Civil Wars and ThreatsBack to table of contents
Trends in and the Nature of Civil Wars and Intrastate Violence
Since the end of World War II, the number of wars among great powers has dropped precipitously. With the exception of the Korean War, no war since 1945 has directly involved more than one major power. Various explanations have been offered for this decline, including changes in fundamental values, the spread of nuclear weapons, economic growth and increasing economic interdependence, and the strength of international norms and institutions.4 We have not attempted to adjudicate this discussion.
As the number of wars involving great powers has decreased, however, the number of civil conflicts has increased just as precipitously. That number peaked in 1992 at 48 but has since decreased and stabilized at around 30 civil wars at any given time.5 Despite this decline, as James Fearon points out in his Dædalus essay, one region has remained particularly afflicted: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The number of civil wars associated with jihadi movements has also increased.
The increase in civil wars is partly the result of the triumph of sovereignty. At the end of World War II, there were about sixty states. Today the UN has 193 members. Many of these new states are poorly governed, as William Reno argues in his Dædalus essay. Numerous states have assumed the responsibilities of modern states but lack the resources to meet these responsibilities effectively. Power is highly personalized in many of these states, and their leaders seek to weaken or dissolve institutions and undermine social groups that might breed opposition.6
Historically, civil wars have typically ended in one of two ways: outright victory by one of the parties or power-sharing.7 Power-sharing is difficult; without a third party, it is challenging to make and execute credible commitments. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has been the most important facilitator of credible third-party commitments. The UN’s ability to act is constrained, however, by the need to first reach agreement among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The “Peacekeeping Operation Plus” (PKO-plus) regime, which involves mediation, peacekeepers, and foreign assistance, has not worked in every case, but it has worked in many.8
The decline in the number of civil wars since the mid-1990s is plausibly related to the PKO-plus regime, which has brought an end to many intrastate conflicts. However, as Fearon argues, the PKO-plus regime is especially difficult to implement in the MENA region because of disagreements among the five permanent Security Council members and other regional powers and because external intervention is likely to increase the appeal of jihadi movements. Proxy wars have become more common, complicating policy responses by major powers operating primarily through the UN. Peacekeeping operations have been more common outside the Middle East, as Table 1 shows.9
Table 1: Number of Peacekeeping Operations since 1989, by Region
|Region||Number of peacekeeping operations ended or ongoing after 1989|
|Middle East and North Africa (MENA)||6|
Notes: Regional groups are defined based on UN geographic regions, except for the MENA region, which is based on the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies regional grouping. Specific countries and subregions included are: Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, and Yemen; Asia—including Central Asia, Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, Southern Asia (except Iran), and Western Asia; Sub-Saharan Africa—including Sudan, South Sudan, and Western Sahara, plus all other Eastern Africa, Middle Africa, Western Africa, and Southern Africa countries; Eastern Europe—including Eastern and Southern Europe; and Latin America/Caribbean—including Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. We are grateful to James Fearon for highlighting this regional variation prior to 2014 in his Dædalus essay for this project.
Sources: Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, “Middle East and North Africa,” accessed November 13, 2020. UN geographic regions are drawn from UN Statistics Division, “Methodology: Standard Country or Area Codes for Statistical Use (M49),” United Nations Statistics Division, accessed November 13, 2020. UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, “List of Peacekeeping Operations, 1948–2019,” accessed November 13, 2020.
Civil wars have also ended because of a decisive victory by one side, as in the case of Sri Lanka. As Sumit Ganguly writes in his essay for Dædalus, government forces destroyed the Tamil rebels who began the war in 1983 in response to repressive policies dating back to the colonial era. Decisive victory did not, however, mean that the grievances that led to civil war had been resolved. The victory of government forces over the rebels brought a definitive end to the war but did not remove the seeds of the conflict.10
- 4Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking, 2011); Kenneth Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better, Adelphi Papers, no. 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981); and Thomas S. Szayna, Stephen Watts, Angela O’Mahony, Bryan Frederick, and Jennifer Kavanagh, What Are the Trends in Armed Conflicts, and What Do They Mean for U.S. Defense Policy? (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2017).
- 5James D. Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 19.
- 6William Reno, “Fictional States and Atomized Public Spheres: A Non-Western Approach to Fragility,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 139.
- 7Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” 22.
- 8Ibid., 25.
- 9As Fearon points out, Asia has also not had many PKOs since 1990. He attributes this, in part, to the “much larger share of autonomy-seeking conflicts in this region (autonomy-seeking wars are in general less likely to get PKOs).” Ibid., 32. See also Michael Gilligan and Stephen John Stedman, “Where Do the Peacekeepers Go?” International Studies Review 5 (4) (2003), on the infrequency of PKOs in Asia.
- 10Sumit Kumar Ganguly, “Ending the Sri Lankan Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 78.
Assessing the Threats to International Security and to U.S. National Security
Specialists disagree about the threat posed by failed states and weak regimes to international and, especially, U.S. national security. Some argue that the threat to those outside the state in question is minimal, even when internal misery is great. In their contributions to the project, for example, Stewart Patrick, Bruce Jones, and Stephen Stedman express skepticism about the external threats posed by failing states. Smaller states possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as North Korea and Pakistan, may be categorized as weak but do not represent a case likely to be replicated in failed states wracked by civil war. Jones and Stedman point out that close monitoring of these government actors could help mitigate the threat posed by weaker and possibly brittle states with WMD. If Pakistan or North Korea were to collapse into civil violence, the consequences could be particularly disastrous. Nonstate actors might procure nuclear weapons, with severe consequences, though the chances of this happening are limited.
Other authors see the threats as more substantial. Martha Crenshaw, Tanisha Fazal, and Stathis Kalyvas point out that jihadi rebels pose a particular problem. Such actors reject the modern state system and the idea of sovereignty and are often loath to make compromises. The “standard treatment” has not proven effective for ending conflicts involving such groups.
Thomas Risse and Eric Stollenwerk argue that poor governance has been the norm rather than the exception in many parts of the world. However, some problems are more likely to be spawned by poorly governed states. Thus, Wise and Barry note that global health structures are “largely incapable of operating effectively in countries with poor health systems and weak governance” and that global pandemics can threaten international order. States experiencing internal violence pose significant risks for the spread of easily transmittable, lethal infectious diseases.11 Polio, for example, has persisted in war-torn regions of Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.12
As Wise and Barry point out, most new diseases have jumped from animals to human beings. Further, research shows state failure can aid the spread of infectious disease, as with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise in Mycobacterium tuberculosis drug resistance. Vegard Eldholm, John H. Pettersson, Ola B. Brynildsrud, and colleagues argue that armed conflict and population displacement are likely to have aided the export of this drug-resistant bacteria from Central Asia to war-torn Afghanistan and beyond.13 And, as we saw in 2020, even China, which has invested extensively in its public health system, can become the source of a global pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has made even clearer the scale of the threat posed by infectious disease. While the effects of the current healthcare crisis are yet to be fully assessed, they will likely include severe political and economic consequences, particularly as the pandemic worsens in those countries with poor healthcare systems. Moreover, novel pathogens that are more contagious than COVID-19 and have higher mortality rates will likely evolve in the years ahead—or be artificially engineered.
Transnational terrorism associated with civil war poses a challenge for states and international institutions. Crenshaw writes that civil wars can benefit terrorist organizations by offering safe havens, increasing opportunities to expand their recruiting base, and providing justification for strikes against their homelands and the interests of intervening states.14 Fazal offers that negotiations with religionist rebels who profess a belief in the sovereignty of the divine can be futile, making conflict termination difficult.15
Additionally, refugee flows from states with high levels of intrastate violence, as Sarah Lischer points out, have increased.16 This has posed a challenge to some developed states where humanitarian ideals have proven to be shallow. Opportunities for transnational crime and illicit economies, including the illegal drug and arms trades, increase in countries with poor internal security, but law enforcement still operates in a world of sovereign states. Vanda Felbab-Brown argues that attempts to control transnational crime may be counterproductive, undermining counterterrorism efforts or causing further spillover of criminality to other nations, sometimes worsening the everyday reality for common citizens as well.17
- 11Wise and Barry, “Civil War and the Global Threat of Pandemics,” 72.
- 12“Does Polio Still Exist? Is It Curable?” World Health Organization, January 20, 2020.
- 13Vegard Eldholm, John H. Pettersson, Ola B. Brynildsrud, et al., “Armed Conflict and Population Displacement as Drivers of the Evolution and Dispersal of Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (48) (2016): 13881–13886.
- 14Martha Crenshaw, “Transnational Jihadism and Civil Wars,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 68.
- 15Tanisha M. Fazal, “Religionist Rebels and the Sovereignty of the Divine,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 33.
- 16Sarah Kenyon Lischer, “The Global Refugee Crisis: Regional Destabilization and Humanitarian Protection,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 85–97.
- 17Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Organized Crime, Illicit Economies, Civil Violence, and International Order: More Complex Than You Think,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 98.
One of the defining characteristics of the contemporary period is the break between the ability to do harm and underlying capabilities. The ability to do harm is limited by available technology. An individual with a knife or handgun can kill only a few people. In the contemporary world an individual armed with nuclear weapons, dirty nuclear bombs, or biologicals could kill hundreds, thousands, or even millions. As the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which commercial airliners were turned into missiles that killed about three thousand people, have shown, individuals or a small number of people can now cause death at levels previously associated only with wars and organized violence.
Two of the defining international developments of this century have thus not been events engineered in Washington, Beijing, or Brussels, but, on the one hand, a terrorist attack masterminded by the leader of Al Qaeda from an impoverished and internationally isolated Afghanistan, and, on the other hand, the spread of the novel coronavirus like a bolt out of the blue. Hence, policy-makers are faced with the difficult problem of knowing how to allocate resources to deal with problems in regions of the world about which they know and usually care little until the moment of crisis arrives.
Additional uncertainties arise with a dictator’s sudden demise, either as the result of internal revolt or because of an outside power’s intervention to effect regime change. The collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 led to a boom in Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation. The ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 ushered in years of mayhem and large numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq; it also opened the door to Iranian influence and the eventual rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) caliphate. President Barack Obama declared in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s despot, must go. Implicit in his declaration was the belief that good governance and stability would follow.18 Assad remains in power, but his weakened grip has led to immense human suffering, contributed to the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in European countries that received waves of Syrian refugees, and provided both Moscow and Tehran with regional influence unimagined one decade earlier.
The same argument can be applied to the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. The toppling of such tyrants as Gaddafi and Hussein may offer a sense of justice to those who suffered under their oppression but does not necessarily prevent even greater humanitarian suffering, high levels of intrastate violence, significant displacement of people desperate to reach areas of political stability and economic opportunity, and openings for America’s global rivals. Given these security risks, the United States and other countries cannot ignore poorly governed or weak malign states; nor can it simply transform them into well-governed democratic polities on a path to Denmark.