A focus on “root causes” of civil war would not improve peacebuilding interventions and could even be counterproductive. This paper, published by the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, disputes the explanation that interventions fail in part because they fail to address root causes of civil war. The most pressing question for peacebuilding missions is not why civil war occurs, but how we intervene and improve on currently inadequate results.
A debate is now taking place among scholars about whether international interventions in civil wars in the 1990s were successful. Interventionists argue that the recent decline in armed conflicts is due to the increased use of peacebuilding missions. Realists argue that while wars may have declined, armed conflict has increased. More peacekeeping missions (including second-tour missions) are evidence that the problem is the failure to intervene successfully.
Both sides are correct: A normative consensus on intervention now exists. The current problem is inadequate intervention outcomes.
A major obstacle to addressing outcomes is the conventional explanation that the cause of intervention failure is the failure to address the root causes of conflict. This explanation has two difficulties: 1) it is so widespread that it prevents careful research on intervention policies, practices and consequences and 2) it is probably wrong.
There are three reasons, based on academic research, why a focus on root causes of conflict will not improve the outcomes and effectiveness of peacemaking interventions:
- Knowledge on the causes of civil war: Research in the 1990s argued that civil war is caused, inter alia, by ethnic conflict, rebel movements seeking economic gain and authoritarian rule. These arguments have had a significant influence on development policies. While they have been discredited or superseded by newer scholarship, the policy world has not adjusted to the criticisms and newer research.
- Causes vs. outcomes: emerging knowledge: New academic research argues that two other aspects of war are more important than root causes: 1) changes wrought by war itself (social, economic and the effects of violence), and 2) the political arrangements necessary to settle power struggles and limit the use of violence.
- Motivations for intervention: Motivations for intervention are generally based on ideology, national security, strategic and bureaucratic interests. They have nothing to do with the causes of conflict and will always take priority. Programme strategies, objectives and templates are pre-determined. Time pressures abound; even practitioners interested in investigating root causes and designing programmes to respond to them do not have the time to do so.
We have seen a substantial increase in our knowledge of the causes of civil war, the politics of intervention and the consequences of current policies of post-war reconstruction and stabilisation. The assertion of failure to address root causes of civil war in peacekeeping processes is certainly amenable to examination. But international intervention can be productive without confronting the invariably contested causes of war; there is need for much more research on the causes of peace and their policy implications.