Interventions and Civil Conflicts: Tools of Conflict Management or Simply Another Participant?

Article excerpt

The end of the cold war has brought increased attention to managing internal conflicts. The United Nations alone has seen a multifold increase in the number of peacekeeping operations it has engaged in, and various other national and multinational efforts have become more frequent. Many questions remain about the effectiveness of efforts to manage or ameliorate the consequences of internal conflicts. Most studies have focused on the role of diplomatic efforts to resolve internal disputes. It is only recently that scholarship has begun to focus on the role of outside military and/or economic interventions. Presumably, when outside parties intervene in an internal conflict some form of conflict management is at the core of their motivation. Interveners may prefer their ally to prevail, but one would think that prevailing at an acceptable cost and in a reasonable time frame would be critical to an effective outcome. In effect, outside interventions in internal conflicts can be thought of as attempts to shorten the duration of the conflict.

In this article we discuss the role of third parties in the length of time that civil conflicts can be expected to last by reporting on the results of recent research that examines the effectiveness of third-party interventions. (1) We follow this by making suggestions for further research and future policy. Very briefly, we conclude that unilateral interventions tend to lengthen the expected life of a conflict, that interventions supporting one side are associated with shorter conflicts relative to neutral interventions, (2) but that in general most interventions appear to be incapable of reducing the expected length of a conflict.


When focusing on the relationship between third-party interventions in civil conflicts and the length of time we expect them to last, we are relatively impoverished in terms of coherent answers. More explicitly, we know very little about the ability of interventions to shorten internal conflicts. This shortcoming is particularly glaring in light of the fact that the United States intervened at least thirty-five times in internal conflicts during the post-World War II period. If the policy community considers interventions to be a form of conflict management, then we must assume that they seek to shorten conflicts. Therefore, knowing the conditions under which interventions actually shorten conflicts is vitally important in informing the policy-making process. The difficulty of generating such knowledge is in part related to the fact that the examination of any single case might obscure as much as it clarifies. For example, a doctor would not know much about the effectiveness of a specific treatment for heart disease from the review of the history of one patient and her treatment. In just the same way we have a difficult time drawing inferences about the role of interventions from examining one case.

Recent research has made considerable strides in developing both the logic and evidence pointing toward a relationship between certain strategies for intervening in conflicts and the ability of those strategies to influence how long wars (either inter- or intrastate) will last. Much of the evidence-based work relies on analogies and methodologies adopted from the medical sciences, whereby patients are observed over the life of their ailments and various treatments can be isolated to identify their impact on life expectancy. For example, one study of the expected length of international wars found that democracy and levels of internal repression affect the length of wars, as does the balance of military capabilities between the combatants. (3) Another similar study found that the timing of third-party mediation is an important part of the strategy. The simple existence of a mediator is not enough; the point in the life cycle of a conflict at which parties sit down to talk has an influence on the potential success of the mediation. …