"Can We Prevent Civil Wars?"

Can We Prevent Civil Wars?

Book by Johannes Karreth, assistant professor of politics and international relations. 
Civil wars are a central humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. 

As of April 2018, the civil war in Syria has claimed several hundred thousand lives.

Violent conflicts elsewhere in the world have equally devastating effects. Civil wars expose large numbers of people to physical, sexual and psychological abuse, public health crises, and long-term damages to social communities. Organized violence forces people to flee. For many, forced migration leads to long and dangerous journeys with uncertain long-term prospects to find a safe haven.

Can We prevent Civil Wars typographyThe international community faces a massive challenge of how to respond to emerging political violence in a decisive and effective way. A prime candidate for conflict resolution, the United Nations, engages in preventive efforts in some cases, but not in all violent conflicts. As the Syrian conflict illustrates, though, the U.N.’s hands are tied if the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council cannot come to agreement. Overall, slow and ambiguous international responses to political violence have repeatedly emboldened governments and dissidents to use force to push for their demands, leading to long and brutal conflicts.

Political scientists suggest that one of the key challenges in ending civil wars is the commitment problem. By default, neither governments nor dissidents can credibly commit to laying down their arms. Each side fears that the other side will not hold up its end of a potential peace deal. Instead, each party will use negotiation phases or cease-fires to better prepare for a future offensive and strike when the conditions are favorable.

Some international organizations can, however, address this commitment problem. These highly structured intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) include established institutions with bureaucracies and economic leverage such as the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, or the Economic Community of West African States. When highly structured IGOs engage in a country, both governments and dissidents can expect clear costs from escalating violence: it will lead to a disengagement of highly structured IGOs and withdrawal of their staff, resources, and other benefits. Highly structured IGOs also carry the promise of rewards for keeping the peace by providing resources and benefits conditional on the absence of further violence.

My research suggests that the engagement of highly structured IGOs in member countries is indeed associated with a substantial decline of the risk that political conflicts escalate to civil wars. Since World War II, roughly one-third of more than 260 separate low-level armed conflicts have escalated to civil war. But conflicts in countries with more connections to highly structured IGOs faced a considerably lower risk of escalation, reduced by up to a half.

Representative of this pattern, the history of East Timor illustrates how international organizations can successfully incentivize conflict parties to negotiate and resolve political disputes before they escalate. In Indonesia, a crisis originated when the East Timorese opposition demanded independence in the late 1990s. After an initially violent response by the Indonesian government, highly structured IGOs, most notably the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, threatened and imposed sanctions on the regime. The regime yielded to the pressure from these IGOs. Both sides reached a settlement and avoided a full-scale civil war. East Timor has since made notable economic improvements, partially supported by resources coming from highly structured IGOs.

Highly structured IGOs and the incentives they bring to political disputes provide one way to limit the dramatic costs of violent conflicts. Coordinating their efforts may provide the international community with an additional important piece in the conflict resolution toolbox.

Listen to the Podcast: Mary Atta-Dakwa ’18 and Johannes Karreth reflect on each other’s research on the role of the international community in preventing civil wars and helping rebuild countries after civil war. Hosted by the Department of Politics and International Relations.


Johannes Karreth, who holds a doctoral degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, teaches courses on political violence and international political economy. He also serves as faculty adviser to the Ursinus delegation to the annual National Model United Nations conference. His book Incentivizing Peace: How International Organizations Can Help Prevent Civil Wars in Member Countries (with Jaroslav Tir) is now available from Oxford University Press.