Beijing Workshop Explores Options for Interventions in Civil Wars

Karl Eikeberry at Civil Wars, Intrastate Violence, and International Response Workshop


The two-day forum, part of a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, led by the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner, gathered experts to examine trends in civil wars and solutions moving forward.   


Attendees at a two-day forum, part of a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

The Council on Foreign Relations presently tracks six countries in a state of civil war, including three (South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yemen) where the situation is currently worsening. Furthermore, three states (Central African Republic, Myanmar, and Nigeria) are experiencing sectarian violence with the potential to become larger conflicts. With two months still remaining in 2018, the combined fatalities in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen alone is fast approaching 100,000 for the year.

It was against this backdrop that Shorenstein APARC’s U.S.-Asia Security Initiative (USASI), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), and the School for International Studies at Peking University recently co-hosted the security workshop “Civil Wars, Intrastate Violence, and International Responses.” Held in Beijing, on October 22-23, the workshop brought together thirty-five U.S. and international experts to gain a wider perspective on intrastate violence and consider the possibilities for, and limits of, intervention. The workshop is the latest activity of the AAAS project on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses, chaired by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, director of USASI, and by Stephen Krasner, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and professor of international relations.

“Some of the major discussion topics included the appropriate political and economic development models to apply to fragile states recovering from internal conflict, justifications for intervention, and the likely impact of great power competition on the future treatment of civil wars." - Karl Eikenberry

Workshop participants included academics and professionals with expertise in political science, global health, diplomacy, refugee field work, United Nations, and the military. Countries represented at the table included the United States, Ethiopia, France, and China. Throughout the two-day session, they examined three crucial questions: What is the scope of intrastate conflicts and civil wars, and to what extent is it attributable to domestic or international factors? What types of threats to global security emanate from state civil wars? What policy options are available to regional powers and the international community to deal with such threats?


USASI Director Karl Eikenberry addresses one of the sessions

USASI Director Karl Eikenberry addresses one of the sessions

China’s Emerging Role in Addressing Intrastate Violence

The workshop’s timing and location was prescient. Over the past two decades, China’s global exposure–through trade, investment, and financing–has increased dramatically. Coupled with a growing number of its citizens living abroad, China’s equity in other states has reached the point where it has a direct interest in those experiencing or are at risk of political instability and internal violence. Indeed, through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, China has the opportunity to help stabilize fragile states by stimulating economic development.

“The workshop revealed, at least for me, that China is backing away from its absolute defense of sovereignty and non-intervention,” said Stephen Krasner. “As Chinese interests have expanded around the world, and as both its investments and the number of its citizens living abroad have increased, the Chinese have become more concerned with political conditions in weakly governed countries.”

With China’s growing policy and academic interests in addressing civil wars and intrastate violence, as well as its higher international profile in places like United Nations peacekeeping operations, the Beijing event provided an excellent opportunity for Chinese experts to exchange views with their international colleagues.

Paul H. Wise, MD, MPH; Senior Fellow at Stanford Health Policy

Paul H. Wise, MD, MPH; Senior Fellow at Stanford Health Policy

Where We are Today, Where We Go Tomorrow

The Beijing workshop was arranged into four sessions, with themes focusing on trends in intrastate violence, the threats it poses to international security, the limits of intervention, and advice to policymakers.

Each panel included presentations of prepared papers, moderator comments, and an open discussion by all participants. A fifth and final session provided an opportunity to summarize the preceding discussions. The workshop then closed out with an open conversation, where participants offered insight and policy recommendations developed over the preceding two days of dialogue.

Martha Crenshaw seated at round table
“The workshop,” observed Martha Crenshaw (shown above), a Senior Fellow at FSI, “was a unique opportunity to exchange views with Chinese colleagues on the subject of civil conflict in the contemporary world. A valuable learning experience for all of us."

The "Civil Wars, Intrastate Violence, and International Responses” workshop marks the second phase of the AAAS project by the same name that launched in 2015. The first phase of the project culminated in the publication of 28 essays across two volumes of the AAAS quarterly journal Dædalus. The ongoing second phase consists of a series of roundtables and workshops in which project participants engage with academics and with government and international organization officials to build a larger conceptual understanding of the threats posed by the collapse of state authority associated with civil wars, and to contribute to current policymaking. Project activities have included meetings with the United Nations leadership and staff; academic activities in the United States; sessions with the U.S. executive and legislative branches; and a visit to Nigeria.

Throughout the workshop, Chatham House Rule of non-attribution applied to all dialogue. A workshop report will be published by the co-hosts in early 2019.

The U.S.-Asia Security Initiative is part of Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). Led by former U.S. Ambassador and Lieutenant General (Retired) Karl Eikenberry, USASI seeks to further research, education, and policy relevant dialogues at Stanford University on contemporary Asia-Pacific security issues.

March 1, 2019 update: the workshop report is now available online. Download the report >> 

Group photo of Participants in the “Civil Wars, Intrastate Violence, and International Responses” workshop

Participants in the “Civil Wars, Intrastate Violence, and International Responses” workshop