Saving America from the Coming Civil Wars

Steven R David. Foreign Affairs. Volume 78, Issue 1. January/February 1999.

Echoes of Yugoslavia

Recent events have given the lie to the conventional wisdom on civil wars: that they are private matters which great powers may simply ignore. Over the past ten years, America has again and again found itself in the middle of foreign, internal conflicts, from Haiti to Somalia. And nowhere has the focus been so acute or the consequences as immediate as in the Balkans. The United States and its Western allies have worked hard-though with limited success-to end the wars that erupted when Yugoslavia collapsed. Western interests were directly implicated; concern over humanitarian abuses, the risk of war spreading to neighboring states, and the future of NATO itself justified American and European intervention. Dayton seemed to win a fragile peace for Bosnia. But the threat of war in Europe now looms as likely as ever, as elections return Bosnian hard-liners to office and the uprising simmers in Kosovo. The prospects of achieving a lasting peace in the region are slim, and these problems are likely to vex American policymakers for years to come.

The attention paid by the West to the wars in the former Yugoslavia should come as no surprise. Only recently have superpowers refrained from involvement in internal conflicts. Traditionally the case has been just the opposite. And with good reason: revolutions in France, Russia, and China sparked profound changes in the international system that remain with us today. During the Cold War, internal conflicts in Korea and Vietnam drew the United States into costly interventions, while domestic strife in El Salvador and Nicaragua dominated American foreign policy through the 1980s. For the Soviet Union, internal wars provided the source for both one of Moscow’s greatest victories (Cuba) and one of its most costly defeats (Afghanistan).

Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. (brought on in part by the Afghan disaster) and the end of the Cold War, new questions must be asked about civil wars and American interests. Proxy fights between Russia and America are no longer likely. The domino effect is no longer a concern. Though wars within states continue to outnumber those fought between them, many now argue that the United States should turn its back on these internal squabbles. These civil wars, they argue, are the domestic affairs of poor, weak countries, not important enough to merit American involvement. Getting enmeshed in complicated disputes and age-old hatreds will sap American resources-and for no good reason.

There is something to this view. Most civil wars do not directly threaten the United States or its allies. While recent internal conflicts have raised humanitarian concerns, none has seriously affected American security or economic interests. This, however, was largely a matter of luck. The United States should recognize a vital and sobering truth: that Russia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia all now stand on the brink of civil war, conflicts that would have devastating consequences for the United States. These consequences are not the traditional dangers of state-to-state aggression, such as outside attack or invasion. Though largely ignored by scholars and policymakers, who remain fixated on the idea of international conflict, internal war has emerged as a principal threat to security in the post-Cold War world.

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Conflicts fought within the borders of a single state send shock waves far beyond their frontiers. To begin with, internal wars risk destroying assets the United States needs. Were the Persian Gulf oil fields destroyed in a Saudi civil war, the American economy (and those of the rest of the developed world) would suffer severely. Internal wars can also unleash threats that stable governments formerly held in check. As central governments weaken and fall, weapons of mass destruction may fall into the hands of rogue leaders or antiAmerican factions. More directly, internal wars endanger American citizens living and traveling abroad. Liberia will not be the last place America sends helicopters to rescue its stranded citizens. Finally, internal wars, when they erupt on U.S. borders, threaten to destabilize America itself. U.S. intervention in Haiti was spurred, in large part, by fear of the flood of refugees poised to enter the United States.

All of these dangers are grave enough to warrant consideration; what makes them even more serious is the fact that their impact on America is largely unintended. Being unintended. Being unintended, the spill-off effects of civil wars are not easily deterred, which creates unique challenges to American interests. U.S. policymakers have traditionally tried to sway foreign leaders through a simple formula: ensure that the benefits of defying America are outweighed by the punishment that the United States will inflict if defied. That calculus, however, no longer applies when there is no single, rational government in place to deter. This raises the cost to America; if the United States (or any country) cannot deter a threat, it must turn to actual self-defense or preemption instead. Unlike deterrence, these strategies are enormously difficult to carry out and in some cases (such as preventing the destruction of the Saudi oil fields) would be impossible. Without deterrence as a policy option, Washington loses its most effective means of safeguarding its interests.

Where are these new threats likely to crop up? And which should the United States be concerned with? Two criteria must guide policymakers in answering these questions. First is the actual likelihood of civil war in any particular state. American interests would be endangered by a war in Canada, but the prospect is so improbable it can safely be ignored. Second is the impact of a civil war on the United States; would it threaten vital American security and economic concerns? Future conflict in Sierra Leone may be plausible, but it would have such a negligible impact on the United States that it does not justify much attention.

Only three countries, in fact, meet both criteria: Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Civil conflict in Mexico would produce waves of disorder that would spill into the United States, endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, destroying a valuable export market, and sending a torrent of refugees northward. A rebellion in Saudi Arabia could destroy its ability to export oil, the oil on which the industrialized world depends. And internal war in Russia could devastate Europe and trigger the use of nuclear weapons.

Of course, civil war in a cluster of other states could seriously harm American interests. These countries include Indonesia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and China. In none, however, are the stakes as high or the threat of war as imminent.

Breaking Mexico’s Habit

Mexico today faces a future more uncertain than at any other point in its modern history. Pervasive corruption financed by drug traffickers, the end of one-party rule, armed revolt, and economic disaster have all surfaced over the past few years. In response, the Mexican army has begun to question its decades-old record of noninterference in politics. Should Mexico collapse into chaos, even for a short period of time, vital American interests will be endangered. This, in turn, raises the specter of U.S. intervention.

The growing influence of drug money is the greatest single source of Mexican instability. The narcotics industry has worked its way into the fabric of Mexican society, to the extent that it is now Mexico’s largest hard currency source (estimated at $30 billion per year) and is probably the country’s largest employer. As in Colombia, drug dealers threaten to take control of the state. More worrying, senior Mexican officials-including those in charge of the antidrug effort-are routinely found to be working for drug cartels. Major drug traffickers have assembled their own private armies and operate without fear of prosecution. Crime, much of it drug financed, runs rampant throughout the country, particularly in Mexico City. In 1995, then-CIA director John Deutch signaled his concern for the impact of drugs on Mexico by making that country a strategic intelligence priority for the first time. It may, however, already be too late for help from Washington. The control of Mexico by drug traffickers will be hard to reverse, especially since, given the central role the drug lords play in Mexican life, doing so might further destabilize the country.

The Mexican economy provides a second source of civil conflict. The country still has not recovered from its 1994 economic crisis, when the devaluation of the peso sparked fear of total financial collapse. Disaster was averted by the extraordinary intervention of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, which provided a $So billion bailout. Despite this assistance, inflation climbed to 52 percent (up from 7 percent the year before), real earnings dropped by as much as 12 percent, the GDP shrank 6 percent, and over 25 percent of Mexicans fell seriously behind in debt repayment. Though conditions have improved slightly in the years since, the basic problems that caused the devaluation in the first place remain-such as reliance on foreign investment to finance growth. These problems, combined with crushing Mexican poverty (85 percent of Mexicans are either unemployed or not earning a living wage), falling oil prices, and the widening gap between the prosperous north and the impoverished south, together form the basis for future unrest.

Ironically, the advent of true democracy has further threatened Mexican stability. For 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled the nominally democratic country as a private fiefdom. The PRI made all key decisions and chose all important officials (including the president) while suppressing meaningful dissent. The monopoly ended in 1997, however, when the PRI lost its majority in the lower house of parliament to two competing political parties. The Conservative Party (PAN) now threatens the PRI in the more prosperous north while the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has gained support among poor southerners, students, and intellectuals, and has won the key post of mayor of Mexico City. The fall of the PRI may enhance stability in the long term, as oppressed groups see their demands addressed for the first time. But the transition itself will be dangerous; states in the process of democratizing are far more vulnerable to civil conflict than are mature democracies or authoritarian regimes. As opposition parties declare their intent to expose the PRI’s corrupt and criminal history, the order which Mexico has enjoyed for 70 years will be the first casualty of the new freedom.

As if to illustrate the potential for disorder, major armed uprisings have once again erupted. Mexico has suffered a long tradition of regional warfare, dating back to its earliest days of independence. After decades of peace, this threat reemerged in the mid-1990s, and now endangers the stability of the state. In January 1994, some 4,000 “Zapatista” rebels, fearful of losing their land, seized seven towns in the southern state of Chiapas. Though they were poorly armed, the support they received throughout Mexico and the army’s inability to quell their revolt starkly demonstrated the weakness of the Mexican government. That weakness grew even more pronounced when it was revealed that the government had turned to paramilitary groups to suppress the rebels. One such group massacred 45 civilians in December 1997, sparking widespread protest and investigations of government complicity. Meanwhile, the less well known but potentially more dangerous People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR) launched a rebellion in 1996 by attacking military and economic targets in six southern states. Unlike the Zapatistas, the EPR openly seeks to overthrow the current regime. While its prospects of doing so may be remote, the EPR’s very existence drives a thorn into the government’s side. Amidst these struggles, the Mexican military may abandon its long tradition of noninvolvement in politics. Since the 1980s, the government has called on the military to suppress drug-related violence within the country. This use of the military for domestic purposes drew it directly into political disputes it had shied from in the past, and risked spreading corruption within the ranks. Meanwhile, the end of the PRI’S monopoly on power may further destabilize the armed forces. For the first time in their history, the troops face an institutionally divided leadership. The military might split into rival political factions, especially if opposition parties are prevented from exercising power. Conflict in Mexico threatens a wide range of core American interests. A civil war would endanger the 350,000 Americans who live south of the border. Direct American investments of at least $50 billion would be threatened, as would $156 billion in bilateral trade and a major source of petroleum exports. Illegal immigrants would swarm across the 2,000-mile frontier, fleeing civil conflict. And armed incursions might follow; during the Mexican Revolution of i9io, fighting spilled over the border often enough that the United States had to deploy roughly half its armed forces to contain the conflict. In a future war, the millions of Americans with family in Mexico might take sides in the fighting, sparking violence within the United States.

Saudi Scenarios

As likely as is conflict in Mexico, there is even less hope for Saudi Arabia-and if the kingdom succumbs to civil war, the outcome will be catastrophic not just for the United States but for the world. A country built on contradictions, Saudi Arabia is extremely vulnerable to internal war. The same factors that have kept its regime in power-the oil economy, the military, Islam, the royal family-could now fuel an insurrection. Meanwhile, global dependence on Saudi oil will only increase in coming years, making an interruption in its flow even more dangerous.

Fabulous oil wealth has been a mixed blessing for Saudi Arabia. Oil has spared the Saudi government from the need to tax its citizens; as a result, the regime has never learned to convince its subjects to sacrifice for the good of the state (nor have the citizens learned to weather privation). The timid Saudi government must constantly buy the people’s loyalty with material comforts. That might not have become a problem had oil prices not begun to drop in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia’s per capita GDP plunged from $17,000 early in that decade to around $7,000 today. Unemployment among high school and university graduates rose to an alarming 25 percent. Struggling to cope with these problems, the government has incurred large deficits since 1983. Meanwhile, the estimated $65 billion it spent on the Gulf War only exacerbated matters. But as long as the royal family continues to benefit from government spending by receiving lavish kickbacks from foreign contractors, there seems little hope of major cuts in expenditures. Rather than reduce its reliance on oil, in the face of increased expenses the Saudi economy has become more and more dependent on it, even as oil revenues plummet (oil export earnings are expected to shrink from $43 billion in 1997 to just over $29 billion in 1998). The government thinks that the damage done to the economy by failing to raise taxes or make major spending cuts is less dangerous than the alternative, which might alienate large portions of the population. But if the economy continues to deteriorate, the government will have to make hard choices that could rock the Saudi state.

Meanwhile, the Saudi military presents another possible source of division. Always afraid of a coup, Saudi rulers have split the military into the regular armed forces (roughly l00,000 men) and the National Guard (30,000 full time, 15,000 reserves). Led by different members of the royal family, the two forces pursue distinct missions and draw on separate segments of the population: the regular military gets its recruits mostly from cities and towns while the Guard uses rural tribesmen. To prevent a coordinated coup, communications between the Guard and the military are kept to a minimum, but this has the side effect of enhancing their distinct identities. While dividing the military in this way may make it more difficult for a discontented prince to seize power at the head of a united army, it also means that a struggle in the royal family could pit the armed forces against the Guard.

Religion in Saudi Arabia also does more to undermine the current regime than to prop up its legitimacy. Since the Gulf War, when the Saudi government welcomed “infidel” troops from the West, Sunni Muslim religious leaders have launched unprecedented challenges to the royal family. Sunni notables have urged the government to sever ties with non-Muslim countries, questioned the royal family’s business dealings, and called for the creation of a consultative council to assist the king in governing. Even if all of these demands are met (so far only the last has been addressed), the religious threat to the regime will persist. This extremist opposition is no longer just made up of the lower classes and fringe elements that violently took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. Instead, it includes well-educated members of the middle class, many of them from the Najd region-the traditional power base of the royal family. They enjoy substantial support in the cities and among the younger generation, especially those with religious educations who found no jobs waiting for them on graduation. And their ranks are swollen with the hundreds of disgruntled Saudi volunteers who fought a holy war against the Russians in Afghanistan, only to return home and find a government of questionable Islamic purity in a state where the standard of living had plummeted. Complicating matters still further are the 500,000 Saudi Shiites in the oil-rich east, whose 198o riots shook the foundations of the Saudi regime. As the central government runs out of cash, its declining ability to buy their support may ignite a renewal of their violent protests.

As the above suggests, Saudi Arabia suffers from the fact that the various threats to domestic peace all reinforce one another. The bad economy intensifies religious extremism, which in turn exacerbates divisions in the armed forces. The catalyst for civil war can therefore come from one of several different sources. A power struggle in the royal family over succession to the throne, squabbles over shares of an ever-shrinking economic pie, or disenchantment in the military with the royal family’s selfish behavior could all set off a major conflagration.

In a Saudi civil war, the oil fields will be a likely battle site, as belligerents seek the revenue and international recognition that come with control of petroleum. For either side to cripple oil production would not be difficult. The real risk lies not with the onshore oil wells themselves, which are spread over a 100-by-300 mile area, but in the country’s dependence on only a few critical processing sites. Destruction of these facilities would paralyze production and take at least six months to repair. If unconventional weapons such as biological agents were used in the oil fields, production could be delayed for several more months until workers were convinced it was safe to return. Stanching the flow of Saudi oil would devastate the United States and much of the world community. Global demand for oil (especially in Asia) will increase in the coming decades, while non-Persian Gulf supplies are expected to diminish. A crisis in the planet’s largest oil producer, with reserves estimated at 25 percent of the world’s total, would have a massive and protracted impact on the price and availability of oil worldwide. As the disruptions of 1973 and 1979 showed, the mere threat of diminished oil supply can cause panic buying, national hysteria, gas lines, and infighting. Prices for oil shot up 400 percent in 1973, 150 percent in 1979, and 50 percent (in just 15 days) in 1990. The oil shocks of the 1970s threw the United States into recession, causing spiraling inflation and a decline in savings rates that plagues the U.S. economy even now. Trillions of dollars were lost worldwide. And all this occurred at a time when the United States was less dependent on foreign petroleum than it is now. Cutting the Saudi pipeline today would cause a severe worldwide recession or depression. Short of physical attack, it is the gravest threat imaginable to American interests.

Russian Drift

At no time since the civil war of 1918-22 has Russia been closer to bloody conflict than it is today. The fledgling government confronts a vast array of problems without the power to take effective action. For 70 years, the Soviet Union operated a strong state apparatus, anchored by the KGB and the Communist Party. Now its disintegration has created a power vacuum that has yet to be filled. Unable to rely on popular ideology or coercion to establish control, the government must prove itself to the people and establish its authority on the basis of its performance. But the Yeltsin administration has abjectly failed to do so, and it cannot meet the most basic needs of the Russian people. Russians know they can no longer look to the state for personal security, law enforcement, education, sanitation, health care, or even electrical power. In the place of government authority, criminal groups-the Russian Mafia-increasingly hold sway. Expectations raised by the collapse of communism have been bitterly disappointed, and Moscow’s inability to govern coherently raises the specter of civil unrest. If internal war does strike Russia, economic deterioration will be a prime cause. From 1989 to the present, the GDP has fallen by 50 percent.

In a society where, ten years ago, unemployment scarcely existed, it reached 9.5 percent in 1997 with many economists declaring the true figure to be much higher. Twenty-two percent of Russians live below the official poverty line (earning less than $70 a month). Modern Russia can neither collect taxes (it gathers only half the revenue it is due) nor significantly cut spending. Reformers tout privatization as the country’s cure-all, but in a land without well-defined property rights or contract law and where subsidies remain a way of life, the prospects for transition to an American-style capitalist economy look remote at best. As the massive devaluation of the ruble and the current political crisis show, Russia’s condition is even worse than most analysts feared. If conditions get worse, even the stoic Russian people will soon run out of patience.

A future conflict would quickly draw in Russia’s military. In the Soviet days civilian rule kept the powerful armed forces in check. But with the Communist Party out of office, what little civilian control remains relies on an exceedingly fragile foundation-personal friendships between government leaders and military commanders. Meanwhile, the morale of Russian soldiers has fallen to a dangerous low. Drastic cuts in spending mean inadequate pay, housing, and medical care. A new emphasis on domestic missions has created an ideological split between the old and new guard in the military leadership, increasing the risk that disgruntled generals may enter the political fray and feeding the resentment of soldiers who dislike being used as a national police force. Newly enhanced ties between military units and local authorities pose another danger. Soldiers grow ever more dependent on local governments for housing, food, and wages. Draftees serve closer to home, and new laws have increased local control over the armed forces. Were a conflict to emerge between a regional power and Moscow, it is not at all clear which side the military would support.

Divining the military’s allegiance is crucial, however, since the structure of the Russian Federation makes it virtually certain that regional conflicts will continue to erupt. Russia’s 89 republics, krais, and oblasts grow ever more independent in a system that does little to keep them together. As the central government finds itself unable to force its will beyond Moscow (if even that far), power devolves to the periphery. With the economy collapsing, republics feel less and less incentive to pay taxes to Moscow when they receive so little in return. Three-quarters of them already have their own constitutions, nearly all of which make some claim to sovereignty. Strong ethnic bonds promoted by shortsighted Soviet policies may motivate non-Russians to secede from the Federation. Chechnya’s successful revolt against Russian control inspired similar movements for autonomy and independence throughout the country. If these rebellions spread and Moscow responds with force, civil war is likely.

Should Russia succumb to internal war, the consequences for the United States and Europe will be severe. A major power like Russia-even though in decline-does not suffer civil war quietly or alone. An embattled Russian Federation might provoke opportunistic attacks from enemies such as China. Massive flows of refugees would pour into central and western Europe. Armed struggles in Russia could easily spill into its neighbors. Damage from the fighting, particularly attacks on nuclear plants, would poison the environment of much of Europe and Asia. Within Russia, the consequences would be even worse. Just as the sheer brutality of the last Russian civil war laid the basis for the privations of Soviet communism, a second civil war might produce another horrific regime.

Most alarming is the real possibility that the violent disintegration of Russia could lead to loss of control over its nuclear arsenal. No nuclear state has ever fallen victim to civil war, but even without a clear precedent the grim consequences can be foreseen. Russia retains some 20,000 nuclear weapons and the raw material for tens of thousands more, in scores of sites scattered throughout the country. So far, the government has managed to prevent the loss of any weapons or much materiel. If war erupts, however, Moscow’s already weak grip on nuclear sites will slacken, making weapons and supplies available to a wide range of anti-American groups and states. Such dispersal of nuclear weapons represents the greatest physical threat America now faces. And it is hard to think of anything that would increase this threat more than the chaos that would follow a Russian civil war.

Arming America

Lack of attention to the threat of civil wars by U.S. policymakers and academics has meant a lack of response and policy options. This does not mean, however, that Washington can or should do nothing at all. As a first measure, American policymakers should work with governments of threatened states to prevent domestic conflict from erupting. Though the inadvertent side effects of internal conflicts cannot be deterred, the outbreak of civil war itself may be discouraged. Doing so may require unambiguous and generous American support for a regime that finds itself under assault. Or it may require Washington to ease out unsustainable leaders (the Philippines’ Marcos or Indonesia’s Suharto) once their time has clearly passed. Either way, the difficulties of preventing internal war pale in comparison to the problems of coping with its effects.

The United States should take action now to prepare itself for civil war in key states. To respond to conflict in Mexico, Washington will need feasible evacuation plans for hundreds of thousands of Americans in that country. Contingency plans for closing the Mexican-American border should be considered. And the possibility of a Mexican civil war raises the issue of American intervention. How and where the United States would enter the fray would of course be determined by circumstances, but it is not premature to give serious thought to the prospect.

To guard against a conflict in Saudi Arabia, the United States should lead the effort to reduce Western dependence on Saudi oil. This will require a mixed strategy, including the expansion of U.S. strategic oil reserves (which could be done now, while Saudi oil is cheap and available), locating new suppliers (such as the Central Asian republics), and reviving moribund efforts to find oil alternatives. None of this will be easy, especially in an era of dollar-a-gallon gasoline, but it makes more sense than continuing to rely on an energy source so vulnerable to the ravages of civil war.

For Russia, America must reduce the chances that civil conflict there will unleash nuclear weapons against the United States. First, Washington must do more to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons and fissionable material that could be lost, stolen, or used in the chaos of civil war. The Nunn-Lugar program, under which the United States buys Russian nuclear material to use and store in America, is a good start, but it must be accelerated. America should not worry about making a profit on the plutonium and enriched uranium it buys, but just get the goods out of Russia as fast as possible. Second, arms control initiatives that may have been unpalatable during the Cold War should now be reconsidered, given the risk of accidental or unauthorized launchings. American policymakers should contemplate agreements to reduce the total number of Russian (and American) nuclear weapons, to deprive the Russians of the ability to quickly launch a nuclear strike (for example, by contracting to store warheads away from missiles), and should intensify efforts to develop an effective defense against missile attacks.

Fundamentally, Washington must recognize that future threats will be qualitatively different from traditional challenges. During the Cold War, an enormous amount of military, economic, and scholarly effort went into deterring a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. America did not then hesitate to protect itself. The prospect of internal war erupting in key states is now just as likely as was that of Soviet troops pouring through the Fulda Gap, and the consequences would be just as catastrophic. And yet the U.S. government gives internal war only a tiny fraction of the attention it once paid to the Soviet threat. With the Cold War over and internal wars virtually the only form of battle being fought, scholars and policymakers need to shift gears and recognize that not all threats to security are deliberate, purposeful acts of a coherent enemy that can be deterred with the right policy. Civil wars could inadvertently unleash catastrophic harms. Because these risks are so hard to prevent, they must now get the attention they so urgently deserve.