Skip to main content

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW,  we are joined by Michael Collins, Executive Director, The Americas at the Institute for Economics & Peace. He highlights the 18th edition of the annual Global Peace Index (GPI), produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP).  The index is the world’s leading measure of peacefulness, and “reveals that the world is at a crossroads and without concerted effort, there is a risk of a surge in major conflicts.”



    Hello, I'm John Milewski, and this is Wilson Center NOW, a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Michael Collins. Michael is executive director Americas for the Institute for Economics and Peace. He joins us to discuss the newly released 18th edition of the Global Peace Index. Michael, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

    Thank you very much for having me, John. So we began our discussion a year ago about the 2020 report by talking about how peacefulness had declined to the lowest level of the century, measured by conflict. Yes. And that was a deterioration for the ninth straight year. I looked at the new report, and unfortunately, that trend continues. Yeah, very much so.

    So, I mean, there was sort of a record in conflict battle deaths back in 2022. That would have been the findings from the global from the 2023 report. We kind of sort of were very close to those overall battle deaths numbers in 2009, 23, the year after that. The only sort of real ominous thing here is beyond this sort of broader outbreak of conflict that we see around the world.

    The report on the index this year is that if we take into account the first four months of this year in particular, we're probably going to be hitting that record a battle that's again in 2023, 2014. So provide us with a refresher, if you would, Michael. What are some of the things that you measure to come up with the the grade for each nation?

    So the global Peace index provides a measure of essentially what we call negative peace based on the absence of violence or fear of violence. So we kind of sort of throw those things into three buckets. The conflict domain is key. And obviously what you sort of most habitually see in the in the headlines, things like battle deaths, number of conflicts, etc., internal measures related to safety and security.

    Now, that can be anything related to homicide, violent crime, political instability, for example, and then elements related to militarization as well. Now, you know, each and every one of these things can become critical at different stages. But the premise of something like the global Peace index index, beyond being sort of a compendium of peace and conflict research, is to provide this composite score.

    We would consider peaceful countries to be countries that have the lowest score across all of these domains and these 23 indicators in particular. And if you could speak to us also about the scope or the breadth of the of the survey you're covering, most of the world's population. Yes. So it covers 163 countries around the world. That is over 99% of the world's population.

    We aren't able to cover some very small some small countries. And therein lies the challenge to a degree. You know, although in some countries there's a lot of data, a lot of granular data, as soon as you try and sort of broaden this out and cover a lot of countries, you're very limited to the actual data that you have available.

    So that isn't a challenge in itself. Now, how long even is that data collection? Very, very much so. I mean, you know, not only do you have different capacities when it comes to things like national statistics offices, so oftentimes we have to rely on external or third party data as well. But but also even in simple things like definitions of particular terms, whether that be the term of terrorism or the term of homicide or the term or the, you know, military expenditure for that matter, counted in very different ways, defined in different ways, and again, different capacities to actually count in the first place.

    So an ongoing challenge, let's say using Ukraine as a as a case study, Michael, you know, we see wildly divergent numbers on the number of deaths of Russian troops or Ukrainian troops, depending on who you're listening to. How do you thread the needle on that? How do you decide where to place your your cursor? Yeah, I mean, that's a very good example somewhere where you would think with all of the technology we have available, you would have very clear numbers around around that in particular.

    Right. Especially with participation from Russia and so forth. I mean, I don't discard that Some of those nasha some of those numbers are deliberately sort of kept opaque by the participating parties or otherwise and otherwise exaggerated potential by others. For us, it's about finding the middle ground, seeing about generally what is reported on on, on the most. We try and touch the existing data that we have and the additional, you know, the streams that we have as little as we as we possibly can.

    So we focus very much on finding the most reliable and universally accepted data set. So for example, for the particular conflict related aspects, we use stuff from the the CDP, which is the obsolete conflict data program. So, you know, we talked about already the fact that this is another year of decline. And if you look at the larger trend lines, the 12th deterioration and peacefulness in the last six years and the gap between the most and least peaceful countries in the world now wider than it's been at any point in the last six years.

    Does the data create any patterns that give us a hint as to why this is happening? You know, I think of things like the end of the Cold War and the artificial order that that projected onto the world and the pandemic and all these X factors that have come into play, the rise of social media and all of the chaos that that has created.

    Are there things that you can point to with some certainty and say, this is what's happening, this is why we're at less peaceful? That's why the trend lines are moving in this direction? Yeah, and we'd like to contend that that is one of the main value adds of something like the Global Peace Index that kind of provides you sort of the ability to throw things against it and see what sticks.

    We've got this parallel line of research called Positive Peace and a parallel report, the sister report of the Global Peace Index, which focuses on a lot of the long term socioeconomic component, socioeconomic components that create and sustain peacefulness, but perhaps more from a geopolitical perspective, which is what I think you were perhaps referring to. Yes. I mean, we definitely sort of see this this change in the geopolitical landscape, primarily this transition from what was very much a sort of a unipolar world led by the United States to one that has become a lot more mixed with a lot more kind of sort of traditionally middle income powers vying for geopolitical influence and regional influence as

    well. Very much sort of muddying the the the the waters. It's not a criticism, rather it's just a reality. Right. And the need for any individual countries to defend their interests. So, you know, my question sort of suggested a generalization about trends that are happening almost universally, but I know your positive peace approach looks at each individual country and looks at things like the strengths of institution institutions.

    Dig a little deeper on that. Tell us what this positive peace formula looks like and what are the measures that indicate whether a country is less stable or more stable? Yeah, delighted to, John, but actually I'd perhaps like to first go back to that that that question that you asked about those overall trends, because there's a couple of interesting dynamics specifically related to the conflict element that, yes, we have reported we continue to see this gradual increase of conflict around the world.

    You know, currently conflicts in over 56 countries around the world, over 92 countries participated last year in an in an external conflict. In other words, participated in a conflict in another country either in direct support of the government or alternatively the non the non-state actor vying for power. We have generally, you know, over the last years in improvements in this middle domain, the safety and security domain.

    But as a trend, also a slight deterioration over that time, those two trends have deteriorated. That third sort of domain on militarization, you know, historically for the last 15 years had actually been improving. Right. Countries have become less and less militarized. That is definitely a trend that we that we have seen has has paused and is very much reversing over these last couple of years, you know, very much in response to the overall increase in conflict, of course.

    But it is a distinct departure from what we had seen prior as a trend. Every single militarization domain deteriorated in the global peace index last year, over 100 countries became more more militarized. 23 out of the 36 European countries increased military expenditure and a lot of other countries to boot. I'm touching very quickly on the positive piece and again, very happy to, of course, sort of delve into that, although perhaps surprisingly we didn't talk a lot about it in the global Peace index this year.

    We run a lot of statistical analysis to be able to better understand what creates a sustained peacefulness. And and to your point, you know, well functioning government and the effectiveness of institutions is critical to that. And, you know, in many ways, the global the findings from the global peace index in terms of listing of countries mirrors that. What we would see on positive peace.

    But there's a few interesting dynamics. So a particular country could have what we call a positive peace deficit. And you're forcing me to to to pick on a country here, let's say Equatorial Guinea. So Equatorial Guinea is currently ranked from memory somewhere around the mid-table of the global peace index, but it has a positive peace deficit. All of the socioeconomic and attitudinal cultural factors currently in Equatorial Guinea have been deteriorating over the last few years, and it's ranked in the positive peace reports significantly lower than it is in the global Peace Index, indicating a deterioration in peacefulness in future.

    80% of the countries that had a positive peace deficit in 2009 and 2009 have deteriorated significantly and peaceful in this sense. So going back, I want to go back to the militarization increase that you described. Is that largely driven by technology? In other words, I see some indication in the report that in some cases the number of soldiers has declined, but the number of drones has increased.

    Is this a technological phenomenon? So generally. Generally, yes. I mean, I'm sure that there's a there's a whole lot of kind of sort of elements. And and you mentioned social media before and the ability of the individual citizen to be able to either be more informed or be able to be more responsive to crises at home or alternatively, complaints related to a crisis on board.

    So I don't discard that. But in particular, in this year's Global Peace Index, we talk about asymmetric warfare and the fact that technology has enabled non-state actors which would have traditionally struggled with a much larger state military to be a lot more responsive, a lot more proactive, and a lot more aggressive as well. So the number of of drone usage has increased exponentially over the last couple of years or over 5000 drone attacks last year.

    And that use has increased both by both by state actors as well as non-state actors as well. Long story short, non-state actors, much smaller actors are now operating on a level playing field. Again, very much muddying the waters and reducing the likelihood the conflict is going to be resolved in the near future. A classic criticism of media is that we tend to be a bit myopic and unable to focus on more than one major story at a time.

    And right now, when we think about conflict, certainly the world has been focused on Ukraine, on Gaza and Israel. But looking at the report, Yemen, the least peaceful country in the world, followed by Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Ukraine doesn't show up till number five on that list. I think there's a real value in your report in reminding people that there are conflicts happening that are under the radar as it relates to press coverage.

    Yes, absolutely. And, you know, the global peace index is great because it provides us the hook to be able to to to talk about peace. But, of course, everyone has this tendency to go to where the major conflict is. And that and that's fine, too. That definitely serves a purpose. But to your point, John, absolutely. A lot of forgotten conflicts out there, a lot of unresolved conflicts.

    Mali, you know, Colombia, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, now the epicenter of terrorism worldwide, for example. Even things that we wouldn't have naturally, you know, naturally thought of us as countries in conflict. You know, such is the case of Mexico and Brazil, for example. Right. The violence, as it pertains to, you know, fights between the state and criminal gangs or criminal gangs between each other also are so large that they actually account for conflicts, conflict as well.

    Yeah, you mentioned Mexico. I mean, relatively speaking, North America is still relatively peaceful, but it also recorded the largest average deterioration of any of the regions that jumped out at me as a surprising finding. Yeah. So actually, I mean, all countries, all regions deteriorated in the global peace index last year by one. Perhaps surprisingly, Russia and Eurasia improved.

    That's the name of the region rather than the country. So just to clarify, both Russia and Ukraine deteriorated in peacefulness, but there were sort of broader improvements in most of the sort of the stand the stand countries that kind of sort of raised that overall average. North America is always a bit of a sort of a blip in the data because it's made up of basically two countries, Canada and the United States.

    Canada is, you know, pretty peaceful and has been for quite some time, currently ranked 12th or 13th. The United States doesn't do as favorably in the global peace index, but both of these countries deteriorated in peacefulness last year, primarily due to perceptions of criminality. You know, let's look at the flip side. Europe, the most peaceful region in the world, home to eight of the ten most peaceful countries, Norway at the top of that list.

    Well, what is it about Europe that makes it so? And I mean, if you look at the news, we've seen lots of problems, whether it's the migration crisis, whether it's the threat posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine to NATO, and yet it remains the most peaceful region, generally speaking, on the planet. Yeah, I mean, a couple of nuances there, John.

    You know, number one, I've noted and this is perhaps bit more of a personal reflection that the Scandinavian countries are perhaps not performing as they want, as well as they once had in something like the global Peace Index, with the obvious exceptions. But, you know, and also with the existing indicators, if you take in Europe back in the Second World War, obviously it would have been one of the least peaceful regions in the world.

    So hopefully this serves as a bit of a testament that we're looking at this from sort of a moral or an ethical perspective, rather a very practical one, I'd say. I Excuse me. I'm sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. No, no, Please continue. Well, I mean, the reason I'm making that point, I suppose, is that the peacefulness in Europe has been very hard fought.

    And perhaps there is still a very vivid memory of, you know, what a world in conflict still, still looks like. Obviously, that applies to the United States as well to to a degree. But but I think that, you know, there are a lot of elements that have kind of sort of contributed to and perhaps, you know, including, you know, the European idea and the European Union contributing to all of this, you know, resilience that's critical to be able to sustain peace.

    So you're right. For example, about the migration crisis back in 2015, 2016, and we saw through the data, for example, an increase in violent demonstrations, an increase in political instability correlating with that sort of asylum crisis at the time. But nonetheless, you know, Europe having these high measures of positive pace, high measures of resilience, was able to kind of sort of, you know, withstand and adjust to that particular crisis.

    It by no means discards that in Europe or anywhere else in the future. But it does speak to some of that underlying resilience that's capable of creating sustaining peace. I was involved, Michael, in our recent discussion on climate change, where one of the participants was making the point that we're living in a world that was built for a different climate and that the climate has changed in a way where we're not even close to keeping up, whether it comes with building codes, strategies or coastal development, whatever the case may be.

    I'm wondering one of the things that the report stresses is the nature of conflict and how it's changing. I'm wondering if we can apply a similar model to this. Are those who would promote peace and work toward peace, are they working on the right model or have things changed so rapidly that the nature of conflict itself needs to be rethought before we even kind of begin applying attempts to create more peace?

    That's a kind of a convoluted question. I hope it makes sense. No, no, we can I mean, I think there's two ways we can take it, perhaps starting with sort of the climate change component. There's a parallel report or similar report that we've been producing for five years now called the Ecological Threat Report, and that very much looks into changing ecological, you know, ecological changes, related food security, water stress, rapid population growth as well as well as natural disasters.

    And of course, all of these can and often are exacerbated by by climate change. Some of our most recent research really points to what we call these transition zones. Right. And this can be places that have been traditionally, you know, luscious and are now becoming arid or alternatively, the opposite is also true. Countries that had been arid that are now becoming luscious in either circumstance.

    You have this competition for resources that that drives conflict. So we do see a very close correlation and we very much make the case when the that this report comes around annually that as and when we see more levels of ecological degradation, we do see an increased can expect to see an increase in conflict. And therefore to your second point, adaptation is absolutely key, especially in what we consider to be these transition zones, whether we're we're behind the ball on on, you know, the same question from a peacebuilding perspective, evidently.

    Yes, I think so. Otherwise, we'd be responding in much better ways than than just rearming ourselves to the teeth. So I definitely think that there needs to be, you know, I mean, it's justified and it's logical and there is a place and time for a very strong rule of law component. And dare I say, it is critical to then be able to establish the basis to create resilience.

    I'm not discarding that anyway. But time and time again, until today, we have failed in being able to sort of, you know, take that next step and not end up with with, you know, with the Afghanistan of not not picking on Afghanistan, but, you know, perhaps picking on the opposite, which is our aim to try and, you know, create peace where we're using systems that wouldn't be applicable to the context.

    So when we think in terms of solutions, are actionable ideas. What is your best hope as far as the utility of the index for people who are making decisions, policymakers, what can they what do you think are the most powerful takeaways for them that they could actually act upon? We're delighted that people and multilateral organizations and governments use research and we couldn't be more honored.

    We're delighted and particularly that they use the global peace index. But often times by the time you're using the global Peace Index to identify the next crisis, it's kind of too late. So we definitely like to leverage positive peace as a way to be able to enhance that conflict prevention window and to be able to help drive this narrative around the benefits of integrated program into an integrated development programing with an eye to preventing conflict, leveraging data as feasible to be able to sort of generate that connection.

    Unfortunately, it continues to be unpopular until today. Number one, people have and must respond to ongoing crisis, of course. And number two, people when I say people, I mean everyone, institutions, bodies and so on and so forth. Same challenges here in the United Nations, in New York. It's very difficult to be able to to garner consensus around, you know, an investment in a country that is not currently in conflict just because it may be in conflict sometime in the future.

    So you've been very kind to answer my questions based on my reading of the report. What haven't we talked about that you think is worth mentioning? That is also in this year's index. So one of the things that we touch on is we're starting to leverage to the degree that we can artificially intelligence and machine and machine learning.

    There's still a lot of questions from a data perspective. For example, sentiment analysis, although we use it to a degree, continues to be quite error prone in our view. But, you know, we are increasingly using machine learning productively. There's a specific section on militarization in this year's report overall, although we've seen a reduction in the number of armed services personnel.


    For example, one of the challenges both in past material and material more broadly, is that the militarization capacity is as always counted in terms of volume. How many soldiers do we have? How many airplanes do we have, How many naval vessels do we have? By using machine learning, we're better able to establish the difference in military capacity, the difference between a third and fourth generation aircraft, for example.

    So couple of kind of sort of points related to that in the index. Number one, overall militarization capacity has increased over 10% over the last decade. Number two, the US seems to retain that overall margin in terms of military capacity, but perhaps not surprisingly, but certainly of note is this rapid increase of military capacity of China, who is very much, you know, still behind the US, but increasing military capacity very quickly.

    Want to ask you an under the hood question before we close, which the process is. It is the 2024 or is this the research in this year already underway for next year's index? Yes, it is. In fact, the you know, these kinds of briefings, these kinds of of discussions and back and forth are absolutely critical to inform future reports, John.

    So I can appreciate the opportunity more. It always helps us point the research to new areas. We already have a few ideas in place. We collect data all the way until basically March of next year to be able to produce the global Peace index. So I'd like to think that we're one of the people who can turn around that data within the shortest possible period.

    I mean, we have been doing it for over 15 years now. So, you know, there's a sort of a certain streamlining there. But it is it is still very much a yearlong effort that we start the moment that we finalize the previous report. It's like a political campaign. After the voting ends, you just start gearing up for the next year to start painting the vigil ever again.

    That's right. Well, it's a terrific it's a terrific tool. It's really useful. And I'm glad that we have this association between your organization and ours so that we get an opportunity to talk about it and look forward to doing so again in the future when the next index comes out of keeping our fingers crossed that there might be some positive trends in play as well.

    I can't wait to come to you with better news. John. Okay. Well, thank you. Our guests have been Mike. I should also just for the sake of those watching and listening, where can they find the index? So the global peace index is readily available for free on line economics and peace dot org or alternatively, a public portal vision of humanity.

    Dot org. Quick additional segway there there is an interactive map. You can go, you can click on any country. It will give you a readout of all of the all of the indicators. You can even go back 15 years if you want. Yeah, I've been playing around with it most of the day in preparation for our interview and it's a terrific resource.

    Michael Collins, thanks for joining us. Thank you very much for having me, John. Take care. Bye bye. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski, Thanks for your time and interest.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more