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‘The historical pedigree of New Wars and New Terrorism’: meet LUCIR scholar Isabelle Duyvesteyn

Isabelle Duyvesteyn, Professor of International Studies and Global History at the Institute of History and member of the advisory board of Leiden University’s Centre for International Relations (LUCIR) is widely regarded as an expert on civil wars and conflicts. Her new book, Rebels and Conflict Escalation, on the potential explanatory variables for escalation and de-escalation in conflicts involving state and non-state actors is just out and will be launched soon. A good occasion for Ghulam Ali Murtaza, PhD candidate at Leiden University’s Institute for History, to meet this LUCIR scholar and ask her about her research.

Meet a LUCIR scholar

This is the first of a series of interviews we will conduct with affiliates of LUCIR. Isabelle Duyvesteyn’s new book, Rebels and Conflict Escalation: Explaining the Rise and Decline of Violence, has just been published with Cambridge University Press and will be discussed during a LUCIR book launch on 9 December 2021. This interview was conducted by  Ghulam Ali Murtaza , PhD candidate at Leiden University’s Institute for History.

In your research career, you have mainly focused on civil wars and conflicts. What exactly motivated you to work on these themes?

Looking back on my personal path, there is a lot of accidental focus and serendipity. Not only have I met along the way many interesting and inspiring people, mentors and unwitting examples who have influenced me in different ways. I owe a lot for instance to my instructor at university who opened doors for me which I did not know existed. Also, when you start asking questions, always more questions emerge. You are confronted with how little you know and all the things you would like to find out. So inherent curiosity, as well as an open mind have brought me where I am today.

When I was a student, the field of civil war studies was in its infancy. The questions we were asking were very pressing in light of conflicts that diverged from the Cold War re-occupation with interstate confrontations. It was very exciting to be part of the New Wars and the New Terrorism debates. As a historian and political scientist, I was happy to contribute arguments calling for a focus on the longer historical pedigree of these phenomena. Once you are part of such a larger debate, you are quickly confronted with many more interesting questions and my curiosity is still today far from satisfied.

What would be your advice to PhD students and early career researchers on how to approach research and publishing as they advance in their careers?

Keep an open mind, you never know what will come your way. Life is full of surprises. Moreover, try to be a good instructor as well as a researcher. It is so important to share your passion for your field also in the classroom with your students. Your research amounts to little if you cannot contribute to passing it on and sharing you enthusiasm with new generations of critical thinkers. This way you can make more of a difference than you might imagine.

Isabelle Duyvesteyn
Isabelle Duyvesteyn (image: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Isabelle-Duyvesteyn)

The end of the cold war was followed by an eruption of civil wars in various parts of the world. With the tensions between China and the US on the rise and consequent realignment in world politics, we seem to be at the cusp of another big and significant geopolitical moment. What will be the impact of these developments on the frequency and character of civil conflicts in the coming years?

First, the eruption of civil wars in the 1990s was part of a very long-standing and insufficiently recognised historical pattern of dominance of civil conflict. This pattern has been visible since the nineteenth century. Nothing new under the sun, we were simply pre-occupied elsewhere. Second, there is indeed a renewed interest in geopolitical thinking. This also has important precursors in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It would be wise to look up that history before we run the risk of reinventing the wheel. As a historian, thirdly, I am not in the business of predicting the future. This is so incredibly difficult and we have proven time and again that we are extremely bad at this. Very few people saw the end of the Cold War coming, 9/11, the financial crisis or a pandemic. This should caution us.

Most of the literature on civil conflicts focuses on the non-Western world. However, lately we have seen some glaring manifestation of civil strife, of course, at a relatively smaller scale in a few western countries, too. Considering the growing threats from pandemics, identity politics, climate change, racism and widening inequality, do you think there is a possibility of the further degeneration of hitherto manageable social and political conflicts? How can Western democracies deal with this challenge?

I do not think that crises are inherently unmanageable. As you might know, I have been a scholar of the works of Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military thinker and founding father of the scientific study of military theory. He offers us two key parameters for thinking about conflict; political will and capabilities. You see in conflicts in different times and different places that the will to manage conflict makes a large difference. But this will has to be matched by appropriate means to do so. Harmonising these two is a key to the art of dealing with conflict. In the case of our intervention operations in the past decades, there was a huge ambition of promoting democracy but the will and the instruments to persevere were wanting. If we are serious about addressing climate change, the pandemic and social strife, we have to gather political will and the resources to manage these crises. In the right mixture, I am confident, it can be done.

Rebels and Conflict Escalation

In your latest work, you look closely at the interaction between state and rebel groups in armed conflicts and shed light on the dynamics of escalation. Recently, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. How difficult and challenging, in your view, will be this transition of the Taliban movement from a rebel group with its all attendant dynamics to a government responsible for running a country beset with a plethora of problems?

We have to realise that the Taliban has done it before: transition from a rebel group to a government in the early 1990s. This time around, they come back with a lot more experience both as a former power broker, as well as a tenacious non-state actor. Time will tell whether they can manage the intricacies of state better this time. A couple of factors speak for them; even though we find their ideology reprehensible, they are grounded in Afghan tribal culture and tradition. This appeals to substantial sections of the Afghan population, to such an extent that these people were willing to fight on their behalf. One of my colleagues, Robert Egnell, has a number of years ago argued that in fact the Taliban were fighting the counter-insurgency against the outside insurgents who came to change their existing political order. Western intervention forces were the rebels, not the Taliban, who were defending their home turf. Sometimes a change of perspective is useful to question the tried and tested. This is of course the primary line of business of an academic.


The Leiden University Centre for International Relations (LUCIR) is a multi-disciplinary platform promoting research and education on international relations at Leiden University.

Website: www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/lucir.

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