In a globalised world, are all wars becoming civil wars?

In his new book Civil wars: A History in Ideas, David Armitage does not only tell the story of civil wars in history but, as the sub-title suggests, the story of how civil war has been framed through (western) history. In so doing, he reminds us that history weighs on how we see the world, shaping how we define and deal with the phenomena of our day.

Civil wars are the wars of our era. There have been on average 20 civil wars per year since the end of the Cold War, claiming the lives of 25 million people and costing around $125 billion per year.

But while the study of civil wars is highly relevant today, civil wars are not a new idea. What has changed is the definition.

For the ancient Greeks, where citizenship was a matter of birth, what we now call ‘civil war’ – a conflict of citizen against citizen - was not seen as war at all, but more as sedition – a conflict between citizens and the state.

But when Roman generals and their troops under arms entered Rome and fought battles against other Romans – against other citizens – for power over the Roman state, this gave rise to a new definition.

As Roman historians and thinkers claimed, to be civilised, or to be living in a system where citizenship is an essential feature, meant also to be prone to civil war.

Contemporary events again reshaped the idea. In the turbulent English 17th century, the Roman idea of citizen versus citizen, with each side having a theoretically equal legitimacy in its fight to gain the state, gave way to a new model in which each side was seen by its supporters as having greater legitimacy, based on its ideology.

Political thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries took this still further. Swiss enlightenment writer Emer de Vatel declared that war against the state – against the status quo – is acceptable if the status quo is unbearably unjust, and that in such circumstances the rules of a ‘just war’ apply. This was a major turning point, as hitherto it had been considered that civil war is the most brutal and unregulated kind of conflict, in which participants were not bound by normal rules.

Edmund Burke used this argument to claim England’s right and responsibility to intervene on the side of reaction in revolutionary France. Here perhaps, we see the stirrings of what later became the international human rights doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The idea of civil war evolved further in the 19th century, with the US Civil War playing a pivotal role and the Union side deciding that the rules of war applied – not as a humanitarian gesture, but to reinforce its legitimacy and tactics in crushing the other side. As an illustration of how important labels, categories and concepts are, and of their interplay with politics, the US Civil War was not legally recognised as such by Congress but rather as a rebellion or ‘Abolition War’ - until 1907 - and perhaps to this day is still not so recognised by some Americans.

So where does that leave us today? Absurd political debates about whether Iraq was in a state of civil war persisted even as tens of thousands died in violence. Of course it was a civil war: different factions were fighting violently for power. Is Syria in a state of civil war? That too was debated for ages, absurdly, before the ICRC declared definitively in 2012 that it was a civil war. Surely, if it looks and sounds and smells like civil war, then it is a civil war: when the people of a single polity are waging organised armed violence with recognisable factions or sides, it’s a civil war and needs to be treated as such?

But the concept of civil war is still evolving, and definitions do matter. As such, definitions inevitably reflect political interests. In this era of globalisation, when the nation state is gradually being eroded by supranational rules and norms, then we may need to reconsider the boundaries of civil war again.

For the Romans, civil war was a war of citizen against citizen: Roman against Roman. And just as the concept of citizenship had shifted from an ethnically based – natural – identity in ancient Greece, to a civic – conferred – identity in Rome, we are perhaps seeing today the gradual emergence of the idea of global human citizenship, with universal rights and obligations inferred from international norms of human rights.

If civil war in Rome was war of ‘brother against brother’, and if all citizens across the world are in some senses part of a global polity, does that means that all wars are in some sense becoming civil wars?

Armitage’s book is a fascinating read – an intellectual pleasure. But teasing out its practical implications for peacebuilding today is not easy. I think the key message remains his underlying premise that how we describe the world shapes how we respond to and address it, and thus how we shape our circumstances.

If we define the wars in Syria as primarily a war of ‘the Syrian opposition’ against the Assad regime, then we not only miss the point that the opposition is multi-faceted, but that it is also a war about the nature of the Syrian state and of Syrian citizenship, with many different models being proposed; a war about the protection of minorities; a post-colonial war; a war about religious ideas and identity; a war about access to the economy; and many other wars as well.

And that is without adding in the multiple regional and other geopolitical layers to the mix. Hence the risk in placing too much emphasis on the removal of Assad as the only path to peace.

I think his book also reminds us that R2P is a doctrine of profound importance in the right hands, and that those hands really do have to be those of the UN. It must be a doctrine owned universally if it is to take root.

Finally, Armitage turns famous dictum of Prussian military theorist Carl vonClausewitz on its head in saying that politics is civil war by other means. In this, he gets to the heart of the idea of positive peace: the idea that in human society at every level we need a combination of systems and culture allowing us to resolve our differences to achieve lasting peace.

Surely, Romans were wrong that civil war is inevitable, but they were right in saying the kinds of pressures which give rise to civil war will always exist. Unless the level of grievances within society is minimised, there will always be a risk of war.


Photo: Omar in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, 2014, with his family of seven including his elderly mother Samah. He was an Arabic teacher in Syria before the conflict started.
© EC/ECHO/A. Al Sukhni (Creative Commons)