Understanding Conflict Resolution III: Why do conflicts escalate?

The theories

In my first post I argued that we have to analyse conflicts in order to understand them, and practice conflict resolution. Conflict resolution attempts to find out what causes conflicts to escalate. In this post I will focus on what we call “middle intrastate war theories”. Now, let us move on to another debate in conflict resolution.

Greed vs. Grievances

Tod Gurr argues that conflict escalates when groups inside a state have strong grievances. Coupled with a deep sense of identity, grievances can easily lead to political mobilization and therefore, what can become a long-lasting intrastate conflict.[1] Collier, on the other hand, offers an explanation favoured by economics. He states that most often, conflicts, are caused by opportunities to take over resources. Therefore, it is greed that leads to the escalation of intrastate conflict, hidden under an umbrella of grievances.[2]

Fear and Commitment

Lake and Rothchild look at intrastate wars from an “ethnic fear” perspective. They argue that ethnicity in a context of state weakness and fear of the future can lead to conflict escalation and trigger violence. Moreover, three main issues lie at the heart of the problem. First, bargaining to prevent a conflict can fail due to information failures. Second, groups often cannot commit to agreements, due to mistrust in the other parties in conflict.[3] Fearon argues this happens when the balance in ethnic power changes. So, if a group grows stronger, its promises to keep a promise of not exploiting the other(s) are not trusted, or seen as credible.[4] Third, Lake and Rothchild also argue that security dilemmas lead to violent conflict. It results from the inability of groups to know each other’s intentions. Therefore, a group who might take actions defensively can be seen as taking the necessary means to attack by the others who will fear their survival, and might ultimately decide to attack. [5]


Funding and diasporas/Geography and Demographics/State Strength and Capacity

Why altogether? Because James Fearon and David Laitin argue that conflict escalates because conditions for insurgency exist, and link the issues mentioned in the above subtitle.

The two theorists argue that in order to understand why civil wars have occurred in the post 1945 era, we have to look at conditions for insurgency. They argue that the presence of rough terrain, distance from power centres, state weakness, a large population, and instability, prove to be more likely to trigger conflict than grievances. Moreover, international support, in the form of diaspora funding for example, may increase the chances for insurgency to occur. Guerillas are more likely to fight governments if they get support, either in the form of guns, or money and connections to acquire them. Foreign governments might also support domestic challengers. [6]

So which one is “the one”?

The truth is none of these theories on their own are likely to explain all intrastate conflicts. For example, the conflict in Northern Ireland could be seen as resulting from a mixture of grievances and other factors, but there are no major resources at stake to be explained by greed of the elites. Bosnians clearly had a security and commitment problem, while Sierra Leone or Liberia had plenty of competition for natural resources. Countries in Latin America have rough terrains that make insurgencies possible, so geography plays an important role. The question is, do these debates favour development in the field, or would we be more efficient in solving the conflicts if theorists complimented each other rather than discarding valuable arguments?

[1] Ted Robert Gurr, Why Minorities Rebel: A Global Analysis of Communal Mobilization and Rebellion since 1945, International Political Science Review, 14  (1993), pp 161-201( p 167)

[2] Murshed and Tarjoedin, Revisiting the Greed and Grievance Explanation for Violent Internal Conflict, Journal of International Development, 21, (2009) pp87-111  (p 88)

[3] Lake, Rothchild, Containing Fear- The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict, International Security, 21 (1996),  pp 41-75

[4] Fearon, Rationalist Explanations of War, International Organization, 49 (1995), pp 379-414

[5] Lake, Rothchild, op. cit.

[6] Fearon, Laitin, Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War, The American Political Science Review, 97 (2003), pp 75-90


One thought on “Understanding Conflict Resolution III: Why do conflicts escalate?

Add yours

  1. magnificent post, very informative. I ponder why the other experts
    of this sector do not understand this. You must proceed your writing.

    I am sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

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