This rapid literature review presents the key literature that discusses current trends in violent conflict. The focus is upon recent ideas that are prevalent in literature from post-2015. The literature review draws on both academic and grey literature. The review includes both quantitative analyses of conflict data sets (Szayna et al, 2017a; 2017b; Watts, 2017) and qualitative analyses (Von Einsiedel, et al., 2017; Krause; 2016). The first section provides a summary of trends in conflict and the second provides an annotated bibliography highlighting some of the key papers and their findings.
It is important to note that there is no single, agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a violent conflict. The term may refer to civil war, ethnic war, and interstate war at high and low intensities
as well as violence that falls short of war, such as militarised disputes, terrorism, and riots or strikes (Szayna et al., 2017b). It is also important to note that trends and drivers of conflict will
intersect in complex ways (Kett, & Rowson, 2007). Indeed, whilst the terms imply the dynamic nature of the factors and processes that contribute to violent conflict, there is a great deal of
debate about reducing the conflict to one cause. Finally, there is a much debate amongst conflict studies scholars regarding the decline (PRIO, 2017; 2018; Szayna et al., 2017b), or not (National
Intelligence Council, 2012; World Bank & United Nations, 2018), of violent conflict, over the past two decades with some highlighting a sustained downward trajectory and others a more
Violent conflicts have also become more complex and protracted, involving more non-state groups and regional and international actors (World Bank & United Nations, 2018). They are increasingly linked to global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters, cybersecurity and transnational organised crime (HM Government, 2015). There is also a need to explore, in
more detail, the differences between interstate and intrastate conflict.
The United Kingdom Government (HM Government, 2015) identified the following factors as likely to exert an influence on the nature and extent of violent conflict:
- The increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability.
- The resurgence of state-based threats; and intensifying wider state competition.
- The impact of technology, especially cyber threats; and wider technological developments.
- The erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.
This review finds that the above broad trends are continuing to exert an influence on the nature and extent of the conflict and, in many ways, have been exacerbated by the increasing complexity of the International arena. Other key findings include:
- This upsurge in violence occurs in a volatile global context where the balance of geopolitical power is in flux, and transnational factors like advances in information and communications technology, population movements, and climate change create risks and opportunities to be managed at multiple levels (World Bank & United Nations, 2018; Cilliers, 2018).
- Conflict today is fluid, spreading across borders to affect broader regions, a result of the greater interconnectivity of countries; the same networks that allow for increased trade and information flow can be exploited by organised crime and conflict entrepreneurs to spread violence. The regional impact of conflict and the flow of refugees from conflict situations add another international dimension (World Bank & United Nations, 2018; Social Science Research Council, 2018).
- Violent conflicts in many contexts take place against a background of domestic grievances, particularly a breakdown in the prevailing social contract in these countries. These conflicts have been exploited by extremist groups, and have drawn in regional and global powers, who may influence or support, but rarely fully control, these (World Bank & United Nations, 2018; Watts, 2017).
- The internationalisation of many intrastate conflicts also aids the spread of violence (Szayna, et al., 2017a; Von Einsiedel, et al., 2017; Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2018).
- The global balance of power is shifting, growing economic power for emerging economies and the achievement by many countries of middle-income status brings demand for redistribution of global political influence. Long-standing alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), are increasingly being questioned and many countries seek a renegotiation of power-sharing in multilateral fora. It is widely argued that a transition to a multipolar world is underway, with new centres of military and economic power emerging (HM Government, 2015; World Bank & United Nations, 2018).
- Violent conflict has regional dimensions, and there has been enhanced regional action in response. However, regional responses have been uneven in their ability to sustain peace. In some cases, regional competition fuels unilateral action, prolonging and aggravating conflicts and weakening the capacity of regional organisations to play a role in the prevention of violent conflicts (HM Government, 2015; World Bank & United Nations, 2018; Szayna, et al., 2017a; Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2018).
While some argue war in is on the decline, others point out that it merely has taken on new forms. Increasingly, conflict environments feature not only state armies but also non-state armed
groups, criminal gangs, drug-traffickers and terrorists. These actors employ new communications and weapons technologies and frequently operate across national borders and regions, even
though local allegiances are a critical dynamic of violence. This greater complexity in the production of violence has hampered efforts to respond to violent conflict around the world. There is a growing recognition that the international community’s conflict response toolbox, including expensive international interventions, is inadequate in the face of new empirical realities