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date: 28 May 2017

Managing Internationalized Civil Wars

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

In their seminal study Resort to Arms, Small and Singer defined a civil war as “any armed conflict that involves (a) military action internal to the metropole, (b) the active participation of the national government, and (c) effective resistance by both sides.” Internationalized civil war is a newer classification, denoting a conflict involving organized violence on two or more sides within a sovereign state, in which foreign elements play a role in instigating, prolonging, or exacerbating the struggle. Under Small and Singer’s concept of civil wars, an internationalized civil war is one in which a “system member” intervenes in a sub-state conflict involving organized violence. Although Singer and Small conceived system members narrowly, as external sovereign states engaged in military intervention in the civil war in question, the definition has since been expanded by the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Uppsala Conflict Data Program to include other foreign actors—such as non-state or private actors, diasporas, IOs, corporations, or cross-border kin groups—and systemic influences, such as the diffusion of ideas, transnational social networks, diasporas, personnel, or other outside conflict processes—any of which can intervene to intensify a domestic civil conflict. From superpower interventions during the Cold War to more recent conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, internationalized civil wars have garnered increasing scholarly attention, primarily because they tend to be far bloodier and more protracted than non-internationalized civil wars.

How to end such wars has long bedeviled the international community. Civil wars are already more difficult to end than interstate wars partly because there are more players to satisfy in civil war settings, with multiple conflict parties co-existing on a single territory, and multiple factions within each conflict party—each constituting a “veto player” that might plausibly spoil a peace agreement should the agreement not satisfy their needs. This problem is exacerbated by an order of magnitude when a civil war becomes internationalized. When outside actors get involved in a civil war, the number of veto players rises correspondingly to include not only domestic players and internal factions, but also the involved external players, which may include foreign governments, diaspora groups, foreign fighters, and/or transnational social networks.

Managing or ending internationalized civil wars is thus a highly complicated balancing act requiring attention not just to internal, but also to external veto players represented by all involved parties, both inside and outside the conflict state. The traditional methods of conflict management involve electoral engineering, power-sharing arrangements, or other peace deals that seek to satisfy the aspirations of involved internal parties, while ensuring that the peace deal is self-enforcing. This means that it will hold up even in the absence of outside pressure. In internationalized civil wars, however, conflict managers must also satisfy involved outside actors or otherwise neutralize external conflict processes. There are multiple methods for doing this, ranging from effective border control in cases of conflict spillover to decomposing internationalized conflicts into civil and international conflicts, which are solved separately, to outright peace enforcement involving international security guarantees.