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Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict

Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict edited by Erica Chenoweth and Adria Lawrence. MIT Press, 2010, 285 pp.

Inspired by the works of several contributing scholars and focused on the many causes surrounding violence, nonviolent conflict, and nationalism, Chenoweth and Lawrence’s Rethinking Violence pursues a deeper, newer perspective on the continuum of violence and an understanding of how violence is sometimes related to conflict. Examining violence within the state, the authors use statistical analysis and empirical case studies to forge an in-depth understanding of political violence as a dynamic process shaped by balance of power considerations rather than being caused by hatred or ideology, as in previous theories.

Rethinking Violence considers three recent influences on the political environment: the reduced frequency of interstate wars, the end of Cold War superpower competition, and the realization that internal struggles strongly impact state economies. Concerned that previous writings narrowly defined internal conflicts and struggles through a “one size fits all” lens, the authors systematically refute others’ lack of definition while pursuing in-depth explanations for causality in modern conflicts. Rethinking Violence contains nine essays on violence-related topics organized into two major sections: states pursuing violence against groups within the state and nonstate actors using violence while pursuing autonomy, separation, or nationalist goals.

The introduction questions how, when, and why state and nonstate actors might use violence against the state and its citizens and internal groups and further examines the effectiveness of political violence within the state. The authors reject the binary concept that violence is either present or absent in conflict and suggest that its apparent absence is an indicator of the presence of other nonviolent means, violence on the verge of erupting with little or no warning, or the state provoking violence through police action, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate attacks, or genocide. By disaggregating violence from conflict, they argue that conflict is not necessarily the sole factor causing violent outbursts. They also challenge previous beliefs that weak or failing states, ethnic and national differences, state authoritarianism, or elite manipulation are primary causal factors of violence.

In the chapter “Targeting Civilians to Win?,” Alexander Downes and Kathryn McNabb Cochran pursue insights into the controversial topic of regimes attacking civilians as a means of achieving strategic goals. Their research finds that states which victimize civilians are more likely to win, but nearly all of these victories occurred more than 80 years ago (Beirut in 1982 is an exception); that populations in small states are vulnerable to outside influence and are more likely to be victimized than those in larger states; and that democracies are less likely to subject their populations to violence than authoritarian regimes.

In “Driven to Arms?,” Adria Lawrence convincingly delinks the connection between violence and conflict, preferring to define violence as its own entity and not a component on the conflict continuum. She suggests that as a society’s moral foundations erode, violence may become accepted by the population, and this becomes especially true if the state ignores the population’s desires and acts to satisfy the regime’s interests at the expense of the population. A society’s repressed emotions may also contribute to an acceptance that violence is morally warranted and necessary for resolving dilemmas. Lawrence concludes that violence is not a natural output of conflict and must be considered as one of many factors influencing conflict’s causality.

Rethinking Violence provides the modern strategic thinker with a broad and thorough perspective of violence and conflict and how these factor into twenty-first-century regime statecraft. Readers with interests in comparative politics and national and international security will find the thorough analyses and case study discussions useful and refreshingly more in-depth than many previous studies. While I enjoyed reading the book, I was left wondering why the editors chose not to include a conclusion chapter to summarize and reinforce the book’s many insights. These insights may prove useful to those pondering what caused the recent Middle East outbursts of democratic protest and revolution (the “Arab spring”) and how might the follow-on regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen govern their populations—will they repress the populations or promote liberal democracy?

COL Eric E. Smith, USA

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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