An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2018


Stephen D. Krasner and Karl W. Eikenberry
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Drawing from the essays in the Fall 2017 and Winter 2018 issues of Dædalus, Stephen D. Krasner and Karl Eikenberry assess six security challenges posed by civil wars: transnational terrorism, pandemic diseases, refugee flows, regional destabilization, great-power conflict, and criminality. And they identify four policy considerations: 1) external actors and local elites rarely share a common future vision, thus ambitions should focus on establishing adequate or good enough governance; 2) irreconcilables can frustrate efforts to reach negotiated settlements and often require military victory or partition; 3) spoilers can deny success to the intervening powers; and 4) the ways and means available to intervening powers vary greatly in costs and appropriateness. Krasner and Eikenberry conclude that civil wars may become more prominent and their consequences more serious, but they do not rival the existential threat of nuclear-armed and near peer-state competitors.

STEPHEN D. KRASNER, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1991, is Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of Power, the State, and Sovereignty: Essays on International Relations (2009), Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (1999), and Asymmetries in Japanese-American Trade: The Case for Specific Reciprocity (1987). He codirects the Academy’s project on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses.

KARL EIKENBERRY, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2012, is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow and Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and had a thirty-five-year career in the United States Army, retiring with the rank of lieutenant general. He codirects the Academy’s project on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses.

Civil wars have occurred often in the post – World War II era. Their frequency of initiation decreased after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the persistence of these conflicts meant that there was not a dramatic decline after the end of the Cold War. The causes of civil wars and their consequences for the stability of the international environment have, however, changed dramatically in the last two-and-a-half decades. During the Cold War, most civil wars were proxy battles between the Soviet Union and the United States; both superpowers were interested in maintaining regimes that were sympathetic to their side. The Soviet Union was never interested in the promotion of democratic regimes. The United States professed a commitment to democracy, but when faced with a choice between a Communist or even left-leaning democracy and an autocrat who aligned his state with the West, the United States chose the latter. The strongly positive statistical relationship between per capita income and democracy, which holds for most of the period between 1820 and 2000, disappears during the Cold War, when both superpowers were more interested in external alignment than in democracy.1

The impact of civil wars on the stability of the international system has increased during the twenty-first century. September 11, 2001, marks a watershed because, for at least some observers in the advanced industrialized world, the ability of transnational terrorists to destroy two of the tallest buildings and kill thousands of people in the commercial center of the most powerful country in the world, as well as to fly a commercial airliner into the command center of the most powerful military (an event that one of us witnessed first-hand from inside the Pentagon and the other witnessed from the State Department across the Potomac River) represented a sea change in the extent to which developments in poor and remote countries could affect even the strongest and most powerful. September 11 created an urgency that was absent during the 1990s, when major powers believed that they could walk away from war-torn countries such as Somalia with limited consequences for their own polities.

Greater urgency, however, has not led to agreement, even in the academic world, on two critical issues: First, what are the potential threats to stability that might emanate from civil wars and weak governance in poor and remote areas of the world? Second, what policy instruments, if any, can be deployed to treat civil wars and reduce the downstream effects on other states and global order? There are no consensus answers to any of these fundamental issues.

Rather than trying to identify some common ground, which we do not believe exists, we offer our own assessment of the consequences of civil wars, the nature of civil wars, and possible interventions that external actors might most effectively pursue. Our judgments have been informed by the essays in this issue of Dædalus and in the previous issue, but are not dictated by them.

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 crises that could be caused by intrastate conflict. Civil wars might also lead to large-scale migration, regional instability, and potential great-power conflict. And high levels of intrastate violence and loss of government control can often give rise to massive criminality, though this is most effectively addressed through domestic law enforcement rather than international initiatives.

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. The latter, if successful, might threaten regional stability and even the stability of the contemporary international system that is based on sovereign statehood. 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 very difficult for such movements to secure material resources. Institutions that control these resources, primarily states but also international organizations, NGOs, and multinational corporations, are manifestations of the extant global order. When 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 peacekeeping plus some foreign assistance – 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.

Finally, based on most, but not all of the essays in these two issues of Dædalus, 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 adequate governance in which there is security, the provision of some services especially related to health and possibly education, and some limited economic growth. This is true whether the standard treatment is applied or if one side can win decisively. 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.

The essays in these two issues of Dædalus and the literature more broadly identify six threats from civil strife that might directly impact the wealthy and more powerful polities of the world, or the nature of the postwar liberal international order. The first two – pandemic diseases and transnational terrorism – are potentially the most consequential, although neither poses the kind of existential threat presented by war among nuclear armed states.

Pandemic diseases. As the essay by Paul Wise and Michele Barry points out, since 1940, some four hundred new diseases have emerged among human populations.2 Most of these diseases have been zoonoses: disease vectors that have jumped from animal populations, in which they may be benign, to human populations, in which they might cause serious illness. Most of these outbreaks have occurred in a belt near the equator, where human beings intermingle more closely with animals, such as bats and monkeys. The main impact of civil wars is, however, not in increasing the number of new diseases, but rather diminishing the capacities of health monitoring systems that could identify, isolate, and possibly treat new diseases. Effective detection requires constant monitoring, which is extremely difficult in areas that are afflicted by civil war. Epidemics, or at least disease outbreaks, are inevitable given the ways in which human beings impinge more and more on animal habitats, but allowing an epidemic to evolve into a pandemic is optional. If effective detection and monitoring are in place, a disease outbreak will not turn into a pandemic that could kill millions. So far, the world’s population has been spared such an outbreak. If, however, a disease can be transmitted through the air, and if civil strife or something else prevents effective monitoring, the likelihood of a pandemic increases.

Transnational terrorism. Terrorism, which in recent years has primarily, but not exclusively, been associated with Islamic jihadism, can arise in many different environments. At the time of the September 11 attacks, Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden were resident in Afghanistan, a very poor, land-locked country. Before that, Bin Laden had found refuge in Sudan. Most of the participants in the September 11 attack, however, were born in the heart of the Arab world, namely in Saudi Arabia, and had resided for a number of years in Germany. The perpetrators of the July 7 attacks on the mass transit system in London were Muslims of Somali and Eritrean origin, raised and schooled in the United Kingdom. The bomber, whose efforts to bring down an airliner headed for Detroit were frustrated by a courageous and alert passenger, was a Nigerian citizen who had spent time with jihadi ideologues in the Middle East. The attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 – 2016 were carried out by individuals born in North Africa, but who had lived for many years in Western Europe. The murders of fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, were perpetrated by a U.S. citizen born in Chicago, whose parents were from Pakistan and who was educated at California State University, San Bernardino, and his wife, who was born in Pakistan but spent many years in Saudi Arabia. The massacre at the Orlando, Florida, night club in 2016 was carried out by the American-born son of a man who had emigrated from Afghanistan and had lived for many years in the United States.

While terrorism associated with Islamic jihadism is hardly an exclusive product of safe havens in countries afflicted by civil strife or poor governance, the existence of such safe havens does, as Martha Crenshaw argues, exacerbate the problem.3 Safe havens are environments within which would-be terrorists can train over an extended period of time. A number of terrorists, even those raised in Western, industrialized countries, have taken advantage of such training. Transnational terrorist organizations might or might not secure weapons of mass destruction; they might or might not develop more effective training; their operatives might or might not be discovered by intelligence services in advanced industrialized democracies. Civil war and weak governance, however, increase the likelihood that transnational terrorist groups will find safe havens, and safe havens increase the likelihood of attacks that could kill large numbers of people.

Global pandemics and transnational terrorism are the two most serious threats presented by civil wars. The probability that either will significantly undermine the security of materially well-off states is uncertain, but both are distinct sources of danger. Civil wars and weak governance increase the likelihood that large numbers of people could be killed by either threat. Neither is an existential threat, but both could have grave consequences for advanced industrialized democratic states. Hundreds of thousands or millions of people could die from a pandemic outbreak resulting from an easily transmissible disease vector or from a transnational terrorist attack that could involve dirty nuclear weapons, an actual nuclear weapon (still quite hard to obtain), or artificial biologics (increasingly easy to produce).

Either a global pandemic or terrorist attack, possibly using weapons of mass destruction, would almost certainly lead to some constraints on the traditional freedoms that have been associated with liberal democratic societies.

Migration, regional instability, and great-power conflict. Civil wars are also dangerous because they could lead to greater refugee flows, regional destabilization, and great-power conflict. Not every civil war has the potential for generating these global crises, but if generated, they would be a product not just of civil strife but also of policy choices that were made by advanced industrialized countries. In this regard, they should be contrasted with possible pandemics and transnational terrorism that, arguably, would occur regardless of the policies adopted by wealthy democratic states.

As Sarah Lischer’s essay shows, the number of migrants – especially people displaced by civil wars – has increased dramatically in recent years.4 Most of these migrants have been generated by three conflicts, those in Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. The wave of migrants entering Western Europe has destabilized traditional politics and contributed to the success of Brexit in the UK, the increased share of votes secured by right-wing parties in a number of Western European countries, and the electoral gains of a number of right-wing parties in Eastern Europe. Anxiety about immigration contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. European countries, even those on the left like Sweden, have responded to rising numbers of refugees by tightening the rules for potential migrants. The European Union reached a deal with Turkey in 2016 to provide financial resources in exchange – among other things – for an increase in acceptance of refugees. At the same time, the sheer number of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon can potentially undermine government control in those countries.

The impact of civil wars in one country can spread to surrounding areas. ISIL’s ambitious campaigns have afflicted Syria and Iraq. Civil strife in Somalia has, as Seyoum Mesfin and Abdeta Beyene write, influenced the policies of Ethiopia.5 The FARC insurgency in Colombia impacted Venezuela and Ecuador. Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) drew in several neighboring states. Some regional conflicts have resulted in millions of deaths, most notably the war in the DRC, with limited impact on and attention from wealthy industrialized countries. Wars in the Middle East, however, have been more consequential because they have led to the involvement of Russia and the United States, they are closer to Europe and have therefore generated more refugees, and Middle Eastern oil is a global commodity on which much of the world depends. Regional destabilization in the Middle East does matter for the West; regional destabilization in Central Africa may only matter for those who live in the neighborhood.

Direct confrontation between major powers has not occurred since the end of World War II. In well-governed areas, where civil wars are absent, the likelihood of great-power conflict is small. Territorial conquest has been delegitimized (though Russia’s annexation of Crimea stands as a recent exception to this norm). The existence of nuclear weapons has removed uncertainty about the costs of a confrontation between nuclear-armed states with assured second-strike capability. Great-power confrontations are, however, more likely in areas that are afflicted by civil strife, because instability and appeals from local actors could draw in major state actors with vested interests. This is especially true for the Middle East. Moreover, in countries on the periphery of Russia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, especially those with sizeable Russian ethnic populations, the government in Moscow has demonstrated that it can increase the level of internal unrest. There is no guarantee of stability, even in countries that might have been stable absent external support for dissident groups that would otherwise have remained quiescent.

As Barry Posen suggests in his essay, multipolarity makes all aspects of external involvement in civil wars more fraught, including the possibility of a conflict among the major powers.6 In a multipolar world, no single pole is likely to be able to dictate outcomes to potential combatants. The possibility of a hurting stalemate declines because all sides hope that their fortunes could be resurrected by some outside power. Absent a hurting stalemate, which makes the standard treatment including UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKOs) and other forms of assistance attractive to major combatants, civil wars are more likely to continue. The contemporary international environment is more multipolar than was the case during the bipolarity of the Cold War or the unipolarity of the United States that lasted for a little over a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed. Managing civil wars will now be more difficult. The possibility of great-power conflict has increased. And because wars will prove harder to end, refugee flows will persist.

Criminality. Criminality is a final area in which there may be some association between civil wars and weak governance, and the well-being of individuals in advanced industrialized countries. Because of the ease of transportation and communication, criminality is not limited to specific countries. Internet theft can originate from and impact many different countries. The loss of billions of dollars a year, drug smuggling, and human trafficking are familiar manifestations of transnational criminality. As Vanda Felbab-Brown writes, large-scale criminality can greatly exacerbate the challenges states face in defeating insurgencies and ending civil wars.7

Addressing criminality associated with civil wars is fraught with difficulty. The association between criminal gangs and the state may be uncertain. National elites may protect criminal organizations. Some criminal organizations may generate revenues that help national elites stay in power. Yet while transnational criminality does affect individuals and institutions in the wealthier democracies, it is not a threat to their domestic political orders. The problem is best dealt with through national and international law enforcement.

The most important conclusion that emerges from the discussions at the core of our project is that the policy options for addressing civil wars are limited. The essays in these two issues suggest that there are four factors that external actors must take into account when considering responses to intrastate warfare in weakly governed polities: the extent to which the interests of external and national political elites are complementary; the presence of irreconcilable groups in a civil conflict; the threat of great-power conflict; and the costs of intervention.

Alignment of interests. Of these four factors, the greatest impediment to successful interventions is the misalignment of domestic and external elites’ interests. Domestic elites governing an area afflicted by civil strife will be primarily interested in keeping themselves in power. The path to Denmark is paved with free and fair elections, rational-legal bureaucracies, and the rule of law, all of which are antithetical to the interests of those who hold power in closed-access or exclusive polities.

The best that external actors can hope for is to bring some degree of security to areas that are afflicted with civil strife, which is easier to accomplish if none of the combatants are motivated by ideologies that cannot be reconciled, and if competing major or regional powers are not engaged in waging proxy wars. But even if irreconcilable and contending states are not part of a civil war’s landscape, ambitious programs for state-building and democratization will usually fail because domestic elites are primarily interested in staying in power, not in structural reform.

Foreign and security assistance has been effective in creating a limited number of better state institutions and probably lessening the chances of civil war, but then only under favorable circumstances and only to some extent. Foreign assistance might create islands of excellence, but these islands are likely to remain isolated or wither away when foreign assistance is withdrawn. Without the support of domestic elites, external actors will usually fail to quell civil wars or effectively deal with spillovers from such strife.

Most of the world’s polities, especially polities plagued by intrastate warfare, are rent-seeking states in which the political elite maintains itself in power through foreign assistance and corruption. Election results will not lead to ruling factions going quietly into the night unless the number of votes approximates the number of guns that political leaders require to stay in power. The Madisonian sweet spot in which the government is strong enough to maintain order but constrained enough to allow individual freedom within a polity is not the natural order of things. For almost all of human history in almost all places in the world, governments were exploitative and repressive. If individuals could escape the grip of the state they did.8

In some instances, external actors might be able to alter the incentives of national elites in predictable ways. But the conditions under which this might happen are uncommonly found. Political elites in poorer countries torn by civil war are almost always enmeshed in what economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson have termed an exclusive order.9 Their primary objective is to stay in power. This requires the care and feeding of members of their essential support network. Most important, they must have command over enough of those who control the instruments of violence so that they cannot be overthrown. Political leaders in exclusive or rent-seeking orders are focused on avoiding the loss of status, prestige, money, and even life that would follow from a loss of office. These leaders will regard efforts to, for instance, hold free and fair elections or to eliminate corruption as existential threats.

Even more modest policies, like reforming customs services, which are often revenue sources for elites in exclusive orders, might be regarded as problematic. External actors are only likely to have leverage if domestic elites are highly dependent on foreign assistance, which, as James Fearon’s essay notes, is often the case, and if external actors can credibly threaten to withdraw aid, which is often not the case.10 If domestic rulers have alternative sources of revenue, such as payments from extractive industries, or if the recipient state is strategically important, donors will not be able to credibly threaten to withdraw assistance as government scholars Desha Girod and Michael Ross have explained.11

These constraints were vividly apparent in Afghanistan, where the United States, despite investing billions of dollars in elections, anticorruption efforts, and counternarcotics campaigns, was unable to curb the rapaciousness of the Karzai regime. Hamid Karzai resented rather than embraced American efforts to alter the fundamental character of Afghanistan’s polity because such initiatives threatened his position. The 2009 elections were manifestly corrupt because Karzai could not risk losing office (though corruption abounded on all sides). Efforts to investigate the plundering of some $800 million from the Bank of Kabul were blocked by Karzai because the loot benefited his family and his supporters.

As Stephen Biddle indicates in his essay, principal-agent analysis provides a framework for understanding the problems that occur when the interests of external and internal actors are misaligned, which will always be the case when external actors try to promote accountability in rent-seeking polities. Biddle focuses on security force assistance. He argues that creating an effective national security force, at least effective in the eyes of external donors, is much harder than has generally been recognized or accepted.12 As noted above, interests of domestic elites are often profoundly different from the interests of external elites. The former focus on retaining power and domestic threats to their position, while the latter focus more on international or transnational threats that could endanger their home countries.

Adverse selection is, as Biddle emphasizes, a problem that cannot be avoided: the United States is most likely to provide security assistance to states that are badly governed polities; if these polities were well-governed, they would not need external security assistance. In corrupt rent-seeking states, political leaders will not view the military as an objective neutral force. Rather the armed forces will be viewed, as William Reno emphasizes, as a potential rival that must be contained through some combination of enfeeblement, pay-offs, and enmeshing military officers in illegal activities that tie them to the fate of the regime.13 A well-organized, efficient military capable of fighting effectively in the field is exactly what leaders in poorly governed, rent-seeking states do not want. As Biddle remarks, it would be almost impossible for an external actor to monitor behaviors, such as rewarding loyalists with military sinecures or stealing or diverting funds, which would be in the interests of clientelistic national elites, but not in the interests of external actors attempting to create an effective national military force.

From this perspective, the sudden collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul in 2014, despite one decade of U.S. military effort and billions of dollars of expenditures, was hardly surprising. The United States wanted that army to fight effectively against its ideological enemy, ISIL. Iraqi leaders wanted an army that would not threaten them and their grip on power.

Civil wars usually do not create the conditions that allow countries to build stable inclusive polities and significantly improve the economic livelihoods of large parts of the population. As Steven Heydemann illustrates with regard to the Middle East, the rent-seeking patterns that were established before the conflict are likely to be reinforced during periods of civil war.14 Economic activity is essentially a protection racket that allows elites to pay off those with guns, whom they need to stay in power.

Further complicating the task of the external powers is the problem of information asymmetry, referred to above when noting the challenges of monitoring the implementation of security assistance programs. External actors are not likely to be able to fully, or even partially, understand the interests and capabilities of relevant actors in countries crippled by civil strife. Cultures may be alien. Language facility may be elusive. Local power brokers and their families live in towns and villages for a lifetime, while foreign diplomats and soldiers often remain for one year at most.

In sum, if the goal of the United States or other external actor is to help countries that have been afflicted with civil war move toward consolidated democracy and open-market systems, there will inevitably be wide, unbridgeable chasms between the preferences of domestic and foreign elites.

The presence of irreconcilables and great powers. If one or more of the major warring factions are irreconcilables, or if two or more major powers have significant and diverging interests regarding conflict termination, policy options to treat civil wars will be limited.

Transnational terrorism has been motivated primarily by ideological movements that entirely reject the extant rules and norms of the global order. As the essays by Tanisha Fazal and Stathis Kalyvas make clear, religiously motivated insurgents have embraced a worldview that is completely antithetical to the reigning, almost taken-for-granted, norm of appropriateness in the contemporary international order: the sovereign state system.15 The principles and norms associated with Westphalian sovereignty and international legal sovereignty are completely hostile to those that have been accepted and promulgated by Islamic jihadi groups.

For Islamic jihadis and, as Fazal points out, other religious groups, authority is derived from God, not from some man-made institution. For Islamic jihadis, there is a fundamental distinction between Dar al-Islam, the world of Islam populated by Muslims and ruled by Islamic law, and Dar al-Harb, the house of infidels or where Islamic law is not implemented. According to some interpretations of Islamic law, Islamic states can only sign permanent treaties with other Islamic polities; with the non-Islamic world, agreements are limited to ten years. ISIL, the most prominent contemporary example of Islamic jihadi thought, has indicated that its purpose is to create a caliphate in the Middle East. Such a caliphate would ignore established state borders and the norms and rules of sovereignty.

To an extent, secular rebels who uncompromisingly wish to establish a breakaway independent sovereign state pose the same challenge to external powers that place a premium on the maintenance of the contemporary international system and the preservation of existing state borders. They cannot be bought off with foreign assistance and they will not accept compromise.

In such instances, the most realistic policy option for those committed to the defense of the status quo might be to “give war a chance.” As Sumit Ganguly describes, the Sri Lankan armed forces were able to defeat the separatist Tamil Tigers, who, while subscribing to the international order, were, from the perspective of the Sri Lankan government, irreconcilable.16 Indigenous forces may not, however, always be strong enough to prevail. Foreign forces may have to be deployed. However, as the painful examples of Afghanistan and Iraq make clear, subjugating irreconcilables, particularly when partnered with a domestically unpopular corrupt regime, usually involves a costly, protracted investment. Special forces or raiding parties are a more attractive option.

Just as the misalignment of domestic and external actors’ interests has far-reaching policy consequences, so do the misalignment of major powers’ interests. The presence of opposing major powers in a civil war, as already noted, can potentially threaten the security of each, as well as the international system. But the presence of contending external powers also complicates and constrains efforts to end the fighting and establish a lasting peace. If the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) are on opposing sides in a civil war, the standard treatment will not be an option. UN Security Council approval for peacekeeping forces will not be forthcoming. Even if a state is not a member of the Ps5, but provides refuge or support for one of the contending parties, as has been the case in Afghanistan and Syria, it will be much more difficult to end a civil war. There will be no hurting stalemate. The diffusion of global power not only makes civil wars more threatening, it also makes their resolution more problematic.

The costs of intervention. The instruments that are available to external actors to address civil wars can be arrayed along a continuum that is defined by cost and lead-actor identity. It is easiest to think of these instruments as falling into three bundles. The first is characterized by unilateral or multilateral foreign military interventions, usually accompanied by robust aid and development programs, designed to install a friendly government or reinforce a threatened state. The second encompasses various kinds of foreign assistance focused on improving governance, boosting the economy, and strengthening indigenous security forces. The third, consists of what several authors in this collection have termed the standard treatment for ending civil wars: namely, peacekeeping operations (PKOs) administered by the United Nations or regional organizations, plus some assistance.

Unilateral and multilateral (“coalitions of the willing”) are often hugely expensive undertakings. Well-equipped and well-paid volunteer military forces of the wealthy democracies of the world are sent abroad at a high cost to taxpayers. The price of just one U.S. Army soldier or Marine serving in Iraq or Afghanistan for one year at the height of President George W. Bush’s military surge, in the first instance, and President Barack Obama’s military surge, in the second, was estimated at $1 million. The entire UN peacekeeping budget in 2016 was about $8 billion and paid for the deployment of ninety thousand blue helmets per annum, or about $88,000 per peacekeeper per year. This is not to argue that UN blue helmets would have succeeded in either Iraq or Afghanistan; there was no peace to keep and they decidedly would have failed. But the difference in cost is stark.

As costs and casualties mount, political opposition within the countries of the contributing forces rises. Progress remains elusive due to the misaligned interests of the domestic elites and those of the intervening powers, the presence of irreconcilables, or the hand of opposing powers. Strategic opportunity costs become more evident and levels of ambition decrease. Delivering credible commitments to host-nation partners becomes impossible. The search for an exit strategy becomes a policy priority. A wealthy democracy will only sustain an extended costly foreign military intervention aimed at quelling a civil war when there is a domestic political consensus that a vital national interest is at stake, which will be rare.

In instances in which political and security conditions do not permit the application of UN PKOs, foreign assistance comes at far lower costs than unilateral and multilateral military interventions (foreign aid is far cheaper than direct military action). Again, the challenges of the misalignment of domestic and external actors’ interests loom large, but with a lighter footprint, monitoring of the aid rendered becomes even more problematic. As noted by Stephen Biddle, indigenous security forces rarely meet the expectations of their foreign patrons. This can become a severe and often intractable problem when irreconcilables are present on the battlefield or capable opposing powers decide to meddle.

However, contingency matters. There are situations in which this approach can achieve success. Colombia, whose peace process is examined by Aila Matanock and Miguel García-Sánchez, provides an excellent example.17 A middle ground between the first two approaches, in which the intervening power militarily focuses its security assistance efforts on training, equipping, and enabling small numbers of indigenous special operations forces rather than attempting to build and maintain large, expensive conventional formations, might also be feasible. Indigenous special operations forces can be closely monitored, are cost-effective, and do not pose to domestic political rulers existential political threats or offer the irresistible rent-seeking opportunities that big armies do. In Colombia, however, at least part of the national elite was supportive of U.S. assistance because the position of that elite was endangered by narcotics cartels and left-wing guerrillas. The recent battlefield successes of Iraqi and Afghan special operations forces, mentored and enabled by U.S. special operations forces, also make this option worthy of further exploration.

Mediated peace agreements monitored by the UN (or regional organizations) and including peacekeeping forces are far less expensive than unilateral intervention by a major power for any extended period of time. There have been seventy-one UN PKOs since 1948; sixteen operations are ongoing. At the end of 2016, there were over ninety thousand troops involved in UN operations. Among the ongoing missions with more than one thousand committed personnel in December 2016, the longest lasting have been Cyprus since 1964, Lebanon since 1978, Liberia since 2003, and the Ivory Coast since 2004. The longest UN PKO still in operation is the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan, which has been in place since 1948, but only has 111 individuals committed to its mission.

Troops and police in peacekeeping operations, however, rarely fight their way into a country. Casualties are usually very low. PKOs usually help to keep the peace after national actors have reached some kind of agreement. Both sides recognize that they are in a hurting stalemate that neither can win. Combatants are motivated by conventional material objectives; they accept the existing international order. They are not motivated by ideological or religious concerns that lead them to reject compromise of any kind. As Richard Gowan and Stephen Stedman highlight, PKOs work best when there are a limited number of national parties, when there are no hostile neighbors, when there are no national spoilers, and when there is a functioning state. Under the best possible circumstances, a peace agreement guaranteed by a UN PKO may have to be in place for an extended and indefinite period of time if a new outbreak of hostilities is to be avoided.

In many cases, UN peacekeeping efforts will not work at all. If one of the contending parties believes that it can win outright, which, as Sumit Ganguly explains, is what happened in Sri Lanka, then the stronger party will not agree to external mediation and the interposition of a peacekeeping force. Nor will a combatant motivated by ideological concerns that reject the extant sovereign state system. Peacekeeping operations are, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno explains, in tension with some fundamental norms that have informed the UN system, especially the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of other states.18 Peacekeeping operations require a consensus among the major powers. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, the number of UN PKOs requiring the approval of both the United States and the Soviet Union were limited. In fact, the amount of UN peacekeeping operations may have already peaked in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, when the United States held exceptional unilateral power. As Barry Posen suggests, as the world becomes more multilateral, it will be more difficult for the major powers to agree on peacekeeping operations, even in the absence of jihadi movements that reject the extant international order.19

There is a strong argument to be made, however, that the standard treatment regime offers cost-effective therapy when the conditions are right. PKOs are less expensive than military interventions by troops from advanced industrialized countries, especially the United States. The UN’s 2016 peacekeeping budget of $8 billion is less than 2 percent of the budget of the United States Department of Defense. In 2016, the United States contributed about 29 percent of the UN PKO budget, which amounted to less than 1 percent of its own defense budget. The largest expense for PKOs is personnel, and most troops are drawn from developing countries whose pay scale is far less than that of militaries in the industrialized north. In 2016, the largest number of troops came from Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Rwanda, all of which contributed more than five thousand troops; the United States contributed thirty-four. And since 1948, there have been 3,508 fatalities associated with UN peacekeeping missions, amounting to an average of sixty deaths per year.

The results have been noteworthy. As James Fearon writes: “A remarkable 41 percent of the civil wars that have ended since 1991 (twenty-one out of fifty-one) have had UN PKOs. This does not mean that the PKO (and associated postconflict aid regime) caused or secured a durable peace in each case. But the evidence from comparisons of similar ‘treated’ and untreated cases suggests that PKOs probably lower conflict recurrence and may increase the feasibility of peace deals that would be less likely without this third-party monitoring and enforcement instrument.”20 Moreover, as Clare Lockhart and as Nancy Lindborg and Joseph Hewitt point out in their essays, well-designed, targeted, and monitored development assistance can help improve governance and economies when conditions are suitable, which they may be when UN PKOs can be effectively deployed.21 Still, the subset of ongoing and yet-to-emerge civil wars amenable to the standard treatment may be shrinking as the great-power cooperation appears to be declining, militant international jihadists are unlikely to agree to mediation, and America’s appetite for large-scale foreign military interventions that entail nation-building has declined dramatically over the past decade (see Table 1).

Policy Option


Necessary Conditions



Possibility of Success

Standard Treatment


No irreconcilables, no great-power conflict, mutually recognized hurting stalemate

UN peacekeepers, foreign assistance

Security, but no necessary improvement in governance

if conditions are met

Adequate Governance

Medium to Low

Central or regional governments that can effectively police their territory, closed-access or exclusive order, no irreconcilables

Foreign and security assistance

Security, some service provision, some economic growth

Medium to high, if conditions are met

Path to Denmark (Democracy, Economic Growth, Protection of Human Rights)

High to Medium

Transitioning society

Foreign assistance to groups favoring more open order

Open-access order

Uncertain even in transitioning polities; impossible in closed-access polities

Give War a Chance

Potentially low if military victory is achievable

One side or government has dominant power

Destruction of opposition

Security, but no necessary improvement in governance

High, if conditions are met

Long-Term Military Intervention by Major Power

Very High

Irreconcilables, no hurting stalemate, limited government capacity

U.S. or other forces

Security and governance improvement

Low, especially with regard to improved governance

Short-Term Special Forces or Raiding Parties

Medium to Low

Irreconcilables, no hurting stalemate, limited state capacity

U.S. or other special forces



The essays in these two issues of Dædalus suggest that external actors, especially external actors from the advanced industrialized world, confront a daunting task in addressing the problems posed by weak government institutions and civil war. The challenges arise both because of the nature of the threats and the character of the political environment within which external interventions might be conducted. The threats associated with civil wars and badly governed states are pandemic disease, transnational terrorism, migration, regional instability, great-power conflict, and crime. Although the first two of these threats could have direct and serious negative material consequences for advanced industrialized countries, they do not pose existential risks that could destroy the basic political order in wealthy democratic states. Severe shocks, however, could lessen – temporarily at least – commitments to liberal political values and norms.

These two threats – pandemic disease and transnational terrorism – demand a response, but this does not mean that the advanced industrialized democracies must address every civil war. The most effective measures for addressing the threat of pandemic disease (the sources of which are limited to particular regions of the world) would be either to strengthen the national health services of states where epidemics might begin or, if the domestic governance structure is too weak, strengthen the international capacity for monitoring and identifying national epidemics that could become pandemics. The most vexing situations, and the ones germane to this study, are those in which national health services are deficient and civil strife prevents international agencies from operating effectively. If an easily transmissible new disease vector arises in human populations in areas impacted by civil strife, this would warrant the use of a short-term military intervention. The intervention would be designed to facilitate the work of trained public health officials who could monitor, identify, and possibly develop treatment regimes to mitigate the possibility of a global pandemic.

The other threat that might warrant the use of military operations by the United States or some other major power is transnational terrorism. In the contemporary period, transnational terrorism has been primarily (although not exclusively) generated by Salafist Islamic groups that reject the basic principles of the extant international order. Safe havens facilitate terrorist training. Major terrorist attacks, especially attacks involving dirty nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons, or biological agents could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. The most effective response would be to put in place a national regime that could guarantee security and contain transnational terrorism. Such a regime might not protect human rights or adopt policies consistent with civilian accountability. If external actors cannot establish or support an effective national regime, the only option might be a raiding strategy designed to destroy or degrade terrorist targets.

Even, however, in the case of the two threats that could have a major impact on the material interests of advanced industrialized democracies – pandemics or transnational terrorism – national military operations, if they are undertaken at all, should be short-term and targeted. Differences in the preferences between elites in advanced wealthy democracies and those in polities affected by civil strife are so great that there is little possibility of achieving good governance. The best that external actors can hope for is adequate governance. Short-term targeted military interventions could achieve this objective. Ambitious, protracted, expensive (and usually unsustainable) armed interventions will fail to accomplish more. Finding and proceeding along the path to Denmark is not a realistic possibility.

The standard treatment is more cost-effective than the use of military forces from advanced industrialized democracies. UN peacekeeping is less expensive and less dangerous than deploying national military forces. However, the standard treatment can only be applied under certain specific conditions. None of the major antagonists can be irreconcilables. All of the major antagonists must recognize that they are in a hurting stalemate that no party can win and that international mediation is the best option. The major powers must all agree that a UN peacekeeping mission is appropriate.

Migration, regional instability, and possible great-power conflict are a second set of threats that could be consequential for advanced industrialized democracies. These threats only arise, however, as a result of policy choices that have been made by the major powers. Not every civil conflict generates such threats. Migration, regional instability, and potential great-power conflict are, however, much more of a threat in the Middle East, where jihadi movements are active and which is geographically close to Europe. Some European states have already reacted to the increase in migrant flows by writing new rules that have limited new entrants and represent at least a temporary retreat from previous norms of generosity and openness. Broader regional conflicts breaking along intermixed sectarian, national, and ethnic lines are being spawned by Middle Eastern civil wars. And of even greater concern, the U.S. and Russian militaries are operating in close proximity, supporting opposing warring factions. The continuing diffusion of global power and redefining of major and regional powers’ geographic areas of interest may increase the risks civil wars pose to international order.

There are many civil wars in the international environment for which there is no fully satisfactory solution. The interests of domestic and external actors are usually not aligned and are sometimes in conflict. Ambitious efforts to engineer political and social transformations among peoples who do not share a deep sense of national identity and whose norms are inconsistent with those of the intervening power are likely to fail. If good governance is not a realistic short-term goal, however, adequate governance might be.

The type of interventions selected must be based upon the interests and resources of the external actors and the conditions within the conflicted country and its surrounding region. Large unilateral and multilateral military operations will likely fail if protracted and, over time, the intervening power concludes no vital national security interest is at stake. Foreign assistance to improve governance and economic performance and strengthen indigenous security forces is less expensive and hence sustainable, but will often flounder under the combined effects of misaligned interests, external/internal actor principal-agent problems, or irreconcilables. The standard treatment including the use of UN PKOs has a proven (though far from perfect) track record, but will only be acceptable to combatants if they recognize that they are in a hurting stalemate, if there is agreement among all of the major powers, which will be increasingly difficult in a more multipolar world, and if none of the combatants are motivated by ideological or religious concerns, which do not allow for compromise. If the threats are significant and the standard treatment cannot be applied, then the use of short-term and targeted national military force or containment will be the only options.


1 Charles Boix, “Democracy, Development, and the International System,” American Political Science Review 105 (4) (2011).

2 Paul H. Wise and Michele Barry, “Civil War & the Global Threat of Pandemics,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

3 Martha Crenshaw, “Transnational Jihadism & Civil Wars,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

4 Sarah Kenyon Lischer, “The Global Refugee Crisis: Regional Destabilization & Humanitarian Protection,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

5 Seyoum Mesfin and Abdeta Dribssa Beyene, “The Practicalities of Living with Failed States,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).

6 Barry R. Posen, “Civil Wars & the Structure of World Power,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

7 Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Organized Crime, Illicit Economies, Civil Violence & International Order: More Complex Than You Think,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

8 James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).

9 Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012).

10 James D. Fearon, “Civil War & the Current International System,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

11 Desha Girod, Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Michael Ross, The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012).

12 Stephen Biddle, “Building Security Forces & Stabilizing Nations: The Problem of Agency,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

13 William Reno, “Fictional States & Atomized Public Spheres: A Non-Western Approach to Fragility,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

14 Steven Heydemann, “Civil War, Economic Governance & State Reconstruction in the Arab Middle East,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).

15 Tanisha M. Fazal, “Religionist Rebels & the Sovereignty of the Divine,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018); and Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Jihadi Rebels in Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).

16 Sumit Ganguly, “Ending the Sri Lankan Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).

17 Aila M. Matanock and Miguel García-Sánchez, “The Colombian Paradox: Peace Processes, Elite Divisions & Popular Plebiscites,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).

18 Jean-Marie Guéhenno, “The United Nations & Civil Wars,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).

19 Posen, “Civil Wars & the Structure of World Power.”

20 Fearon, “Civil War & the Current International System.”

21 Clare Lockhart, “Sovereignty Strategies: Enhancing Core Governance Functions as a Postconflict and Conflict-Prevention Measure,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018); and Nancy E. Lindborg and J. Joseph Hewitt, “In Defense of Ambition: Building Peaceful & Inclusive Societies in a World on Fire,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).