The Geopolitics of Major Power Interventions in Civil Wars

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 20 –34
Political Research Quarterly
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920976910
There is a long tradition of military interventions in civil
wars despite constituting the de jure interference in
another state’s internal affairs. In fact, these are increas-
ingly sanctioned and carried out by collective security
institutions, principally through the United Nations (UN).
Unsurprisingly then, the research in this area has been
steadily growing, attracting attention to a range of ques-
tions from their principal motivations to the effects on the
duration, outcome, and recurrence. Our study addresses
the issue of when, why, and on which side major powers
choose to intervene in civil wars. Since they have been
more frequent interveners than any other states (Findley
and Teo 2006, 836; Gent 2007; Regan 1996, 345), it is an
important subset of civil war interventions.
If we look at more recent events, there are several puz-
zling trends. Why, for instance, has the United States
taken a strong stance condemning the Russian interven-
tion in Ukraine rather than a firm military position, let
alone preempting it with military action? At the same
time, despite the Russian armed support for the Assad
government in Syria, on more than one occasion the
United States launched strikes against the Assad forces.
Why did the United States, jointly with the European
powers, militarily act in Libya, yet Russia stayed on the
sidelines? In each instance, the official reasons for inter-
ventions were defended on normative grounds, ranging
from the right to self-determination (Russian nationalities
in the eastern Ukraine), supporting the uprising against a
dictator (the U.S. and European coalition in Libya), sus-
pected use of chemical weapons against civilians (U.S.
strikes in Syria) to defending the regime from “radical”
and “terrorist” insurgents (Russian strikes in Syria).
Our argument rests on the premise that, despite their
official justifications, such interventions are driven by
strategic interests rather than humanitarian concerns.1 In
our view, major power incentives for interfering in other
states’ internal affairs are uniquely shaped by geopolitical
considerations. Since they have both the abilities and
ambitions to project their presence beyond their immedi-
ate surroundings, one of their defining policies is to seek
opportunities to consolidate and expand their influence in
different areas around the world. Domestic instability in
another state presents itself as such an opportunity.
PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920976910Political Research QuarterlyClare and Danilovic
1Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA
2University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joe Clare, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science,
Louisiana State University, 240 Stubbs Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803,
The Geopolitics of Major Power
Interventions in Civil Wars
Joe Clare1 and Vesna Danilovic2
What factors influence third parties to intervene in civil wars? Our focus on major powers, which are disproportionately
more likely than other states to intervene in civil conflicts, directs us to the factors that uniquely shape their interests.
While our study does not rule out humanitarian interventions by collective security international institutions and
individual states, we do not find that humanitarian concerns motivate major powers. We argue and demonstrate that
their decisions to intervene are principally motivated by their drive to establish, consolidate, or expand influence in
different geopolitical regions. Past research with the strategic approach stressed the importance of an intervener’s
prior ties with a civil war state for this decision. Though important, we show the effect of these ties is subordinate to
other factors. In our argument, their role is primarily relevant for determining whether an intervener will be on the
side of the government or opposition. The key issue of whether major powers are likely to intervene in the first place,
however, is contingent on how much the entire region is strategically relevant to warrant intervention. The empirical
analysis of civil war interventions over nearly fifty years lends strong support to our theoretical expectations.
civil war, third-party interventions, major powers, geopolitics

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