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Lake and Rothchild: Territorial decentralization and civil war settlements

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Lake and Rothchild. Territorial decentralization and civil war settlements. In Sustainable Peace: Democracy and power After Civil Wars, eds. Roeder and Rothchild. Ithaca: Cornell University Press [forthcoming].

The handout I made:

In brief: "Territorial decentralization" (basically federalism, regional autonomy, and similar arrangements) have become a favorite recommendation of international actors trying to bring an end to civil wars. But such solutions pose long-term challenges and, ironically, even the short-term benefits of decentralization aren't likely to materialize if decentralization is pushed mainly by external actors.

Short-term effects of decentralization: Decentralization can be valuable during negotiations over a post-civil war settlement. Perhaps their most significant benefit is that decentralization is a costly concession. If the larger/stronger party of the civil war extends an offer of regional autonomy or decentralization to the smaller party, this is a costly sign that the majority is willing to behave with moderation vis-�-vis the minority. Because it is costly, this sign makes the majority's promise of moderation credible. [This draws heavily on Fearon's 1998 argument (we read it in PS200A) in a book edited by Lake and Rothchild, The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict--probably not a coincidence].

International involvement in negotiations, therefore, can actually hurt. If international mediators push the idea of decentralization, then it ceases become a costly sign of credible commitment by the majority.

Long-term effects of decentralization are generally not good. The main problem: every federal/decentralized arrangement requires some mechanism for resolving jurisdictional disputes, like a Constitutional or Supreme Court. Typically, this Court is affiliated with the central government, which is controlled by the statewide majority. Therefore, disputes between the majority and an autonomous minority region will typically be settled in favor of the majority. Decentralization therefore contains a built-in institutional engine driving re-centralization.

Empirically, decentralized states follow one of two paths. Either they re-centralize (following the mechanism above) or the minority resists violently, leading to disintegration. If a state does decide for some reason to increase its decentralization, the minority can be expected to seize the moment and try to break away. Decentralization does not last.

Putting all this together means that if part of the post-civil war agreement calls for decentralization, we can expect it to either not last long or not be implemented at all once the majority is comfortably in control of the state.

Political implications: We can not find a peaceful end to civil wars without recognizing what the two parties are fighting over in the first place: The stronger one is trying to take over, and the weaker one is trying to secede. All decentralization does is prolong the conflict and make it less bloody for now. Consider this: The implication of this argument is that we must start proactively taking sides in each civil war if we will be involved at all. We must either support the smaller group's secession or support the larger group's domination. Decentralization is a phantom solution that helps us feel good about ourselves [look! We stopped the war!] without actually ending the conflict, which will keep on simmering for a later day, resulting in either majority oppression (re-centralization) or minority secession.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Lake, David (author)Rothchild, Donald (author)Comparative PoliticsCivil WarFederalismCredible CommitmentDemocracy and Society

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