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 most peaceful nations also enjoy lower interest rates, 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: on a global scale, in 2019 the total cost amounted to $14.5 trillion in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms, or to 10.6% 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 $1,909 for each person on the planet.
These are the most significant takeaways from the 2020 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 81 countries improving and 80 recording deteriorations, the level of global peacefulness decreased in 2019 by 0.34%. If it might not seem much, it is worth noting that it is the ninth time in the last twelve years that the average has declined, for an overall reduction of 2.5% since 2008. In the meantime, the number of refugees has rocketed to 1% of the global population, 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 Afghanistan incurred the largest economic cost of violence, equivalent to 60%, 57% and 51% of their GDP, respectively. By contrast, in the 10 most peaceful countries the proportion drops to under 4%. Europe remains the most tranquil region with 13 nations ranking in the top 20. Some improvement in the level of overall peacefulness was also recorded in the Russia and Eurasia region, while South America and Central America and the Caribbean recorded the largest deterioration on the index. And what about the United States? While maintaining last year’s position in the ranking (121), the report points out that the country’s overall score improved by 1.54%, marking an increase in peacefulness for the first time in years. That, of course, is no longer the case. As the ranking was being released, protests over the death of George Floyd and racial injustice had already begun erupting all over the nation.
Similarly, it is unquestionable that many statistical data and assessments contained in this edition of the report will be turned inside out next year. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the document says, will be felt for a very long time across all regions. The crisis has sharpened contrasts between the US and other countries—China chiefly but not only—over the origins of the virus and the role of the World Health Organization, with repercussions over diplomatic and trade relationships not limited to the two superpowers. As economies face protracted downturns, most indicators in the Global Peace Index are projected to deteriorate. As a result of the renewed focus on growing inequality in wealth, poor labor conditions and access to health care, widespread increases in political instability, including riots and general strikes, are to be expected. Some nations will also find it more difficult to repay existing debt, leading to a further rise in poverty—yet, while foreign aid to struggling countries is all but certain to shrink, global military expenditures are anticipated to grow significantly. In the meantime, reports of domestic violence, suicide and mental illness have already increased in many nations. Peace has never been a more endangered and precious commodity.
#10 | SWITZERLAND
A fixture of the ranking for most of the past decade, Switzerland is back in the top 10 of the most peaceful nations after two years on the sidelines. While it is indeed a place with an exceptionally high degree of safety and security in society and a low level of domestic or international conflict, its surprisingly elevated level of militarization (the total army personnel is approximately 240,000 out of a population of a little more than 8 million) keeps this nation from scoring nearer the very top. Switzerland —together with other well-ranked countries such as Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands— has also featured amongst the ten world’s highest weapons exporters per capita in the last five years. However, by most other measures, Switzerland remains a stable and prosper country where linguistic and religious diversity is embraced. In third place in the United Nation’s Happiness Report, it also ranks above the average among OECD nations when it comes subjective well-being, income, health and education and environmental quality. Not everything, in all fairness, runs like clockwork: Swiss women have recently took to streets to protest against domestic violence and the wage gap. Switzerland, in fact, lags behind a number of other developed countries in workplace equality, with women earning approximately one-fifth less than men, worse than in 2000.
#9 | JAPAN
Maintaining the ninth spot in the Global Peace Index, Japan is three times more densely populated than Europe and twelve 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, are so passé too: 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 neighboring countries relations, shaky relationships with China and especially North Korea are often mentioned by the Japanese as reasons of concerns. 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.
#8 | CZECH REPUBLIC
Up two spots 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 and education and skills. Not only have 94% of adults aged 25-64 have 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 10.6 million can boast the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union at 2%, below what economists consider a “natural” level.
#7 | SINGAPORE
While the Global Peace Index report shows an increasingly violent world, Singapore has become more peaceful. Way more peaceful: it advanced 13 places up from 21st place in 2018 and gained one more position in 2019, which has retained this year. 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 very top spots of the ranking is—similarly to Switzerland—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 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.
#6 | CANADA
Canada is the sixth safest out of 163 nations, a title it held also over the past two years (spoiler: the top 7 countries in the ranking maintained the position they had last year). Getting good marks when it comes to factors related to internal conflicts, levels of crime and political stability, the world’s second-largest country by landmass—while relatively small in terms of population with just 37 million residents—punches above its weight in economic terms. As a top-trading nation, it is also one of the richest. Add to the mix excellent job opportunities, good health facilities and effective governance and you will have one of the best countries to live in.
#5 | DENMARK
Denmark held the number two spot for five years in a row from 2011 to 2016, dropping subsequently to number five in 2017, where it remained ever since. A safe country to travel and live in, it is characterized by low levels of crime, 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. The recent drop in the peace ranking is due to a deterioration in some of its militarization indicators. In 2017, to counter the threat 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.
#4 | AUSTRIA
Since the end of the Cold War, this small landlocked country of just 8.7 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 into 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 by anti-migrant campaigns of the popular right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), which until May 2019 was also in a coalition government with the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) of chancellor Sebastian Kurz. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement brought an even stronger focus on the systemic racism present in the Austrian political and social life, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets to protest in June.
#3 | PORTUGAL
Portugal marches to the beat of its own drum when it comes to peace and safety. While over the past few years a majority European countries have deteriorated or have shown very minor improvements, this nation of about 10 million people has emerged as one of the biggest climbers, moving from the 18th position in 2014 to the third in 2017 and during these last two years (it briefly slipped to 4th place in 2018). Ranking above the industrialized nations’ average in terms housing, work-life balance, personal security and environmental quality, Portugal is also rated as one of the top three favorite expat destinations for the overall quality of the 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.
#2 | NEW ZEALAND
Holding on to the #2 spot in the index since 2017, over the past 10 years 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 less than 4.9 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 tenth 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.
Iceland has also managed the impossible: with 97% of the citizens describing themselves as middle and working class, tension between economic classes is often described as “non-existent.” As for COVID-19, in just two months since the first case was recorded, the country had virtually eradicated the virus, keeping the cases well under 2,000 and the number of deaths at just 10. Is it really any wonder that Iceland is also one of the happiest countries in the world?