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date: 16 August 2017

Regions of War and Peace in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

A significant, if minority, current in contemporary international relations scholarship places regions at the center of analysis. In practice, the shift to the regional level of analysis serves several purposes within international relations scholarship. Within the sociology of the discipline, regionalism provides a theoretical justification for work that in earlier periods would have been associated with traditional area studies. Within the broader international relations literature, a regional focus allows for a more nuanced analysis of war and peace outside of the core great power conflicts at the center of traditional analysis. In particular, regional approaches remind us that conflict at the regional level is driven more frequently by local than by global concerns while providing a framework for studying important conflicts that are not simply a manifestation of great power rivalries. Finally, this approach is essential for answering questions that can be couched only at the regional level of analysis. At a narrow level, regional approaches are particularly useful for specifying the dangers of conflict spillover and the actors who are most vulnerable to such spillover. At the broadest level, regional conflict systems become the unit of analysis for work examining why some regions are more peaceful than others and how violent regions may transition to peace. A good understanding of these questions has implications both for policymakers seeking to advance national interests and for peacemakers seeking a solution to violence.

Keywords: regions, causes of war, diffusion, regional security complex, peacemaking


Levels of war vary dramatically across regions, from Western Europe, where war seems basically unthinkable, to the Middle East or Central Africa, where violence is pervasive. This observation has led a number of scholars coming from varied theoretical perspectives to advocate adopting a regional approach to studying war and peace. This article examines regional approaches to the study of war and peace, with a review of early literature, discussion of questions related to the definition and operationalization of “regions,” identification of four broad approaches to understanding the importance of regions for war today, and discussion of implications of a regional approach for war and peace.

A regional approach makes several important contributions to the study of war and peace. Most obviously, traditional international relations theories, which were developed to explain great power politics, frequently struggle to explain regional variation in violence levels. Shifting to a regional level of analysis allows for the development of more suitable theories. Moreover, work on the diffusion of violence (or peace) and regional security interdependence suggests that studies that examine individual conflicts in isolation will be misled by the failure to consider the impacts of wars in neighboring states or the interests of actors not directly involved in the fighting. Regional approaches have also provided theoretical grounding for area studies scholarship.

A Brief Review of Regions in the Study of War and Peace

During the cold war, the dominant approach was to consider the international system from the top down, with the behavior of great powers dominating and structuring the rest of the international system (Kaplan, 1957; Waltz, 1979). Even during this period, however, there were indications that politics at the regional level could not be satisfactorily explained solely by reference to superpower interactions. The most prominent research program examined regional integration, focusing in particular on the case of Europe, where the drive toward European unification made substantial progress in the postwar decades before bogging down in the 1960s.1 A smaller literature examined security questions as well, making the case that in important regions such as the Middle East (Binder, 1958) and South Asia (Brecher, 1963) regional conflicts could not be understood simply as an extension of the superpower confrontation. These early studies made a compelling case that regional politics mattered, but they had greater difficulty clearly delineating the bounds of the regional level, with individual studies varying greatly in the identification of regions in both theory and practice (Thompson, 1973).

Interest in the regional level of analysis increased after the cold war. At the most basic level, the end of the superpower rivalry freed scholars to shift their focus to topics that had previously received comparatively little analysis, such as civil wars (Fearon & Laitin, 2003) or persistent minor power rivalries in places like the Middle East and South Asia (Goertz & Diehl, 1993). There were also theoretical motivations for expecting the regional level to assume greater significance after the cold war. To the extent that superpower competition had structured regional politics during the cold war, with countries artificially forced into communist and capitalist blocs, the lower salience of great power competition after the fall of the Soviet Union provided reason to expect regional politics to rise in relative significance (Buzan & Wæver, 2003; Katzenstein, 2005).

It is important to note that this difference is one of degree rather than kind. As the earlier literature on regions and security demonstrated, the superpower competition molded but did not determine patterns of regional conflict and cooperation. Perhaps the clearest example of this point is the way in which regional conflict, such as the rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia or internal struggle for power within Afghanistan, contributed to the collapse of superpower detente despite strong interest in both Washington and Moscow in avoiding unnecessary conflict (Väyrynen, 1984). In both these cases, the ideological commitment of local actors to communism or capitalism was clearly secondary to interests idiosyncratic to the region, while the regions were of limited strategic significance for the superpower rivalry. Nonetheless, the regional actors were able to draw in superpower support in a way that undermined the trust that developed between the superpowers and led to a renewed round of superpower rivalry in the 1980s. Nor are regions always dominant after the cold war. The implications of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was justified as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for subsequent developments in the Middle East clearly demonstrate that the interests of the strongest states can at times override local political dynamics to dramatically reshape regional politics. Nonetheless, there is a strong case to be made that the global positioning of the strongest states plays a smaller role in shaping regional politics today than it did before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is thus not surprising that interest in regional approaches to studying foreign policy have grown in recent decades.

Defining “Regions”

Before examining the recent literature, however, it is useful to take time to examine the concept of a region, as there has been substantial variation in how “regions” are defined and operationalized in existing literature. While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to fully review the various approaches that previous scholars have taken, it is useful to examine the various approaches, which lead to two logical conclusions: (a) that the appropriate definition and operationalization of a region will vary across projects and (b) that it is nonetheless essential to clearly specify how regions are identified.

In most cases, regions are treated as self-evident. The World Bank provides a representative example, organizing its presentation of information across seven regions, consisting of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, the former Soviet sphere, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and the developed world (the North Atlantic, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand).2 While this list of regions is defensible, there is no straightforward rule that would produce it. Simple geography would obviously militate against including the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan in a single region and also would raise questions about whether, for example, Central America should be part of a region with South America rather than with the United States and Canada. The inclusion of North Africa with the Middle East reflects cultural similarity arising from a shared commitment to Islam, but by that standard it is not obvious why Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Azerbaijan should fall outside the region.3 Indeed, it is not just the boundaries of regions that are open to debate, but the general list. Some studies would include South Asia in a general Asian region; others treat Southeast Asia as a distinct region (Roberts, 2011). Likewise, Lemke (2002, pp. 81–82) argues that for much of its history South America should be treated as comprising four distinct regions, as technological limitations and difficult terrain meant that it was impractical to expect northern countries like Colombia and Venezuela to interact strategically with states like Peru and Bolivia, let alone Uruguay.

Countries within a given region are typically similar along a number of related dimensions, including, for example, geographic location, historical experience, culture, ethnicity, language, level of economic development, and type of political regime. The central challenge in identifying regions, however, is that the correlation across these indicators is far from perfect (Russett, 1973). Hungary and Serbia both lie within Europe geographically and in contemporary politics, but history could justify placing them at the western edge of a postcommunist region, while religion may justify splitting them between Catholic and Orthodox regions. The absence of simple borders to regions implies that there will always be problematic cases for any attempt to identify regions on an ex ante basis.

In the end, therefore, a good definition will be a function of the question being asked. To cite an extreme example, Buzan and Wæver (2003, p. 80) maintain that if the concept of region “does not mean geographic proximity it does not mean anything”; by contrast, Boals (1973, p. 405) argues for a definition that explicitly excludes geography as a criterion for identifying regions. These differences ultimately reflect interest in different questions, with Boals concerned primarily with the potential for future political union (thus justifying identification of a region that includes Arab Middle East states but excludes Israel), while Buzan and Wæver are interested in security relations (broadly defined) among a set of states that are assumed generally to be constant. As should be obvious, applying Boals’s definition to answer the questions of interest to Buzan and Wæver would be extremely problematic—it makes no sense to talk about political disputes in the Middle East while ignoring Israel. One implication therefore is that definitions of regions will vary across studies and that failure to clearly define regions in an appropriate manner will create significant problems.

Ultimately, there are two broad approaches to identifying regions within the literature.4 The first is to generate an ex ante list of regions, which is assumed to be durable in time (but not necessarily permanent) and to be relevant for a range of policy issues. Lemke (2002) builds a list based on geography, terrain, and technology; Buzan and Wæver build a different list based on geographic proximity and durable patterns of amity or enmity. In each case, they allow for the possibility of change over time but claim that regions are generally durable.5

This top-down approach to identifying regions is arguably necessary for studies that attempt, as does the work of Buzan and Wæver (2003), to construct a general theory of international relations. Similarly, it will typically be more straightforward to have a fixed set of regions when examining broadly international questions for which regional dynamics are important. For example, a study of Sino-American relations that takes into account the potential complications of politics in various regions of shared interest is typically not going to engage in a careful discussion of how one defines relevant regions.

There are also, however, some difficulties. Given the inevitability of marginal cases, this approach requires making strong coding decisions that are likely to be open to challenge, while solutions to these problems are likely to introduce additional theoretical complexity. Buzan and Wæver (2003) start with the basic concept of a regional security complex but end up with a bewildering array of types, including precomplexes, protocomplexes, subcomplexes, and supercomplexes. When combined with variation in other explanatory variables (primarily great power involvement and local patterns of amity or enmity), the result is a theoretical framework that comes perilously close to having one case for each possible arrangement, a situation that limits the potential for serious comparative empirical analysis. At a more specific level, Buzan and Wæver struggle with countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, and Burma that fall at the boundaries between regions. While designating them insulators that do not fall within any specific region, they acknowledge (2003, pp. 483–487) encountering significant challenges in the application of the concept.6

The second approach to identifying regions is to start with a particular problem with regional implications and then identify those states or actors that are affected by the relevant problem. Thus, for example, Wolff (2011, especially, p. 966) advocates a focus on “state failure regions,” to highlight the way in which state weakness both can be exacerbated by regional influences and can have negative implications for neighboring states. In this context, he argues that regions should be defined with respect to states that interact intensively and hence that the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by virtue of its weakness, should not be considered part of a state failure region in the Horn of Africa. Lake (1997, pp. 48–49) makes a similar argument at a more general level, contending that regional security complexes exist wherever there is at least one transborder security externality that poses a threat to physical safety. By this definition, the members of a region are then those states that are affected by the security externality, which could include geographically local actors as well as more distant countries such as great powers or former colonial powers.

This approach is generally appropriate for studies that work from the bottom up, starting with particular problems or questions within a given region. Regions identified in response to particular problems are often geographically smaller than those identified from first principles. A greater number of regions obviously increases the potential for cross-regional analysis. Most generally, this approach has the advantage that it allows for greater flexibility in defining regions in a way that is relevant for the question under consideration—this flexibility would allow, for example, for including interested outside powers (e.g., the United States in East Africa) as members of the region given their active involvement, despite their geographic distance. That said, given the inevitable fact that the particular choice of strategy for identifying a region can have important implications for empirical results (Zhukov & Stewart, 2013), there is the danger that scholars will be tempted to adopt a particular approach because it gives the desired result rather than because it is most theoretically appropriate.

Ultimately, given the variety of research questions that have been asked at a regional level, there is obviously no single definition that will be appropriate for all projects. Even so, the more explicit that the analyst is in justifying a regional approach theoretically, the easier she will typically find it to identify and defend a particular delineation of relevant regions.

Explaining Warfare at the Regional Level

There are four broad levels at which one may approach regional dynamics when it comes to studying war and peace. The first, and the modal form in the literature, is to basically assume away regions. Given the value placed on developing parsimonious theories with implications for international politics that apply across a wide variety of cases, the default approach in most studies is to assume (typically tacitly) that relationships are basically invariant across regions. Studies examining the bargaining model of war or the democratic peace, for example, typically presume that underlying theoretical logics will travel unproblematically across regions.7

In other cases, scholars examine cases within a single region but draw implications for other regions. Thus, for example, Copeland (2000) examines a series of great power wars in Europe and then draws implications for the likelihood of major war in Asia as a consequence of China’s rise. Similarly, because of extensive data collection efforts in Africa, quantitative studies of civil war frequently focus on that continent but then draw implications for wars elsewhere in the world (e.g., Thomas, 2014; Wood, 2014). For these sorts of studies, a recognition of the importance of regional variation suggests that scholars should explicitly address the generalizability of their arguments outside the region examined. For example, when testing their argument that resource-dependent states will sometimes launch preventive or predatory wars in response to transnational terrorist groups, Bapat and Zeigler (2016, pp. 342–343) focus on Africa, while noting that their argument is unlikely to apply in parts of the world such as North America or Western Europe in which states are both stronger and less dependent on territory for resources.

The Diffusion of Violence

A second approach is to examine regional spillover effects. In these cases, the presence or absence of violence or of factors that may promote or hinder violence produces interdependence among countries. Stated differently, whether or not violence occurs in one country is a function in part of whether it occurs in neighboring countries. There has been significant interest, for example, in the ways in which the Syrian Civil War increased the probability of (continued) violence in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon (Young, Stebbins, Frederick, & Al-Shahery, 2014). These sorts of spillover effects can be quite complex. For example, Ferris (2013) finds a direct but generally unrecognized connection between Egypt’s five-year intervention in Yemen, which upset existing diplomatic relationships in the Middle East, and the subsequent Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Definitively demonstrating the existence of spillover effects can be complicated. Because geographically proximate countries tend to be similar on multiple dimensions, it can be difficult to determine, for example, whether civil conflict in Africa is common because of violence spilling over from one country to another or because political conditions in Africa are typically conducive to civil wars. That said, careful studies (e.g., Buhaug & Gleditsch, 2008) have found clear evidence of contagion processes, even taking into account underlying regional similarities.

Moreover, a broad literature has now found important evidence of specific, theoretically motivated spillover effects. A full review is beyond the scope of this discussion, but prominent examples are cited here.8 In all these cases, we can, following Lake (1997), identify a regional security complex, in which the existence of civil conflict in one country produces security externalities that increase the probability of violence in or among other states in the region.9 Several studies (Buhaug & Gleditsch, 2008; Gleditsch, Salehyan, & Schultz, 2008; Salehyan, 2008, 2009) find that ongoing civil conflicts produce political externalities, such as safe havens for rebels from neighboring countries or politically costly refugee flows, that increase the probability of civil conflict in neighboring states and also lead to interstate conflict between the country experiencing the civil war and its neighbors. Alternately, the emergence of mass protest against an unpopular autocrat in one country can provide a signal to unhappy populations in similar countries that protest may work, potentially producing waves of uprisings, as in the Revolutions of 1848 or the Arab Spring (Hale, 2013). Building on this logic, Danneman and Ritter (2014) argue that governments at risk of civil conflict contagion engage in preemptive repression, with effects that could either forestall or promote civil war.

On a more positive note, several studies suggest pathways by which peace may diffuse across borders. There is good reason to think that regional environment matters for the emergence and survival of democracies, with diffusion from early established democracies potentially accounting for the emergence of clusters of peaceful democratic states (Cederman & Gleditsch, 2004; Gleditsch, 2002).10 The argument that violence diffuses across borders also suggests that efforts to limit violence in one state can have positive regional effects. Along these lines, Beardsley (2011) finds that the deployment of peacekeepers decreases the probability of civil conflict contagion to neighboring states.

Regional Security Complex Theory

Regional security complex theory represents a third approach. The core insight in regional security complex theory is that most countries are interested primarily in events in their geographic region, both because they cannot project power beyond the region and because the region contains a given country’s most salient threats and opportunities. At the same time, one cannot simply treat regions as miniature versions of the international system, because great powers have interests and influences that cross regional boundaries. Thus, regions occupy a level of analysis between the international system and the individual country. International relations concepts, such as, most notably, the balance of power, apply to regional politics, but only after one takes into account the potential intervention of the great powers.

In its most prominent articulation, by Buzan and Wæver (2003, p. 45), regions are geographically clustered sets of states with “durable patterns of amity and enmity,” which ensure that the region’s members view one another as their most likely partners and opponents. Under these circumstances, states within a region experience security interdependence. The friendliness or enmity among countries within the region structures regional politics in a way that great powers cannot simply redefine. At the same time, however, great power penetration into the region, for example, through alignments with one side of a traditional rivalry, deeply influences regional politics. Buzan and Wæver ultimate offer what they term a 1+4+regions approach, in which the American superpower and four great powers (China, Japan, Russia, and the European Union) intersect in various ways with different regions. The resulting theoretical framework is quite complex: individual states can take on a number of roles (superpower, great power, regional power, insulator, buffer, or ordinary state), while regional politics can follow one of at least four different patterns (standard, centered, great power, and supercomplex).

Given this complexity, there are limits to the extent to which regional security complex theory can be used to generate strong ex ante theoretical predictions, though Buzan and Wæver (2003, pp. 65–70) argue that it can be used to identify more and less plausible future scenarios. More plausibly, regional security complex theory has proved a useful theoretical framework for contemporary area studies: it provides important guidelines for analysis while retaining sufficient flexibility for focusing on idiosyncratic features of a given region. It is thus not surprising that applications have often focused on explaining the politics of a given region.

Indeed, regional approaches provide a natural home for scholarship with a clear area focus even when theoretical arguments are not grounded in regional security complex theory. For example, Acharya (2001) advocates a regional approach to studying the potential emergence of a security community in Southeast Asia, while differing from Buzan and Wæver on several important points.11 Katzenstein (2005) similarly advocates an analytically eclectic approach to studying regional variation between Europe and East Asia. A wide range of less prominent studies similarly advocate a regional level of analysis, while making analytical moves at odds with regional security theory, as, for example, with studies examining the Black Sea (e.g., Ivan, 2011; Weaver, 2011) or Central Asian (e.g., Allison, 2004; Menon, 2003) regions, neither of which Buzan and Wæver recognize as meeting the requirements for regions in their theory.

Variation across Regions

A final approach shifts the unit of analysis to the region, however defined. There are a number of political questions that can be asked at a regional level, such as why some regions experience higher levels of regional institutional or economic integration than others or why we observe variation in regional alliance structures (Hemmer & Katzenstein, 2002), but a central interest has been in explaining variation in levels of violence across regions. Why, in short, are some regions beset by violence while others are quite peaceful?

This question is one for which standard international relations theories are not particularly well suited.12 Following Waltz (1979), international relations scholars have tended to focus on the historical experience of Europe (and to a lesser degree East Asia), with a particular eye to explaining what was, at least until relatively recently, a fairly constant level of security competition among well-institutionalized states. As scholars have looked elsewhere, however, they have come to realize that Europe is unrepresentative in important respects. Most important, politics in the postcolonial world is far more likely to be characterized by interactions among and within relatively weak and illegitimate states. This observation has important implications for regional war and peace, which the European experience cannot necessarily illuminate.13 Because standard international relations theories assume strong states, they struggle to explain why some regions experience endemic violence and how regions that have experienced such violence transition to peace.14

Early work on regional variation in war propensity tended to turn to the standard international relations theories, only to conclude that they were lacking. Kacowicz (1998) focused on zones of peace in Latin America and West Africa, examining the ability of concepts drawn from traditional theory to explain the relative absence of (especially interstate) violence but ultimately highlighting the importance of ideational variables. Martín (2006) focused specifically on Latin America, concluding that militarist leaders maintained interstate peace with one another because they worried more about threats from domestic opponents.

Two seminal studies helped to establish the need for a different approach to studying variation in conflict propensity across regions. Holsti (1996, especially chaps. 7–8), in a book arguing that wars of the future are primarily those occurring in weak states that are unable to maintain domestic legitimacy and order, contends that variation in regional levels of violence are primarily a consequence of variation across both space and time in the strength of states. Lemke (2002) also provides clues that the field should look in a similar direction. The core argument of Lemke’s book is that power transition theory can be applied not just for great power relations, its traditional domain, but also for relations among minor powers, albeit only in the region that is politically relevant to them. He finds, however, that this argument is most successful when examining relatively developed regions but that it struggles in the less developed regions, in which states are weaker.

Miller (2007) conducts the most systematic analysis of regional variation in the prevalence of war. He maintains that variation in the frequency of war is a function of great power politics and of what he calls the “state-to-nation” balance, a concept that brings together state strength and the degree to which the state boundaries align with national or ethnic lines. At one end are regions like Western Europe, in which states are strong and national identities align closely with states, allowing for a warm peace among states with no real reason to fight. At the opposite end are regions like the Middle East in which states are relatively weak and citizens are open to transnational appeals, whether pan-Arabism in earlier periods or calls for a new caliphate today.

Taken together, these studies suggest that regional variation in the prevalence of war is heavily influenced by state strength. This conclusion, however, leaves open some important questions. Does state strength produce peace, or does peace make it possible for strong and broadly legitimate states to emerge? And to the extent that consolidating the state is necessary for regions experiencing widespread violence to transition to peace, how is that process to be accomplished? Providing better answers to these questions is an important next step for regional literature.

Implications for Foreign Policy Analysis

A regional approach to war and peace has important implications for foreign policy. For countries seeking to advance their policy interests, an accurate understanding of regional politics is critical, and a failure to understand the logic of regional violence can lead to dramatic policy missteps. A good understanding of the regional dynamics underpinning violence is similarly critical for actors interested in promoting peace in places where it is absent. The remainder of this discussion expands on these points.

Foreign Policy Effectiveness in a World of Regions

For leaders, regional approaches suggest three key lessons for policymaking. First, findings about the diffusion of violence provide justification for leaders’ fears of the potential consequences of ongoing war. This point holds both for leaders of countries who worry about the potential that violence may erupt in their own country and for leaders of outside powers who worry that one apparently manageable conflict may spiral into a series of mutually reinforcing wars, as happened in the Middle East after the Iraq War. In an era of nuclear deterrence and clearly demarcated borders, direct clashes among great powers appear unlikely. In this context, arguably the most likely scenario leading to great power war is one in which the regional diffusion of violence drags the great powers in on different sides of a regional war.

Second, a regional approach suggests additional obstacles to policy success that may not be immediately apparent. In a regional security complex, multiple actors with diverse interests and significant security concerns provide the perfect environment for the emergence of regional balance-of-power systems. Failure to anticipate the system effects (Jervis, 1997) that may emerge under balance-of-power politics can result in major policy failures when third parties respond in ways that offset one’s policies. To cite a particular example, in her magisterial examination of the interrelations of the Chinese Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, and World War II in Asia, Paine (2012, p. 5) argues that both Japan and the United States suffered serious policy failures—protracted insurgency followed by complete defeat and occupation in Japan’s case, the loss of China to communism in the American case—because of excessive focus on one layer of a more complex regional puzzle. Following regional security complex theory, regional politics divisions will typically trump global ones, and hence successful policymaking will require careful attention to regional concerns. In sum, as Lake and Morgan (1997, p. 7) note, a regional approach implies that the “foreign policies of the great powers must be tailored to the individual circumstances of different regions.”

Third, a regional approach can help leaders to avoid misplaced optimism, with its potential for costly failed interventions, when it comes to bringing peace to war-torn regions. Regional balance-of-power systems will operate to frustrate even large investments in policy goals with which regional actors may disagree, as with American frustrations with the shelter that the Taliban was able to find in countries around Afghanistan, which has served as a major obstacle to the ability of the American-backed government in Kabul to consolidate power. In particular, to the extent that regional war reflects the presence of weak states, there is good reason to expect that efforts to build up state strength will run into the problem that, while all regional actors may agree that it would be preferable for weak states to be stronger, they disagree about who should be leading those states once they have consolidated. In this environment, there is the risk that outside powers may conduct what they view as a straightforward intervention to promote peace, only to get dragged into an environment far more complex than expected.

Strategies for the Promotion of Peace

A regional approach also has implications for peacemakers. Third parties—whether individuals, international organizations, or states—have played an increasingly active role in encouraging a return to peace and have a range of policy options available to them. Regional approaches to war and peace have important implications for mediation, peacekeeping, and the viability of partition, among others.

Most important, a regional perspective reminds us that the interested actors are not necessarily only those directly involved in a dispute. To cite a contemporary example, the knowledge that Saudi Arabia would prefer to see regime change in Syria implies that Bashar Assad and his supporters (most notably, Russia) have an interest in seeing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen turn into a protracted quagmire, thereby reducing the probability that the Saudis will more actively aid Assad’s opponents. An effort to mediate an end to the Yemeni Civil War thus may encounter unexpected obstacles thrown up by actors not directly involved in the conflict who would prefer to see it continue. In principle, one solution to this problem is to pursue a general regional settlement, but attempts at resolving multiple conflicts at one time do not have a promising track record. More realistically, this observation implies that mediators should enter negotiations aware of the interests and options available to a broader set of actors than may otherwise be expected (Wallensteen, 2007, pp. 196–200).

When it comes to peacekeeping, regional approaches suggest both justifications and concerns for recent trends toward regional peacekeeping (Bellamy & Williams, 2005). The effort to involve regional organizations, most notably the African Union, in peacekeeping has been motivated by capacity limitations at the United Nations, the expectation that regional organizations would not face concerns about neocolonial motivations that may undercut the perceived legitimacy of local operations, and the belief that regional peacekeepers will have a greater interest in the conflict and hence more motivation to actively intervene to uphold the peace. The United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, a component of the UN mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has directly engaged in several battles in the eastern part of the republic, provides a pertinent example. Although they are not organized under the African Union, the brigade forces are drawn entirely from African states, both for perceived legitimacy and because non-African countries rarely are willing to risk having peacekeepers injured or killed. Still, precisely because regional actors are more interested in the conflict, they are less likely to be unbiased. To the extent that peacekeeping success requires preserving impartiality in the underlying conflict (Doyle & Sambanis, 2006), relying on regional peacekeepers is potentially quite risky. Especially in cases in which regional actors are contributing to the difficulty resolving the conflict, appointing them as peacekeepers would clearly be misguided.

Finally, some scholars have suggested that the best approach to solving certain (especially ethnic) civil wars is through partition (Kaufmann, 1996). According to partition advocates, in the absence of government authority, people turn to their ethnic group for protection, heightening ethnic identities that are only made more salient by the violence and generating an ethnic security dilemma in which each group views the other as a threat to its survival. In this context, partition advocates argue that the only way to guarantee peace is to physically separate the two groups and give each its own state. The partition prescription has been criticized on a number of grounds, including that partitions historically have been extremely violent (Kumar, 1997), that partition has not been an effective strategy for promoting peace (Sambanis & Schulhofer-Wohl, 2009), and that carrying out partition provides incentives for self-serving ethnic leaders to promote conflict to get their own state (Fearon, 2004).15 A regional perspective provides additional insights to explain the historical difficulties associated with partition. If many civil wars, especially the most protracted and severe of them, occur in the context of a regional balance of power, then partition will affect the nature of that balance in ways that are likely to prove destabilizing. In this context, it will be effectively impossible to implement an impartial partition (Horowitz & Weisiger, 2009).

Ultimately, work on variation in conflict levels across regions suggests that state weakness often is the most important obstacle to regional pacification. There is, however, no straightforward answer to the question of how one promotes state consolidation in a region that is experiencing endemic violence (Armstrong & Rubin, 2005). Under a regional balance-of-power system, all actors may agree that peace is desirable and that state consolidation is a necessary condition for peace, but so long as they disagree on the terms of state consolidation, the balance of power will ensure that regional pacification remains a distant dream. In this context, there are no easy paths to peace, but peacemakers will at least be better served by recognizing the problem that they face.


Most scholarship on the causes of war and peace neglects the regional level of analysis. As the studies discussed here make clear, however, there are good reasons to examine violent conflict from a regional level. Security interdependence within regions implies that one frequently cannot accurately understand a given conflict by looking only at the actors directly involved in it: the diffusion of war across borders creates important linkages between nominally independent conflicts, while the emergence of a regional balance-of-power system implies that outside actors may be waiting in the wings to intervene should events go contrary to expectations. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that area studies scholarship increasingly adopts a theoretical framework grounded in the regional level of analysis. At the same time, there are important questions about regional variation in conflict propensity that can be answered only by looking more carefully at regions. In the end, both scholars and policymakers will benefit from taking politics at the regional level seriously.


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(1.) Haas (1970) provides a useful review of this literature.

(3.) For early discussions on the Middle East as a distinct region, see Binder (1958), who specified boundaries similar to those used by the World Bank, and Davidson (1963), who discusses the difficulties of precisely identifying the region’s boundaries.

(4.) This discussion is not intended to imply that the authors cited within a given approach agree on all points. Katzenstein (2005, pp. 6–13) provides a different organizational scheme constructed around material, ideational, and behavioral bases for identifying regions.

(5.) A far wider range of studies, of course, simply treat regions as unproblematic, for example, by controlling statistically for whether a country falls in Latin America, Europe, or sub-Saharan Africa. Lemke and Buzan and Wæver share with this approach the presumption that a consistent and exhaustive set of regions can be identified ex ante, but they are substantially more reflective in how they go about identifying those regions.

(6.) Barrinha (2014) provides a more in-depth discussion of Turkey’s insulator status in the theory.

(7.) In some cases, scholars include controls for geographic region. This approach can address variation across regions in the likelihood of violence but still assumes that other covariates influence outcomes in a consistent way across regions.

(8.) For a more extensive recent review, see Wood (2013).

(9.) While the examples cited here are relatively recent, there is an older literature. Much of the earlier literature focuses on the obstacles to inference generated by diffusion (e.g., Davis, Duncan, & Siverson, 1978; Faber, Houweling, & Siccama, 1984; Houweling & Siccama, 1985), but some prominent studies examine diffusion in more systematic theoretical terms (e.g., Most & Starr, 1980; Levy, 1982).

(10.) Enterline and Greig (2005) note, however, that these benefits are unlikely to accrue in the case of externally imposed regime change, except in the unlikely case that the new regimes are stable and well-institutionalized democracies.

(11.) See also Acharya (2007).

(12.) Regional security complex theory has been applied to answer these sorts of questions as well, using variation in great power involvement and in patterns of amity and enmity to explain variation in levels of regional peacefulness. Given the earlier discussion concerning this theory, these applications are not examined here. That said, regional security complex theory corresponds in several respects with the argument advanced by Miller (2007), discussed later, to explain regional variation in war and peace.

(13.) To cite a prominent example, Centeno (2002) contends that Tilly’s (1985) argument that sovereigns were able to consolidate power in response to the threat of war does not hold outside Europe, finding, in particular, that Latin American states did not face the same threat of conquest and hence did not respond to war in the same way that European states did. In an analysis of sub-Saharan Africa, Thies (2007) similarly finds that, although war increases state extractive capacity, we have not seen further moves toward consolidated states that the European experience would lead us to expect.

(14.) This point is clearest in a volume edited by Paul (2012), in which contributors were instructed to apply traditional international relations theories to explain regional transitions to peace but generally elected to answer different questions.

(15.) O’Leary (2006) usefully reviews arguments for and against partition.