UN’s lead, peacekeepers, diplomats, aid agencies, and international organizations routinely intervene in troubled countries. The book narrates a number of UN-sponsored efforts to deal with various armed conflicts — from the Suez crisis in 1956 and Congo in 1960–61 to post–Cold War UN peacekeeping failures and successes in countries such as Cambodia, Rwanda, and Somalia. The book works best as a portrait of the far-flung, underappreciated UN peacekeeping system as it has grown and evolved. But Goldstein does not provide a sustained explanation for why interstate war has declined. Neglecting to dig deeply into the changing sources of violence and insecurity, the book leaves its central puzzle unsolved.

I read a lot of popular nonfiction in other topics, but when it comes to international relations, I sometimes go for the more academic titles, which I then can never quite figure out how to blog about. Fortunately, Winning the War on War by Joshua Goldstein is firmly aimed at a popular audience, which means I can share my love for for international politics with all of you! I almost didn’t request this from Netgalley, because the title felt a bit neocon for my tastes, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only is Goldstein quite middle-of-the-road, politically speaking, but also that this book is actually about peacekeeping, with many chapters devoted to the UN and other international governmental organisations!

Goldstein didn’t lack for ambition, and the book opens with a (very) general overview of war statistics throughout history. That makes it sound dry, but it’s actually all very readable, as he slowly builds his evidence to show that a) the twentieth century was not actually the bloodiest one in history and b) the world is growing more and more peaceful. He then goes on to evaluate whether modern international community attempts at peacekeeping have been successful, through a variety of interesting case studies and a bit of UN history, during which he liberally quotes from the memoirs of various players and articles by other academics. So about the first half is a wonderful synthesis of war and peace around the globe, particularly in the Cold War and post-Cold War era. Of course, since he’s tackling so much information, there is not a ton of detail, but I think that’s actually better for popular nonfiction, and a reader can always go find more narrowly focused books on whatever topics interest her the most. So far, so good.

And then, the book suddenly veers off course into an awkward summing up of the US peace movement, from the nineteenth century through to today. This was by far the weakest chapter of the book: it felt a lot more ‘biased’ and extraneous to Goldstein’s primary focus. I began to get a bit cranky. Fortunately, after that chapter, he returns to firmer ground with a few more case studies and wraps everything up with conclusions on what kind of policy change could help us get to a more peaceful world even more quickly. Throughout, he’s careful to acknowledge that even a more generally peaceful world doesn’t mean much to those stuck in active war zones, and he occasionally looks specifically at women’s issues, although I do not think they’re his strongest suit.

All in all, I think this was a great book (an excellent one if you ignore the aberrant chapter), smart and engaging and willing to challenge general assumptions about war, peace, and those who involved in both. I can happily recommend it to everyone who enjoys popular nonfiction, particularly of the international relations variety, or those who just want to know more about what’s going on in conflicts around the world and get behind the headlines. While a book with such a broad focus obviously can’t get too in depth, he also kept this international relations nerd quite happy (as one might expect from an international relations professor at Columbia), for the most part, so I’d recommend it to those with a more academic background in the topic as well. I definitely want to read more of his backlist (ironically, one of his books is entitled War and Gender! I’m not sure I’ll start there)!

© 2011 Joshua S. Goldstein