For virtually all of American history, U.S. leaders, like those of other great powers, worried most about being attacked by other counties. Those times are gone. While it is too soon to declare international war obsolete, its dramatic decline over the past sixty or so years has been the most consequential change in international relations since the emergence of states themselves. Even those few leaders who may choose to go to war are highly unlikely to pick the United States as an adversary; to do so would be suicidal. There has never been a time in American history when the United States has been safer from external conventional aggression than it is today.Unfortunately, the threat of wars between countries has been replaced by the threat of wars within them. One of the greatest dangers facing the United States today is the prospect of civil conflicts tearing up countries critical to American interests. And it is likely that such dangers will in fact materialize, for two basic reasons. First, unlike international war, internal war shows no signs of going away for reasons inherent to contemporary global conditions. Weak governments, ethnic hatreds, religious fanaticism and economic dysfunction will continue to plague many countries for many years. Moreover, because it takes only a small group of determined troublemakers to plunge a nation into violent disorder, the odds are that sooner or later a country that matters a great deal to the United States will fall into acute civil strife. Second, the threats posed by civil wars abroad are unintended by the leaders of the countries from which they originate, making them undeterrable in any commonly understood meaning of the concept. This negates the reputational effect of our considerable power, leaving us with few reliable ways to predict and prevent such wars. Understanding the central and growing importance of civil wars in imperiling American interests requires first understanding why such wars are likely to dominate international relations for decades to come. We can then gauge where the outbreak of civil wars would most threaten vital American interests, and then begin to prepare for them with a level of seriousness that is almost totally lacking today. We don’t do long-range planning well, even in the few parts of the U.S. government specifically charged with doing so. But as things stand, we aren’t like the proverbial generals planning to fight the last war. We’re even worse off: We are planning to act in a global security environment that no longer even exists. The Primacy of Civil War
For the first time in history, the principal threats to the United States do not stem from the decisions of other governments. There has not been a war among great powers since World War II, making this the longest period of great power peace since the emergence of modern states in the mid-1600s. This “long peace” is not confined to great powers either. Throughout the world only seven interstate wars were fought between 1989 and 2002, and in some years (1993 and 1994, for example), there were none. Along with fewer wars, both casualties and worldwide military expenditures have also fallen sharply.The reasons for international peace are many and are likely to persist. Nuclear weapons aid peace because armed conflict among nuclear-armed states is widely, if not yet universally, understood to be suicidal. Territory, a prime reason for war, has diminished in importance as agriculture has declined as a source of wealth. Conquering other populations yields little benefit in a time when a country’s economic well-being is increasingly dependent on a skilled, free citizenry. The triumph of the holy trinity of classical liberalism—democracy, trade and international institutions—has also helped to diminish interstate war as ever more national elites recognize that armed conflict makes prosperity impossible and their own political fortunes tenuous. Put simply, the near universal perception is that the costs of war have risen while the benefits have declined. Warfare within countries, however, continues to flourish. Before we can say why, we need to clarify what we mean by “civil war.” It is a more elusive concept than one might think, as illustrated by the rather peculiar argument over whether what has been going on in Iraq lately constitutes a civil war. Setting aside arcane arguments among academics over definitions of civil war—like how many deaths need a conflict generate to qualify—the fact is that there are many different types of civil wars. The most common distinction is between ethnic and ideological civil conflicts. In ideological conflicts, such as in Vietnam, groups compete by trying to persuade a population that the future is best left in their hands. Ideas—“hearts and minds”—are critical. In ethnic conflicts, such as in Rwanda, allegiance is determined by DNA. There is no process of persuasion, no effort to bring outsiders to your cause, only a contest over which ethnic group can impose its will on the others. Civil wars differ also as to scale and internal organization. Some, like the American Civil War, involve large conventional armies clashing on battlefields in a manner similar to major interstate wars. Others, such as recently in the Ivory Coast, involve small roving bands of hooligans terrorizing the populace. Some civil wars are driven by the desire of a group to secede from the state without seeking the removal of the regime or the destruction of the state itself, as in the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil war or the Biafran war in Nigeria. Other civil wars stem from a desire to topple and seize the government, as in the Russian Civil War of 1918–20 or the Greek Civil War of 1947–48. Finally, civil wars differ as to the degree of external involvement. Some civil wars (Nepal’s, for example) have relatively little foreign participation, while others (Congo) are veritable international fields of battle. As might be expected, the more intransigent and ambitious the goals of the belligerents, the more bloody and long-lasting a civil war is liable to be. And the longer lasting it is, the more likely there will be foreign involvement.
The concept of “political violence” goes beyond civil war and includes such diverse phenomena as revolutions, insurrections, insurgencies, terrorism and coups. In his 1970 classic, Why Men Rebel, Ted Gurr divides political violence into three forms: turmoil (spontaneous, unorganized violence such as riots and local rebellions); conspiracy (organized political violence that does not involve large numbers of participants, such as assassinations and coups); and internal war (organized political violence with widespread involvement whose aim is to topple the government). From the U.S. perspective, the specific form of political violence matters less than its potential to cause the loss of control, so I use the terms civil war, civil conflict and domestic violence (though not the spousal kind) more or less interchangeably.However defined, civil wars have always been more numerous than international wars, and this disparity has grown over time. From 1816 to 2002, civil wars made up slightly more than half of all wars. With the end of the Cold War, all forms of war have declined, but international wars precipitously so, largely because wars related to decolonization have ended and superpowers no longer back Third World clients as part of their Cold War competition. The result is that fully 95 percent of armed conflict between 1995 and 2005 occurred within countries rather than between them. That is also partly because, once begun, civil wars are notoriously difficult to stop. Civil wars typically last about twice as long as wars between countries. They are also far more likely to end with one side winning a military victory than by negotiated settlement. Even so, civil wars tend not to stay won. Unlike state-to-state conflict, where belligerents can retreat back to their respective countries once a war is over, the opposing sides in a civil war must somehow manage to live either together or next to one another (in cases of successful wars of secession) despite the differences that drove them apart. Civil wars therefore have a tendency to flare up again after a peace settlement has been reached, Sudan being a likely incipient example. Making matters worse, about half of the world’s countries—compared to the one third that have already experienced civil conflict since the end of the Cold War—are now in danger of succumbing to civil conflict. This is so for two reasons: The forces conducive to peace between states largely do not apply to peace within them; and general conditions giving rise to civil strife are worsening. As to the first of these reasons, note that the reassuring logic of nuclear deterrence does not hold in civil wars, which lack clearly delineated adversaries upon whom one can threaten murderous high-tech retaliation. Nor does the recognition that war does not pay offer much hope of halting civil conflicts. On the contrary, many civil conflicts are driven by zero-sum, beggar-thy-neighbor assumptions, certainly including the Wars of Yugoslav Secession. Further, no one suggests that democracy prevents war within countries as it appears to do between them. Civil wars or major internal violence even in democracies like the United States (1861–65) and Great Britain (over Ireland on several occasions) belie any notion of a domestic “democratic peace.” And while liberal global norms can inhibit wars between countries, they have proven largely ineffectual with regard to internal wars. When Saddam Hussein gassed large numbers of Iraqi Kurds in 1988, it produced scant international protest. His invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however, got a good deal more attention even though vastly fewer people died. Nor does globalization seriously inhibit civil conflict. Just as the benefits of globalization are uneven across countries, they are uneven within countries as well. So even if globalization raises millions from dire poverty, it can still exacerbate domestic conflicts by widening gaps among groups. Most important, the root causes of civil war seem to be growing worse. Even more than international war, civil wars have a staggering array of possible causes ranging from the collapse of central governments to the sheer joy of engaging in violence.11.
See my “Internal War: Causes and Cures”, World Politics (July 1997). Of the many alleged reasons for civil war, however, three stand out. First, there needs to be an intense grievance held by a substantial portion of the population. Second, people must believe they have a right to revolt, a belief that may stem from the fact that the government is not democratically legitimate or that some groups within the state have been excluded from the national political community. Finally, people need to believe they will gain from violence, either by winning a war outright or by fighting their way to a negotiated compromise that qualitatively improves their circumstances. Where these three factors exist, civil war is likely. Where even one of these factors is absent, however, the chances of civil war are slim. The characteristics of developing countries throughout the world provide fertile ground for the causes of internal war. Intense grievances abound. Inhabitants of countries classified by the United Nations as “least developed” have life expectancies of only around fifty years, with fully half the people being illiterate and almost a fifth living on less than $1 a day. Poverty is not in itself a cause of civil war, of course, but most poverty is caused by incompetent and corrupt regimes—and that is a cause of civil war, particularly when such regimes favor certain groups over others based on religion or ethnicity. Many governments have also brutalized their people, a legacy rarely forgotten. Massive unemployment, the absence of public education and a lack of political participation have fostered extremist ideologies, some ethnically based (such as the hyper-nationalism of the Hutus in Rwanda), others driven by religious fervor (such as the emergence of al-Qaeda). Whatever their source, extremist ideologies let loose within countries are likely to be destabilizing. In many countries, too, significant numbers of people have a strong belief in their right to rebel because they do not support their government’s right to rule over them. The lack of legitimacy that is epidemic in much of the world is not difficult to understand. Most so-called developing countries are less than sixty years old. It took European states several centuries before they achieved legitimate governments, so it is not surprising that developing countries have not done so in a mere few decades. Moreover, most governments in the developing world have not been selected in free and fair elections. Without democracy as a legitimizing force, many governments rely on ideology or religion to justify their rule. This works so long as most citizens accept the ideological or religious vision of the regime. If they do not, the government will lack natural authority. The performance of a government can also undermine its legitimacy. If a regime cannot attend to the basic needs of its people, groups will have far less trouble justifying rebellion. The absence of institutions to channel conflict and respond to grievances is the norm in the developing world and, as Samuel Huntington pointed out nearly forty years ago in Political Order and Changing Societies, a major source of internal conflict. Many developing countries also lack a sense of national community. Rather than being coherent states with a strong sense of identity, they are artificial creations of colonial powers. They are legal entities in the sense that they have international recognition, but no common traditions or ideals bind them together. Loyalty is based on ethnic, regional or sectarian affiliation: One is a Kurd, a Shi‘a or a Sunni, not an Iraqi; an Ibo, a Yoruba or a Hausa, not a Nigerian. Since the majority of developing states are made up of many different groups, the stage is set for conflict. Conditions in the developing world also tend to convince insurgents that they can be successful in meeting their goals, thus encouraging the resort to violence. Governments in the developing world tend to be very weak because of their newness and internal heterogeneity. They generally lack legitimacy and administrative capacity, state traditions and national habits of the heart. This is widely understood. Less well appreciated is that these states have come of age in an environment marked by unprecedented international interference in their internal affairs that propels rising demands for mass participation and concern for human rights. This has made efforts to build a strong state and to govern effectively far more difficult. It takes a surprisingly small number of rebels to confront weak regimes. John Mueller estimates in The Remnants of War (2004) that the civil war in Colombia is fueled by fewer than 6,000 rebels, while the conflict in Chechnya is driven by a mere 3,000 insurgents. Even the Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in three months, was undertaken by less than 10 percent of the Hutu male population. Many who perpetrate civil violence are not politically motivated, but are simply common criminals and sociopaths, challenging the government either for personal profit or because they are testosterone-driven young males who enjoy the thrill of killing. The presence of valuable resources (such as diamonds) in many countries enables rebels to buy weapons and enlist recruits, keeping insurgencies alive for decades. It is reassuring that most civil conflicts are not fought by mass armies involving most of a country’s population. It is not so reassuring to realize that the threshold for inciting widespread civic violence is so low. Though it may violate the precepts of political correctness to point this out, the very absence of war between countries has contributed much to the weakness of governments in the developing world. As Charles Tilly famously argued (and as John U. Nef analyzed in historical detail), war is a central factor in the creation of strong states. State leaders confronted with war, or desirous of it, have had to mobilize popular support, impose and collect taxes, and in various other ways enforce their will in order to thrive, or even survive. States unable to meet these challenges disappeared. Europe had roughly 500 independent entities at the beginning of the 16th century; by 1900, that number had shrunk to about twenty. The brutal evolutionary process that destroyed so many polities nevertheless left the survivors strong and resilient. In most of the developing world, the lack of interstate war, combined with the international norm of supporting the preservation of formal states, has meant that few countries, once established, need fear for their existence. But where governments have scant capacity and little motive to establish strong states, the potential for civil conflict will remain high. And if it is true that global forces are weakening many aspects of state sovereignty—the ability of states to control economic flow-through, to take but one pertinent example—then states that are already weak are liable to grow weaker still. Although civil conflict is more likely in the developing world, no state is immune from it. States once considered part of the developing world such as South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and Costa Rica face few prospects of civil conflict. On the other hand, countries once seen as part of the developed world, such as Russia and the former Yugoslavia, have experienced much internal strife. Just as countries may move in and out of “developing” status, so too does the risk of civil conflict vary over time. But wherever the causes and conditions for civil war exist, civil conflict will flourish. Standard-issue international relations theory declares that wars occur between countries because, in the absence of a world government, there is nothing to stop them. Today, weak and ineffective governments in many countries have created a situation in which civil conflicts occur because there is nothing to stop them. In the international arena, incentives for peace have made the lack of world governance all but irrelevant in halting interstate war. Within countries, however, the weakness of factors promoting peace and the persistence of aggrieved populations ruled by illegitimate governments in inherently weak states suggest that civil war is a growth industry. International relations theory thus has it backwards: Instead of living in a world of international anarchy and domestic order, we have international order and domestic anarchy. Why to Worry
Just because civil wars and domestic violence are likely to persist and even to grow as global phenomena, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will threaten American interests. After all, civil conflict has raged around the world throughout American history, and rather little of it has been of pressing concern to us. But things have changed. American security and economic well-being now depend more than ever on order being maintained in certain key states. As the National Security Strategy document of September 2002 rightly argued, threats to the United States now emanate from state weaknesses as much as from state strengths. We are endangered not only by the deliberate decisions of heads of state to attack American interests, but also by what happens when leaders in certain countries lose control of what goes on within their borders.Of the many dangers to the United States that could be unleashed by civil conflict, several stand out. The greatest threat is the use of nuclear weapons against American allies or the United States itself. Radiological, chemical and biological weapons pose only slightly lesser dangers, and all such weapons are proliferating. Weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands would allow very weak groups to inflict catastrophic damage on very strong ones, including major states, for the first time in history. We have come to a point where it is no longer necessary to be a great power to threaten a great power. The implications of this circumstance are many, not least for deterrence. Under most circumstances, deterrence will hold among responsible states. Just as deterrence kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so it will probably keep the peace between the United States and new proliferators. But when governments lose control over weapons of mass destruction, deterrence collapses, for two reasons: Attackers have no assets to lose, and in a world of multiple substate aggressors, the source of an attack cannot always be reliably identified. In such circumstances, the likelihood of these arms being used against the United States and other states soars. Nuclear accidents also become more likely under conditions of civil disorder. The primitive designs of first-generation nuclear arms make them vulnerable to detonation if they get caught up in the firefights of civil conflict. Accidental detonations could produce a humanitarian disaster or, much worse, provoke a nuclear war if the explosion is misread as an enemy attack. Civil war also increases the chances of unauthorized launchings of nuclear arms. The command and control of the military forces of many countries is suspect. In the context of civil disorder, the ability of governments to prevent subordinates from launching weapons may be fatally undermined. Even a limited nuclear strike anywhere in the world would harm American interests by eroding the taboo against nuclear weapons use. For all such contingencies, deterrence cannot apply, for accidental and unauthorized launches are by definition not intended by any national authority. The ultimate case of a loss of control over weapons of mass destruction concerns their falling to the hands of apocalyptical terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Deterrence is unlikely to work against these groups. Not only do they have no obvious “return address” that can be attacked in kind without massive harm to innocents, many adherents of Islamist terror groups embrace death even as they seek to inflict maximum feasible death on their presumed enemies. Trying to deter martyrdom in genocidal fanatics is an unusual problem, a little like the danger that beating up a masochist will just confirm his worldview. Perhaps there is a way to deter such people, but it certainly cannot be done by the methods that have heretofore appertained to states. Beyond weapons of mass destruction, lesser but by no means trivial U.S. interests are threatened by the possibility of civil wars abroad. Civil wars can destroy or deny access to natural resources the United States needs to maintain its way of life—oil and natural gas being today the main cases in point. If civil war breaks out in an oil exporting country, oil fields are likely to become a key target. If the fields and their supporting infrastructure are destroyed, the availability of low-cost imports will go up in smoke as well. Civil wars can also threaten the U.S. economy when they involve countries whose investment and trade policies are vital to America’s economic well-being. More than a quarter of America’s national debt is held by foreign interests, with Japan and China being two of the principal creditors. If either country stopped buying American Treasury notes, the United States would find it difficult to finance its budget deficit, plunging the American economy into recession or even depression. Concern that key countries might deliberately halt or dramatically reduce their purchases of U.S. Treasury securities is not irrational, but it is tempered by the knowledge that to do so would hurt them more than it would hurt us. If, however, civil war prevented purchase of American bonds, economic rationality wouldn’t matter. The United States also seeks to control who and what comes across its borders, whether for fear of terrorists, illegal drugs or illegal immigrants. Civil war would threaten these interests were it to occur in a country located close to the United States, as it has several times in the past. Civil wars may also jeopardize the welfare of American citizens residing outside the United States. At any given time, millions of Americans live and travel abroad, and their safety is a vital national interest. Many administrations have used military force to rescue U.S. citizens trapped in foreign countries during times of strife, and any administration would do so if necessary. While domestic violence anywhere can threaten American lives, the United States has a special interest in those countries where large numbers of Americans would be placed at risk by a civil conflict. Where to Worry
Civil wars are potentially dangerous to American interests, but not all such wars will threaten them gravely, or at all. If we are wise enough to shift some of our physical and intellectual assets away from the functional equivalent of defending the Fulda Gap in perpetuity, then which civil wars should we plan for, and what sort of planning template should we adopt?Two simple interlocking criteria should guide policymakers: impact and likelihood. A civil war in, say, Mauritania is plausible, but it would have a negligible impact on the United States. Serious internal conflict in Canada would have a huge impact on the United States, but the prospect is so negligible that it is no cause for concern. We need to identify countries that demonstrate an intersection point of high impact and reasonable likelihood, and if we run this drill, we find many states that fit the description. They include major powers such as Russia, countries with important resources such as Venezuela and Nigeria, and important regional powers such as North Korea, Turkey, Egypt, India and Indonesia. In none of these countries, however, is the combination of high stakes and likelihood of civil war sufficiently alarming to warrant extraordinary American concern—at least not yet. But there are four places that meet both criteria right now: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Mexico. The prospect of serious civil strife in Pakistan may pose the greatest threat to American security today, considerably greater than al-Qaeda’s residual capabilities alone. Pakistan possesses an estimated fifty nuclear weapons along with the fissionable materials to make many more. As a birthplace of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan is home to terrorist groups whose possession of nuclear weapons would place millions of American lives at risk. Pakistan verges on collapse, a collapse that would facilitate the transfer or seizure of nuclear weapons by fanatics. Much of Pakistan’s population is desperately poor, separatist movements exist in three out of four of its provinces, extremist Islamic groups rail against a military government, and large sections of the country are beyond government control.
A Pakistani paradeAssociated PressIt is worth noting, too, that Pakistan has never had one elected government succeed another. Its current leader, General Pervez Musharraf, took power in a coup, and, as evidenced by several attempted coups and assassinations since then, his hold on power is shaky. Close ties with the United States, the government’s inability to deliver services to its people, and concerns about its adherence to Islam dog the Musharraf regime. Although Pakistani military and security forces are well trained, they are spread thin dealing with multiple insurgencies and outbreaks of terrorist violence. Concerns persist about the penetration of extremist religious influences in the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence community, raising questions about how they would react if confronted with an Islamist revolt. Should a regional insurgency get out of hand or should war once again break out with India, it is easy to see Pakistan unraveling. Pakistan is the only nuclear-armed state ever to have experienced a successful coup. If it becomes the only nuclear-armed state to collapse into civil war, America could face its worst security nightmare since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil producer and the only country with the ability to make up shortfalls in production elsewhere by increasing its own output. It is the only country whose removal from the world oil market would in itself inflict catastrophic damage on the economies of the United States and most of the rest of the world.Saudi Arabia is also brimming with potential for civil war. In terms of grievances, the boom-bust nature of the Saudi economy raises expectations when the price of oil is high only to dash them when the price plummets. Unemployment is estimated at 30 percent for Saudis under the age of 35, the education system does a terrible job preparing Saudis for work in a globalized economy, government services are pitiful, the nearly 10 percent of the population that is Shi‘a deeply resents intolerant and puritanical Wahhabi rule, and regional and tribal divisions are worsening. The legitimacy of the royal family’s rule, which derives from its historic link to the “true” Islam practiced in the Kingdom, is increasingly frail thanks to the wanton and corrupt behavior of the Al-Saud princes and their close ties with the hated Americans. The prospects for the success of a revolt are high, too. Saudi security forces are mostly poorly educated, pampered recruits who are subject to the tribal and religious passions of their fellow citizens. To guard against a coup, the National Guard is split from the regular armed forces, increasing the chances of widespread revolt if there is a schism within the royal family. Given the passion of the opposition to the Saudi regime, fear of defeat would probably not deter its adherents from fomenting revolt. Especially if oil prices fall and the Saudi government can no longer buy off some of its opposition, civil war is a distinct possibility, with catastrophic near-term consequences for the United States. China is the second-biggest holder of American Treasury bonds and the third-largest trading partner of the United States. China is also a key market for American allies, making the collapse of its economy in the wake of civil conflict a potential catastrophe for America. The loss of Chinese investment in the American bond market would force Washington to jack up interest rates, which would dampen growth, depress stock prices, collapse the already shaky housing market, devalue the dollar and generally wreak economic havoc in the United States. The benefits of American trade with China would disappear as companies that rely upon it for imports (Wal-Mart, for example) lost jobs and American consumers lost the inexpensive goods they have come to expect. The spread of Chinese instability would also reverberate throughout Asia, perhaps undermining governments and spreading violence in its wake. There is also the danger that a beleaguered Chinese regime would respond to civil unrest by seeking to inflame nationalist passions by, for example, launching an attack against Taiwan. Unfortunately, the unraveling of China is eminently thinkable. Despite its booming economy, China is a fragile society. Widespread anger exists among hundreds of millions of Chinese in rural areas who have been victimized by land seizures and have been unable to share in their country’s newfound wealth. While the economy grows at nearly 10 percent a year, the persistence of inefficient state-owned enterprises and a dysfunctional banking system could quickly undermine China’s prosperity. Growing income inequality, mounting urban unemployment, regional tensions, increasing unrest from ethnic minorities (including a worrisome Islamic population), an alarming surplus of young unmarried males, and the frustration of a newly empowered middle class over government corruption and censorship all contribute to anger over the existing state of affairs. This fury is directed toward a government whose right to rule has never been secure. The Chinese Communist leadership governs in the name of an ideology that almost no one believes in. So long as the regime can provide goods and services, its authority may stand. If it proves unable to deliver, however, many will conclude that the regime has lost its “mandate of heaven” and act accordingly. Despite a robust internal security force, China is ill prepared to defeat a massive rebellion, especially one that unites urban and rural insurgents (facilitated by the explosion in cell phone and Internet use) and in which new religious energies may be present. The Chinese leadership is divided, and some senior officials maintain foreign bank accounts and residences apparently in preparation for the day that Communist rule ends. Perhaps they read their own national chronicles: Chinese history is pockmarked by civil conflict, including the recent wrenching upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. It is fortuitous that Mexico does not possess nuclear weapons, because in almost every other way its descent into civil conflict would threaten vital American interests. Mexico is home to more than 350,000 Americans, the recipient of at least $50 billion in direct American investment, a participant in more than $150 billion worth of bilateral trade with the United States. Mexico is also the largest source of illegal immigrants and illegal drugs to the United States, problems that would dramatically worsen should civil conflict engulf the country. How might civil war in Mexico develop? America’s southern neighbor remains a desperately poor country, with roughly half of its people in poverty. Widespread crime wracks its cities, including Mexico City, which vies to be the kidnap capital of the world. The narcotics industry has worked its way into the fabric of Mexican society to the point that some argue it is now Mexico’s largest source of hard currency. As in Colombia, drug dealers encroach upon the state. Meanwhile, economic problems abound, especially in the poverty stricken south, and Mexico’s oil—necessary to keep the economy afloat—is running dry. Widespread corruption and a horrendous judicial system fan the flames of citizen anger. Despite their being democratically elected, Mexico’s divided governments are much better at producing gridlock than effective policies. As Mexico’s latest presidential election showed, the society is deeply polarized and roughly equally divided between rich and poor, north and south. This is true explosive potential. The United States could not ignore the outbreak of civil war or large-scale violence in Mexico today any more than it could do so in the past. During the 1910 Revolution, fighting spilled over the border often enough that the United States had to deploy most of its army to contain it. Nearly a century later, ties between the two countries have become dramatically closer, but this very intimacy only magnifies the potentially harmful effects of Mexican instability. Responding to the Threats
How should the U.S. government respond to the kind of threats liable to be unleashed by civil wars? The answer should begin with the realization that the two most natural policy tools that come to mind are of no avail: Deterrence is out of the question, since no government can dissuade that which is not intended, and prevention is beyond our capacity. We simply cannot presume an ability to bring about a level of political development that would preclude civil wars from happening in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China or even nearby Mexico.With deterrence and prevention out as policy options, American policymakers should put aside the familiar worlds of international security and “nation-building” and instead draw planning templates from those expert at dealing with natural disasters. Disaster-management teams now ensconced within the Department of Homeland Security prepare the United States for hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, recognizing that they cannot stop these events from happening. They focus instead on what can be done before catastrophe hits so as to lessen the damage done and accelerate recovery. American policymakers must assume, for example, that internal violence in Pakistan will cause the government to lose control over its nuclear weapons, that civil war in Saudi Arabia will destroy the oil fields, that widespread disorder in China will cause severe economic pain in the United States, and that mass violence in Mexico will unleash hordes of refugees and endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans living and traveling south of the border. If we assume today that some or all of this might happen over, say, the next decade, policymakers could begin to determine what needs to be done now to mitigate their effects. This is not the place to detail the specific actions the United States should be planning. Since many of these actions would of necessity be risky, and some would fall into the category of controversial lesser evils, there is perhaps no appropriate public venue to discuss them. The point is that we do not currently think this way about the serious fallout from civil wars to which we are vulnerable. We are still chained to traditional security-policy thinking appropriate for a global order in which interstate war is the big threat, and civil wars are presumed to be minor nuisances. A natural-disaster approach to planning against strategically disruptive civil wars abroad may be criticized on the ground that it would commit us to spend vast resources preparing for threats of unknown or low probability. But we do this anyway, and rightly so. It makes sense to plan for events of very high impact even if the probability of their occurring is low. What is more, many of the policies we should adopt make sense even if anticipated civil wars never occur. For example, it makes sense in any case to urge Pakistan to adopt safer deployment protocols for its nuclear weapons. Whatever may happen in Saudi Arabia, it makes sense to achieve energy independence. The key is that the global environment is changing fundamentally in the 21st century, and with those changes the nature of the threats to American security is changing, too. We need to learn to think anew about international politics and national security. We need, dare we say it, a kind of intellectual insurrection.1.
See my “Internal War: Causes and Cures”, World Politics (July 1997).