JOSHUA S. GOLDSTEIN: Humanity fumbles its way toward a world without war — really

"Peace on Earth." It is each year's Christmas wish and indeed the great wish of the world's religions across history.

Of course, any realist or cynic can tell you that this wish is an empty hope that will never come true. Oddly, the idealists who march in the streets for peace seem to agree: Peace on earth seems further away than ever.

Except, actually, it isn't. While TV images will always show us the most horrible parts of the human experience, the big picture has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. Worldwide, wars today are fewer, smaller, and more localized than at any time in living memory.

Start with the bloodiest form of violence in history — wars between the world's regular national armies, head-to- head with tanks, artillery, airplanes, missiles, and currently 20 million soldiers worldwide. For centuries, these armies fought regularly, several times a year on average, and the worst of these wars killed millions at a time.

Today, nowhere in the world are these armies fighting each other — a historic development that has received almost no notice. Countries are still armed to the teeth and still have conflicts, but they don't go to war to solve them, mostly because it's insanely expensive and doesn't work very well. Exhibit A is the recently ended U.S. war in Iraq.

In Europe, where major interstate wars followed one after another for centuries, a continent has become a Union where (despite monetary troubles) fighting is unthinkable. China, wracked by wars and revolutions throughout history, has not fought a battle in 25 years. Its leadership derives legitimacy from trade-based prosperity, and follows a "peaceful rise" strategy in the world system. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry no longer exists, and the world's arsenals of nuclear weapons have shrunk by three-quarters in the past 30 years, again with no hoopla.

But has the violence of interstate wars merely been displaced onto civil wars that are more widespread and brutal than ever? The answer is "no." Civil wars have also abated of late. Careful counts of battle deaths worldwide in the 21st century reveal levels half those of the 1990s and a third the Cold War average. Whole regions consumed by war a couple of decades ago — Central America, West Africa, the Balkans — are now at peace. East Asia, where the most lethal conflicts of the Cold War years occurred in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, enjoys a stable peace. Today's skirmishes in Myanmar, guerrilla raids in the Philippines and bombings in Indonesia are insignificant compared with Asia's violent past.

Brutality toward civilians is also diminishing. Yes, atrocities do still occur, but today they provoke outrage, whereas in the past they were considered normal, if we even heard about them. During World War II, the Allies firebombed dozens of German and Japanese cities, each time burning to death tens of thousands of civilians in a night. The other side did far worse.

And what about the statistic showing that 90 percent of war deaths supposedly are now civilian, whereas a century ago 90 percent were military? It resulted from a clerical error in a 1994 U.N. report, which mixed up deaths (a century ago) with the much larger number of killed, wounded, and refugees (recently). A better estimate is 50-50, and not changing through time.

Another longstanding peace dream is coming true — an effective international community. Two centuries ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had the vision of a world federation of states to keep the peace without imposing a world government. Almost 100 years ago the world gave it a try in the League of Nations, but it failed miserably.

After World War II we tried again with the United Nations. During the Cold War, its Security Council was deadlocked. When the Cold War ended, it ventured into peacekeeping but ran into troubles in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.

In the 21st century, however, after a period of regrouping and learning lessons, peacekeeping has become far more effective. As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the world's largest deployed army will be the U.N.'s 100,000 peacekeepers. And peacekeeping is cheap — it costs $2 per U.S. household per month compared with $700 for our military forces and veterans' benefits.

Peacekeeping missions stabilize cease- fires in societies trying to emerge from war by assuring armed groups that their disarmament will not result in being massacred by their enemies. As recently as the 1990s, half of all cease-fires broke down and war resumed, but in the 21st century fewer than 15 percent did so.

In Sierra Leone, after an especially brutal war, a 1996 peace agreement failed when an underfunded U.N. force did not arrive quickly enough. When the U.N. showed up in force several years later to support a new agreement, with British military backing, the peace lasted. In 2005, the peacekeepers left, their mission accomplished.

The key to the U.N.'s success in Sierra Leone was giving the effort adequate personnel, funding, and outside military support. We could spread the blessings of peace elsewhere by following this model and beefing up our support of U.N. peacekeeping.

To be sure, one war anywhere is one too many. Our work is not done. But to greet progress toward peace on earth with "Bah, humbug!" is to deny humanity's ability to grow. Generation by generation, people have left behind cannibalism, human sacrifice, legal slavery, and public spectacles of sadistic torture and execution such as crucifixion. War could be next.

If we open our eyes to the new realities and stop living in the past, we can give our children the greatest gift of all, a more peaceful world.

Goldstein is professor emeritus of international relations at American University and author of "Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide," online at E-mail: