Leader Incentives and Civil War Outcomes

The forthcoming article “Leader Incentives and Civil War Outcomes” by Alyssa Prorok is summarized here:

As one of the most common, persistent, and deadly forms of violence in the international system, civil war has garnered significant attention from scholars and policy-makers alike.  Academics have shed significant light on country and conflict-level factors that influence how and when civil wars end, such as combatants’ military strength, the design of settlement agreements, and the presence of natural resources.  Policy and media accounts of these conflicts, however, frequently stress the role of individual leaders in the success or failure of settlement processes.  Leaders like Joseph Kony of the LRA and Bashar Assad of Syria are frequently attributed personal responsibility for thwarting efforts to end persistent conflict in their respective countries.  This raises an important question, one which existing scholarship has yet to answer: do rebel and state leaders influence the trajectory and outcome of civil wars?

In an article forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, I eschew standard approaches to the study of civil war that focus on country and conflict characteristics, instead examining the influence that rebel and state leaders have on civil war outcomes.  By focusing on leaders’ incentives, I am able to account for the fact that leaders, at times, are driven more by a desire to avoid punishment (e.g. loss of power, exile, imprisonment, or death) than by a desire to act in the best interests of their constituents.  My research shows that the risk of punishment is particularly high for leaders who bear responsibility for the war – those in power when the war started or who share political or familial connections with the first leader.  In fact, responsible leaders are between 65% and 96% more likely to be punished for performing poorly in war than non-responsible leaders (i.e. those not connected to the original decision to fight).

How does the high risk of punishment for responsible leaders affect conflict outcomes?  Because responsible leaders face an increased risk of punishment should they fail to achieve wartime objectives, these leaders are unlikely to settle for compromise terms, and are more likely to experience an extreme outcome – major victory or total defeat – than their non-responsible counterparts.  In fact, my research shows that responsible leaders are 315% more likely to experience extreme outcomes and are 69% less likely to make concessions to end their wars.

What does this tell us about the prospects for peaceful settlement of the world’s most persistent civil conflicts?  In some ways, the news is not particularly bright: my findings suggest that the prospects for successful negotiated settlement are low when responsible leaders hold power.  In fact, settlement efforts may be largely futile under these circumstances, as the very process of negotiation and compromise increases responsible leaders’ vulnerability.  On the other hand, my findings do suggest possible strategies for making mediation and settlement attempts more successful.  In particular, if negotiators can simultaneously address the political issues at stake and the personal security concerns of responsible leaders, they may be able to overcome high barriers to settlement and achieve lasting peace.  Finally, my results ultimately suggest that the ripest moments for conflict resolution occur only once non-responsible leaders take power.  Thus, the Colombian peace process with FARC began in 2012, shortly after two non-responsible leaders came to power.  Despite fits and starts since then, many commentators view this process as the best opportunity for lasting peace since the conflict began over 50 years ago, and my own research corroborates this view.  Only time will tell whether or not such optimism is warranted.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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