Armed Conflicts in the Early 21st Century: Typology and Directions of Transformation

584
DOI: 10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-6-24-39

E. Stepanova (stepanova@imemo.ru),
Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), 23, Profsoyuznaya Str., Moscow, 117997, Russian Federation


Abstract

The fact that, in 2015–2018, the world faced roughly the same peak number of state-based conflicts as 30 years earlier, during the collapse of the bipolar system, does not mean it faced the same conflict patterns. In the early 21st century, the main patterns of armed conflicts evolved significantly, to the point that it is fair to claim: the war of the industrial age – large-scale, direct confrontation between conventional armies of two or more states – all but faded away. While the article briefly reviews long-term decline in old challenges (share of major wars, number and share of inter-state conflicts, battle-related deaths), its main focus is on new types and patterns of armed conflict that either did not clearly manifest themselves, or had no parallels or analogues in the 20th century. On the basis of analysis of lead academic datasets on conflicts and other types of violence linked to and widespread in conflict areas, a typology of contemporary conflicts is formulated and several main trends are indentified. To a varying extent, these trends affect and permeate all three main types of conflict of the early 21st century. The first, widespread type is comprised by localized state-based conflicts of limited intensity, mostly on the periphery of functional states that keep overall control of the national territory. 3/4 of such conflicts are not internationalized; most respective states are strong enough to contain escalation of violence, but often not enough to afford a decisive crackdown, which leaves such peripheral violence hovering at a low level. In contrast, the second type is comprised of very few larger, more intense, heavily transnationalized civil wars, mostly in weak, failed, dysfunctional or proxy states, with major external interventions (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, or Yemen). These conflicts produce a lion’s share of battle-related deaths worldwide. The same conflict areas also account for the bulk of terrorist attacks and fatalities. In a 30-year period since 1989, conflicts of the third type fought between non-state actors comprised almost half of all armed conflicts. While shorter, less intense and often linked to and co-located with the type two conflicts, non-state conflicts started to systematically outnumber state-based conflicts in the 2010s. The article identifies several disturbing new challenges. Two out of three main types of contemporary conflict – internationalized civil wars and non-state conflicts – and related battle deaths are on the rise. Armed non-state actors multiply, diversify and play a growing role in both combat and other armed violence (one-sided violence against civilians, including terrorism, predatory violence). Violence in armed conflicts becomes more fragmented, in more ways than one, and transnationalized at the same time. New variations of conflict, by type of contested incompatibility and by combination of actors and location, emerge and spread. They include: conflicts fought between state and foreign non-state actor, in one of their two countries or in a third country; conflicts between non-state actors, one or none of which originates from the country where they are fighting; the phenomenon of violent, often cross-border, localized power-play that can last longer than the main conflict dyad(s). High rates of conflict recurrence are closely linked to prevalence of unstable and inconclusive “no war, no peace” conflict outcomes. While conflicts of the early 21st century are on average less intense, they are harder to manage by either traditional military means and structures, or through negotiations, or by a combination of the two.


Keywords

armed conflicts, battle-related deaths, localized peripheral conflicts, internationalized civil wars, non-state conflicts and actors, fragmentation, transnationalization, conflict recurrence, unclear outcomes, databases


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For citation:
Stepanova E. Armed Conflicts in the Early 21st Century: Typology and Directions of Transformation . World Eonomy and International Relations, 2020, vol. 64, No 6, pp. 24-39. https://doi.org/10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-6-24-39



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