Taming State Violence Against Citizens: A New Perspective on Intrastate Conflict

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Rachel Kleinfeld, A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security. New York: Pantheon Books, November 2018.

Despite much talk about great power rivalry defining the future strategic environment, some foreign policy experts have instead posited that wars within states, not between them, are a more pressing concern right now. Foreign Policy’s “Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2018” and the privately circulated Council on Foreign Relations Preventive Priorities Survey for 2019 share eight countries in common, only two of which, Ukraine and North Korea, represent potential interstate wars. The other six — Myanmar, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela — are all countries eating their own from within.

A civil war occurs when a big enough group loses its faith in the established governance structures’ ability to address grievances, and instead decides to organize violence against the state. Intrastate wars have become more common than interstate wars, and generally last longer as well. These wars are deadly, with 5.4 million dying since 1998 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and harmful, with the biggest refugee and internally displaced person crises since World War II emanating out of Syria, to cite just two dreadful cases.

The United States, for all its national power, has trouble positively influencing these intrastate conflicts. In fiscal year 2016, the last year for which U.S. aid has been fully evaluated, the United States gave $49 billion in aid, or 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product. Yet these conflicts remain intractable, and the ones to come still feel inevitable. Why?

I have been studying, writing, and teaching about civil wars and ethnic conflicts for over two decades. Some time ago, a major theme began to emerge in the civil conflict literature: Most scholars began to attribute intrastate violence to a state’s lack of capability (if a state has or lacks a particular tool or expertise ) and lack of capacity (how much of that tool it has), a view that is still pervasive. Over time, however, I came to the conclusion that civil wars had another, more nefarious cause. Often, it is not that states lack the capacity for legitimate rule, but that they lack the will to govern well.

A new book by Rachel Kleinfeld, A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, is the first work I have seen that systematically shows that the state weakness theory does not account for most state violence against its citizens. Rather, the will of the states’ elites does. Governing leaders do not have an interest in changing a system from which they profit. Indeed, bad elites often use the state’s capacity and capability to suppress minorities, giving rise to civil wars in the first place.

As A Savage Order correctly notes, the “right of bang” (i.e., after a civil war has started) has received much more scholarly attention than the “left of bang” (i.e., before already violent societies organize a no-kidding civil war). Kleinfeld not only fills this literature gap, she also gives students and decision-makers a playbook for making a less violent world as well as better achieving U.S. national security ends. Although most probably know Kleinfeld as the Truman National Security Project’s co-founder, this work establishes her amongst the top thinkers in the field of governance and violence. This is the best book on state violence, and how to solve it, since Daniel Byman’s Keeping the Peace (although Byman largely focuses on the right of bang, so the books are more complementary than competitors). Kleinfeld’s book makes such a strong contribution because misidentifying a civil war’s cause almost necessarily means the resulting policy solutions will not be correct. Thus, wars start more often, last longer, and cause more blood and treasure to be spilt.

A Savage Order’s methodology is strong. Kleinfeld did not research this book by sitting in a library. Instead, she went to some of the world’s most dangerous places, meeting the people responsible for transforming the violent debate into a political one, as well as elites who perpetuate what she calls “privileged violence.” That said, she heavily cites scholarly works for those interested in knowing more about the literature. This mixture of methodologies, from interviews to crunching numbers, allows her to not only spot trends using quantitative data, but also get to the question of why those trends exist through qualitative research. Kleinfeld’s case studies of places where violence was ultimately stopped include Colombia, the Republic of Georgia, the state of Bihar in India, Sicily, and the United States after its own civil war through today. In each case, she accounts for potential case selection bias by picking a corresponding locale that did continue down the path of state violence (Mexico, Tajikistan, Jharkhand in India, and Nigeria).

Kleinfeld finds that predatory elites allow violence to start, continue, and escalate because they profit from the bloodshed. To enable the carnage to continue, politicians deliberately politicize and weaken state security services so that they are beholden to leaders, not laws. Once violence has become a governing strategy, societies begin to “decivilize.” Crime syndicates gain traction by offering jobs, bribing officials, and terrorizing those who dare take a stand. The case studies of Colombia and Italy, for instance, have plenty of state capacity (government services, police, and military forces), but underwent this decivilization process regardless due to elite will.

Looking at today’s below-the-fold headlines, all eight states on both the Foreign Policy and Council on Foreign Relations lists — as well as Cameroon, Nigeria, Mali, and Myanamar, to add just a few — have leaders who chose not to protect, or are actively targeting, minority groups. In Myanmar, State Counselor (an equivalent to prime minister) Aung San Suu Kyi could probably stop the genocide of the Rohingya people, but is not doing so. Over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed, raped, murdered, or driven out of the country. The Myanmar military has been anything from a complicit to an active participant in the genocide, so attributing the tragedy to state capacity is a fallacy. Rather, state capacity is being used as a death machine against a minority group.

This depressing picture can be changed, however. Although I usually encourage my students to look for ways international actors can change elites’ calculations, Kleinfeld takes a different approach. For her, the key to changing elite calculations is the country’s middle class since they outnumber the other extremes (very rich or very poor) and have enough money, influence, and education to organize against the illegitimate state and raise up genuine leaders to break the destructive cycle. Sicily’s violence ultimately diminished because the middle class pressured the ruling elite to fight the mafia group, Cosa Nostra. Conversely, in Naples, the Camorra mafia group retained elite protection. But as Kleinfeld astutely notes, if the middle class chooses to fight violence with more violence, as happened in Colombia in the 1990s, society regresses without becoming any safer. State repression, in other words, does not work. Peaceful resistance and persistence do. The middle class, as the “fulcrum of change,” can “recivilize” societies.

This thesis, of course, assumes the society has a middle class. Although this is the case in many of the countries noted thus far, Kleinfeld’s policy formula would probably not work in, for instance, Afghanistan where the GDP per capita is less than $2 per day. In these cases, the oppressed must look to outside actors, for whom the stick — anything from threatening aid removal to deploying (or redeploying) military forces — may work better than the carrot. Merely throwing money at the country does nothing to guarantee that the aid actually reaches those who need it. In fact, if the United States gives aid to a state with a will problem, as opposed to a capability/capacity problem, it is doing worse than pouring money down the drain. America is most likely enabling a population’s suppression and killing.

Whether walking the reader through the streets of Sicily or Bogotá, Kleinfeld is a gifted storyteller who gives a human face to both victims and community organizers alike. Given the large numbers of homicides against combatants within states in 2016 alone (385,000, according to A Savage Order, which does not account for states’ known killing of civilians), this humanization is as difficult to accomplish as it is incredibly effective.

Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, which Kleinfeld notes again and again (a message perhaps needed now more than ever). After citing the grizzly statistic of 3,500 black Americans being lynched from the 1880s through 1942, she turns her attention to a particular lynching victim: Emmett Till. His death galvanized a movement thanks to his mother, whom Kleinfeld identifies as a “gifted social organizer.” In another case, a 27-year-old Colombian law professor, Fernando Carrillo, established an unofficial referendum for a new constitution. Of course, as both examples show, and as Kleinfeld stresses, progress is not linear. Still, Kleinfeld puts the numbers into a human context that makes the reader care what comes next.

The book offers several strategies to help societies pull themselves out of violence. First and foremost, the skilled politicians, community organizers, or other stakeholders must mobilize the middle class (or vice versa). Leaders can be built, and educating them can pay high dividends. Here is a key entry point for U.S. policy that Kleinfeld does not explicitly note: The United States would do well to identify and educate potential leaders in countries ravaged by violence and bring them to American universities and colleges (for instance, the Colombian referendum organizer was educated at Harvard). Despite today’s focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, A Savage Order shows that humanities and social science educations best prepare leaders to return home to galvanize the middle class.

Second, shady back-room governance must be transformed. Kleinfeld acknowledges that deliberately weakened governments (e.g., pliable judges put in place, corrupt cops promoted, dirty bureaucrats who seek bribes, and the like) must often make “dirty deals” with organized criminals or rebel groups as a first step out of violence. But these deals cannot be allowed to fester. She suggests that any agreements for peace and stability should build in two “trip wires” that are explicit enough to survive without strong institutions (which these governments deliberately lack). First, ensure that anyone can join the political process, and second, reduce economic reliance on the government to diminish the largesse available to corrupt politicians and mobsters. In this regard, better-targeted U.S. aid could help, including focusing on small- and medium-sized businesses and NGOs as opposed to giving the money directly to the state.

Finally, the author outlines small actions that individuals can take to make a huge difference. We should stop vacationing in places where privileged violence runs rampant, like Jamaica and the Bahamas. Or, when staying in those places, doing so at hotels that generals or mobsters do not profit from is a start. Travel websites could become more socially responsible by including a violence rating system with other information so that if one travels to Myanmar, for instance, one can pick a hotel that does not enrich the systemic violence. Some solutions are harder, though, such as changing attitudes both in the United States and abroad about politicians. Democracies by definition require politicians, and we should give more credit to those who are trying to do good. We also need to change the widely-held viewpoint that criminals killing other criminals is acceptable, because this attitude legitimizes the system that allows state violence to perpetuate. Kleinfeld persuasively argues that a few people making many small changes in their thinking like these can tip the balance.

A clear implication for U.S. policy is to give aid based on how leaders govern their populace rather than how U.S. leaders feel about a particular country. At the U.N. General Assembly conference earlier this year, President Donald Trump said, “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.” But what is most important is not whether the country is a friend to the United States, but whether the country’s leadership is a friend to its people. In cases where a state truly does lack capacity and capability, aid can make a positive difference because it will go towards making the government better — not helping a corrupt government brutalize its people.

Because Kleinfeld starts from a different place than most literature on this topic — elite will, not capacity — her policy prescriptions have a better chance of succeeding. Every minute you spend reading her book (or this review), another person dies from state violence. The ethical case for doing something about this horrific statistic is clear. Thanks to Kleinfeld, now the causes of civil conflict — and some new potential solutions — are, too.


Dr. Tammy S. Schultz is the Director of National Security and Professor of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Marine Corps War College. She also teaches a course on Ethnic Conflict & Civil War at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

Image: DFID – UK Department for International DevelopmentCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons