Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars

  • Published

Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars by Monica Duffy Toft. Princeton University Press, 2010, 228 pp.

After the Cold War, civil wars went out of business. This was due to the West’s loss of interest in supporting proxy wars against the defunct Soviet Union. At the same time, Roland Paris’s assertion that “the perceived triumph of liberal market democracy as the prevailing standard of enlightened governance” increased the perceived geopolitical liability of allowing unchecked civil wars to continue. As a result, half the civil wars during the 1990s ended through negotiated settlements. Most memorable are the Dayton Accords that ended violence in Bosnia. Similarly, conflicts in South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mozambique, East Timor, Guatemala, and Angola also concluded through negotiated settlements. It soon became conventional wisdom among statesmen that civil wars are solved most efficiently through negotiated settlements. Monica Duffy Toft argues differently.

In Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars, Toft opens the historical aperture beyond recent conclusions of internal conflicts and concludes that, while negotiated settlements have become popular because they are the quickest method of ending present bloodshed, negotiated settlements are also twice as likely to create future conflict. As a result of these reoccurring conflicts, negotiated settlements actually lead to greater casualties overall than a victory by either the government or rebels does.

Toft’s bold assertion that negotiated settlements tend to increase long-term violence comes from a thorough analysis of 129 civil wars. Of these, 23 percent were terminated through negotiated settlements. One of several case studies Toft examines to test her hypothesis is the Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992). As Toft admits, the negotiated settlement that ended this conflict was atypical because of the robust security-sector reform (SSR) it achieved. Typically military victories promote strong SSR due to the inherent capacity of the military to maintain security, whereas negotiated settlements leave the security sector “divided and therefore less capable of keeping the peace.” The goal of any SSR is “the ability to maintain order through the use of force” and is achieved by restoring order, rebuilding security forces, and then creating institutions to monitor the emerging security apparatus. With the Salvadoran Civil War and its Chapultepec Peace Accords, 80 percent of the treaty was devoted to SSR, which subordinated the military to the government—a first for a Latin American military. Nevertheless, as Toft concludes, the content of the accord “was as much a consequence as a cause of the political will to avoid a return to civil war,” as the conflict had convinced both sides that an outright victory was impossible. Regardless, negotiated settlements do not end most civil wars.

Of the 129 civil wars Toft analyzes, 70 percent ended with a victory by either the government or rebel forces. In these cases, Toft concludes that conflicts were less likely to recur. And while outright victory by one side may prevent more bloodshed in the long term, Toft highlights some significant costs to peace achieved in such a way. In cases when a government prevailed over rebels, long-term peace came at the cost of reduced political liberties afforded to the populace, as the previously challenged government views them with suspicion. Conversely, when rebels achieve victory over a government, they are automatically awarded “an advantage in terms of legitimacy,” allowing these organizations to better implement SSR. While Toft does not go as far to correlate SSR with future democratization, she does provide evidence that rebel victories “perform better on average” with respect to a polity score than all the other types of civil war outcomes when measured 20 years after the conflict. In contrast, while negotiated settlements perform better than the rest within five years after the conflict, time quickly fades this temporary advantage.

The implications for Toft’s thesis are as prescient as they are concerning. Contrary to prevailing diplomatic wisdom, Toft finds no evidence to suggest that third-party guarantees to a negotiated settlement have any positive effect on securing the peace. Citing two previous studies that demonstrated third-party guarantees had “little to no impact on the likelihood of successful settlement,” Toft found that “third-party guarantees may actually increase the probability that war will recur.”

Toft concludes with a look at the evolving situation in Iraq after the “Sunni Awakening.” By taking the view held by others that Iraq had been experiencing a civil war since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, she considered the war to be temporarily suspended as the nation of Iraq was in fact operating as three demographically separate states. As her book went to press in 2010, Toft left two questions unanswered for Iraq’s future: can the United States manage an effective withdrawal, and can the Iraqis maintain a unified state? Both of these questions have been answered temporarily in the negative by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This points to the problem that industrialized states’ conventional capabilities “have become less potent against insurgents,” and the subsequent increase in asymmetric battles. As a result, Toft agrees with Richard Falk that “non-intervention is intolerable, but intervention remains impossible.”

Perhaps then, it should not be the responsibility of Toft to delve further into the present day implications of her theory. But lacking a suggestion other than warring sides and third-party entities should develop a “hybrid settlement design capable of leveraging the strengths of each termination type,” Toft leaves the reader struggling to wonder if this theory is only good for determining what has happened and not how to shape what will occur. Even so, Securing the Peace is a beneficial study for all interested in civil war outcomes, whether they be individuals at influential levels of government determining a proper course of action in a civil war or voters pondering whether it is wise to ask their elected leaders to intervene in a nascent civil war raged abroad.

Capt Eric N. Ringelstetter, USAF

"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."