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Why Study Civil Wars & Conflicts in other Countries?
Roy Licklider
Rutgers University

No TV news broadcast is complete these days without stories (preferably with pictures) of people in poor, faraway countries killing one another with impressive enthusiasm and success. This module suggests some of the reasons for this violence. But why should we care? Why is this our problem? Most of us don't know anyone in these places. We are unlikely to actually go to any of them, at least while the violence is underway. In any case, there isn't much we can do. Why not just change the channel and not worry about it? Let me suggest several reasons.

1) We are becoming more closely linked to the world (a process often called globalization). As a result events abroad affect us more directly. By some estimates almost one-third of U.S. exports now go to Third World countries, for example; violence and turmoil is likely to affect American industries and markets. More generally the United States benefits from a stable global system in which problems are solved by political rather than violent means. There is also general agreement that the U.S. benefits from foreign governments with popular support, usually democratic in nature. However, sometimes these goals conflict; people in power may be unwilling to step down, and violence has often been necessary to bring about social change, as in our own American Revolution.

2) Washington leaders believe that the U.S. will benefit if these areas are politically stable. During the Cold War the United States fought wars in some countries that were in political turmoil, including Vietnam. After the Cold War, the American government has encouraged and sometimes led international organizations such as the United Nations and NATO to stop violence and establish working political systems in such countries. Occasionally American soldiers, usually as part of a larger international force, have been sent to places such as Lebanon and Kosovo to try to end the violence or prevent its recurrence. Our current involvement in Colombia may eventually involve sending American troops. No President likes doing this because it is not popular politically, but so far none has been able to resist the pressures to try to help, at least sometimes. These faraway conflicts may well involve decisions that will put American lives at risk, and the soldiers involved will be much like you-only a few years older. American public opinion is very important in determining whether U.S. troops are sent abroad; the decision not to send troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda is a good example. As citizens of the world's strongest military power, we can have a real impact on social change in the rest of the world, for better or worse. But in order to participate in our own political debate, we need to know more about how such conflicts develop and change over time.

3) More importantly, this violence raises troubling questions about our own country. Many of the conflicts are linked to ethnic differences among people in the same country. Often these are the most difficult to resolve. This raises the question of whether countries that include people from many different ethnic and religious groups can survive. The United States is the leading example of such a multiethnic state in the world today. If other such states fail, ours is also at risk from the same forces and pressures.

But surely civil war in the United States is unthinkable. Not at all-it has happened at least twice in our history, during the American Revolution, when roughly as many people supported the British as the American cause, as well as our own Civil War. More recently, during the 1960s some of us can remember American troops being sent into American cities to end rioting and civil disorders. Triggers as diverse as electrical power blackouts and police shootings routinely trigger large-scale violence every year.

One of the glories of the American political system is that it united people who come from uncooperative countries and ethnic groups. China, Japan, and Korea are competing states in East Asia, but American citizens of these backgrounds are united in the "Asian" ethnic group. Similarly, people from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Argentina become "Hispanic" in the United States. However, we continue to have deep divisions of race, class, and region within our society.

This is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. All societies live with the threat of civil war; indeed the major job of any government is precisely to prevent it by incentives and repression. The American government has been able to do this because of a strong economy for decades and a strong political system for much longer. But what do you think would happen to this country if the economy lapsed into depression, many people became unemployed, and the government became so ineffective that it could not pay its debts or its employees? How would you, your friends, your parents, the people that you know, respond to such a situation, especially if it did not seem likely to end soon? Would we all unite peacefully to share the burdens, or would many of us look for people to blame and first try to protect ourselves and those we love?

The problems that people face in this module are not ours, at least not now. But understanding them may move us forward, not just to responding to the problems of others, but toward a new commitment to resolving our own.


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