Silhouette of a military man against helicopters at sunset in Mariupol, Ukraine. Picture taken November 2017.

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Is geopolitical risk getting worse?


Photo Credit: SOPA Images/Mykhaylo Palinchak


As 2023 draws to an end, major wars are raging in Europe and in the Middle East, between Russia and Ukraine, and between Israel and Hamas. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there are more active armed conflicts involving sovereign states than at any time since World War II. The same can be said of displaced persons. With tensions rising in the South China Sea, geopolitical risk seems higher than at any point in recent memory. Things, as they say, have been better.

But are conditions worse, or at least riskier, than ever? The Geopolitical Risk Index (GPR), developed by Dario Caldara and Matteo Iacoviello to assess risk in broader historical perspective, suggests otherwise. From a purely quantitative perspective, our current moment is more like the 1970s or 1980s than the 1930s: times of turmoil in the world and US economy, no doubt, but not a seemingly inescapable march toward World War III. In fact, baseline geopolitical risk in the 2020s has not deviated much from the baseline risk experienced in the 20th and 21st centuries.

To be sure, the diversity of new global actors and transnational linkages may present unprecedented opportunities but also new risks. But grounding our sense of the moment in comparison to the past can give us some cause for optimism—or at least not resign us to an entirely dim outlook.

The Geopolitical Risk Index

The GPR index is a metric for assessing the degree of geopolitical risk at a global scale at a given moment in time (it also provides 44 country-specific indexes). The creators define geopolitical risk as “as the threat, realization, and escalation of adverse events associated with wars, terrorism, and any tensions among states and political actors that affect the peaceful course of international relations.” It is constructed from news reports in major world news publications based on keyword searches of an extensive library of terms that denote “risky” actions, such as invasions, blockades, threats, terrorist activity, and the like, and measures risk as the share of these news articles addressing these terms at a given point in time.

This index provides a common measurement standard across a vast swath of recent history (1900–present), a clear definition of geopolitical risk, and a body of demonstrated empirical relationships with the kinds of outcomes—decisions about investments, rates of economic growth, etc.—the index was created to understand. But its most attractive feature is its snapshot-based assessment: By relying on reporting of world events as they occur, it does not embed post-hoc assessments of which world events were consequential.

Take the events leading to World War II. If the 1940s were cataclysmic, the 1930s are remembered as their calamitous prelude. But this is how history is constructed: Knowing what came after, the 1930s were interpreted as a series of events—Japan’s invasion and annexation of Manchuria, Hitler’s victory in Germany’s 1932 election, Italian and German intervention in the Spanish Civil War, the Marco Polo Bridge incident that triggered the second Sino-Japanese War (1937), the Kristallnacht pogrom and Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland in then Czechoslovakia (1938)—that led inexorably to the Second World War. But the GPR index allows us to understand how those events were being reported as they unfolded, rather than filtered through the lens of history. There were other decades somewhat like the 1930s—at least viewed from a GPR-informed perspective—that did not end in tragedy but rather either more of the same (the 1970s into the 1980s) or a flourishing of the global economy (the 1980s into the 1990s).

Figure 1 plots the GPR Historical Index for the 20th and 21st centuries along with decadal averages. Four periods were exceptionally risky: the World Wars, the late 40s/early 50s including the culmination of the Chinese Civil War (1949) and the Korean War (1950–52), and the early years of the war on terror (2001–2004). Three periods emerge as exceptionally “safe,” at least according to the GPR index: 1900–1913, the interwar period (1920–33), and the 1990s, especially if one accepts the argument that the 90s actually began with the end of the Soviet Union (December 1991) and ended with the 9/11 attacks (2001).[1]

How do the 2020s measure up?

Perhaps surprisingly, the 2020s so far have been decidedly middle of the pack when compared to previous decades (table 1), ranking 7th (of 13) on mean and standard deviation, slightly higher on the ratio of the former to the latter (6th), but with a lower peak than all but three of the last 13 decades.

Table 1 Geopolitical Risk Index (historic), by decade
Decade GPR score (mean) GPR score (standard deviation) Coef. of Variation (x̄/𝜎) GPR (high)
1900-1909 47.8 20 2.4 140.4
1910-1920 171.1 123.4 1.4 472.3
1920-1929 55.5 22.3 2.5 138.2
1930-1939 80.7 60.3 1.3 484.2
1940-1949 213 107.6 2 473.2
1950-1959 108.2 34.4 3.1 242.4
1960-1969 104.8 26.5 4 228.1
1970-1979 81 19.1 4.2 177.3
1980-1989 94.4 21.5 4.4 172.8
1990-1999 75.3 33.3 2.3 250.4
2000-2009 90.9 44 2.1 303.6
2010-2019 77.3 14 5.5 131.2
2020-2023* 83.4 (7th) 28.0 (7th) 3.0 (6th) 167.3 (10th)
*Values included up to November 1, 2023, the most recent date for which data are available.
Source: Author’s calculations based on Caldara and Iacoviello (2022).

Cluster analysis based on decadal means, variances, and high values groups the decades into three bins: 1) universally recognized times of global crisis (1910s, 1930s, and 1940s); 2) the early decades of the Cold War (1950–69), as well as the 1990s and the 2000s; and finally 3) the 2010s, the 1900s and 1920s, and the 1970s and 1980s. The 2020s fall in the third category. Even the peak of the GPR index in the 2020s—which came after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—is within a standard deviation of the GPR’s long-run (1900–2023) mean. Based on the height of the spike (167.3, March 2022) and the preceding months’ values (just 69.2 three months earlier), the riskiest period of the 2020s so far bears a strongest resemblance to October 1973, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil embargo. A highly consequential moment in geopolitics, to be sure, but not the eruption of a world war or 9/11-esque moment.

Some caveats

The GPR index is a powerful analytic tool that does a better job than anything previous at assessing risk and doesn’t bake in higher risk associated with events that emerged post hoc as historically consequential. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautious of the risk index itself. First, the full time series (1900–present) is based on three US-based newspapers (Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post), so reporting is likely biased toward those events that would be considered relevant to US audiences.

Second, the volume of news on any given subject is a function of both its perceived newsworthiness but also the perceived newsworthiness of other events occurring at the same time. Events that would normally grab headlines and receive column-inches would be pushed below the fold or out of the paper if they coincided with a stock market crash or high-profile criminal case (the Lindbergh kidnapping, the OJ Simpson trial). During the Global Financial Crisis (2007–09), the GPR index averaged 75.2, despite that period also including the Gaza War of 2008–09 and Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Those events might have translated to higher GPR scores had they not co-occurred with the worst global economic crisis in nearly a century.

Lastly, the GPR's focus on conventional, militarized geopolitical risks excludes emerging global threats such as climate change, infectious diseases, and technological advancements like AI, except as these threats affect militarized behavior.

Nevermind (the Pax Americana)

This perspective on our current moment considers geopolitical risk and finds it middle-of-the-pack in many ways: not anodyne, but not anything yet approaching a worst-case scenario – save, of course, for those societies directly impacted by violence. There are many challenges the index does not capture, including global climate change (except as it has contributed to geopolitical risk), financial crises (with the same exception), pandemics, and mounting challenges related to debt sustainability, especially in emerging and developing economies. But the index also does not account for the dramatic gains in reducing global poverty, lessening gender inequality, and life-enhancing communications and other technologies over the past 120+ years.

The 2020s have—so far—been tumultuous. Noah Smith, Hal Brands, and Paul Poast (among others) have argued that what we are seeing is the end of the Pax Americana and the fraying of the international order. We may well be. Compared to the 1990s—the apogee of the Pax Americana, when the United States was the preeminent economic and military power—the 21st century has looked increasingly chaotic. But compared to the longer arc of the geopolitical risk over the 20th century, the 2020s are looking like a return to longer-term Cold War–era trends—lamentable and tragic, perhaps, but not unusual.


1. For those who prefer more culturally-oriented assessments, late November/early December 1991 was when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana climbed to the top of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, ushering in a new era in rock music.

Data Disclosure

The data underlying this analysis are available here [zip].

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