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Walter: The critical barrier to civil war settlement

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Walter. 1997. The critical barrier to civil war settlement. International Organization 51 (summer): 335-364.

Y: Civil war settlement

X1: Credible commitment problems

X2: Inclusive institutions, checks/balances, etc.

X3: International intervention

MAIN IDEA: Although 55% of interstate wars end with a bargain, fewer than 20% of civil wars do (most end with annihilation of the other side). Many theorists have advanced explanations of this well-documented trend; Walter argues that they are all wrong, and that it is credible commitment problems that matter. Arms are the only thing that can make an agreement credible, yet a peace bargain requires laying down arms. Unless a third party steps in to enforce the initial bargain (and stays while the groups disarm), fighting will continue.

  • "I argue that civil war negotiations rarely end in successful peace settlements because credible guarantees on the terms of the settlement are almost impossible to arrange by the combatants themselves. Negotiations do not fail because indivisible stakes, irreconcilable differences, or high cost tolerances make compromise impossible, as many people argue. They do not fail because bargains cannot be struck. Adversaries often compromise on the basic issues underlying their conflict, and they frequently find mutually acceptable solutions to their problems. Negotiations fail because civil war opponents are asked to do what they consider unthinkable. At a time when no legitimate government and no legal institutions exist to enforce a contract, they are asked to demobilize, disarm, and disengage their military forces and prepare for peace. But once they lay down their weapons and begin to integrate their separate assets into a new united state, it becomes almost impossible to either enforce future cooperation or survive attack. In the end, negotiations fail because civil war adversaries cannot credibly promise to abide by such dangerous terms. Only when an outside enforcer steps in to guarantee the terms do commitments to disarm and share political power become believable. Only then does cooperation become possible."
  • "Adversaries seem unable to credibly promise to abide by the terms of a treaty that by its very nature offers enormous rewards for cheating and enormous costs for being cheated upon."
  • THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CIVIL WARS AND INTERSTATE WARS is that both sides cannot maintain independent armed forces after a peace agreement to defend itself in the event that the other side breaks the agreement.

X1: FOR A PEACE SETTLEMENT TO OCCUR: A third party must supply the short-term security necessary to implement the agreement.

X2: FOR A PEACE SETTLEMENT TO LAST: It must establish the kind of inclusive institutions that enables the majority to credibly commit not to abuse the minority.

FOR A THIRD PARTY TO BE A CREDIBLE ENFORCER: (1) It should have some self-interest in enforcing the peace (e.g. former colonial ties, trade, shared border. (2) It should have enough military power, and it must be willing to use it. (3) It should send a costly signal of resolve (e.g. stationing enough troops in the country to deter violence).

EVIDENCE: An analysis of several dozen cases between 1940 and 1990 supports the hypothesis that warring parties almost never conclude a peace agreement unless a third party steps in to enforce it.


  • Ethnicity/issue indivisibility. Whether the conflict is over supposedly unnegotiable differences (e.g. ethnicity) makes no difference, which is a "blow to those who believe that ethnic conflicts act fundamentally differently from other types of internal war and therefore require more drastic solutions, such as partition."
  • Mediation/information. Simply helping two parties bargain (to overcome information problems, e.g.) isn't enough. You need to actually help enforce the bargain.


She ends with several interesting policy implications, of which three strike me as most significant:

  1. Non-military intervention by a third party doesn't help. Sending unarmed observers or peacekeepers doesn't make a bargain credible. You must actually send a military force that will stay in the country long enough for domestic institutions to be created, and a national army to be developed.
  2. Multilateral interventions are less likely to work as well as unilateral intervention since states gain an incentive to freeride if the going gets tough. There must be political will.
  3. It isn't necessary good to immediately disarm both sides. Allowing both sides to keep observable military equipment for a little while can help maintain cooperation.