What the Global Peace Index Does and Does Not Measure

For years I’ve appreciated the Global Peace Index (GPI), and interviewed the people who make it, but quibbled with exactly what it does. I’ve just read Peace in the Age of Chaos by Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace, which created the GPI. I think it’s important that we understand what the GPI does and does not do, so that we can use it, and not use it, in appropriate ways. There’s a great deal it can do, if we’re not expecting it to do something it isn’t meant to. In understanding this, Killelea’s book is helpful.

When the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for being a peaceful place to live, regardless of its being a major exporter of weapons, a major participant in wars elsewhere, and a major cause of systemic failures that lead to a lack of peace elsewhere, European nations also ranked high in the GPI. In Chapter 1 of his book, Killelea compares the peacefulness of Norway with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, based on rates of homicides within those countries, with no mention of weapons exports or support for wars abroad.

Killelea states repeatedly that nations should have militaries and should wage wars, specifically the wars that cannot be avoided (whichever those are): “I believe some wars must be fought. The Gulf War, the Korean War and the Timor-Leste peacekeeping operation are good examples, but if wars can be avoided then they should be.” (Don’t ask me how it could possibly be believed that those wars could not have been avoided. Note that national funding of UN peacekeeping is one of the factors used to create the GPI [see below], presumably [this isn’t made explicit] a positive, rather than a negative factor. Note also that some of the factors making up the GPI give a country a better score the more it reduces war preparations, even though Killelea thinks we should have some wars — which could be one reason that these factors are weighted lightly and combined with many other factors about which Killelea does not have such mixed views.)

The GPI measures 23 things. Saving those most directly related to war, especially foreign war, for last, the list runs like this:

  1. Level of perceived criminality in society. (Why perceived?)
  2. Number of refugees and internally displaced people as a percentage of the population. (Relevance?)
  3. Political instability.
  4. Political Terror Scale. (This seems to measure state-sanctioned killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment, not counting any of those things done abroad or with drones or at secret offshore sites.)
  5. Impact of terrorism.
  6. Number of homicides per 100,000 people.
  7. Level of violent crime.
  8. Violent demonstrations.
  9. Number of jailed population per 100,000 people.
  10. Number of internal security officers and police per 100,000 people.
  11. Ease of access to small arms and light weapons.
  12. Financial contribution to UN peacekeeping missions.
  13. Number and duration of internal conflicts.
  14. Number of deaths from internal organised conflict.
  15. Intensity of organised internal conflict.
  16. Relations with neighbouring countries.
  17. Military expenditure as a percentage of GDP. (Failure to measure this in absolute terms greatly boosts the “peace” score of wealthy countries. Failure to measure it per capita detracts from the relevance to people.)
  18. Number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people. (Failure to measure this in absolute terms greatly boosts the “peace” score of populous countries.)
  19. Nuclear and heavy weapons capabilities.
  20. Volume of transfers of major conventional weapons as recipient (imports) per 100,000 people. (Failure to measure this in absolute terms greatly boosts the “peace” score of populous countries.)
  21. Volume of transfers of major conventional weapons as supplier (exports) per 100,000 people. (Failure to measure this in absolute terms greatly boosts the “peace” score of populous countries.)
  22. Number, duration and role in external conflicts.
  23. Number of deaths from external organised conflict. (It seems to mean number of deaths of people from back home, so that a massive bombing campaign could include zero deaths.)

The GPI says that it uses these factors to calculate two things:

“1. A measure of how internally peaceful a country is; 2. A measure of how externally peaceful a country is (its state of peace beyond its borders). The overall composite score and index was then formulated by applying a weight of 60 per cent to the measure of internal peace and 40 per cent to external peace. The heavier weight applied to internal peace was agreed upon by the advisory panel, following robust debate. The decision was based on the notion that a greater level of internal peace is likely to lead to, or at least correlate with, lower external conflict. The weights have been reviewed by the advisory panel prior to the compilation of each edition of the GPI.”

It’s worth noticing here the odd logic of putting a thumb on the scale for factor A precisely on the grounds that factor A correlates with factor B. Of course, it is true and important that peacefulness domestically is likely to boost peacefulness abroad, but also true and important that peacefulness abroad is likely to boost peacefulness at home. These facts don’t necessarily explain the extra weight given to domestic factors. A better explanation might have been that for many countries most of what they do and spend money on is domestic. But for a country like the United States, that explanation collapses. A less worthy explanation might have been that this weighting of factors benefits wealthy weapons dealing countries that fight their wars far from home. Or, again, the explanation may lie in Killelea’s desire for the proper amount and type of war making rather than its elimination.

The GPI gives these weights to particular factors:

INTERNAL PEACE (60%):
Perceptions of criminality 3
Security officers and police rate 3
Homicide rate 4
Incarceration rate 3
Access to small arms 3
Intensity of internal conflict 5
Violent demonstrations 3
Violent crime 4
Political instability 4
Political terror 4
Weapons imports 2
Terrorism impact 2
Deaths from internal conflict 5
Internal conflicts fought 2.56

EXTERNAL PEACE (40%):
Military expenditure (% GDP) 2
Armed services personnel rate 2
UN peacekeeping funding 2
Nuclear and heavy weapons capabilities 3
Weapons exports 3
Refugees and IDPs 4
Neighbouring countries relations 5
External conflicts fought 2.28
Deaths from external conflict 5

Of course, a nation like the United States gets a boost from much of this. Its wars are not typically waged on its neighbors. The deaths in those wars are not typically U.S. deaths. It’s pretty stingy on aiding refugees, but does fund UN soldiers. Etc.

Other important measures are not included at all:

  • Bases kept in foreign countries.
  • Troops kept in foreign countries.
  • Foreign bases accepted in a country.
  • Foreign assassinations.
  • Foreign coups.
  • Weapons in the air, space, and sea.
  • Military training and military weapons maintenance provided to foreign countries.
  • Membership in war alliances.
  • Membership in international bodies, courts, and treaties on disarmament, peace, and human rights.
  • Investment in unarmed civilian protection plans.
  • Investment in peace education.
  • Investment in war education, celebration, and glorification of militarism.
  • Imposing economic hardship on other countries.

So, there is a problem with the overall GPI rankings, if we are expecting them to be focused on war and the creation of war. The United States is 129th, not 163rd. Palestine and Israel are side-by-side at 133 and 134. Costa Rica doesn’t make the top 30. Five of the 10 most “peaceful” nations on Earth are NATO members. For a focus on war, go instead to Mapping Militarism.

But if we set aside the GPI annual report, and go to the beautiful GPI maps, it’s very easy to look at the global rankings on particular factors or sets of factors. That’s where the value lies. One can quibble with the choice of data or how it’s applied to rankings or whether it can tell us enough in any particular case, but on the whole the GPI, divided into separate factors, is a terrific place to start. Sort the world by any of the individual factors considered by the GPI, or by some combinations. Here we see which countries score badly on some factors but well on others, and which are mediocre across the board. Here also we can hunt for correlations between separate factors, and we can consider the connections — cultural, even when not statistical, — between separate factors.

The GPI is also useful in collecting the economic cost of various types of violence considered, and adding them together: “In 2021, the global impact of violence on the economy amounted to $16.5 trillion, in constant 2021 US dollars in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. This is equivalent to 10.9 per cent of global GDP, or $2,117 per person. This was an increase of 12.4 per cent, or $1.82 trillion, from the previous year.”

The thing to watch out for is the recommendations the GPI produces under the heading of what it calls positive peace. Its proposals include making improvements to these areas: “well-functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbors, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption, and equitable distribution of resources.” Clearly, 100% of these are good things, but 0% (not 40%) are directly about distant overseas wars.

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