Examining policy responses toward failed states, civil wars

Policy responses to failed states, civil war Syrians walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following air strikes in Douma, Syria, in 2015. Stanford scholars Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner are leading an American Academy Arts & Sciences project that seeks to understand the consequences of civil wars and state collapses and how best to respond to them through policy.

The consequences of state collapse anywhere in the world can be devastating and destabilizing for neighboring and even distant countries.

The complexity of each situation demands a tailored response, according to Stanford scholars embarking on a new American Academy Arts & Sciences project to identify the best policy responses to failing states embroiled in civil wars.

A failed state is that whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control. Such instability has already threatened or affected Syria, Libya, Yemen and other polities.

The project, Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses, is led by Stanford’s Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner. Eikenberry is a faculty affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Krasner is a faculty member in the political science department and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Relations and Hoover Institution.

Other Stanford scholars involved include Francis Fukuyama and Steve Stedman of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law; CISAC's Martha Crenshaw, political scientist James Fearon; Paul Wise of the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research; and Michele Barry, the senior associate dean for global health at the medical school.

The effort will culminate in a two-volume issue in AAAS’s journal Dædalus. On Nov. 2-4, the academy will hold an authors’ workshop in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss journal content.

Different approaches

In an interview, Eikenberry said the problematic U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan make it clear that different approaches must be used for different countries.

“The robust counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. employed for periods of time in both Afghanistan and Iraq was premised on the viability of the standard development model that aims to put countries on the path to economic well-being and consolidated democracy,” he said.

However, such an approach assumes that decision makers in those states have the same objectives as the intervening states, which typically seek to improve the lives of people in those countries, said Eikenbery. Prior to serving as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 until 2011, Eikenberry had a 35-year career in the U.S. Army, retiring in 2009 with the rank of lieutenant general.

As Krasner points out, when intervention occurs, the hope is that improvements in one area – such as the quality of elections, rule of law, economic growth, or military recognition of civilian authority – would lead to improvements in other areas, according to Eikenberry.

But opposition and a constrained sense of “limited opportunities” can arise to thwart a well-meaning intervention, Eikenberry said.

He added, “Information asymmetries and the absence of mutually compatible interests between national and external elites, make it impossible to put target countries on a rapid path to prosperity and consolidated democracy. External actors must have much more modest goals.”

Syrian consequences

As for the case of Syria, Eikenberry noted that such civil wars can actually become more lethal and dangerous to global order than inter-state conflicts.

These types of conflicts like that in Syria tend to escalate into high levels of violence because of the costs that the losing parties believe they will incur, he said.

“This in turn leads to state fragmentation and the possibility of transnational groups with international ambitions getting involved,” he said. “Civil wars can result in an enormous number of civilian casualties, which generates large scale refugee flows” and puts huge pressure on neighboring states.

Eikenberry said Syria is being “internationalized by entangling regional and great powers in proxy wars,” which is exacerbating that conflict beyond Syria and throughout the greater Middle East. As for the immediate, direct threat to the U.S., that debate still continues, he added. 

On that note, one project goal is to assess risks to other countries that may emanate from civil wars and protracted intrastate violence like that in Syria, Eikenberry said. He and his colleagues will examine the effects of  international terrorism, massive displacements of people, proxy wars that escalate to interstate warfare, criminal organizations that displace governments, and pandemics. 

Policy implications

Eikenberry is hopeful the project influences policy and practice toward countries experiencing civil war and violence.

“Facilitating dialogue among a variety of constituencies with knowledge on the dynamics and impact of civil wars that might not normally or directly interact, including government and military officials, human rights organizations, academic and scholarly experts, and the media, will be one outcome of the project,” he said.

The idea is to allow “new ideas to emerge” regarding how to handle such states, as well as methods of applying such findings, he said.

“Exploring ways to create stability and more lasting peace, taking into consideration voices from academic and practical fields, should prove valuable to the policy community,” Eikenberry said.

Following publication of the volumes, the project will convene international workshops aimed at developing better regional perspectives. Such outreach activities will provide the feedback for the publication of another AAAS paper aimed at informing U.S. and international policy and research on the subject. A series of roundtable discussions in Washington is also planned.