As a student in the mid-1980s, Ann Hironaka was like a lot of her peers. A nuclear showdown between superpowers still seemed possible, and there were ongoing conflicts in Angola, El Salvador, Lebanon ... seemingly too many places to count. Hironaka and her fellow activists took aim at these wars, trying to stop them. But, says Hironaka, "The solutions that people were proposing were not very convincing to me. My dissatisfaction with the activism was that the answers were just too simple."
Photo by Cameron Wittig
Hironaka thus turned from activism to academia, earning her Ph.D. at Stanford in 1998. Today, she is studying modern civil wars as an associate professor of sociology at the University.
Before 1945, Hironaka notes, civil conflicts were contained, decisive events lasting just a few years. Not anymore. Today, they are enduring struggles—roughly three times longer than earlier conflicts—fueled by animosities that often reignite even before the ink dries on the peace treaties.
But why? That little-considered question is Hironaka's focus. In her book Neverending Wars (2005), she posits several explanations. One, ironically, is the liberation of colonies that marked the end of the colonial era after World War II. As the great powers abandoned their colonies to self-rule, they left behind power vacuums—newly sovereign states with recognized national borders but little in the way of functioning institutions or centralized authority.
Whereas European and American bureaucracies had evolved over decades and centuries, new Third World nations were forced to adopt new systems of governance almost overnight. The result was a bevy of extremely fragile, disorganized states with unstable power structures.
"In a sense," Hironaka writes, "the international system has locked the problems of states into specific territorial arrangements, and perversely created conditions that encourage lengthy civil wars in recently independent states."
Another problem, a legacy of the Cold War, is outside intervention. "Civil wars tend to be lengthened when there is intervention, especially when there is intervention on both sides," Hironaka says.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union routinely intervened in regional civil wars in weak states, providing money, arms, and military bases, and also training soldiers and sending in troops. Today, interventions by strong states are practically the norm. And so, increasingly, are interventions by non-state players, such as organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Intervention is little studied, except in legalistic terms, says Hironaka. Debates focus on whether a U.S. intervention is constitutional, for example. But that's not the issue, she says. "To me, what really matters is the huge amount of resources that the United States is putting into the various conflicts around the world—and other countries, too, not just the United States. These conflicts wouldn't be able to last as long without external resources."
Hironaka's work to date has been about understanding root causes. Down the road, she hopes to move into more solution-based work aimed at U.S. policymakers. "If we knew why states fight these wars, and continue to fight them, we could talk about what is reasonable," she says. But the issues are far from black and white, she cautions.
Indeed, protracted civil wars may not be the worst of the world's evils. Civil wars often begin as insurgencies against oppressive regimes. Interventions to end them could squash pro-democracy and human rights movements and fortify dictatorships. "Do we want that?" Hironaka asks. "If we're not willing to ask such questions, then we really can't have this discussion."