Democracies succeed where autocracies fail in shortening foreign civil wars

February 16, 2021
Certain kinds of foreign aid can help shorten civil wars. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Certain kinds of foreign aid can help shorten civil wars. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Democratic nations that send troops to aid foreign governments in a civil war tend to dramatically cut down on the length of fighting compared to nondemocratic interveners, according to a first-of-its-kind study that looked at 362 conflicts around the world.

The paper, published Jan. 19 in the Journal of Peace Research, found that only 30% of civil wars in which democracies deploy at least 10,000 troops go on for more than 11 years, versus 79% of conflicts where no democratic nation deployed troops. By contrast, nondemocracies that intervened did not significantly impact conflict duration.

Prior research has found that military interventions generally decrease the length of intrastate wars, but this is the first to empirically analyze how the regime type of interveners may affect the conflict’s outcome, said Sara Norrevik, the paper’s co-author and an adjunct professor of international relations and comparative politics at Buffalo State College. The research included analyzing all civil war conflicts between 1975 and 2012 that involved a foreign intervener.

Unlike autocracies, democratic governments often face a high threshold for declaring war, which makes their intervention more impactful, the researchers wrote. Additionally, the power of the democratic free press may demoralize opposing forces beyond the physical military threat.

“When democracies send troops, the transparency around the process yields media coverage that is often perceived beyond the domestic context,” Norrevik told The Academic Times. “Both the supported side and the opponent pay attention to the public coverage, which has effects on the battlefield. These signals strengthen the fighting spirit of the supported side, and draw support from other interveners.”

The researchers also discovered that the effect of democratic intervention wanes as the number of troops deployed increases. After 11 years of fighting, about 20% of conflicts with more than 40,000 democratic troops were still ongoing, compared to 30% that only had 10,000.

“Beyond 10,000 troops, additional troops seem to have diminishing returns,” said Mehwish Sarwari, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of political science at Buffalo State College, in an interview. “In other words, most of the reduction in civil war occurs with the initial deployment of troops. But still, more troops have a slight effect on further reducing the length of civil wars.”

Moreover, democratic interventions were more likely to result in a decisive, one-sided military victory for the sponsored group compared to military support from nondemocracies, the authors wrote.

These findings are largely contained to democratic support for the incumbent government rather than rebel forces, though the authors suspect the sample size of democratic troop support for rebels may be too small to elucidate a statistically significant effect.

“The vast majority of observations of democratic troop support to civil wars include support to the government faction rather than the rebel faction,” Sarwari said. “However, the same rules apply regardless of who is receiving support: Troop support to both governments and rebel groups require transparency and are subject to democratic scrutiny.”

This scrutiny, the authors argued, causes democracies to back a side that has the best shot at winning the war and to end the conflict quickly. Autocrats who do not face the same level of accountability are free to use force abroad even if their side loses.

In fact, Norrevik said, autocrats may be encouraged to keep the fighting going as long as possible in order to loot resources that can help them reap political support back home. 

Additionally, democracies face higher thresholds for deploying troops abroad, so when they do, they effectively signal a high level of political and economic commitment that could deter other countries from intervening on behalf of the opposing faction, the authors wrote.

The authors also note that countries such as the U.S. may have become more selective when choosing to intervene abroad since the end of the Cold War, which was marred by ideological proxy wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

Future research might explore how different approaches to legislative approval of military action in democracies could influence outcomes of civil war interventions. Another avenue of study could look into other forms of support, such as intelligence sharing, the authors said.

“This reminds us there is more work to be done both in the academic field and among policymakers,” Norrevik said. “The ultimate goal of our research is to expand the knowledge of civil wars and to help policymakers make informed decisions about interventions.”

The paper, “Third-party regime type and civil war duration,” was published Jan. 19 in the Journal of Peace Research. It was authored by Sara Norrevik, an adjunct professor of international relations and comparative politics at Buffalo State College, and Mehwish Sarwari, an assistant professor of political science at Buffalo State College.

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