In the past 15 years, global peacefulness has fallen by more than 3%. Old and new conflicts, the pandemic and our political and cultural polarization are the main culprits.
Peace, some people say, starts with a smile. But ask anyone who lives in one of the most peaceful countries in the world, and they will probably tell you that it is the other way around. These virtuous nations also enjoy greater income growth, a stronger currency and higher foreign investment—not to mention better political stability and stronger correlation with the individual level of perceived happiness. Sadly, the economic impact of violence is quantifiable too: the total cost amounts to $16.5 trillion in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms, or to 10.9% of the total global gross domestic product. If the sheer scale of these numbers makes them a little hard to grasp, we are talking about $2,117 for each person on the planet.
These are the most significant takeaways from the 2022 Global Peace Index compiled by the international think-tank Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) covering 163 independent states and territories home to 99.7% of the world’s population. The ranking, which is based on 23 indicators grouped into three criteria (societal safety and security; extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict; and degree of militarization), paints a sobering picture: with 90 countries improving and 71 recording deteriorations, the level of global peacefulness decreased this year by 0.3%. It might not seem like much, yet it is worth noting that it is the 11th time in the past 15 years that the average has declined, for an overall reduction of 3.2% since the report was first published in 2008. In the meantime, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons has rocketed to 100 million, the highest level in modern history.
It should come as no surprise that many longstanding tensions and conflicts across the globe remain unresolved. Last year, Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic incurred the largest economic cost of violence, equivalent to 80%, 41% and 37% of their GDPs, respectively. In the 10 countries most economically affected by violence, the cost to their GDP on average was 34% while in the 10 most peaceful countries, the proportion was only 3.6%. Regionally, the largest improvements in the degree of peacefulness occurred in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. A slight improvement also took place in South America, whereas Central America and the Caribbean recorded a fall in peacefulness due to the rise in violent crime, which increased by 4.4%, the highest level since 2008. The United States continued to decline in the peacefulness ranking: After experiencing a dramatic fall across all three metrics of the Peace Index in 2021 (civil unrest being the primary driver of the deterioration), the United States continued the negative trend that began in 2015 and reached its lowest level of peacefulness since 2008.
Unsurprisingly, Russia and Ukraine are two of the five countries that recorded the largest deteriorations in peacefulness in the ranking (the others being Guinea, Burkina Faso and Haiti). Moreover, the spillover consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine have spread across the globe into the Middle East and Africa. “Although the full impact of the Ukraine-Russia war is still being felt, it has had a significant effect on the Index,” the experts at the Institute for Economics and Peace note. “Many European nations near Russia have seen scores deteriorate for relations with neighbors, including Finland, Sweden, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova.” Despite the war in Ukraine, Europe overall remains the most tranquil region in the world with seven nations ranking in the top 10 and 14 in the top 20.
Last but not least, while the pandemic seems to be grabbing fewer headlines each passing day, its consequences are still very much with us. As national economies try to rebound from the global recession, many are continuing to experience severe headwinds. Countries that over the past several years had become progressively more peaceful have experienced outbreaks of protests and violence aimed at governments’ handling of the social and health emergency. A volatile economic environment along with the high cost of living, the renewed focus on growing inequality in wealth, poor labor conditions and access to health care is a highly combustible mix that ignited violent protests in all regions this year and before.
Ultimately, as nations try to make their way out of the pandemic, fixing the damage left in its wake will require more than vaccines. The creation and sustainability of peaceful societies should not be contingent upon the lack of existential threats. The experts at the Institute for Economics and Peace point out that while the institutions that manage societies—at least in terms of global averages—have improved and have become more efficient and transparent, violent protests have increased across the world not only since the onset of the pandemic but over the course of the past decade. People have changed and not for the better: “Individuals have become more inflexible, more politically polarized, more critical of existing administrative structures and less tolerant of dissenting views,” the report points out. “It is not surprising that demonstrations—including those containing violence or those that are repressed violently—have become more frequent.” Winning a war—be it against a virus or a foreign aggressor—is always meaningless without a plan to win the peace.
#10 | JAPAN
Japan is three times more densely populated than Europe and 12 times more than the U.S. Yet it still manages to ranks highly for both peace and quality of life. Theft and other felonies, the National Police Agency notes, have become passé. Over the past few years, the number of recorded crimes continued to decrease to historically low levels—a trend also reflected in the low incarceration rate, which in Japan has followed a downward trajectory starting from the 1950s.
However, when it comes to relations with neighboring countries, rising tensions with China and North Korea are often mentioned by the Japanese as areas of concern. Japan’s “peace constitution”—put in place following the Second World War to prohibit the resurrection of aggressive militarism—was reinterpreted in 2014 to enable “collective self-defense,” which preceded a restructuring and build-up of the country’s military capabilities. Low marks in the per-capita military expenditure and international conflict domains keep Japan far from the very top positions of the peace ranking.
#9 | SINGAPORE
While the Global Peace Index report shows an increasingly violent world, Singapore has become more peaceful. Way more peaceful: when the ranking was first launched in 2008 it occupied the 22nd spot. What prompted this remarkable jump? The Institute for Economics and Peace points out that the largest improvements in the ranking are usually broadly based while large deteriorations in peace are usually led by a few indicators. So, while Singapore scored highly in the aspects of societal safety and security and low levels of domestic and international conflict, holding it back from the highest tier of the ranking —like Japan or Switzerland, which this year slipped out of the top 10 for the first time in a decade—is the level of militarization, with red marks when it comes to armed services personnel, police forces and weapons import expenditure. The reason? Singapore depends on seaborne trade for its prosperity, so having the naval resources to ensure the smooth passage of vessels through the Strait of Malacca, the narrow stretch of water that serves as a gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is crucial.
#8 | CZECH REPUBLIC
Up one spot from last year, over the last decade the Czech Republic has shown a sustained improvement in a great number of areas ranging from political stability to personal security and international relations.
According to the OECD, it also performs well in many measures of wellbeing, ranking above average in jobs and earnings, work-life balance, education and skills. Not only have 94% of adults aged 25-64 completed upper secondary education—well above the average rate of 78% and the highest among the 34 industrialized member countries—but this small nation of 10.7 million can boast an unemployment rate of a little over 3%, one of the lowest in the European Union and roughly half the bloc’s average. Granted, before the pandemic this figure stood at about 2% (or below what economists consider a "natural" level), but there are already signs that the country is on its way to reverting to pre-Covid levels.
#7 | SLOVENIA
A legend says that when God distributed the land to all the nations, Slovenians were overlooked because there were so few of them (they still barely reach 2 million). To apologize, he gave them a little piece of paradise he saved for himself. Slovenia’s territory—half of which is covered by forests—boasts one of the greatest levels of biodiversity on the continent: with only one hour drive from the capital Ljubljana, you can either swim in the Adriatic Sea or climb the Julian Alps.
It is easy to imagine Slovenia as a peaceful country. A fixture of the Peace Report’s top 10, it is the top-performing nation in emerging Europe. Along with the republic, Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia too make it into the top 20, and Poland and Bulgaria into the top 30. Overall, 24 of 36 countries in Europe improved and no country ranked outside the top half of the index except for Turkey, at number 145. “Of the 10 countries in Europe with the largest deteriorations in peacefulness in 2022, six share a border with either Russia or Ukraine,” noted the researchers at Institute for Economics and Peace. “These countries largely had deteriorations in indicators such as political instability and neighboring countries relations”.
#6 | PORTUGAL
Portugal marches to the beat of its own drum when it comes to peace and safety. Over the past few years, this nation of about 10 million people has emerged as one of the biggest climbers of the Global Peace Index, moving from the 18th spot it held in 2014 to the top 10.
Ranking above the industrialized nations' average in terms of housing, work-life balance, personal security and environmental quality, Portugal is also considered one of the top expat destinations for the overall quality of its lifestyle experience. Even better, there is no need to break the bank to enjoy the Portuguese way of living: the republic remains one of the most affordable destinations on the continent.
#5 | AUSTRIA
Since the end of the Cold War, this small landlocked country of just nearly 9 million moved from its peripheral position at the borderline between East and West closer to the center of a larger Europe. As a young member of the EU and outside of NATO, Austria prided itself on trying to get along with rival political blocs and embracing new forms of cooperation with its neighbors.
However, while Austria performs well in many measures of wellbeing such as income, jobs and housing, social tensions have been growing in recent years fueled especially by anti-migrant campaigns of the popular right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ). When in November 2020 an ISIS sympathizer shot and killed 4 people and injured 23 others in the city center of Vienna, the government responded by unveiling broad anti-terror measures that included the ability to keep convicted individuals behind bars for life and facilitate electronic surveillance for those who are released. As a consequence, Austria experienced one of the largest deteriorations in peacefulness in Europe owing to a worsening of the terrorism impact indicator. Not only that, over the past couple of years, its capital has been the theatre of major protests against Covid-19 lockdowns and the government’s decision to make the vaccination against the virus mandatory for all its citizens.
#4 | DENMARK
Denmark held the number two spot of the ranking for five years in a row from 2011 to 2016 the number five spot from 2017 to 2020, and the number three last year. Now in the fourth position, these relatively minor changes in the ranking only tell us that the kingdom is doing well. A safe country to travel and live in, Denmark is characterized by a high degree of political stability, freedom of the press and respect for human rights. It also boasts a high level of income equality and is frequently ranked as one of the happiest nations in the world.
Yet, to safeguard all that happiness and those excellent standards of living, this nation of less than 6 million spends a lot. In 2018, to counter the threat of Russia's increasing military activity in eastern and northern Europe, Denmark reached a landmark cross-party political deal to increase its defense budget by 20%, on course to match its Nordic neighbors Sweden’s and Norway's expenditure levels and reach the NATO membership target of 2% of national GDP in military spending. As a result, Denmark’s overall standing in the Peace Index is weighed down by its performance in the militarization domain, where it places just 15th in the world. Due also to an increase in violent clashes and demonstrations (against Covid restrictions, what else), Denmark—along with Slovenia—is the only country that this year falls in the ranking among the ten most peaceful nations.
#3 | IRELAND
The Republic of Ireland is one of the wealthiest, most developed and happiest nations in the world. It is also quite peaceful: in last year’s edition of the Global Peace Report it managed to gain four positions and land in the eighth spot, the highest position it had ever held in the ranking. This year Ireland outdid itself, leapfrogging many of its European peers and conquering third place in the Peace Index.
Make no mistake: Ireland did not become the peace-loving nation overnight. In fact, due also to its longstanding independent status and neutral army (meaning that it is not a member of NATO), it is routinely ranked as one of the safest countries in the world. That does not mean that during the pandemic it has not experienced its share of political and social turmoil—Ireland too saw several violent anti-lockdown demonstrations. Yet, such episodes did not change the fundamental nature of Ireland as a peaceful nation. On page 97 of its study, the Institute for Economics and Peace reveals a striking piece of data: when it comes to the economic cost of violence, Ireland performs better than almost all countries in the world. Ranking 160th out of 163 nations, the toll is only 2% of the GDP compared to the 10.9% global average.
#2 | NEW ZEALAND
Holding on to the number two spot in the index since 2017, over the past decade and a half New Zealand has never slipped below fourth place in the Global Peace Index. Scoring almost perfect marks in the domains of domestic and international conflict, militarization and societal safety, is widely considered a wonderful country to live in.
At around the same size as the United Kingdom but with a population of roughly 5 million people, New Zealand ranks at the top in health status and above the average among OECD members when it comes to education, jobs and earnings. All this, however, comes at a cost: the shortage of affordable housing is increasingly making it difficult for people with low incomes to buy homes, with the gap between rich and poor considered the top economic issue facing New Zealand by 20% of its citizens.
#1 | ICELAND
Icelanders can sleep well at night: they live in the most peaceful country in the world. No news is good news when it comes to tranquil Iceland: it is the 15th year in a row that it retains the number one spot. With no standing army, navy or air force and the smallest population of any NATO member state (about 365,000 people), Iceland also enjoys record-low crime rates, an enviable education and welfare system, and ranks among the best nations in terms of jobs and earnings and subjective sense of wellbeing.
WORLD'S MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRIES: FULL RANKING
|58||Bosnia and Herzegovina|
|59||United Arab Emirates|
|88||Trinidad and Tobago|
|94||Papau New Guinea|
|111||Republic of the Congo|
|129||United States of America|
|155||Central African Republic|
|158||Democratic Republic of the Congo|
Source: Global Peace Index 2022.