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Since 1945, the major problem in the international system has been civil war rather than war among the major powers. While intrastate rather than interstate conflict is the defining characteristic of civil wars today, their consequences are far-reaching and carry implications for many actors outside those directly involved in the conflict. For many Americans, the events of September 11, 2001, brought to light the notion that actors from and developments in poor states can do a great deal of harm.
States with civil violence can generate threats that include, but are not limited to, transnational terrorism, pandemics, mass migration and refugee flows, and regional instability. The extent of these threats and what can be done about them is still a matter of debate. The threats are complex and do not solely originate from civil wars. However, the severe risks they pose warrant revaluation of existing U.S. approaches and careful evaluation of future options for preventing and mitigating intrastate violence. The risks cannot be mitigated by quixotic interventions unrealistically undertaken in the hope of quickly and cheaply delivering externally engineered political and societal change to target states. Nor are risks abated by building walls high and defending at the shoreline. More modest and specific goals aimed at realistic outcomes might allow the United States and the international community to successfully prevent or limit the damage that can result from civil wars.
In 2015, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences invited a group of experts to reflect on these questions as part of a project titled “Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses.” The results of this project, which we cochaired, are found in two issues of Dædalus that were published in Fall 2017 and Winter 2018. The authors’ essays are referenced throughout this paper. In addition, with select Dædalus contributors, we held meetings with experts around the world. These included sessions in New York with representatives of the United Nations (UN) and the Council on Foreign Relations; in Washington, D.C., with U.S. government officials; and in Beijing, Geneva, and Abuja with academics and research analysts. This paper is a synthesis of these conversations, data, and observations; the policy recommendations are our own and not necessarily those of the Dædalus authors.
A surprising theme emerged through this work. The universal adoption of the sovereign state system coupled with weak institutions in many new countries has often led to instability and civil strife. Nevertheless, in the post–Cold War era, this strife has not generally threatened the stability of the system or more powerful states with stronger institutions. The threats to stability and the international system seen today primarily come from one region: the broader Middle East and North Africa. Other areas, too, have suffered from civil wars, but these conflicts, while devastating for the people in the affected areas, have not threatened the overall stability of the international system in the same way. This could change for the worse, however, should the world experience several years of economic depression with a concomitant rise in popular discontent in already-poor states and the growth of proxy warfare on behalf of major and regional powers, as witnessed in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Richard Gowan and Stephen Stedman argue in their Dædalus contribution that in many places the “standard treatment” (a combination of mediation and UN or regional peacekeeping forces, along with some foreign assistance) has worked surprisingly well for responding to civil wars in the post–Cold War era.2 However, external actors are still seriously limited in their ability to put countries confidently on the path to consolidated democracy and prosperity. This leaves unresolved challenges and the potential for future violence.
The Academy’s “Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses” project has yielded several major conclusions:
- Under certain circumstances, civil wars pose threats to major powers and regional stability. Two of the key threats are transnational terrorism and pandemic disease, both of which can have devastating global reach. In their Dædalus essay, Paul Wise and Michele Barry explore the “potential that civil wars can elevate the risk that an infectious outbreak will emerge.”3 The same logic applies to transnational terrorism. Civil wars can also generate mass migration, regional instability, and conflict among major powers.
- The nature of civil wars varies largely based on the motivations of participants. Where combatants are motivated by material objectives and accept the principles of the existing international order, most notably state sovereignty, the “standard treatment” can be effective. This is especially true in situations where the great powers are in agreement and the combatants have reached a stalemate, or where one of the combatants wins, as was the case in Sri Lanka in 2009. However, in situations where combatants reject the existing international order, as with some transnational ideological movements today, the “standard treatment” will not work.
- Intervention presents a variety of potential pitfalls for foreign powers who set goals that are unrealistic, overly ambitious, or not shaped by local political realities. This is true not only for interventions employing military force but for other types of intervention, including technical assistance and foreign aid. Ambitious efforts to sustain and increase economic growth, eliminate corruption, and consolidate democracy may be counterproductive if they are incompatible with the interests of local elites. Externally brokered political settlements enforced by the UN or regional peacekeepers have proven to be a relatively low-cost option for achieving security and stability over the last thirty years. However, the “standard treatment” works only under certain circumstances.
Civil wars are complex and present the United States, its partners, and the decision-makers in multinational and international organizations with difficult choices. These are complex problems that the U.S. government cannot ignore. This paper discusses the following policy principles that we, as project cochairs, identified over the course of the project’s research and outreach phases:
- Goal-setting should be approached with modesty and humility because there are limits to what external intervention can achieve.
- Even modest goals should come with strict periodization to avoid overreach.
- External intervention should focus on what is realistically achievable: “good enough” governance. This means prioritizing relative security, stability, the functioning of some essential institutions, and moderate economic growth, even when that means accepting some difficult trade-offs.
- Military development assistance, diplomatic doctrines, and associated training must be revised in accordance with this emphasis on modest, realistic goals.
- When conditions make the prospects for success realistic, support UN-led application of the “standard treatment.”