This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: de Groot, O. J., Bozzoli, C., Alamir, A., & Brück, T. (2022). The global economic burden of violent conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 59(2), 259-276.
- War is expensive and destructive, affecting long-term economic growth through population changes, fewer investments, and worsening educational outcomes.
- Global gross domestic product (GDP) would have been 12% higher on average if there had been no violent conflict since 1970.
- Developed economies in North America, Europe, and Oceania have benefited economically from participating in violent conflict.
- Asian countries suffered the worst economic consequences from conflict, with Iraq and Afghanistan topping the list of countries that would have most benefited economically from the absence of violent conflict since 1970.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- The military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) is central to understanding why some countries economically benefit from warfare. Peacebuilding organizations can work on challenging the “legitimizing logics” of violence to counter the appeal of the MICC and foster more robust support for peacebuilding initiatives.
War is expensive and destructive, affecting long-term economic growth of a country through population changes, fewer investments, and worsened educational outcomes. What is the global economic burden of violent conflict when considering the total impact of all wars? Olaf J. de Groot, Carlos Bozzoli, Anousheh Alamir, and Tilman Brück estimate the average economic impact of violent conflicts by comparing the observed (with conflict) and hypothetical (without conflict) gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate in 190 countries from 1970 to 2014. Their analysis also measures the economic effect of three types of violent conflict (civil, interstate, and non-territorial), conflict intensity, and how violent conflict affects neighboring countries.
|Gross domestic product
|the total value of goods or services produced in a country during one year.
|a violent conflict “between a state and non-state actor.”
|a violent conflict “between two states.”
|“a civil or interstate conflict taking place entirely on foreign territory (from the perspective of one of the conflict parties).
Their results confirm the devasting economic consequences of war. Overall, they find that global GDP would have been 12% higher on average if there had been no violent conflict since 1970. Civil conflict has a more significant effect on the global GDP growth rate. Ongoing civil and international conflicts negatively affect growth, especially as conflict becomes more violent. Yet, they also find evidence for the so-called “phoenix effect” where conflict-affected countries regain expected levels of economic output in the years following violent conflict (observed over a period of ten years following the end of conflict).
Importantly, their analysis also reveals circumstances where countries economically benefit from participation in violence, depending on where the conflict takes place and who is involved. Violent conflicts negatively affect growth in neighboring countries when conflict spills over borders, but neighboring countries’ economies grow when they take part in conflicts outside of their territory. When looking at global and regional dynamics, “developing countries were economically harmed by conflict, while most high-income countries benefited from their participation in mainly non-territorial conflicts.” Asian countries suffered the worst economic consequences from violent conflict. The chart below lists the top five “countries that would benefit the most from the absence of conflict since 1970,” by the hypothetical increase in GDP growth over the observed 1970- 2014 timeframe that they would have experienced had there been no violent conflict.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Developed economies in North America, Europe, and Oceania economically benefited from their participation in violence. If there had been no violent conflict since 1970, the authors estimate that North America would have lost 0.9 trillion in GDP. The authors suggest that the economic benefit from violent conflict that some countries receive helps “explain not only the persistence of conflict but also the increasing trend in internationalized internal conflict.”
The authors refer to violent conflict as a “global public bad” comparable to climate change or pandemics. They compare the economic burden of global public bads (violent conflict, climate change, disease), finding that “the global burden of violent conflict [is] lower than that of climate change…but higher than non-communicable diseases.” They call for policies and interventions that shorten the duration of violent conflict, namely through investment in peacebuilding. Further, the authors also recommend significant investment in post-conflict reconstruction to minimize the long-term economic burden of conflict.
The military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) is central to understanding why there is an observed economic benefit in developed economies that participate in violent conflict outside of their borders. The MICC is a powerful system that strongly influences decisions to go to war through, for example, the deep integration of arms manufacturing in the national economy or the revolving door between lawmakers and weapons lobbyists. War-making is at the core of U.S. history. According to anthropologist David Vine, the U.S. has been “locked in a state of nearly continuous war that has largely served the economic and political interests of elites and left tens of millions dead, wounded, and displaced.”1 It is particularly telling that this research identified Iraq and Afghanistan—where the U.S. government ran decades-long military campaigns in recent memory—as the top two countries that would have benefited the most economically from an absence of violent conflict.
|Military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC):
|“Might be viewed as an insulated war-promoting configuration comprised of the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Armed Forces; industry, the corporations that develop and sell goods and services to the U.S. and allied governments; and the U.S. Congress, which implements policies and authorizes the funding for the Pentagon.” The term was coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in is famous 1961 farewell address where he warned about the military-industrial-congressional triangle.
(Sorensen, C. (2020). Understanding the war industry. Clarity Press, Inc.)
In the larger context of violence, how is it possible to advance peacebuilding and the many alternatives to violence amid these self-reinforcing political-economic structures that bolster war-making? How can peacebuilders work in an inherently violent system? Research by Gearoid Millar examines how peacebuilding efforts “always take place within—and are deeply constrained by—the global conflict system, whereby violence and peace coexist and mutually reinforce one another both within and between countries, privileging the few (‘at peace’) at the expense of the many.” The response is to build “trans-scalar peace system” that dismantles the global conflict system. Millar identifies four steps to create a trans-scalar peace system:
- Engage with more diverse stakeholders in order to “under[stand] alternative logics on the ground,” and decenter “peace industry institutions and…norms.”
- Challenge “legitimating logics” of the global conflict system.
- “’[R]edefine what is acceptable in the design, funding, incentivization and administration of peacebuilding practice,’ based on an understanding of how peacebuilding projects can exacerbate indirect violence due to unintended, emergent properties of the system.”
- Downsize peacebuilding projects and hand over “decision making and implementation to local actors.”
Beyond efforts to transform the “war economy to a green economy,” which would weaken the economic benefit some countries reap from war, challenging the “legitimating logics” of the global conflict system cuts at the core of the MICC. Many peacebuilding organizations avoid directly addressing how militarization weakens support for their work—through disproportionate government spending on war vs. peace or discourse that predisposes the public to take a “peace through strength” lens in viewing conflict. There are small, incremental ways that peacebuilding organizations can start challenging “legitimating logics” that uphold a global violent system. For example, peacebuilding organizations can begin using accurate language to describe war following the recommendations from Words About War Matter. Their language guide identifies how popular discourse employs sanitized and dehumanizing language to describe war so as to obscure the true nature of warfare. For example, “collateral damage” is a bloodless way to describe killing civilians. Providing honest and accurate depictions of violence can affect public attitudes and support for war and create opportunities for alternatives to violence to appear feasible in public awareness. [KC]
Vine, D. (2020). The United States of War. University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520385689/the-united-states-of-war
Pemberton, M. (2022). Six stops on the national security tour: Rethinking warfare economies. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Six-Stops-on-the-National-Security-Tour-Rethinking-Warfare-Economies/Pemberton/p/book/9780367257675
Words About War Matter. (2023). A language guide for discussing war and foreign policy. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from https://www.wordsaboutwar.org/uploads/5/7/1/7/57170837/words_about_war_matter_language_guide_short_version_2023.pdf
Peace Science Digest. (2020). Peacebuilding within a global conflict system. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/peacebuilding-within-a-global-conflict-system/
Peace Science Digest. (2020). Special issue: Local, national, and international peacebuilding. Retrieved November 13, 2023, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/special-issue-local-national-and-international-peacebuilding/
Institute for Policy Studies: https://ips-dc.org/
Peace Direct: https://www.peacedirect.org/
Center for International Policy: https://www.internationalpolicy.org
Costs of War Project, Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/
Key Words: demilitarizing security, war, militarization, military-industrial-congressional complex