Main Findings: Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses

  1. Civil wars can impact the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. The most consequential potential impacts are transnational terrorism and pandemic diseases, global harm that could occur because of intrastate conflict. Civil wars might also lead to regional instability, potential great power conflict, and large-scale migration. Criminality is most effectively addressed through domestic law enforcement rather than international initiatives.
  2. The nature of civil wars varies. The most important distinction is between civil strife that is caused by the material or political interests of the protagonists and civil strife that is caused by transnational ideological movements. Transnational ideological movements, which in the contemporary world are almost all associated with particular versions of Islam, base legitimacy on the divine and reject both existing boundaries and secular authority. While transnational movements claiming divine authority are more threatening to the existing international order, it is also much more difficult for such movements to secure the material resources that would be needed if they were to be successful. Institutions that control these resources, primarily states but also international organizations, NGOs, and multinational corporations, are manifestations of the extant global order. If the combatants in civil wars are motivated by material incentives and accept the principles of the existing international order then the standard treatment for addressing civil strife – UN peace-keeping plus some foreign assistance (elaborated on below) – is the most effective option if combatants believe that they are in a hurting stalemate, and if there is agreement among the major powers. If, however, combatants reject the existing order, then the standard treatment will not work.
  3. The opportunities for external interveners are limited. Countries afflicted by civil strife cannot become Denmark or be placed on the road to Denmark. They cannot be transformed into prosperous democratic states. The best that external actors can hope for is good enough governance in which there is security, the provision of some services especially related to health and possibly education, and some limited economic growth. More ambitious projects aimed at consolidated democracy, sustained economic growth, and the elimination of corruption are mostly doomed to fail and can be counterproductive, regardless of whether the combatants are interested in seizing control of an existing state or are motivated by some alternative, divine, vision of how political life might be ordered.  National political elites in countries afflicted with civil strife will be operating in limited access rent-seeking political orders in which staying in power is their primary objective. National elites will not accept accountability, legal-rational bureaucracies, or free and fair elections, all of which would threaten their power.

Therefore, the 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.

“Good Enough” Governance: Humility and the Limits of Foreign Intervention in Response to Civil Wars and Intrastate Violence by Karl W. Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner, synthesizes key ideas that emerged from the project’s research and outreach activities. Learn more about the project’s international outreach here.

The Academy study on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses is driven by the desire to provide new tools for analyzing, responding to, and, where possible, preventing the threats posed by the collapse of state authority associated with civil wars.