The late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed the weakening and collapse of state-imposed order in countries ranging from North Africa to Central Asia. Some cases are largely the consequences of foreign military interventions, others due to internally driven and externally supported civil wars, and still others a continuation of strife dating back decades. Beyond the instances of manifest loss of state control over large parts of sovereign territory, there are also growing instances of state inability or unwillingness to contest control of parts of a country, thereby affording sanctuary to potentially lethal terrorist groups and expansionist ideological movements with aspirations threatening the stability of the surrounding region.
The causation of civil wars and the policy responses have been debated extensively since the end of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, the major crises of particular periods of time have greatly influenced the questions and research interests of those in policy circles and the academy. In the 1990s, high profile cases of genocide and massive human suffering generated the doctrines of responsibility to protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention, as well as a genre of literature advancing theories and policy prescriptions to bolster weak states and rebuild collapsed states.
In the first decade of the 21st century, an emphasis on counterinsurgency doctrine and state-building, mostly inspired by massive U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, dominated deliberations on restoring political order eroded by internal conflict. At the same time, there emerged a tendency by some both in government and academia to emphasize the potential threat of terrorist sanctuary in any so-called ungoverned space, an argument even advanced by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard when justifying his government’s robust 2003 intervention in the Solomon Islands.
In the current decade, disappointment over the limited returns on significant external investments made in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as increased skepticism about the actual threat posed by civil wars to U.S., regional, and global security, have led some to question whether emphasis on wars of internal disorder distracts the major powers from more important issues of geopolitical competition and cooperation.
Learn more about the project’s Dædalus volumes
Project contributors share the key findings of their contributions to the Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses project.
Still, there remain important questions about threats to U.S. interests and world order posed by the breakdown of state control and civil wars, including terrorism (and the employment of WMD), the spread of conflicts fueled by the involvement of outside powers, destabilizing refugee flows, and pandemics. In the current political environment, these are issues of interest to a broad audience, both domestic and international. Drawing on the Academy’s convening power across disciplines, this project seeks not only to contribute to current policy-making but also to contextualize current trends by building a larger conceptual understanding of the threats posed by the collapse of state authority associated with civil wars.
This project will produce a two-volume Special Issue of the Academy’s journal Dædalus. The first volume, to be published in Fall 2017, will focus on empirical evidence, explanatory frameworks, and identifying the threats that emanate from civil wars and weak states. The second volume will focus on international responses and policy options and will be published in Winter 2018.
Discussions at the United Nations
On Wednesday, September 13, a select group of authors involved in the Academy’s project on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses met with high level representatives of the United Nations for a day-long series of discussions on the project and its preliminary findings. The morning session featured the Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, the Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and the Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs alongside Academy project authors Stephen Stedman, Stephen Krasner and Jean-Marie Guéhenno. More than 110 United Nations staff from various agencies attended this event. In the afternoon, authors Stephen Stedman, James Fearon and Sarah Kenyon Lischer presented at a practitioner workshop attended by over 80 mid-level staff. The dialogue centered on how civil wars destabilize global order and how to better employ the UN’s existing tools and strategies to effectively mitigate civil violence and the associated security spillover effects.
“The United Nations was not created to take mankind to Heaven, but to save humanity from Hell.”
— Dag Hammaskold, UN Secretary General, Thursday, May 13, 1954
The impressive level of attendance and enthusiasm from the UN staff clearly demonstrates the timeliness and relevance of this Academy project. Most specifically our project contributes and strengthens the work of the United Nations in three areas:
- It legitimizes a less ambitious, more pragmatic and more realistic approach to mitigating, preventing and resolving civil wars. Since the 1990s, the United Nations and its member-states believed in the possibility of pacifying, fully rebuilding and democratizing countries through peacekeeping, mediation, foreign assistance and external interventions. The disappointing record, as exemplified by the cases Afghan and Iraqi cases, and the enduring violence in many countries where the United Nations has been present over the past two decades including Congo DRC, South Sudan and Kosovo, underscore the complexity of the responding to the civil wars problem. Our project calls for a stricter prioritization of goals in any external intervention. It calls for humility and modesty in what realistically can be achieved in responding to civil war, and it urges the international community to focus primarily on establishing “good enough governance,” which consists of security and stability, some economic growth and some functioning institutions. The project acknowledges that in some cases, complete “positive peace” is not realistic, especially in a short period of time; stability can sometimes require a delicate trade off that cannot possibly achieve everything a country desires relating to human rights and inclusive processes of social justice.
- It encourages new institutional experimentation: the project emphasizes the fact that for too long the approach to civil wars has been limited to a national approach. We instead urge the UN to also explore regional frameworks to include neighboring countries in the peaceful resolution of the conflict and state-driven solutions. The UN is already interested in shifting its way of thinking towards a more regional approach, as evidenced by the new Sustainable Development Goals compared to the Millennium Development Goals created in 2000.
- By producing data on the changing character of civil wars, the project highlights the need to develop new tools for diplomacy and conflict resolution and recalibrate existing ones. For many years, the United Nations has operated in low-income countries deprived of functioning institutions at the mercy of international aid. Today however, conflicts are erupting not strictly in low-income countries, but rather in middle-income countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar. These wars are fought not among the world’s poorest, but among the urban middle-class groups. This dramatic shift in the nature of civil wars calls for a complete revision of the tools available to the UN and for a major shift in strategy from resolution to prevention, as well as a reappraisal of the utility of force and what the changing nature of conflict means for the UN’s missions and goals. It is of the utmost important for the UN to invest more money in diplomacy and early warning strategies that could help mitigate conditions that might lead to a violent confrontation in the future.
This meeting at the UN will be followed by at least two other meetings: a practitioner workshop in October on State Building, and a second workshop in November on fighting and negotiating with armed groups.
Based on the success of Wednesday’s meeting, some UN staff have suggested that a direct briefing from the Academy to the UN security council could be very important to facilitate a strategic dialogue addressing how the UN should position itself vis a vis the new civil wars of the 21st century and the unprecedented challenges we will face going forward.
Roundtable Discussion on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses
On September 12, 2017, the Academy organized a small roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York with project authors and local experts to elaborate upon the early project conclusions and explore how to expand upon these ideas in preparation for the launch of the first volume of Dædalus, “Civil Wars & Global Disorder: Threats & Opportunities.”
Dinner Conversations on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses
On September 7, 2017, the Academy co-hosted a dinner with the Freeman Spogli Institute of Stanford University, bringing experts, practitioners, and journalists in Washington, D.C. together to discuss the project. Similarly, on September 12, the two institutions co-hosted a dinner at The Yale Club of New York City to discuss the project, its preliminary findings, and its relevance to current events.
Briefings in Washington, D.C.
In mid-March 2017, Academy staff conducted several meetings with current and former government officials and practitioners in Washington, D.C. to assess project strategies and develop outreach plans.
Briefings in London on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses
On November 28-29, 2016, project co-director Karl Eikenberry and Summers Hammel (Program Coordinator for Global Security and International Affairs) conducted a series of briefings with notable think tanks in London, including the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Chatham House and the British Academy to present the project, explore potential avenues for collaboration, and receive feedback on outreach design.
Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses Authors’ Workshop
On November 2-4, 2016, the Academy held an authors’ workshop at the House of the Academy in Cambridge to discuss the draft essays for a forthcoming special two-volume issue of Dædalus on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses. The first Dædalus issue will focus on empirical evidence and explanatory frameworks; the second volume will focus on case studies and national, regional, and international responses and policy options. Participants at the authors’ workshop included scholars, military and government officials, media personnel, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations.
- Karl Eikenberry
- Stephen Krasner
- Michele Barry
- Abdeta Dribssa Beyene
Institute for Advanced Research, Ethiopia
- Stephen D. Biddle
Council on Foreign Relations; George Washington University
- Tanja A. Börzel
Freie Universität Berlin
- Charles Call
- Susanna Campbell
- Martha Crenshaw
- Lyse Doucet
- Tanisha Fazal
University of Notre Dame
- James Fearon
- Vanda Felbab-Brown
- Francis Fukuyama
- Sumit Ganguly
- Miguel García-Sánchez
Universidad de los Andes
- Richard Gowan
New York University
- Sonja Grimm
University of Konstanz
- Jean-Marie Guéhenno
International Crisis Group
- Joseph Hewitt
United States Institute of Peace
- Stephen Heydemann
- Bruce Jones
- Stathis Kalyvas
- Nancy Lindborg
United States Institute of Peace
- Sarah Kenyon Lischer
Wake Forest University
- Clare Lockhart
Institute for State Effectiveness
- Aila M. Matanock
University of California, Berkeley
- Seyoum Mesfin
Institute for Advanced Research, Ethiopia
- Stewart Patrick
Council on Foreign Relations
- Barry Posen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- William Reno
- Thomas Risse
Freie Universität Berlin
- Hendrik Spruyt
- Stephen Stedman
- Eric Stollenwerk
Freie Universität Berlin
- Paul Wise
- Francesca Giovannini
- Summers Hammel