Civil Wars Are Getting Shorter - Pacific Standard

Civil Wars Are Getting Shorter

They're surprisingly little-studied, too.
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The remains of a T-62 tank after rebels enter Addis Ababa at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War, 1991. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The remains of a T-62 tank after rebels enter Addis Ababa at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War, 1991. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

TheEconomist has found some encouraging numbers on the otherwise discouraging topic of civil war. The magazine reports that while civil wars start about as often today as they have since the end of the Second World War, they are ending faster, lasting about three and a half years on average, down from four and a half terrible years on average during the 20th century.

Individual nations' appetite for intervention, and incentive to intervene, fell after the Cold War, leaving a vacuum that the U.N.—in theory a neutral force—has sought to fill.

Nearly a fifth of the world suffered from a civil war in the years after WWII, according to research from a Norwegian project. The number started falling sharply after 1991. The Cold War drew to a close, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union no longer faced each other via proxy conflicts, the researchers theorize.

Oddly, civil wars are not particularly well-understood. During the 20th century, the real action in International Relations was to study the movements of empires and grand alliances. Limbing the local dynamics behind a given conflict was less appealing work beyond the most parochial research interests. So it didn't get done much. Fast forward to today, and events like Syria's war have provoked a catch-up effort among scholars, and started to generate statistics. A United Nations analysis noted by the Economist item shows the average number of U.N. peacekeeping missions leaping from about five a year before 1991, to more than 15 annually in the years since. That would seem to suggest that individual nations' appetite for intervention, and incentive to intervene, fell after the Cold War, leaving a vacuum that the U.N.—in theory a neutral force—has sought to fill.

None of this will be any comfort at all to someone in Syria today. The global trend is positive if you're standing outside it. If you're living in one of the exceptional cases, however, the trend doesn't matter, and the average length of the war is likely measured less by the distance from today to a cease fire, than by the intervals between the cracks of a rifle. Still, the news that such wars are rarer, and shorter when they do occur, could be worse. It could be the opposite.

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