Fall 2017

Civil Wars & the Post–Cold War International Order

Bruce Jones and Stephen Stedman

By the standards of prosperity and peace, the post–Cold War international order has been an unparalleled success. Over the last thirty years, there has been more creation of wealth and a greater reduction of poverty, disease, and food insecurity than in all of previous history. During the same period, the numbers and lethality of wars have decreased. These facts have not deterred an alternative assessment that civil violence, terrorism, failed states, and numbers of refugees are at unprecedentedly high levels. But there is no global crisis of failed states and endemic civil war, no global crisis of refugees and migration, and no global crisis of disorder. Instead, what we have seen is a particular historical crisis unfold in the greater Middle East, which has collapsed order within that region and has fed the biggest threat to international order: populism in the United States and Europe.

BRUCE D. JONES is Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy Program and Senior Fellow of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint (2014) and Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats (with Stephen John Stedman and Carlos Pascual, 2009) and editor of Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order (with Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 2013).

STEPHEN JOHN STEDMAN is Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Deputy Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law at Stanford University. He is the author of Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats (with Bruce Jones and Carlos Pascual, 2009). From 2010 to 2012, he directed the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security. He served as Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations in 2005.

Civil wars and their relationship to international order differ dramatically by historical era. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the great powers treated national rebellions as threats to international order and sometimes cooperated in suppressing them. During the Cold War, the superpowers viewed civil wars as proxy competitions, and armed and financed client governments or rebels in order to prevent them from losing. The post–Cold War order, by contrast, devoted substantial effort to the treatment, mitigation, and resolution of civil wars, usually with the cooperation and consent of great powers. At the same time, those same great powers were often unable to reach agreement on when and how military force should be used for humanitarian purposes in civil wars.

The effects of civil wars on international orders also differ across historical eras. Civil wars may be fought over principles that undermine the norms and rules that undergird an international order. Civil wars may tempt intervention by great powers . . .

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