Diplomacy and other Forms of Intervention in Civil Wars

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Diplomacy and other Forms of Intervention in Civil Wars

Patrick M. Regan


Aysegul Aydin

Binghamton University
Diplomacy and other Forms of Intervention in Civil Wars

Much of the empirical literature suggests that outside interventions tend to lengthen the expected duration of civil wars; conversely, the policy community often acts as if they hold the opposite expectation for the outcome of intervention. We argue that the divergence can be found in how models of intervention are specified in the literature. We propose a model with two novel contributions. First, we incorporate mediations as the key to resolving the strategic problems that the civil war parties face. Second, we account for the decaying effect of interventions over time. Our results suggest that diplomacy is critically important for understanding the duration of civil conflicts. We find that mediation has a dramatic effect on the expected duration of a civil war, and that when controlling for diplomatic efforts, economic interventions can also reduce the expected duration.


Do outside interventions into civil wars contribute to war termination or do they have the adverse effect of prolonging the conflict? The weight of the broadly empirical evidence suggests that outside military and economic interventions increase the duration and hostility levels, and make the termination of civil conflicts less likely (Balch-Lyndsay and Enterline, 2000; Regan, 2000; 2002; Elbadawi and Sambanis, 2000). This poses an empirical conundrum where the policy community anticipates one outcome from their actions, and the evidence suggests quite the opposite. The discrepancy between apparent expectations of the policy makers and the results from the scholarly community can be accounted for by a closer theoretical and empirical specification of models of third-party intervention, particularly, the effects of mediation and the sequencing of different combinations of interventions on civil war duration.

The consequences of civil wars are not constrained by the national frontiers in which they unfold. Thus, the containment of conflicts by effective policy is a crucial element in sustaining regional security and economic stability. Moreover, the spillover effects are not limited to the diffusion of fighting but also to the depression of economic growth in neighboring countries (Murdoch and Sandler, 2002). This regional dependency points to the increasing need for more comprehensive knowledge about the conditions under which outside actors can effectively contribute to the management of internal conflicts and civil wars.

Perhaps, the most worrisome case requiring immediate action by the international community is the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. The reactions to the conflict by the international community were mixed. In October 2004, some members of the African Union (Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Chad) condemned the idea of U.N. sanctions on the Sudanese government and rejected any foreign intervention, describing the crisis as an “African question”1. To date the ambiguity over how best to intervene has caused political gridlock, where harsh words cannot be followed by resolute action. To some extent we see this as an information problem, where national policy makers simply do not know what to do.

A growing body of empirical work has explored the role of outside parties in the management of internal conflicts, though the cumulative evidence is not convincing. Part of the problem, we argue, is that empirical models generally consider intervention as a dichotomous action engaged by the policy community, while the policy community conceives interventions as a more complex undertaking involving a range of alternative strategies, coordination, and sequences. That is, our models account for whether an actor intervened or not, targeted the government or the opposition, or employed economic or military instruments. Scholars commonly assume that conflict management attempts by third-parties affect war outcomes independently of one another. Also, implicit is the assumption that individual interventions are independent of other attempts and avenues to manage a conflict. What we observe in the referent world, however, suggests that the range of options considered by potential interveners is rather broad. In short, the empirical evaluations of interventions do not jive sufficiently with what we observe taking place around the globe.

In this paper we articulate a theoretical framework that integrates mediation, military, and economic interventions into a model of the expected duration of civil wars, and then subject this argument to empirical examination. We see interventions comprising two types: 1) those that attempt to influence the structure of the relationship among combatants, and 2) those that attempt to manipulate the information that these actors hold. We anticipate – and prior evidence will support the notion – that when used independently structural interventions increase the expected duration of a civil conflict, but that manipulating the information of the combatants will decrease expected durations. There are two major innovations to our research. First, we use newly generated data on all diplomatic intervention efforts by third-parties in civil conflicts. Diplomacy, we argue, is critical to understanding the conflict management aspects of outside interventions. Second, we specify a decay function for interventions that reflects their declining utility over time.

We are adopting a broad view of interventions, incorporating various approaches that outside parties can use to manage conflicts. As historical events reveal, this can include military, economic, and diplomatic initiatives. When combining tools of coercion, enticement, and diplomacy we move closer to capturing the “carrot and stick” strategies often advocated by the policy community and contemporary folklore.

Our argument proceeds as follows. Initially, we discuss contemporary research that has attempted to systematically explore the role of interventions on civil war duration. Next we present a theoretical model that accounts for the role of outside interventions and the conditions under which they should be most effective. This model motivates a series of empirical tests against data on interventions in civil conflicts, 1944-1999. Finally, we draw inferences from the results of our analysis about future theoretical development. The results suggest that mediation is a critical component in the management of civil conflicts, and is instrumental in determining the effect of other forms of intervention.

The State of Knowledge on Civil War Durations

Previous research has demonstrated that outside interventions are associated with longer war duration. For example, Elbadawi and Sambanis (2000) present evidence to suggest that external interventions predict an increase in the expected duration of a civil war. Balch-Lindsay and Enterline (2000) find similar evidence when expanding the notion of intervention to include aspects of the strategy of the intervention, mainly the targeting of opposition or the government forces. Regan (2000; 2002) also finds that outside interventions tend to increase the duration of internal wars. Most of these results show a consistent pattern in the relationship between interventions and civil war durations. However, there is some evidence in the literature suggesting that military support for rebel movements can shorten expected durations of civil conflicts (Collier et al., 2004). Overwhelmingly, however, the evidence points to military and economic interventions as factors that tend to increase the duration of civil wars. This is in marked contrast to the policies and public statements that guide many of these interventions.

More broadly, much of the literature points to a relationship between ethno-linguistic fractionalization (ELF), income and economic growth (Collier et al., 2004), indigenous land claims (Fearon, 2001), geography (Fearon and Laitin, 2003), and the type of war (Regan, 2002; DeRouen and Sobek, 2004) as predictors of the duration of a civil war. Not all studies agree on the substantive or statistical significance of each factor, but a general consensus points to a series of structural conditions and outside actions that influence the course of internal conflicts. Our primary focus is on the role of external actors and how different attempts to influence the outcomes are more or less effective at shortening the duration of a civil war.

We see the discrepancy between the actions of the policy community and the results of scholarly research to be a function of how we model the process rather than the inability of the policymakers to tailor the “right” conflict management policies. There are two main points.

First, empirical studies have almost exclusively been concerned with military and economic interventions with little systematic study on the role of mediation in civil war. Evidence from interstate conflict management shows that mediation is a frequent, if not always successful, form of conflict management (Dixon, 1996; Bercovitch and Regan, 1999; Bercovitch and Diehl, 1997). There is also evidence pointing to the role of third party mediation in the duration of interstate disputes, and results suggest that under some conditions mediation can reduce the expected duration of a dispute (Regan and Stam, 2000). Others also suggest that the theoretical linkages between mediation attempts in a conflict and its management should be strong (Kydd, 2003; Greig 2001), but to date there have been no efforts to test this in the intrastate environment. In the data we present, there are over 400 diplomatic efforts by third-parties to manage 153 internal conflicts. This simple count of mediations demonstrates that third-parties have an apparent expectation that mediation can play an effective role in settling internal conflicts. Thus, the limited emphasis on economic and military intervention presents a narrow formulation of the policy tools that third-parties can choose from. We argue that this works against demonstrating a relationship between outside interventions and the management of internal conflicts.

Our second concern is that large-N studies have failed to account for the declining effect of third-party interventions on war duration. Structural support for one side is not equally potent over the course of a long running conflict. Even though it is not possible to tell when a gun is no longer useful, bullets have been expended, or money spent, we can reasonably assume that over time the initial effect of the intervention degrades.

We address both of these issues in the following sections. First, we articulate an argument that posits that both structural conditions and negotiations influence the duration of civil wars. Third parties can play off both of these elements by designing strategies that allow them to manipulate structure and information. Second, we will present a research design, data, and tests that allow us to draw inferences about the role of intervention as a tool of conflict management in civil wars.

Mediations and the Management of Information

We frame civil war duration in terms of a bargaining process where private information that civil war parties hold is a critical component in the settlement of conflicts (Lake, 2003; Reiter, 2003). This framework works from the basic premise that in the bargaining environment, third-party intermediaries can help civil war parties to disclose private information on their capabilities, expectations, and payoffs from a negotiated settlement. The role of an outside actor is central to peaceful settlement given two main problems confronting the civil war parties: a) the difficulty in signaling one’s own strength, resolve and preferences to the opponent, and b) the civil parties’ inability to identify a mutually acceptable solution to their disagreements and make a credible commitment to this position without being vulnerable in the post-conflict period (Fearon,1998; 1995; Walter, 2002). The outbreak of civil war itself shows the difficulties that the government and the opposition groups have in solving their differences at the negotiation table. When both sides of the conflict believe that they can successfully pursue their aims by fighting and they do not trust the other side, they adopt resolute positions at the bargaining table that lead to the breakdown of negotiations. Absent the transfer of information that reduces uncertainty over the distribution of power, relative resolve and the preferences of the opponent, adversaries are unable to identify a mutually agreeable solution and civil wars have an increased tendency to become protracted conflicts. To be effective, third parties need to take actions in the course of the conflict that transform the conflict by influencing the information structure and facilitate communication between the adversaries.

In this respect, an outside involvement that manipulates only the structural balance of capabilities tends to prolong rather than decrease the duration and level of violence in a conflict (Regan, 2000; 2002). A potential explanation for the deleterious consequences of military or economic interventions is that these third-party strategies increase the ability of one or both sides to resort to violence with some prospect of prevailing but do not help the adversaries to overcome their distrust and misperceptions of one another. Material incentives encourage the receiver of the support to continue fighting but do not present a conducive environment where the adversaries can communicate effectively, and identify their differences. Especially if military or economic support is given to an actor that prefers fighting to settlement with the hope of prevailing on the battlefield, interventions will facilitate the solidification of its preferences and expectations around this position. If, however, civil war parties can be moved to a stable cooperative position, peaceful solutions are more likely to prevail.

Mediation facilitates the transfer of information quite efficiently. An outside mediator serves as the conduit for information, ideas, and possible concessions that civil war parties would not possibly convey without a third-party intermediary. Outside interventions can provide a more objective view of conditions and possible outcomes of the conflict which help adversaries to update their beliefs about the likely outcomes. Absent an outside intervention the information held by the warring parties is at best asymmetrical, and neither side has a unilateral incentive to honestly convey their military capabilities, expectations of victory or defeat, or the value of a settlement that they would accept for the fear of exploitation by their adversary. Third parties can therefore influence the value of a settlement by transmitting information on the preferences of adversaries and offering inducements that make a negotiated outcome more attractive than other solutions. In this respect, diplomatic initiatives can help parties find a cooperative solution that both sides can agree to and allows the parties to make the credible commitments required of negotiated ends to civil wars (Walter, 2002). The key to successful interventions, therefore, is to reduce the asymmetry of information about capabilities and incentives, and in doing so help civil war parties find a peaceful solution that can benefit both sides.

Mediation is thought by some scholars to be the most common and effective tool of conflict management. And while the relative success of mediation is not high there is evidence that certain types of mediation attempts are more successful than others (eg. Princen 1992; Dixon, 1996; Bercovitch and Regan, 1999; Regan and Stam 2000). The key element of mediation is that it involves an explicit attempt to transform a conflict from one of hostility to one of cooperation. Mediation, moreover, involves the voluntary agreement by all three parties, which in turn agree to the format, the location, and the range of issues. In effect, mediation ties the motivation to intervene explicitly to efforts at conflict management.

At the core of the ideas about mediation is the notion that mediators transfer information between the combatants, information about relative capabilities, prospects for victory or defeat, possible concessions, reservation points, and other bits of vital information that antagonists cannot credibly convey. This information is critical to understanding the effect of interventions on the duration of internal conflicts. But unlike the dictates of conventional wisdom, mediators might not need to be unbiased (Kydd, 2003; Svensson, 2005). The most important element in facilitating the movement toward a compromise outcome is to provide information. We know that parties to a civil war have a difficult time making credible commitments and that this liability makes problematic – maybe even impossible – the implementation of peace agreements (Walter, 2002; Svensson, 2005). This difficulty arises because they have no sanctuary if concessions or an agreement increases their vulnerability. They are therefore reluctant to betray information absent an outside mediator who can help the adversaries communicate sincerely to learn about each other and solve their differences with non-violent means.

To date there have been few or no systematic studies of outside diplomatic efforts to settle intrastate conflicts. Attention at the theoretical and empirical level has focused primarily on mediation in interstate conflicts (Kydd, 2003; Regan and Stam, 2000; Bercovitch, 1997). Mediation has been shown to be effective at helping the adversaries to reach a settlement (Bercovitch and Regan, 2003; Dixon, 1996; Bercovitch and Diehl, 1997), and shortening the duration of a conflict (Regan and Stam, 2000). In most works, the core element of third party conflict management involves information transmitted that allows parties to broach agreements that might otherwise be difficult (Filson and Werner 2002). The importance of negotiation and mediation may reside in mediators’ ability to create turning points (Druckman, 2004), offer or provide guarantees (Walter, 2002), or to offer incentives.

Mediation, however, does not appear to have a great track record if judged in terms of successful agreements. In fact most of the evidence points to success rates in the neighborhood of 30% (Dixon, 1996; Bercovitch and Diehl 1997; Bercovitch and Regan, 2003). Regan and Stam, however, demonstrate that mediation can have an impact on the expected duration of a MID, and in fact under certain conditions lead to shorter conflicts (2000; see also Greig, 2001).

We see no compelling reason to expect outside diplomatic interventions to have any different impact on internal conflicts. That is, individual mediation attempts might fail to achieve an agreement more often than they succeed, but the cumulative effect can be to shorten the duration of a civil war. We hypothesize, therefore, that:
H1: The existence of third party diplomatic efforts (generally conceived of as mediation) to achieve a settlement will shorten the duration of a civil war.
Although diplomatic efforts by external parties can be effective on conflict duration, a successful intervention outcome might also be contingent on the timing of the effort. Regan and Stam (2000), for example, find that “… at some points in time (earlier on) mediation seems to do little to increase the hazard, or probability that the dispute will end. As time passes, the hazard rate increases, and at some point past roughly 100-200 months the hazard associated with mediation seems to increase exponentially” (p. 250). Following from Regan and Stam’s approach, we also test for whether the success of third-parties in facilitating the termination of the conflict through mediation is a matter of timing. At certain points in the conflict, third-parties can more effectively communicate information about the utility of continued fighting and the terms of potential settlements to the warring parties. More importantly, this approach treats conflict as a dynamic process where adversaries’ perceptions about the potential benefits and losses from peaceful settlement and fighting evolve over time. Accounting for the curvilinear relationship between intervention timing and conflict duration relaxes the assumption that the effect of outside interventions is static over time. This discussion suggests the second diplomacy hypothesis:
H2: There is a curvilinear relationship – represented by an inverted U shape --between the timing of a diplomatic intervention and the duration of a civil war.
Military and Economic Interventions

Military and economic interventions pose a slightly different question. Previous research demonstrates that these types of structural interventions often prolong a conflict and are not very effective at bringing about the termination of a civil war. This result holds in spite of what appears to be an implicit or explicit assumption about the role of structural interventions as a tool of conflict management. We argue that diplomacy and military or economic initiatives work on different parts of the warring parties’ decision calculus about whether or not to continue fighting. Most realpolitik arguments and studies in the bargaining literature argue that relative capabilities will have an effect on the bargaining positions of the actors. The strong can make greater demands and the weak must make greater concessions: in a bargaining situation, relative capabilities play an important role in gorging agreements. Structural changes to the balance of capabilities stand just as much chance of emboldening as stiffening resolve as it does providing incentives to settle, and therefore extend the willingness of both sides to fight on toward victory.

Military or economic assistance to a party involved in a civil war can influence the structural conditions that make them more or less likely to prevail. Many would argue that the effect of external interventions is a function of the target of the assistance (eg. Balch-Lyndsay and Enterline, 2000; Regan, 2002; Collier et al., 2004). For example, in general the rebels have less military capability than the government, external support for the rebels will increase their expectations for victory, increase the level of demands they make for a settlement, decrease the amount of concessions they are willing to make, and therefore extend the duration of a conflict. External support for the government would have the opposite affect.

Two things about these arguments deserve mention. First, solely military or economic interventions lack the explicit link to the notion of conflict management. While the external patron may be attempting to make conditions better for a settlement, the recipient simply sees the aid as increasing the ability and motivation to fight on to victory. Second, it is possible that military and economic efforts by external parties are actually attempts to compel victory or stalemate, and are not really efforts at conflict management. This would be consistent with some of the Cold War rhetoric about proxy wars. Under these conditions we would expect that military and economic interventions would have an independent affect of prolonging an internal conflict. Material inducements would increase the resiliency of the adversaries in fighting and decrease their utility from negotiated settlements. Once supported materially, warring parties look for solutions to their disputes in fighting rather than the negotiating table. That is, military or economic interventions influence the structural relationship between combatants in a way that increases the incentives to fight over negotiate. We hypothesize, therefore, that:

H3: Military and economic interventions undertaken independently of diplomatic efforts will prolong the expected duration of a conflict.

We think that to correctly model the role of interventions as a tool of conflict management in civil wars we have to make an explicit link to the desired outcome. That is, just manipulating structural conditions might fall far short of the actions required to move the parties toward a compromise. We maintain that military and economic factors can still play an important role in the management of civil wars, but their implementation must be more nuanced, more targeted than prior research has been able to specify.

Without explicitly positing a strategy where actors combine structural incentives and information within a coordinated intervention attempt, we do see these two forms of intervention within one conflict to provide a stronger influence than the individual parts. Put differently, if mediations are included as part of the approach to intervening, the relative influence of each form of intervention should be affected. In fact in a strictly coordinated strategy we would anticipate that, for instance, military interventions are made more effective by the influence of mediation. Not only is information provided about possible concessions and the like, but the military balance can help entice or coerce those concessions that are necessary.

We hypothesize, therefore, that:

H4: When controlling for the existence of diplomacy, military and economic interventions will decrease the expected duration of a civil war.

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