Counting the most peaceful countries – and the least

How do you recognise how peaceful countries are and systematically compare them to each other? And how do you work out what makes countries peaceful? And if we all knew the answers to these questions would we be more able to make the world more peaceful? Figuring the answer to the third question is yes, the Global Peace Index tries to answer the first two. It is now published for the third successive year.

 The effort was initiated by an Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist, Steve Killelea. He contracted the Economist Intelligence Unit to provide and crunch the data. And a team of advisers debates and refines the definitions, and decides what data are relevant and how to rank the various factors (I’ve been one of those advisers for these first three editions).

If you take a look at the Index and disagree strongly with where various countries are placed, the response from Steve Killelea and the advisory group would be, ‘Good. Let’s argue this through.’  The point of the Global Peace Index is not to settle anything once and for all but to get the discussions going. 

GPI rankings

There are 144countries in the GPI. And the results are:

Top ten most peaceful (from 1-10): New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Austria, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Finland, Slovenia. Peaceful as they are, Scandinavians can be pretty competitive so let it be noted that Denmark and Norway are joint second with exactly the same index score.

Bottom ten least peaceful (from 144 to 134): Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Pakistan, Russia, Zimbabwe. With Georgia just marginally more peaceful than Zimbabwe.

Given the political stability and range of freedoms in small, prosperous countries, most of the 10 most peaceful are not surprising. In historical perspective the two surprises are Japan (populous, wealthy and with an imperial past, not unlike another densely populated island state I can think of) and Slovenia, which separated fromYugoslavia only in 1991 and is one of the recent entrants to the European Union. Western Europe is by a long way the most peaceful region – most of the top 20 are EU members and most EU members are in the top 20.  

But EU membership does not guarantee a place at the top peace peace table. Some way off the top, there is France, a founder EU member, in 30th place with Britain in 35th, well behind, for example, Chile in 20th and Malaysia in 26th. And perhaps it’s even more interesting when you look at the US in 83rd compared to, say, Cuba in 68th and Serbia in 78th.

On the negative side, the ten least peaceful are not particularly surprising but, again, move away from the worst cases and it should make you ponder and perhaps worry to see South Africa at 123, India at 122 and Turkey at 121.

But what are these rankings based on?

Early on, the GPI team agreed it needed to look at both internal and external factors. Measuring the degree to which a country is peaceful is surely a result of calculating the extent to which its citizens live in peace with each other and the extent to which they live in peace with neighbouring countries and other countries around the world. So the internal social realities and external political behaviour are both of interest.

But are they equally of interest? As the explanatory text in the presentation of the GPI politely puts it, this was the subject of robust debate among the group of advisers. The conclusion was to tip the balance slightly in favour of internal peace: 60 per cent of the GPI score derives from internal factors and 40 per cent from external. The argument in the end was simple, and I remember it as a re-statement that, whatever it is, it begins at home (charity, peace etc). That is, the domestic base influences the international posture and actions more than the international level influences the domestic.

Two things then remain: identify the factors in the internal and external domains and figure out how to express them quantitatively. The presentation of the GPI is wholly transparent about this. There is a list of 23 indicators, covering criminality, size of police forces, availability of weapons in society, levels of conflict of various kinds, political stability, human rights, size of the military, support for UN peace operations, arms trade and industry, external relations and wars. Most of these are hard numbers; that doesn’t mean they are always right, of course, because of inevitable and irreducible data problems in many countries, but the figures used as the basis for the GPI are the best available. Some of the indicators are estimates of perceptions and are therefore necessarily soft, but those are the ones that the advisory group gets its teeth into with greatest gusto so they have been subjected to detailed scrutiny.

Every indicator has its own individual weighting, which taken together add up to the agreed 60 for internal and 40 for external, and once these have been settled and the data have been checked and entered, somebody pushes a button and out comes an index.

Are they valid?

The GPI represents an intelligent, well informed, intellectually subtle effort to make systematic comparisons in response to some important questions. Nobody’s claiming it’s the vessel of absolute truth. The results open discussion rather than settling matters. To me they make sense.

Emerging trends?

The GPI team is beginning to track changes year on year. At the moment, it would be a claim too far to say clear trends are emerging. But the changes are again interesting. Bosnia-Herzegovina, torn apart by war from 1992 to 1995 is one of the biggest risers since last year, its peace ranking improving by 23 places. It still ranks at 50, but (see above) that’s well ahead of the US and not far behind the UK. And Angola and Congo (capital Brazzaville, not the Democratic Republic of Congo whose capital is Kinshasa) recorded rises of respectively 16 and 15 rank places. Though both countries remain unstable in many ways, these improvements, like Bosnia-Herzegovina’s, can be seen as reflecting provisional achievements in the long process of building peace.

Among the big falls in peacefulness are those of Madagascar, due to political instability and coup, and Latvia, which slipped 16 places to 54th because of instability under the impact of the international economic crisis. When you think that Iceland’s government was, like Latvia’s, forced out because of the economic crunch, yet Iceland remains among the most peaceful, it becomes clear that what distinguishes peaceful and less peaceful countries from each other is not whether they have conflicts but how they handle them.

Drivers of peace and conflict

The GPI team has a secondary set of 33 indicators that do not measure a country’s peacefulness but are factors – such as democracy, international openness, demography, education, material well-being and others – that might explain it. This is a continuing enterprise. The GPI drivers of peace contribute to a well-established academic debate. No single factor is going to carry the whole burden of explaining why a country is peaceful, just as no single factor explains why and when a country gets involved in war. Everything is the result of interactions between the different variables and that is particularly hard to measure.

But these continuing discussions are suggestive. The GPI presentation notes that several measures deteriorated quite significantly at the end of 2008 as the world economy went into crisis. How this plays out this year and next will do a lot to determine whether gains in world peace since the end of the Cold War will be sustained or lost.

Talking peace

Most of the time when we talk about the prospects for world peace, we quickly move to talking about conflict, violence and horrors of various kinds. It is genuinely news to many people that there are far fewer wars today than during the Cold War, and not much more than half as many as there were during the spike in warfare in the early 1990s immediately after the Cold War ended. When we want to discuss the prospects for peace, the Global Peace Index helps us find a way to talk about peace for a change.

5 thoughts on “Counting the most peaceful countries – and the least

  1. How relevant is any of this?
    Small, isolated, homogeneous countries with few foreign policies are easier to manage peacefully. Big surprise.

    Meanwhile, a country in which all the violations of rights and brutalization have been institutionalized, like ARABIA, counts as peaceful? While a place like the US where women and minorities have equal rights counts as not peaceful?

    Something profound is being lost between the definitions of peace as an absence of war,
    and of true peaceful coexistence as a state of society.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Yigal. Actually there are plenty of small countries with “few foreign policies” that rank very low on the GPI; if you want to pigeon-hole Norway and the like, you should probably remember that they are rich small countries! But it’s worth also noting that they are countries that are much more managed by the people than many others.

    On the contrast you make with the US, I am not sure which country you mean – perhaps all Arab countries, or else presumably Saudi Arabia? In fact the GPI ranks it at 104, which is 21 places lower (i.e., less peaceful) than the US. That probably reflects factors that you refer to. Meanwhile, the US has made great progress in some parts on some indicators such as gender equality, but also has great inequalities, two active wars, and much violent crime.

    Far from this showing that the GPI is missing something profound about the difference between peace and non-war, I think this shows how right on the mark it is.

    Arguable? Always! But interesting too.

  3. Switzerland :Number of external and internal conflicts fought : 1. loooool

    Really ? This is a nonsense. Switzerland is one of the few peacefull direct democracy (700 years old).

    This survey is just ridiculous.

  4. That’s a bit of a misunderstanding, I’m afraid Fred. As it says in the methodology section, all quantitative indicators (e.g., numbers of wars fought) are grouped in ten bands – 1 is the lowest and 10 the highest. So the figure “1” beside “number of internal and externalk conflicts” does not mean Switzerland has fought one. It means it is among those countries who have fought the least – i.e., not at all.

    So actually the survey is not nonsense but the way it’s presented is confusing. Thanks for letting me see that. I will pass it on to the GPI team.

  5. hi its very proud to now that INDIA is not listed in the list of least peaceful country regards lucky

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