Civil war outcomes

Roy Licklider

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


At one level it seems impossible that civil wars can end. The strongest theoretical argument that civil wars are different from other forms of political violence is that the stakes are different. In interstate wars the victor is likely to eventually go away, especially because modern nationalism and sectarianism make the cost of continued occupation very high, as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, except for the relatively few cases of partition, civil war termination means that people who have been killing one another with considerable skill and enthusiasm will somehow agree to live in the same country under the same government without further largescale violence. Typically they do this in a country whose social, political, and economic structures have been torn apart and traditional animosities have been greatly heightened by the killing, much of which has been aimed at civilians. This sounds like a recipe for starting a civil war rather than ending it. And yet we know that it happens all the time. Western Europeans no longer kill one another over different varieties of Christianity. England is no longer crisscrossed by warring armies representing York and Lancaster or king and Parliament. The French no longer kill one another over the divine right of kings. Americans seem to have agreed on independence from English rule, that the South should not secede, and that slavery will not be allowed. Argentines seem reconciled to living in a single state rather than several. The ideologies of the Spanish Civil War now seem irrelevant, and even the separatist issues there are not being resolved by mass violence. India doesn't seem interested in regaining the secessionist state of Pakistan, and Pakistan seems to have accepted the secession of Bangladesh. Nigeria experienced one of the most brutal civil wars of our time, but the major divisions within the country are now different. Other countries that have experienced a civil war since 1945 but where resumption seems unlikely include Bolivia, Cambodia, Chad, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Jordan, Laos, Malaysia, Morocco, Mozambique, Paraguay, South Africa, and Syria. Presumably the process works differently in different countries, but it seems likely that there are common elements we can use to make predictions about future outcomes and prescriptions to shape them. Some years ago it made sense to say that the literature on civil wars, like that on interstate wars, focused on how they began rather than how they ended (Licklider 1993, 7-8), despite a few exceptions (Iklé 1971, 95; Gurr 1988). This seemed odd, since civil wars usually became a foreign policy problem only after they had begun, and the question of how they ended was precisely the point for most outsiders. Thankfully in the intervening decade this imbalance has been repaired as a new generation of young scholars has tackled the issue with a wonderful combination of skills and enthusiasm. Important work has been done in a variety of academic disciplines as well as governmental and nongovernmental organizations in countries around the world, appearing in many different publications and sources; indeed it is practically impossible for any single individual to keep track of the literature of this burgeoning and very exciting field of study. This necessarily terse summary will try to structure this work around a few central questions and briefiy describe some of its ongoing controversies. The central focus of much of this work has been to better understand why civil wars begin, evolve, and end as they do. The concern, then, is not the classic historian's problem of what has happened in any given civil war and why it has occurred, but to try to establish the plausibility of generalizations that will apply to other such episodes, including those that have not yet occurred. There are two parts to this activity, developing general theories or explanations and testing these theories against a large number of cases to see if they correspond to reality. One hallmark of the best recent work in the field is that it is multimethod. Nonetheless, much of this work has necessarily been quantitative, analyzing a large number of wars and looking for patterns, often using the one or two hundred episodes since 1945 that different criteria have identified as civil wars. These analyses are not without their drawbacks (Kalyvas 2004; Ward and Bakke 2005), but the process forces scholars to pay particular attention to problems of definition, although, as we will see, it has not led to consensus on these issues. It seems useful to organize this chapter around three questions, all of which remain under debate. (1) What do we mean by civil wars? (2) How do we know when they end? (3) What can outsiders do to end them? I also distinguish between normative and empirical issues, what should be done and what will happen if certain things are done. As we will see, the concerns are often closely related in particular issues, but they require different modes of analysis. It is particularly important to raise and debate ethical issues because work in this field is not simply an academic exercise; it is directed at influencing policymakers. Policy issues combine both ethical and empirical issues, and one of the obligations of outsider commentators is precisely to tease out these different questions so they can be confronted directly rather than simply assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of War Studies III
Subtitle of host publicationThe Intrastate Dimension
PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
Number of pages34
ISBN (Print)9780472050574
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)

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