By Fred H. Lawson, Mills College

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

Recent scholarship situated at the interstices of comparative politics and international relations explores a wide range of dynamics whereby sectarian conflicts spread from one country to another. The possibility that such conflicts exhibit diffusion or contagion is now well-established: Havard Hegre and Nicholas Sambanis demonstrate that civil conflicts that break out in one country do in fact have a tendency to spill over into adjacent countries.[1] More important, Maarten Bosker and Joppe de Ree show unequivocally that “only ethnic [civil] wars spill over [interstate boundaries], and only along ethnic lines.”[2] Nevertheless, the exact processes that characterize the cross-border spread of civil wars remain opaque.

It is commonly argued that sectarian conflict in one state tends to precipitate parallel conflicts in one or more neighboring states by way of a “demonstration effect.”[3] Three kinds of demonstration effect can be discerned in the existing scholarship on civil wars. First, as a result of sectarian warfare in one state, the aggrieved members of the combatant community who reside in a neighboring state become more likely to get inspired to resort to force themselves.[4] Second, David Lake and Donald Rothchild propose that fighting in a nearby state makes members of the combatant community more likely to raise extreme demands on their own government.[5] Third, whenever sectarian war breaks out in one state, leaders and constituents of the sectarian community in neighboring countries take note of effective mobilization strategies, which they then adopt for their own internal struggles.[6]

Demonstration effects are usually associated with particular outcomes in the state where conflict initially occurs. The potential for sectarian conflict to spread tends to be much greater if challenges to the regime on the part of the community in the initial country turn out to be successful.[7] Similarly, the likelihood that conflict will spread can also be expected to be higher if the conflict forces the authorities in the initial country to make significant concessions to the challengers. Furthermore, Barry Weingast claims that conflict is more likely to spread to surrounding states whenever events in one country heighten the degree of uncertainty about one another’s intentions that is harbored by sectarian communities in the neighboring countries.[8] Alternatively, sectarian conflict in one state provides an opportunity for festering local rivalries and feuds – of whatever stripe – in the neighboring state(s) to become expressed in overtly sectarian terms.[9]

Besides demonstration effects, strategic dynamics contribute to the spread of sectarian conflict. Nathan Danneman and Emily Ritter argue that whenever sectarian conflict takes place in one state, the governments of adjacent states become more likely to take steps intended to head off similar outbreaks of violence at home.[10] These measures may sometimes succeed in blocking the spread of the conflict, but they most frequently instead spark violent responses from members of the combatant community located inside the adjacent country.[11] More important, steps that are undertaken by surrounding governments to block the cross-border spread of sectarian conflict are likely to raise the salience of plausible distinctions across nascent sectarian communities at home, which can be expected to galvanize potential community members into mutually antagonistic formations that had previously been muted or nonexistent.[12]

Specialists in the comparative politics of civil wars claim that whenever actual fighting erupts involving a sectarian community in any one state, members of that same community who reside in neighboring states become more likely to adopt violent strategies in order to obtain their demands.[13] The likelihood that neighboring communities will turn to violence is particularly high if the sectarian community in question straddles the boundary that separates adjacent countries from one another.[14] Under these circumstances, members of the sectarian community in one state will usually provide material and moral support for challengers residing in the other state(s).[15] In addition, members of the community who live outside any given country tend to be more confrontational in their rhetoric and actions than those who reside inside, and will do their best to escalate conflicts involving their coreligionists.[16]

More generally, the outbreak of sectarian warfare almost always generates a flood of refugees, which disperses into neighboring countries, bringing with it a whole variety of “negative externalities”.[17] Refugees usually introduce into the receiving country clusters of armed fighters, who quickly make unprecedented demands on the local authorities.[18] Erika Forsberg asserts that displaced persons have a tendency to transform the sectarian order in the receiving country from one that is broadly unipolar into one that can best be called bipolar, that is, which pits two rival communities directly against each other.[19] Along the same lines, one might hypothesize that the arrival of large numbers of refugees, particularly if they include armed fighters, is likely to transform bipolar sectarian orders in surrounding countries into multipolar orders, thereby sharply reducing the degree of certainty and stability that had earlier characterized politics in the receiving country.[20] One might also extrapolate the logic of power transition theory in order to explain the potential for armed conflict between dominant and challenging communities as refugees arrive.

Less directly, the flow of refugees is apt to incite the kindred population in the receiving country to rise up in protest against whatever actual or perceived maltreatment the authorities inflict on the new arrivals.[21] At an even further remove, any influx of refugees is likely to provoke hostility on the part of other surrounding countries, which the government of the receiving country will take steps to ameliorate, but only at the cost of prompting armed fighters to start challenging the authorities of the host state.[22]

There can be little doubt that a flood of refugees fleeing sectarian conflict will create severe problems for the receiving country’s economy.[23] The new arrivals are highly likely to depress wages and raise housing costs,[24] most notably in particular regions of the host country.[25] Furthermore, an influx of new members of a given sectarian community will most often upset the social equilibrium that exists in the receiving country.[26] If the refugees identify with a minority sectarian community in the receiving country, they will most likely pose a marked threat to the majority; if, on the other hand, the refugees identify with the sectarian majority in the host country, then “minority groups may feel that the influx of foreigners further dilutes their strength” and strike out at the new arrivals.[27]

Refugees seem particularly likely to displace long-time residents of the receiving country, who will respond by mobilizing themselves into “sons of the soil” movements to protect their long-standing position and prerogatives.[28] Moreover, refugees most often challenge the cultural practices or political position of leaders in the receiving country’s existing sectarian community. The beleaguered leadership will then resort to violence in desperate attempt to preserve or restore the status quo ante.[29] Finally, Idean Salehyan and Kristian Gleditsch note in passing that refugees are apt to introduce new types of disease, and other pressing public health problems, into the receiving country, thereby aggravating popular discontent.[30]

Whether or not the fighting generates flows of refugees, sectarian conflict that breaks out in one state is more likely to spread to surrounding countries if the parallel sectarian community in the adjacent state(s) faces structural conditions that are similar to the ones that exist in the initial country.[31] Conflict tends to spread, for example, whenever communities living in both states suffer due to analogous forms of official discrimination. Under these circumstances, sectarian leaderships in the two countries will be more apt to see the same kinds of issues as worth fighting over.[32]

Monica Toft asserts that sectarian conflict is much more likely to spread across borders whenever the combatant community that resides in the adjacent country is geographically concentrated.[33] The likelihood that conflict will jump across the border is particularly high if the concentrated community in the neighboring country constitutes a majority in some well-defined region.[34] Or if it is numerically large, compared to the total population of the adjacent country.[35] The latter argument looks open to question, in light of the free rider problem that bedevils most social movements. So perhaps conflict will end up being less likely to take shape in the neighboring country whenever the sectarian community there makes up a very large component of local society.

Other factors have been connected to the emergence of civil conflict, which seem pertinent to the spread of sectarian violence. Sectarian uprisings will be more likely to cross borders if the combatant community in the adjacent country occupies rough terrain,[36] and if it is clustered in space at a comparatively far distance from provincial administrative centers.[37] Conflict also tends to spread whenever sectarian communities in the adjacent country are “highly polarized.”[38] James Fearon further claims that sectarian conflict will tend to erupt if the kindred communities that exist in a given cluster of neighboring countries exhibit “nesting,” that is, if a sectarian community that constitutes a minority in one country at the same time makes up the majority in a neighboring country.[39]

More broadly, one can expect sectarian conflict to spread if the dominant sectarian community that is present in a neighboring country becomes unable credibly to commit itself not to exploit the disadvantaged community in the foreseeable future.[40] Profound commitment problems are particularly likely to be associated with regimes whose political and legal institutions are relatively weak.[41] The collapse of existing credible commitments against exploitation is particularly important if it takes place at same time that the minority community finds its capacity to protect its interests to be deteriorating, or if the outcome of any potential conflict among sectarian communities becomes uncertain. Forsberg asserts that a sharp decline in the degree of certainty concerning conflict outcomes is usually associated with a greater degree of sectarian polarization.[42]

It is widely affirmed that civil conflict is more likely to spread to a neighboring country if that country is comparatively poor,[43] although Bosker and de Ree report that the correlation between spreading conflict and neighboring country poverty is not statistically significant.[44] Conflict seems more likely to spread whenever the adjacent state has minimal institutional capacity, which Alex Braithwaite defines as both the capacity to deploy military forces to areas along the border and the “ability to manage domestic sentiment and persuade populations locally of the need to participate in legal opportunities rather than join or emulate rebellions observed within the neighborhood.”[45] Along the same lines, sectarian conflict looks more likely to spread if the neighboring country has a political system that is neither a liberal democracy nor a severely repressive autocracy, i.e., if it is “anocratic” in nature.[46]

Most recently, Jessica Maves and Alex Braithwaite demonstrate that conflict is more likely to jump borders if the neighboring country is an autocracy that has introduced a limited range of political reforms, most notably an elected parliament.[47] One might add that the potential for conflict to spread will be greater whenever parliamentary representation in the neighboring country is institutionalized according to sectarian criteria.

Almost all studies of the spread of sectarian conflict make the problematic assumption that sectarian communities have a “primordial” existence. In other words, extant quantitative explorations of the dynamics of civil wars assume that religious and ethnic groups take part in politics as fully formed, unified actors. Influential conceptions of sectarian communities as socially constructed entities have yet to be incorporated into this growing body of scholarship. One study that does take the social construction of sectarianism seriously suggests that sectarian conflict will be much more likely to spread across borders whenever the neighboring country is characterized by cultural boundaries among potential sectarian communities that are highly ambiguous. Under such circumstances, the leaders of nascent – or potential – sectarian communities will have a strong incentive to spark sectarian conflict as a way to clarify and consolidate lines of difference among their primary constituencies.[48]

Fred H. Lawson is Lynn T. White, Jr. Professor of Government at Mills College. 


[1] Hegre, Havard and Nicholas Sambanis (2006) “Sensitivity Analysis of Empirical Results on Civil War Onset.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50(August): 508-535.

[2] Bosker, Maarten and Joppe de Ree (2010) “Ethnicity and the Spread of Civil War.” unpublished paper. 3.

[3] Davis, David R. and Will H. Moore (1997) Ethnicity Matters. International Studies Quarterly 41(March): 171-184.

[4] Kuran, Timur (1998) “Ethnic Dissimulation” and Its International Diffusion, in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Lake, David A. and Donald Rothchild (1998) “Spreading Fear: The Genesis of Transnational Ethnic Conflict,” in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 26. See also Bosker and de Ree (2010).

[6] Forsberg, Erika (2014) “Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009.” International Interactions forthcoming.

[7]Hill, Stuart, Donald Rothchild and Colin Cameron (1998) “Tactical Information and the Diffusion of Peaceful Protests,” in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 66.

[8] Weingast, Barry R. (1997) “Constructing Trust: The Political and Economic Roots of Ethnic and Regional Conflict,” in Virginia Haufler, Karol Soltan and Eric Uslaner, eds. Where is the New Institutionalism Now? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

[9] Brass, Paul (1997) Theft of an Idol. Princeton: Princeton University Press. See also Kalyvas, Stathis N. (2003) “The Ontology of ‘Political Violence’: Action and Identity in Civil Wars.” Perspectives on Politics 1(September): 475-494.

[10] Danneman, Nathan and Emily Ritter (2014) “Contagious Rebellion and Preemptive Repression.” Journal of Conflict Resolution.

[11] Forsberg, Erika (2014). “Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009.”

[12] Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin (2000) “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity.” International Organization 54(Autumn): 856.

[13] Brown, Michael E. (1996) “The Causes and Regional Dimensions of Internal Conflict,” in Michael E. Brown, ed. The International Dimensions of Regional Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[14] Brown, Michael E. (1996) “The Causes and Regional Dimensions of Internal Conflict.” 595.

[15] Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede (2007) “Transnational Dimensions of Civil War.” Journal of Peace Research 44(May): 298. See also Cederman, Lars-Erik, Luc Girardin and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (2009) “Ethnonationalist Triads.” World Politics 61(July): 413.

[16] Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede (2007) “Transnational Dimensions of Civil War.” 298.

[17] Salehyan, Idean and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (2006) “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” International Organization 60(Spring): 338.

[18] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” 343.

[19] Forsberg, Erika (2008) “Polarization and Ethnic Conflict in a Widened Strategic Setting.” Journal of Peace Research 45(March): 287.

[20] Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979) Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

[21] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” 343.

[22] Ibid. 344.

[23] Ibid. 341.

[24] Ibid. 344.

[25] Buhaug, Halvard and Scott Gates (2002) “The Geography of Civil War.” Journal of Peace Research 39(July): 417-433.

[26] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” 342.

[27] Ibid. 343.

[28] Weiner, Myron (1978) Sons of the Soil. Princeton: Princeton University Press. See also Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin (2011) “Sons of the Soil, Migrants and Civil War.” World Development 39(February): 199-211.

[29] Fearon and Laitin (2000) “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity.” 856.

[30] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” 341.

[31] Hill, Rothchild and Cameron (1998) “Tactical Information and the Diffusion of Peaceful Protests.” See also Bosker and de Ree (2010) and Forsberg (2014) “Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009.”

[32] Forsberg (2014) “Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009.”

[33] Toft, Monica Duffy (2002-03) “Indivisible Territory, Geographic Concentration and Ethnic War.” Security Studies 12(Winter): 82-119.

[34] Cederman, Girardin, and Gleditsch (2009) “Ethnonationalist Triads.” See also Forsberg (2014) “Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009.”

[35] Forsberg (2014).

[36] Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin (2003) “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War.” American Political Science Review 97(February): 75-90.

[37] Buhaug, Halvard, Lars-Erik Cederman and Jan Ketil Rod (2008) “Disaggregating Ethno-Nationalist Civil Wars: A Dyadic Test of Exclusion Theory.” International Organization 62(Summer): 531-551.

[38] Forsberg (2008) “Polarization and Ethnic Conflict in a Widened Strategic Setting.”

[39] Fearon, James D. (1998) “Commitment Problems and the Spread of Ethnic Conflict,” in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[40] Fearon (1998) “Commitment Problems and the Spread of Ethnic Conflict.”

[41] Walter, Barbara F. (2009) “Bargaining Failures and Civil War.” Annual Review of Political Science 12: 243-261.

[42] Forsberg (2008) “Polarization and Ethnic Conflict in a Widened Strategic Setting.” 286.

[43] Fearon and Laitin (2003) “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War.” See also Hegre and Sambanis (2006) “Sensitivity Analysis of Empirical Results on Civil War Onset.”

[44] Bosker and de Ree (2010). 28.

[45] Braithwaite, Alex (2010) “Resisting Infection: How State Capacity Conditions Conflict Contagion.” Journal of Peace Research 47(May): 314.

[46] Hegre, Havard, Tanja Ellingsen, Scott Gates and Nils Petter Gleditsch (2001) “Toward a Democratic Civil Peace?” American Political Science Review 95(March): 33-48.

[47] Maves, Jessica and Alex Braithwaite (2013) “Autocratic Institutions and Civil Conflict Contagion.” Journal of Politics 75(April): 478-490.

[48] Fearon and Laitin (2000) “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity.” 873.

Explaining the spread of sectarian conflict: Insights from comparative politics

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