Possible Policy ResponsesBack to table of contents
Factors Impacting Policy Options and Responses
Shifts in the Balance of Global Power
Following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the United States was the dominant power in the international system. Since about 2005, some scholars have argued, the international system has been shifting toward multipolarity. Several powers have emerged to challenge U.S. leadership. Moreover, the United States under President Donald Trump seems to be accelerating its diplomatic and military disengagement globally, save for the Indo-Pacific region. This trend may be slowed but likely not reversed by subsequent American administrations. Moreover, the rise of more ambitious regional powers moving into vacuums created by the waning U.S. influence and physical presence further complicates the geopolitical landscape.
Barry Posen observes that this shift in the distribution of power “seems likely to magnify disagreements about how states suffering civil wars should be stabilized, limit preventive diplomacy, produce external intervention that will make for longer and more destructive wars, and render settlements more difficult to police.”19 This leads to more complicated interventions, negotiated settlements, and an increased likelihood of proxy wars. Agreement among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is elusive, making the “standard treatment” or PKO-plus regime less accessible as a solution to civil conflict.20 We have seen this in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Rising multipolarity also increases the likelihood that external spoilers will be present and will make peace processes more complex.21
Fearon points out that not only are civil wars lasting longer, but the average duration of UN peacekeeping operations is also increasing.22 During a series of outreach conversations that the Academy’s project on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses conducted with the UN in New York, experts there expressed concern about the UN’s limited logistical capabilities and capacity to respond to conflict. UN PKOs have worked very successfully under certain circumstances, but we are hearing more frequently that they might not be a sustainable solution going forward.
First, because American military interventions during the post–World War II era have often transformed what in reality are excruciatingly complex, intractable sociopolitical problems into binary armed struggles between the forces of good and evil, UN decisions to commit forces to maintain peace often serve to delay, indefinitely, the harder task of negotiating a lasting end to the violence. Second, there is no consensus regarding what models of political and economic development are appropriate. The United States, Canada, and the West European democratic states have traditionally employed classic liberal approaches emphasizing the establishment of inclusive political and open-market systems, whereas China and other donors focus on infrastructure and economic growth. During conversations between our project members and experts in Beijing and Geneva, practitioners and scholars reinforced the notion that the current model of humanitarianism (developed during the Cold War) no longer works as it was intended. They argued for the adoption of more limited objectives.23
Ruling Coalitions and Elites’ Goals and Interests
Lacking language skills and cultural awareness, and often unwilling or unable to create needed expertise over time, outsiders have great difficulty truly understanding the political realities in poorly governed states ruled by factions driven to retain and not share power. Moreover, elites have every reason to prevaricate, especially if they believe this will benefit them financially or politically. In his Dædalus essay, William Reno writes, “state failure is rooted in decades of personalist rule, as leaders have sought to fragment and disorganize institutions and social groups that they thought would be possible bases of opposition.” Reno adds that personalist authoritarian regimes in states with histories of political violence differ from traditional authoritarian regimes because personalist regimes “rely upon capable institutions to suppress political challenges.”24 This makes outside attempts at system-level transformation particularly difficult.
Typically, at least some amount of foreign aid comes with running a government. However, Steven Heydemann remarks that patterns of economic governance during civil wars do not vary significantly from prewar patterns of economic governance, as seen with Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Further, “parties to conflict compete to capture and monopolize the benefits that flow from international recognition.” Violent conflict does not necessarily allow for postconflict institutional reform and, as with civil wars in the Middle East, does not easily yield to negotiated solutions.25
While negotiated settlements and power-sharing agreements are viable avenues through which to end a civil war, they can be difficult to construct, especially when both sides are vying for control at the national level.26 External checks such as election monitors can be manipulated. In Iraq, the United States attempted to install a government that shared power among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. Elections, however, gave power to the majority Shia sect, which preferred “exclusion, peripheral Sunni insurgency, and reliance on Iranian-allied militias to the more risky course of power-sharing at the center.”27
Aila Matanock and Miguel García-Sánchez do not argue against elections but caution that referendums can “amplify elite divisions” and thus “should not be employed to overcome elite opposition in order to strengthen peace processes.”28 Instead, elite-led negotiations that “seek to satisfy each faction” may have a better chance of resulting in a signed agreement. As efforts in Colombia demonstrated, “including representatives of the voters . . . may be a way to achieve some degree of inclusivity without the same risk of amplifying elite divisions.”29
Other factors can also hamper efforts to impose change from the outside. Corruption is hard to eradicate. Rent-seeking practices designed to increase profit for politicians and other elites can easily be moved from one part of the government to another. Existing institutional frameworks are used to maintain corrupt systems even after ruling powers are removed. Reno calls attention to the fact that the recession of formal state institutions does not leave ungoverned spaces in their wake; rather, “the dense networks of personalist political systems occupy that social space: ungovernable in a conventional sense, but an important element of a political system that is based upon using indirect means of domination to limit peoples’ capacities to organize politically.”30
Citing West Africa as an example, Felbab-Brown highlights the fact that many ruling elites, fearing coups, allow their militaries and political institutions to crumble, leaving states susceptible to dangerous criminal flows.31 External pressure to reform can lead to internal collapse and greater, prolonged violence.32 This, in turn, can lead to regional instability and international criminal networks that are nearly impossible to contain.
Even countries such as Brazil and Turkey, with relatively high per capita incomes, have elected individuals whose commitment to democracy is shaky. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party in Turkey, the AKP, recently lost elections in the country’s four largest cities, including Istanbul, where the initial election was negated by the election commission on flimsy grounds (the AKP candidate then lost even more decisively in the rerun held in late June 2019). Whether Erdoğan will go quietly if he loses reelection in 2023 remains to be seen.
In some cases, especially where significant external motivations are present, these challenges can be overcome, as with Croatia and Serbia.33 However, norms and institutions usually take decades or even centuries to take shape and become entrenched. Great Britain, as Fukuyama reminds us, struggled thorough centuries of bloody civil wars and domestic turmoil before a commitment to nationhood and rule of law took hold.34 Foreign interveners, eager to declare an early victory, often have unrealistic expectations about the pace of political and social change that can be imposed from the outside. Even when norms do appear to shift, it is not always clear how external actors can help sustain the momentum and avoid reversals. A misalignment of interests internally or externally, as well as clashing norms, can mean the quick failure of any well-intentioned efforts aimed at successful state-building or governance-building.35
Conflicts Involving Actors Who Do Not Seek Traditional State Sovereignty
Conflicts associated with jihadi rebels are particularly challenging. Fazal categorizes those who use religious justification for their cause and reject the current Westphalian notion of the state as “religionist rebels.” For these rebels, including members of ISIS and other groups across the MENA region, sovereignty derives not from the state but from the divine. As such, these groups are unlikely to engage in formal state relations or negotiations and do not accept territorial limits on their sovereignty claims.36
Hendrik Spruyt reinforces the notion that civil wars involving groups that reject the Westphalian system pose a unique challenge and argues that “the degree to which the combatants challenge Westphalian principles should guide policy responses.”37 While groups with local grievances should be differentiated from those with international agendas, Fazal concludes that history shows religionist rebels, while brutal in their methods, face natural limits and “do not, ultimately, present a long-term threat to the state system.”38 From this stems policy options for addressing international terrorism, the main threat to emanate from these conflicts.39
Seyoum Mesfin and Abdeta Beyene provide a concrete example of how varying degrees of sovereignty—actual and aspirational—can influence policy responses.40 In the Horn of Africa, the “buffer zone” has emerged as a key security strategy for ensuring security and relative stability for a state and its population. Through buffer-zone areas such as the “Republic of Somaliland” and the “Puntland State of Somalia,” Ethiopia both insulates itself from the violence and instability present in Somalia and ensures relatively stability and security for people living in these zones.41 This is particularly significant given the presence of Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist group that threatens the region’s security and stability.
(Mis)alignment of Information and Interests
Following nearly two decades of military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public holds a deep skepticism of large-scale military or foreign assistance interventions, especially those not linked to a clear and present danger (and despite the fact that such interventions can be more effective for mitigating and preventing violence over the long term).42 Obama’s and Trump’s approaches to national security and foreign involvement reflect this. Stephen Biddle posits that “many now see ‘small-footprint’ security force assistance (SFA)—training, advising, and equipping allied militaries—as an alternative to large U.S. ground-force commitments to stabilize weak states.”43 However, he argues that small footprints usually mean small payoffs, and SFA is not a substitute for large unilateral troop deployments. This is largely due to interest misalignments between the provider (or principal—e.g., the United States in the case of Iraq) and the recipient (or agent—e.g., the Iraqi Shia political elite). While U.S. security assistance conspicuously rewards the efforts of those states that profess themselves to be at war with the most prominent international terrorist groups, these same states—consumed by a daunting array of other security threats—may elect to use this assistance in unforeseen ways. Diverging interests, information asymmetry, and moral hazard all lead to outcomes that are other than those initially desired.44 Fearon suggests that “for many civil war–torn or ‘postconflict’ societies, third parties do not know how to help locals build a self-governing, self-financing state within UN-recognized borders or, in some cases, any borders.”45
Clare Lockhart advocates for an approach that falls between those that have been implemented most heavily over the last two decades, namely, military forces and large-scale civilian assistance (Afghanistan and Iraq), minimal involvement (Syria), or removing a dictator and hoping a short-term peace deal will lead to long-term success (Libya). Lockhart offers a “sovereignty strategy” that involves carefully sequencing and establishing key state functions over an extended period to gain public trust and meet international obligations.46 Risse and Stollenwerk alternatively argue that engaging in governance-building in weak states is essential for effectively and efficiently preventing conflict, whereas strategies today frequently overstate the importance of state-building.47 Fearon and Biddle point out that, whatever the degree of statehood, the challenges to making sure external and internal interests are aligned, which is essential for successful conflict prevention over both the short and long term, are significant.48
- 19Barry R. Posen, “Civil Wars and the Structure of World Power,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 167.
- 20“The use of the veto by Russia and China rose considerably since 2011, with the conflict in Syria accounting for the bulk of these. Since 2011, Russia cast 18 vetoes, 13 of which were on Syria. Seven of the eight Chinese vetoes during this period were over Syria and one was on Venezuela. The remaining Russian vetoes since 2011 were against two resolutions related to the conflict in Ukraine, one on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, one on sanctions against Yemen, and one on Venezuela. (The US cast three vetoes since 2011, all of them on Israel/Palestine issues.)” “The Veto,” Security Council Report, September 3, 2020.
- 21Stedman defines spoilers as “leaders and parties who believe the emerging peace threatens their power, world view, and interests and who use violence to undermine attempts to achieve it.” International actors who implement peace agreements are “the crucial difference between success and failure of spoilers.” Stephen John Stedman, “Spoiler Problems in the Peace Process,” International Security 22 (2) (Fall 1997): 5–53.
- 22“For UN PKOs addressing civil wars, the average duration increased from two years for operations in the field as of 1991 to eleven years for operations in the field as of 2014.” Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” 27.
- 23Tanisha M. Fazal, memorandum, May 2018, from workshop and side meetings in Geneva for the Academy’s Civil Wars project.
- 24Reno, “Fictional States and Atomized Public Spheres,” 139, 147.
- 25Steven Heydemann, “Civil War, Economic Governance, and State Reconstruction in the Arab Middle East,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 48.
- 26Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” 24.
- 27Ibid., 27.
- 28Aila M. Matanock and Miguel García-Sánchez, “The Colombian Paradox: Peace Processes, Elite Divisions, and Popular Plebiscites,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 152–153.
- 29Ibid., 161.
- 30Reno, “Fictional States and Atomized Public Spheres,” 147.
- 31Felbab-Brown, “Organized Crime, Illicit Economies,” 106–107.
- 32Reno, “Fictional States and Atomized Public Spheres,” 148–149.
- 33Tanja Börzel and Sonja Grimm illustrate that the European Union’s (EU) attempts at governance-building in the Western Balkans fit the limited-opportunity model outlined in this project. While domestic elites in the seven postconflict societies examined (Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Kosovo) were not exclusively rent-seeking, they had standing reasons for seeking EU membership. Tanja M. Börzel and Sonja Grimm, “Building Good (Enough) Governance in Postconflict Societies and Areas of Limited Statehood: The European Union and the Western Balkans,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 147.
- 34Francis Fukuyama, “The Last English Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 16.
- 35“[S]talemated conflicts will lead parties to accept second- or third-best outcomes, but English history, as well as more recent experiences, suggests that stability requires normative change as well.” Ibid., 15.
- 36Fazal, “Religionist Rebels,” 29.
- 37Hendrik Spruyt, “Civil Wars as Challenges to the Modern International System,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 112.
- 38Fazal, “Religionist Rebels,” 25.
- 39Stathis Kalyvas highlights the important distinctions among terms such as terrorism, civil war, insurgency, violent Islamism, and religion. Many violent Islamist groups, such as ISIS, engage in terrorism and are influenced by religion, but “too much emphasis on terrorism and religion might conceal two critical aspects of contemporary violent jihadism: its emergence in the context of civil wars and its revolutionary dimension.” This is a part of what makes conflicts involving these rebels both unique and particularly challenging. Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Jihadi Rebels in Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 37.
- 40Seyoum Mesfin and Abdeta Dribssa Beyene, “The Practicalities of Living with Failed States,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 129.
- 41These buffer zones, not diplomatically recognized in the international community, test the traditional notions of state sovereignty. Mesfin and Beyene write that “these efforts face challenges from Mogadishu: the strategy is perceived to be weakening rather than unifying Somalia because it undermines the monopoly of coercion that the political center should theoretically exercise although it currently lacks the capacity to do so. This situation creates a dilemma whereby Ethiopia is forced to infringe on the sovereign prerogatives of the de jure recognized sovereign authority of Somalia. In fact, the government of Somalia is unable to credibly guarantee to Ethiopia that these territories will not be used to threaten Ethiopia, so Ethiopia often is blamed for interference. This criticism highlights the paradox in which Ethiopia has to infringe on Somalia’s sovereignty in territories that Mogadishu is unable to control in order to ensure the fulfillment of basic obligations required of a sovereign state.” Ibid. Uganda employs a similar strategy with neighboring South Sudan.
- 42According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in May 2019, 62 percent of adults, asked to weigh the costs and benefits to the United States of the war in Iraq, said it was not worth fighting; 59 percent of adults said the same about Afghanistan. Ruth Ingielnik and Kim Parker, “Majorities of U.S. Veterans, Public Say the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Were Not Worth Fighting,” FactTank blog, Pew Research Center, July 10, 2019.
- 43Stephen D. Biddle, “Building Security Forces and Stabilizing Nations: The Problem of Agency,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017): 126.
- 44Ibid., 127.
- 45Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” 18.
- 46Karl W. Eikenberry and Stephen D. Krasner, “Introduction,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 10. See also Clare Lockhart, “Sovereignty Strategies: Enhancing Core Governance Functions as a Postconflict and Conflict-Prevention Measure,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 90–103.
- 47Thomas Risse and Eric Stollenwerk, “Limited Statehood Does Not Equal Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018): 104.
- 48Fearon, “Civil War and the Current International System,” 28–30; and Biddle, “Building Security Forces and Stabilizing Nations,” 127–128.