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Civil Wars in the Post-Cold War International System

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson, you will study the Yugoslav Civil Wars and the Burundian Civil War to learn about the causes of civil wars in the post-Cold War international system.

What Causes Civil Wars?

Are you close with your neighbor? Can you imagine going to war against them? What would cause you to do so? Many people believe that since the Cold War ended, ethnic and religious conflicts have led to an increase in civil wars. Proponents of this view point to civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Republic of Georgia, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and other places around the world.

It may seem like civil wars are increasingly common, but some prominent political scientists have shown that these wars are not the result of new conflicts, but of long-simmering struggles that take place in weak states. Additionally, the United Nations has put a greater focus on civil wars and conflicts within states in the post-Cold War period. Let's look a little closer at some of the different civil wars and their causes in the post-Cold War international system.

The End of the Cold War

Before we examine various civil wars, let's consider the reasons why the end of the Cold War might influence civil wars around the world. The Cold War is a term used to describe the tense relationship between what was called the Western bloc (the capitalist United States and its allies) and the Eastern bloc (the communist Soviet Union and its allies). The Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in part motivated by the different nations that made up the Soviet Union who wanted to become independent. After the Soviet Union ended, countries like Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, and Kazakhstan became independent. Some international observers believe that these changes in the international system allowed for more political conflicts to break out because there were no longer two superpowers able to smother political or ethnic differences in smaller countries.

Yugoslav Civil Wars

Many of the civil wars that took place after the Cold War ended were part of long-simmering conflicts. The Yugoslav Civil Wars, which took place from 1991 to 2001, are a good example of this. The country of Yugoslavia was created after World War I and then occupied by the Axis Powers during World War II. The Axis Powers split it up, but the Yugoslav Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, were able to expel the Axis between 1944 and 1945. In 1945, Josip Broz Tito was elected Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yugoslavia, which was made up of six different republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. In 1980, with Tito's death, the different republics that made up Yugoslavia saw increasing conflicts. While the leadership of the authoritarian Tito was able to keep Yugoslavia together, no other leader was able to unite Yugoslavia.

Map of the former Yugoslavia
Map of the former Yugoslavia

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence and left Yugoslavia, although not without bloodshed. Yugoslavia was no more, but fighting continued between different ethnic groups throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Outside forces also got involved. NATO bombed parts of Yugoslavia, and the United Nations deployed peacekeeping forces.

Some of the remains of Srebrenica massacre victims were recovered from mass graves
Srebrenica picture

Ethnic and religious differences between Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics were clearly a large factor in the Yugoslav Civil Wars, and some experts focus on these differences in explaining the wars. At the same time, Yugoslavia was a weak state, with no strong federal authority after Tito's death and mounting economic problems. Weak states are states whose governments do not provide necessary public services like a legitimate government, economic development, food, and safety, making them prone to civil wars.

While some states may be prone to civil wars, it is often because the state's government is weak, rather than because of ethnic diversity (a variety of ethnic groups in a state) itself. Likewise, even though the end of the Cold War may have influenced many civil wars, it was not its primary cause. The causes were largely internal to Yugoslavia, and in this way, the Yugoslav Civil Wars are representative of most civil wars in the Cold War period.

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