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Conflict Clusters and Superpower Intervention

By Taylor Marvin

Afghan Mujahideen armed with a US-made anti-air missile; author unknown. Via Wikimedia.

Over at Political Violence @ a GlanceDavid E. Cunningham notes that while the number of armed conflicts around the world has vastly decreased, the conflicts that do occur are increasingly clustered in specific geographic areas (full disclosure: I do editing for PV @ a Glance)Why do conflicts cluster? There’s no comprehensive answer available, but Cunningham highlights the tendency of countries’ internal conflicts to destabilize and eventually spread to their neighbors. Conversely, stabilizing domestic factors like economic growth and democratization also spread and positively influence neighboring states; nations can be bad or good neighbors. As Cunningham says:

“We are still trying to understand why this clustering occurs, but it suggests that phenomena that were historically viewed as ‘domestic’ such as civil war, democratization, and economic performance, have significant international causes and effects.”

These are all very good explanations. But why do we see conflict clustering in certain regions of the world now, and why are these becoming clusters more pronounced? The obvious reason is that Cunningham’s “stabilizing influences” are more common today, making the regions with comparatively low stocks of these influences — notably the Middle East, southern Asia, and northern Africa — exceptional in a way they weren’t in the past.

But I think another important causal factor is the contemporary absence of competing global superpowers. During the Cold War, both the US and USSR used their global reach to selectively escalate regional conflicts. Numerous conflicts during the Cold War period that began as relatively small confrontations between regional actors were lethally prolonged by the escalating interference of the superpowers. Of course, we do observe some degree of clustering in Cold War-era conflicts; after all, the “neighborhood” effect Cunningham identifies was just as important then as it is now, though because “bad neighborhoods” were comparatively more common in the 20th century these clusters were geographically broader and less obvious. However, because the US and USSR essentially selected their degree of escalation in regional conflicts at random — for example, the US heavily escalated its involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam compared to its lighter touch in 1980s Nicaragua — the clustering effect was less pronounced. Unlike other, more proximate, regional effects, the destabilizing influence of the superpowers was global and selective.

Intervention by a superpower can arguably lessen the destructive effects of regional conflicts by ending them quicker than they would have in the absence of intervention. This logic only appears to apply when an external power intervenes on the side of one combatant, and commits enough resources to the conflict to decisively win it. This is not always the case — it seems likely that the 2011 Libyan revolution would have ended sooner in the absence of NATO, though of course in a Qaddafi victory. But during the Cold War intervention by a superpower was overwhelmingly likely to prolong regional conflicts by attracting competing intervention by its rival, suggesting that superpower intervention was more destructive during the Cold War than it is today.

Today, Russia is not able to exert a disruptive influence outside of its backyard and while the US continues to enter and escalate regional conflicts, American intervention is rarer than at the height of the Cold War. This partially removes the “global bad neighbor” effect, and reemphasizes the influence of local causes of conflict.

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