International Dimensions of Civil War

This working group was active from 2003 to 2005. This page is kept for historic reasons.

Led by Pavel Baev

Civil war is an evolving phenomenon that does not lend itself easily to a clear definition since its 'traditional' intra-state features are densely interwoven with increasingly complex international dimensions. The variety of external impacts and influences presents theoretical puzzles as well as political challenges; it also involves fundamental questions about the changing nature of states as key actors in the international system, since state borders are normally perceived as embracing the populations and societies within which civil wars play out, and they are the boundaries which are violated by all external interventions, whether sanctioned or forceful.

The working group aims to establish to what extent interstate wars are a fundamentally distinct phenomenon from wars within states by evaluating the impact of external pressure or interference on the character and trajectory of civil wars. The strategy for achieving this aim combines two approaches: analysing the contemporary pressures on internal conflicts emanating from the world state system, and examining the impact of specific international dimensions by isolating particular conflicts as case studies. These approaches will be developed in tangent, thus providing for testing theoretical propositions, fitting case studies into relevant theoretical frameworks and advancing a series of definitions of the phenomenon of contemporary civil war.

In 2003–2004, we proceeded along two research avenues: the first one went towards examining new features of civil wars (related in particular to the new quality acquired through their links with international terrorism) in the context of challenges for state-building in the globalising world; the second one involved compiling a list of international factors that determine the impact of violence on contemporary state building as well as state failure. These factors could be regional (related to specific character of particular inter-state relations) or structural (for instance, related to particular 'flows': financial, material, normative, or human). Exploring dynamics of civil war in a number of case studies (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Haiti, Israel/Palestine, Turkey) would provide explanatory purchase for better understanding the impact of these factors. We will focus especially on the dynamic interplay between intrastate conflict and terrorism, and on the distinction between struggle for power within a state and struggle to escape from a state (secession). The risks related to transformation of state structures and identities under the pressure of globalisation will be assessed in both historical (including the issue of colonial wars) and future-oriented contexts. Both avenues should converge in better conceptualisation of the civil war phenomenon, which would in practical terms contribute to organizing and operationalising a CSCW dataset on civil wars.

Activities embrace multiple disciplines and methodologies (from history to international relations to security studies), seeking to make a virtue out of the inevitable eclecticism of the cases. The group will work in close cooperation with other groups in the Centre in order to define from various perspectives the phenomenon of civil war. While we do not aim to forge one universal, binding definition of civil war, we expect to translate the in-depth analysis of particular international dimensions and case studies into wider conclusions and sharper conceptual distinctions, to the benefit of the Centre's work in general. In pursuing this goal, the working group will take advantage of the rich area expertise and the diverse range of theoretical perspectives residing at PRIO.

This strategy is intended to be flexible and subject to revisions along the way; however, it also establishes the limitations and acknowledges the omission of research avenues that could be relevant for the general goals but will not be explored in this initial period. Thus, the working group will not directly involve itself in collecting and processing data on civil wars, their numbers, scale and dynamics. It will encourage fieldwork and empirical methods rather than quantification, and synthetic generalization rather than pure theorizing. Every effort will be made to use qualitative methods in such a way that would facilitate their combination with statistical analyses in other groups of the Centre. For instance, several case studies could be developed on countries where quantitative models predict high probability of civil war but in real life the societies remain stable. Other case studies may target instances of civil wars that occurred despite the prominence of factors enhancing stability ('outliers').

Activities in 2003

The main task for 2003 was to gather and integrate a portfolio of projects that pursue the WG's two main research avenues. The group had its first organizational meeting/workshop in Oslo on 6 March 2003, where the Strategy and Research Profile were approved. The original plan was to hold a series of meetings focused specifically on every project, seeking to achieve cross-fertilization and to advance a more coherent research design for latter stages of its work.

Two meetings were held in 2003: Stein Tønnesson and Sven Gunnar Simonsen presented their research on October 30, Pavel Baev presented his project on November 18. At both meetings, the working group invested much energy in discussing a variety of approaches to defining the phenomenon of civil war, taking as a point of departure Jon Elster's memo presented at the May 2003 workshop of the CSCW working groups leaders. These discussions aimed at laying the groundwork for a workshop in mid-August 2004 where this issue can be elaborated from a variety of perspectives.

Activities in 2004

The protfolio of projects built in 2003 has been revised and expanded.

The group’s work focused this year on the question of fundamental differences between civil war and interstate war, as well as other forms of organized violence. The aim was not to arrive at one binding definition but to translate in-depth research of various international dimensions and case studies into sharper conceptual distinctions. The workshop ‘Exploring the Boundaries of Civil Wars,’ held in August, saw active participation from other CSCW working groups. Papers addressed the history of ideas on the phenomenon of civil war; the instrumentalization of definitions for challenging data set development; the interplay and dynamics of various post-Soviet conflicts; and the causal links between domestic instability and international terrorism in South-East Asia. The round-table discussions dealt with broader issues of the impact of the new types of civil wars on the world system and the relation between shifting forms of governance and state failure. The full report on this meeting can be read here.  Working group seminars throughout the year focused on such on topics as the inter-penetration of terrorism and civil war, internal and external dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and failures of external intervention to address core problems fuelling violence in Haiti.

Activities in 2005

Keeping the research focus on the question of fundamental differences between civil war and other forms of organized violence, the Working Group gave particular attention to the inter-penetration of terrorism and civil war. The dynamics of networking between terrorist networks that have grown in particular conflict areas from Afghanistan to the Philippines and from Chechnya to Palestine was examined in several projects aiming at investigating the phenomenon of modern international terrorism. International dimensions of secessionist conflicts were analyzed from the perspective of ‘security dilemma’, which was re-examined in its very foundation as laid in the classical work of Thucydides. The problem of weakening of state control over its territory and erosion of its ability to perform its key functions under the impact of external forces was identified as a key target for further analysis. The successful application to the Research Council of Norway for a joint Strategic Institute Program (with NUPI) on the regional and international conditions contributing to state failure will constitute one important dimension of the Working Group’s activity in the next couple of years.

Full members

Associated members

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙