Civil Wars: What We Don't Know. (Review Essay)

By Wood, Elisabeth Jean | Global Governance, April-June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Civil Wars: What We Don't Know. (Review Essay)


Wood, Elisabeth Jean, Global Governance


Why are some enduring civil conflicts resolved with essentially self-enforcing agreements, as in El Salvador and South Africa, while others seem unamenable to negotiated resolution even with extensive third-party intervention, as in Colombia and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Recent scholarly studies have identified important empirical regularities in the emergence, persistence, and negotiated resolution of civil wars. The marketing of war commodities such as diamonds and cocaine by parties to the conflict and by their regional allies contributes to the intractability of conflict. Third-party intervention sometimes contributes to a cessation of hostilities, particularly in the form of mediation services during the negotiation period or of security guarantees during the demobilization period. Ethnic polarization--especially where the parties perceive the stakes of war to be strictly indivisible--makes negotiated settlements difficult to reach. Ethnic violence (particularly in the form of ethnic cleansing), rhetorical manipulation of ethnic fears by political entrepreneurs, the ease of arms and cash flows in the increasingly globalized world economy (particularly where states are weak), and the all-too-often insufficient response of international and regional actors to initial violence also contribute to civil conflict and render peacebuilding difficult.

Yet there is a lot we do not yet understand about civil war and therefore, I argue, about negotiated settlements and peacebuilding. In some contexts, elites succeed in polarizing communities along ethnic lines, but in others they fail. International aid sometimes serves as a "carrot" that can bring warring parties to the table; in other contexts, aid sustains conflict. Diplomatic intervention sometimes reinforces beliefs that the other party is serious this time about peace although they backtracked last time, but it can lead to the emergence of "spoilers" in other contexts. We know that efforts to negotiate an end to civil war more often fail than succeed. According to one estimate, the parties to civil war engage in formal negotiations in about half the cases but successfully implement a negotiated settlement ending the war in less than a fifth of all civil wars. (1) Understanding why some civil wars but not others are amenable to negotiated resolution and sustained peacebuilding is, of course, more than a scholarly puzzle; it is essential for policymakers and others seeking to curtail the civil violence that continues to generate great human suffering. In this article I explore how what we don't know about civil wars may detract from peacebuilding efforts. I discuss three related issues and their implications for peacebuilding: the political economy of civil war and negotiated settlements; the microfoundations of civil war violence; and, more tentatively, distinct types of civil war. In the conclusion, I reflect on how these issues impact peacebuilding efforts.

The Political Economy of Civil War and Negotiated Settlements

Much of the recent literature on the political economy of civil war has focused on how the presence of war commodities such as cocaine and diamonds, particularly when controlled by insurgent forces, renders civil conflicts more likely, longer, and more difficult to resolve.2 In analyzing a new database of civil wars, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler found that the likelihood that a civil war will emerge from civil conflict and persist is significantly greater in those countries highly dependent on the export of primary commodities: "greed" displaces "grievance" as insurgents develop netwofrks to market commodities from areas they control, frequently through the collusion of governments and military forces of neighboring countries.3 Classic examples are "war diamonds" in Sierra Leone and Angola and cocaine in Colombia.

Collier and Hoeffler's focus on the export of primary commodities is intended to capture statistically such cases where highly "lootable" resources are available to armed groups, which can then pay for arms and new recruits.

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