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date: 16 August 2017

Systemic Causes of Civil Wars

Summary and Keywords

Civil wars in the contemporary world are deeply interpenetrated by international influences. There are six different conceptions of the international system and their effects on civil conflicts: (1) the realist conception and the superpower interventions of the Cold War period, (2) the liberal institutional conception and the diplomatic mediation of the United Nations, (3) global cultural influences such as world religions, democratization and education, (4) the global economy and structural poverty, (5) transnational bilateral relations with neighboring states, and (6) the planetary ecosystem and the effects of climate change. Taken together, these international influences have a weighty effect on the conduct and duration of contemporary civil wars.

Keywords: civil wars, international, global, transnational, conflict, empirical international relations theory

Introduction

Contemporary civil wars are deeply interpenetrated by international factors. Intervening states or the global economic system provide the military resources to finance the civil war. International organizations step in to provide diplomatic mediation. Other global institutions such as world religions, the worldwide spread of democracy, and the push for the expansion of education may also play a role in the maintenance of state stability. Indeed, there are hardly any examples of contemporary civil wars that are free from international economic, political, or cultural influences.

Unfortunately, civil wars are traditionally understood as a conflict between subnational groups over domestic national issues of power and politics. In this depiction, international actors play only a secondary role. And yet the civil wars of the past fifty years have given reason to question this traditional view of civil wars. Recent civil wars have been lengthy, indecisive, and highly likely to recur (Fearon, 2004). In these types of civil wars, international actors and dynamics can be seen to play a weightier (even fundamental) role.

The interpenetration of international actors into civil wars helps to explain why these conflicts have departed from the historically traditional civil war. The next section will outline six different scholarly conceptions of the international system, each portraying a different causal dimension for civil wars. The rest of the chapter will review the ways scholars have utilized these conceptions of the international system in their research.

Conceptions of the International System

Different scholarly conceptions of the underlying nature of the international system give rise to different hypothesized types of international influences on civil war. This section focuses on six major conceptions of the international system. The first three are standard conceptions in the international relations literature: (1) realism, (2) liberal institutionalism, and (3) the English school, or world society as a “society of states.” The next two views have been less explicitly theorized as conceptions in the civil war literature but are common in scholarship nonetheless: (4) the global economic system and (5) the international system as the aggregation of bilateral relations between states. The last conception is of the (6) natural environment of the planet, and the effects of environmental conditions on political processes.

Realist International System

Neorealist scholars view the international system as characterized predominantly by the arrangement of the major Great Power states in each historical era. Accordingly, realists categorized the international system of the Cold War era as bipolar, in which competition was principally dominated by the two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union (Waltz, 1979). Some scholars have characterized the post–Cold War world as a multipolar system, with no strong cleavages among the several Great Power states (Mearsheimer, 1990; Waltz, 1990). Others maintain that the international system is now a unipolar system, with the United States as the sole dominant political and military power (Wohlforth, 1999).

Superpower interventions. The neo-realist conception of the international system draws scholarly attention to the interventions of the major powers in the domestic politics and civil wars of smaller states (Westad, 2005). In some cases, these interventions may take military form, as in the presence of troops on the ground. The conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan, for instance, became so dominated by the presence of extra-national military forces that the local aspects of the conflict were almost lost to view once the superpowers intervened.

In other cases, major power intervention occurs more discreetly, through the provision of arms, military advisors, or funding. One indicator of superpower influence in these civil wars was the speed in which the seemingly entrenched conflicts in Central America, including Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, ended within a few years of the end of the Cold War. Another indicator is the prevalence of irregular warfare in civil wars during the Cold War. Kalyvas and Balcells (2010) point out that 66% of civil wars fought during the Cold War were irregular, compared to only 26% of wars fought after 1991. They argue that “insurgency is not a ‘modular’ technology available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime; rather, its availability is determined to an important degree by the properties of system polarity and the characteristics of the Cold War.” (Kalyvas & Balcells, 2010, p. 416). A third indicator is the lack of ideological pronouncements in recent civil wars. Snow (1996, pp. 1–2) notes that after the Cold War, civil wars “often appear to be little more than rampages by groups within states against one another with little or no apparent enobling purpose or outcome; they are indeed, uncivil wars.”

Regional interventions. Scholars have also extended neo-realist arguments to the interventions of neighboring states in regional civil wars. In these cases, the civil war becomes an instrument of a third party state in its efforts to maintain or redress a regional balance of power. For instance, Kathman (2011, p. 850) argues that neighboring states seek to affect regional stability when a civil war erupts: “Third parties often admit that regional stability is a factor in their intervention decisions.” Thyne (2006) extends neo-realist arguments to the signals sent by third party states about the likelihood of intervention in a civil conflict. He argues that mixed or inconsistent signals from a third party state on the likelihood of intervention dramatically affect the duration of the conflict.

Summary. Neorealist theory was originally developed to address interstate war and subsequent scholarship has not fully developed its application to civil wars. Particularly with the end of the Cold War, the relevance of a neorealist conception of the international system for civil wars has been less evident in the literature. Major powers, both global and regional, may apply realist logics to civil wars at times, but neorealist theory has not yet been fully developed as an explanation for intervention in these cases.

Neoliberal International Institutions

The neoliberal vision of the international system replaces the assumption of anarchy in the international system with a focus on the role of international institutions in global political affairs. Scholars in this tradition have emphasized the role of international institutions such as the United Nations in the maintenance of peace between states and the functioning of an international economic system (Keohane & Nye, 1977). Scholars in this tradition have focused on the role of international and regional organizations in bringing an end to conflict.

United Nations diplomacy. The primary international institution involved in addressing civil wars has been the United Nations. The United Nations peacekeeping forces date to the beginning of the United Nations (United Nations, 1996). During the Cold War, however, UN peacekeeping did not decrease the bloodiness of civil wars in the short term, nor decrease the likelihood of the recurrence of violence in the long term (Diehl et al., 1996). Scholars have put forth many reasons for the general ineffectiveness of United Nations’ operations; for example Wesley (1997) points to cleavages among UN members, vague mandates, and ineffective strategies as undermining the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping. Tierney (2005, p. 645) similarly finds that arms embargoes were also ineffective, as they “are rarely enforced in a civil war; they undermine the credibility of the UN; they are unlikely to change the political positions of civil war participants; they criminalise target societies; and they benefit arms suppliers willing to break the rules.”

Recent scholarship, however, has pointed to the complexity of peacekeeping missions and the numerous tasks that peacekeeping missions undertake. UN peacekeeping forces are generally sent when conditions are especially intractable and other efforts at peacemaking have failed. When these factors are taken into account, scholars have found that UN peacekeeping does serve an important (and at times essential) role in ending civil wars and maintaining peace. Indeed, Fortna (2004, 2008, also see DeRouen & Sobek, 2004) argues that UN peacekeeping may reduce the risk of a return to war by as much as 80% in some cases. She argues that peacekeeping changes “the incentives of the parties, providing them with credible information about each other’s intentions, preventing and managing accidental violations of the peace, and preventing either side from hijacking the political process in the transition to peace” (Fortna, 2004, p. 17). Doyle and Sambanis (2000, p. 779) similarly find, in a quantitative analysis of 124 post–World War II civil wars, that UN peace operations are “positively correlated with democratization processes after civil war, and multilateral enforcement operations are usually successful in ending the violence.”

Regional diplomacy. Regional organizations, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or the OAU (Organization of African Unity) are also frequently involved in monitoring and intervention in regional civil wars, as are third party states (Rost & Greig, 2011; Greig & Regan, 2008). Similar to the United Nations, regional interventions are especially likely to occur in difficult conflicts (Gartner, 2011; Rost & Greig, 2011). When the focus is on the success or failure of mediation, the outcome of regional mediation is often dismal. Gartner (2011, pp. 387–388) finds that the effects of the intractability of the dispute is “enormous,” arguing that “52% of all agreements in civil wars mediated by a regional organizations fail immediately [less than one week], compared to 3% of the agreements negotiated bilaterally in interstate wars.” Greig and Diehl (2005, p. 641) also found “virtually no support throughout any of the analyses for the optimistic view that peacekeeping promotes peacemaking.”

In contrast, when the focus is on how conflicts end, many of them end through diplomatic mediation. Regan and Aydin (2006) find that mediation by third parties can reduce the duration of a civil war, but that likelihood of success follows an inverted U-shaped curve in their large-N quantitative study of post-1945 civil conflicts. Gleditsch and Beardsley (2004) make similarly optimistic arguments in their case study of three Central American conflicts (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) from 1984 to 2001. In sum, any given attempt at diplomatic mediation is likely to fail, but that in the end most conflicts are resolved through third party mediation.

Theoretical explanations. One major explanation for the success of international diplomatic interventions, on the occasions on which it is successful, is that third party mediators can enforce and verify the terms laid out in negotiations. For instance, Walters (2002, p. 340, also Hampson, 1996; Mattes & Savun, 2010) argues: “Third-party guarantors can change the level of fear and insecurity that accompanies treaty implementation and thus facilitate settlement” by guaranteeing the protection of groups, overseeing the implementation of treaty terms, and reducing “the payoffs from cheating on a civil war agreement.” Others such as Mattes and Savun (2009) and Sisk (2009) agree that third party guarantees, including international monitoring, and the required submission of military information to third parties for verification can prevent the renewal of civil war. DeRouen et al. (2010) theorize peacebuilding as a three-legged stool, requiring state capacity, intervention, and implementation.

A second type of explanation focuses on the organizational level of analysis. For instance, Howard (2007) turns her attention to the organizational attributes of the United Nations, arguing that success is more likely when peacekeeping occurs: (1) with the consent of the warring parties; (2) with consensual but not very intense interest by the Security Council; and (3) organizational learning, which includes collecting information, managing international and domestic efforts and providing leadership and judgment.

Summary. The complexities of multilevel analysis are evident in the study of the effects of international mediation (Stedman et al., 2002). Whether mediation will be successful or not depends on the sophistication of the mediation effort and the commitment of the mediators. But it is also fundamentally dependent on the particulars of the conflicts—some disputes are more intractable than others, and unsurprisingly, mediation tends to be less successful in these cases. Consequently, most mediation efforts fail immediately for difficult disputes. In the end, however, most conflicts are settled through mediation. Since the domestic political system was inadequate to settle the dispute before the war, it is unsurprising that external support is needed to bolster the political agreement in order to conclude the war. Thus any given effort at diplomatic mediation is likely to fail, but in the long run civil wars often require mediation for successful resolution.

World Culture

A third conception views the international system as a world culture or world society that provides norms and rules that govern international politics (Bull, 1977). This perspective has rarely been applied directly to the study of civil wars, although Dannreuther (2007) and Hironaka (2005) emphasize constructivist aspects of state formation and norms against territorial annexation as structural contributors to a propensity for civil war. Peceny and Stanley (2001, p. 150) also invoke the role of norms in their examination of civil wars in Central America, claiming: “Political adversaries in El Salvador and Guatemala (and to a lesser extent Nicaragua) adopted liberal norms because virtually every international actor, including those with significant material influence and those with the greatest moral legitimacy, spread the same message and cooperated in socializing Central American political actors according to liberal principles.” More commonly, scholars have focused on the impact of cultural aspects of world society on civil wars, such as world religion, the global wave of democratization, or the international pressure for universal education.

World religions. World religions, especially Islam, have been portrayed in the popular press as a primary motivation for civil war. In contrast, scholars have tended to theorize religion as a strategic or secondary aspect of civil wars rather than the fundamental cause (Fox, 2004). For instance, Toft (2007, p. 103) argues that religion may be invoked strategically to foster mobilization, since “religion may attract support as a form of religious obligation from outside the area of conflict.” Svensson (2007) claims that conflicts framed as religious may be harder to resolve but finds that “whether the primary parties come from different religious traditions does not affect the chances for negotiated settlement.” The rhetoric may be different in a religious civil war, these scholars argue, but the political processes are essentially similar.

Democracy. Democracy might also be considered an aspect of world culture, since scholars have noted the global wave of democracy that has overtaken states since the 1970s (Huntington, 1991). There is a large body of scholarship demonstrating that democratic states are less likely to experience civil war (Mason, 2003; Krain & Myers, 1997; Hegre et al., 2001). Democracy is usually conceptualized as a nation-level characteristic, but to the extent that the international system provides mechanisms that enable democratization, the international system will provide an indirectly stabilizing effect on civil wars as well. For instance, Gleditsch and Ward (2000) theorize the interdependent influences of democracy as a component of regional politics. More directly, Savun and Tirone (2011) note that explicit international assistance with democratization can directly reduce civil conflict. While the concept of the democratic peace has traditionally been applied to interstate conflict, the notable domestic stability of democracies suggests a useful theoretical extension to civil war as well (Hegre et al., 2001).

Education. The worldwide expansion of education can also be seen as a property of world culture that is directly enabled by the United Nations and other international organizations (Meyer et al., 1992). Dixon (2009, pp. 715–716) notes in his meta-review of the civil war literature that several studies show primary and secondary education reduce the likelihood of civil war, reflecting that “[s]ince young males form the bulk of many rebel armies, it is particularly notable that results for secondary male enrollment are remarkably consistent” in reducing the likelihood of civil war. Thyne (2006, p. 733) also argues that educational investment increases political skills and reduces grievances, claiming that “educational investment provides a strong signal to the people that the government is attempting to improve their lives.”

Summary. Cultural aspects of the international system seem unlikely candidates as primary triggers for civil war—scholars even view religion as a background factor rather than as an immediate impetus. However, quantitative studies show that democracy and education are key factors in the maintenance of domestic political stability. Linkage to previous scholarship that demonstrates the international aspect of these factors, suggesting that world cultural mechanisms may decrease the likelihood of civil war to the extent that they enable democracy and the universalization of education.

Global Economic System

A fourth conceptualization views the international system as one primarily of economic interconnections. Economic variables such as gross domestic product (GDP) are commonly used in analyses of civil war, and many studies have demonstrated that impoverished countries are at greater risk for civil wars than prosperous states (Fearon, 2004; Collier et al., 2004; Regan, 2008; Dixon, 2009). To the extent that the underdevelopment of many economies in the global South is a consequence of their position in the global economy, their economic situation is directly connected to international processes (Mason, 2003; Berdal, 2003). Moreover, aspects of the global economy, such as international markets for primary exports and international foreign aid are theorized to play a pivotal role for some civil wars.

Economic Development. National economic development has been directly postulated as a cause of civil wars (Collier et al., 2004, Regan, 2008). Other key economic variables, such as trade and foreign direct investment, have also been shown to affect civil conflict (Barbieri & Reuveny, 2005; Magee & Massoud, 2011). Economic development is rarely theorized as the sole factor but is viewed as playing a fundamental structural role in combination with political factors. Collier and colleagues summarize their findings: “The key structural characteristics that lengthen conflict are low per capita income, high inequality and a moderate degree of ethnic division. The key variable characteristics that shorten conflict are a decline in the prices of the primary commodities that the country exports and external military intervention on the side of the rebels.” (Collier, Hoeffler, & Soderbom, 2004, p. 253).

Oil, gemstones, and primary commodities. Much research has focused on the availability of natural resources and other primary commodities. As Berdal (2003, p. 489) notes: “War economies are not self-sustaining (indeed, quite the opposite where formal state structures have all but collapsed) … warring parties … remain dependent on external support for their realization, and procurement of arms and other supplies.” Several studies have found that primary commodity exports increase the likelihood of civil war (Collier, Hoeffler, & Soderbom, 2004; DeRouen & Sobek, 2004). Studies have particularly supported the importance of oil as a primary commodity that enables civil war (Ross, 2004a; Ross, 2004b; Krause & Suzuki, 2005; Smith, 2004). Empirical studies have found only weak relationships with other primary commodities, however. Although notably playing a role in the civil war in Sierra Leone, diamonds have been less apparent as a generalized support of civil war. Ross (2004b) finds in his meta-analysis that gemstones and drugs do not increase the likelihood of conflict but may increase the duration of the conflict. Legal agricultural exports have an even weaker relationship to civil war (Ross, 2004b).

A contrasting view is presented by Fearon (2005), who views economic development as an indicator of overall state strength rather than as an aspect of the global economic system. He argues that “oil predicts civil war risk not because it provides an easy source of rebel start-up finance but probably because oil producers have relatively low state capabilities given their level of per capita income and because oil makes state or regional control a tempting ‘prize’” (Fearon, 2005, p. 483). Other scholars have similarly found that primary commodities are at most a secondary factor that interacts with political structure and state capacity in relation to civil war (Thies, 2010; Lujala Gleditsch & Gilmore, 2005; Snyder & Bhavnani, 2005). While scholars agree that economic factors affect civil war, debate continues on whether this influence should be theorized as an aspect of the global economic system or as an indicator of the political weakness of the state.

Structural adjustment. Policies in the global economy may also affect the likelihood of civil war, particularly the structural adjustment policies that are often mandated for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These policies may exacerbate inequalities and create grievances that encourage civil war (Bussmann & Schneider, 2007; Hartzell, Hoddie, & Bauer, 2010). For instance, Walton and Seddon (1994) argue that structural adjustment policies, in connection with the reconstruction of global capitalism that began in the 1960s, contributed to political instability in countries such as Zaire, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. However, Bienen and Gersovitz (1985) caution that the direction of causality may be complex and that selection effects may be at work: “Governments come to the IMF when economic conditions are already bad. Political instability may already have occurred because of worsening economic conditions.” In general, however, foreign aid tends to have a positive effect on state stability, reducing the risk of civil war (Dixon, 2009; Savun & Tirone, 2012, although see Addison & Murshed, 2003).

Summary. Governments and insurgents involved in civil wars are necessarily connected with the global economic system. Nevertheless, the global economy is often invoked with little theoretical sophistication by scholars of civil war, serving merely as an exogenous source of resources or as individual states or organizations providing funding. The international relations literature lacks a clear theoretical picture of the role that the global economy plays in civil wars.

Bilateral Relations Between States

A fifth conception views the international system as the aggregation of dyadic connections between states rather than as a complex interconnected system. When borders are porous, civil war in one state may affect conditions in neighboring states. Insurgents and refugees may spill over borders or may disrupt domestic politics in a neighboring state, encouraging intervention (Gleditsch, 2007). Although this view focuses on dyadic relations of states, a broader vision of a realist or liberal international system may be implied but not explicitly theorized.

Porous borders. One cause of regional civil war may occur when a civil war spreads across the border to a neighboring state. As Balch-Lindsay and Enterline (2000) argue, civil wars often have political, economic, and social consequences beyond the state in which they occur as a result of porous borders and the movement of combatants, refugees, and resources. For instance, Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006, p. 335) posit that refugees may carry conflict across a border by facilitating “the transnational spread of arms, combatants, and ideologies conducive to conflict; they alter the ethnic composition of the state; and they can exacerbate economic competition.”

Ethnic support. A second, related argument is that ethnic sympathizers may extend aid across a border. In this case, the state is a misleading unit of analysis—the conflict is really between ethnic groups that are operating within and across state borders (Buhaug & Gleditsch, 2008; Gurr, 1993). For instance, Buhaug and Gleditsch (2008, p. 215) argue that “transnational ethnic linkages constitute a central mechanism of conflict contagion.” However, Fearon and Laitin (2003) dismiss the ethnic argument entirely, claiming that it is not ethnicity or ethnic diversity in themselves that leads to extended civil wars but rather state weakness that is unable to maintain control over these groups.

Intervention by neighboring states. A third cause of regional conflict may occur when third party states intervene in a civil war in a neighboring state. Regan (2000) found that 62% of the 138 internal conflicts identified after 1945 involved economic or military intervention by a third party. A broad host of interests may be involved; for instance, a neighbor may take the opportunity provided by civil war to acquire territory or install a more favorable regime next door (Findley & Teo, 2006). Or intervention may be motivated by reasons exogenous to the causes of the civil war. As Cunningham (2010) has observed, “External states [often] become involved in civil war to pursue an agenda which is separate from the goals of the internal combatants.”

Scholars have found that intervention on the rebel side tends to decrease the length of the civil war (Collier, Hoeffler, & Söderbom, 2004): while interventions on the government side tend to lengthen (Balch-Lindsay & Enterline, 2000; Gent, 2008). Gent (2008) argues that pro-government intervention tends to occur in the “toughest” cases when the government faces a strong rebel group. Interventions that occur on both the rebel and the government side unsurprisingly tend to increase the chance of stalemated conflicts and lengthen wars (Regan, 2000; Balch-Lindsay & Enterline, 2000; Hironaka, 2005).

Summary. These arguments could be affixed to broader conceptions of the international system outlined above. To the extent that scholars begin to view civil war combatants as enmeshed in regional networks or webs, the arguments begin to acquire overtones of a realist, liberal, or world cultural system. For instance, Balch-Lindsay and Enterline (2000, p. 620) outline a conception of a security web in which each state is situated, arguing that “the characteristics of civil wars are, in part, a function of their interstate environment, in terms of both the behavior of third parties and nondirected effects, such as regional political instability.” Ethnic conflict arguments often suggest a transnational diasporic culture linking far-flung ethnic groups. Thus even if relationships are portrayed as a dyadic interaction between neighboring states, implication of broader global processes are often implied.

Global Environment

Finally, a sixth emerging conception of the international system views political processes as overlain upon an interconnected physical natural environment.

Resource depletion. Since environmental degradation is not contained within national borders, environmental crises may become the motivation for political crises. Homer-Dixon (1999) has argued that an unequal distribution of natural resources might fuel civil and interstate wars. Other studies, however, have found mixed empirical support for these arguments (see Dixon, 2009 for a review). Urdal (2005), for instance, finds a slight effect of land scarcity in combination with high rates of population growth in the rate of civil war. Similarly, Raleigh and Urdal (2007, p. 674) found that, in general, land degradation and deforestation had weak effects on political instability but argue that “the effects of political and economic factors far outweigh those between local level demographic/environmental factors and conflict.” Hauge and Ellingsen (1998) similarly find that deforestation, land degradation, and freshwater scarcity increase the likelihood of armed political conflict, especially in combination with high population density. They also argue that economic development and political factors such as military expenditures are more influential than environmental degradation on the likelihood of conflict. Nel and Righarts (2008) find that natural disasters increase the likelihood of civil violence, and Brancati (2007) similarly finds that earthquakes may increase conflicts in densely populated and impoverished countries, particularly if preexisting conflicts existed. Finally, although there has been much theorizing over water scarcity as a cause of conflict, the empirical evidence is weak (Barnett, 2000; Buhaug, 2010; however, see Gleick, 2014 for a chronological list of water-related conflicts).

Climate change. Moving beyond proximate environmental crises and scarcities, scholars posit that global climate change may affect government legitimacy and increase the likelihood of civil war (Burke et al., 2009). Rising sea levels or expanding deserts may cause population shifts in some countries, while extreme weather events may place a strain on already weak governments. Devitt and Tol (2012) suggest that interactions between economic poverty, state weakness, and climate change may encourage civil wars, especially in impoverished countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Reuveny (2007) theorizes that environmental disasters may increase migration, which may in turn put pressure on states that increases their risk of civil war. Hendrix and Glaser (2007) find that short-term changes in rainfall may affect conflict but that long-term changes in climate are unlikely to lead to civil war. Slettebak (2012) similarly finds that countries experiencing climate-related natural disasters actually had a lower risk of civil war in a global sample from 1950 to 2008. However, Dixon (2009, p. 713) notes that “unfortunately, quantitative research on climate and civil war is still in its embryonic stages.”

Summary. The current literature suggests that the effect of climate change and other forms of ecological degradation may exacerbate existing political instability but is unlikely to be the primary motivator for civil war (Buhaug, 2010). As Raleigh (2010, p. 69) concludes in his study of African states: “Environmental issues can be catalysts to low-level conflict in marginalized communities, but the critical factor is the extent of political and economic marginalization.” As environmental conditions change in response to planetary climate change, however, the link with political instability may alter as well.

Competition Among Conceptions of the International System

These six conceptions of the international system bring to mind the parable of the six blind men who could not decide whether an elephant was a rope, a wall, a tree, or a snake. In principle, these arguments could be formulated as mutually exclusive alternatives. In practice, scholars have tended to assume one conception of the international system and focus primarily on those processes, without considering other types of global effects. One confounding difficulty of testing hypotheses is that all states exist simultaneously within a global political system, a global cultural system and a global economic system with a full set of dyadic relations with other states. It may not be necessary to parse out which set of influences is primary, a task that might be impossible in any case. Yet the inability to parse out specific influences implies that civil wars are constantly being influenced by multiple international dynamics operating at multiple levels. Civil wars are never fought in a vacuum but are necessarily located within a complex nexus of global interactions.

At core, this lack of coherence in the effects of the international system in the theoretical literature stems from the continuing assumption that civil wars are essentially domestic affairs. Domestic actors are seen as merely drawing upon international economic, political, or cultural resources when carrying out civil wars fundamentally driven by national factors. Consequently, the resulting studies select a single aspect of the global system and examine how frequently this factor affects these fundamentally local civil wars.

Instead, contemporary civil wars might usefully be seen as the confluence of international factors being played out in a particular national political setting. This would enable the development of a typology in which different international influences have varying impact in civil wars; some wars might be primarily economic conflicts while others reflect the instability of neighbors, for instance. From this vantage point, civil wars could be theorized as configurations of multiple international factors. For instance, the profile of a realist civil war might be considerably different from the profile of one susceptible to liberal institutional factors. Such a typology would also usefully suggest different policy solutions, since the actions likely to be effective for an economically driven war would be ineffective for one motivated by world cultural conflicts. To a large extent, the tools for such an endeavor have already been developed in the scholarly literature. It only calls for someone with the willingness to ride the whole elephant to bring together the currently disparate examinations of the parts.

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