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Suppose there is an armed conflict in an active phase somewhere. Let's consider it from a position of a third party which doesn't sympathize with either side of the conflict and wants to minimize casualties.

Generally, such a side would call for "an immediate ceasefire", which often means freezing indefinitely a conflict without solving them. However, because a conflict is not resolved, it is likely to break out again and get bloodier, because 1. when a ceasefire is achieved, both sides will develop their armies fearing that the conflict will resume 2. new technology makes wars bloodier over time. So it seems smart, at least in some cases, to just let the conflicting parties "sort out" their conflict on the battlefield and not do any actions to stop the conflict. Why is this not proposed in practice?

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    Typically you'd get such calls when the third party is better off if the fighting stops, e.g. they want to be allied or friendly with both sides, see e.g. or when they fear refugee waves etc. It's not an entirely universal approach.... although I'd wager that for many post-WW2 conflicts there were such calls at the UN etc. by someone.
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 20:10
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    And yeah, there are those who argue to "give war a chance" jstor.org/stable/40784560 although they are typically in a minority (but not in all conflicts).
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 21:02
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    The paper claims to "show not only that civil wars ending in negotiated settlements are more likely to begin anew and to last longer than wars ended by other means, but that the wars following these failed settlements are significantly more deadly. The five civil wars that ended with negotiated settlements but later reignited (Angola, Iraq, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Sudan) led, on average, to 0.015 total deaths per capita com- pared with 0.011 for all recurring civil wars; and an average of 0.005 battle deaths per capita compared to a mean of 0.003 for all recurrences."
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 21:19
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    "By both measures, recurring civil wars following negotiated settlements were roughly 50 percent more deadly."
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 21:19
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    Do you have a source for your claims 1. and 2.? I would say 1 is true in some cases but not in others. 2 to my knowledge is just wrong. Absolute war casualties increased until WW2 but casualties as a proportion of affected population did not. Since then war casualties have been falling drastically (see for example WWII, Vietnam war, Iraq war).
    – quarague
    Sep 9 at 12:42

5 Answers 5

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Freezing conflicts is frequently considered a good thing because people aren't getting violently killed and property isn't being violently destroyed when a conflict is frozen or there is a cease-fire.

Often, cease fires are utilized to allow innocent civilians to flee an area of previously active military conflict, or to allow humanitarian aid to be provided to people in an area of previously active military conflict, even if the cease fire doesn't end up serving as a step towards a long term peace. These measures are in the nature of "harm reduction", not ending the conflict, but reducing the harm caused by the conflict to those who are blameless in it.

Also, while a conflict can break out again and get bloodier, not infrequently this doesn't happen. The conflicts between North Korea and South Korea, the conflict in Cyprus, and the conflict between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) are three examples of cease fires not leading to further conflict for a long period of time. About one in five cease fires end a conflict that does not later resume.

Many conflicts that are ultimately ended with a cease fire had multiple cease fires that are only temporary, until finally a cease fire does last and end the conflict for good. The prior cease fires often set the stage for a later permanent end to the conflict even when they are themselves temporary.

More generally, every lasting peace must at some point start with a cease fire, even though not all cease fires will lead to lasting peace.

Likewise, a formal treaty that purports to finally and completely end the conflict not infrequently fails to do so, at least the first time the parties attempt to end a conflict with a treaty.

This isn't to discount the reality that a cease fire, by preventing a conflict that was heading towards a military victory by one side or the other in fairly short order, might prolong a war or give rise to more long term casualties. This is a real and unappreciated concern, as a cease fire may provide a respite that allows a weakened party to continue fighting much longer. Sometimes "giving war a chance" can reduce long term harm.

For example, U.S. intervention in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks in 2001 stalled the Taliban's nearly complete campaign to gain full control of the entire country and in short order temporarily brought that civil war to a low simmer from a raging war. But, when the U.S. withdrew in 2021, the Taliban, twenty years later, was swiftly able to achieve the goal of control of all of Afghanistan that it had been on the brink of achieving immediately before the U.S. intervention.

Ultimately, one has to evaluate the desirability of a cease fire on a case by case basis.

But, the fact that a cease fire can only happen with the mutual agreement of the warring parties is a strong check on the capacity of cease fires to be used as a tool for the weaker party in the military conflict to gain a strategic advantage that will prolong the war and potentially lead to more harm in the long run.

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    Somewhat doubtful about "often" because "Between 1989 and 2020, more than 2000 ceasefires were declared globally. Each year, about a third of all ongoing civil conflicts observe at least one ceasefire. [...] Ceasefires do not necessarily end violence. Because unlike peace agreements, they do not resolve the underlying incompatibilities around which a conflict is fought, and thus a return (or continuation) of violence is often a likely outcome." tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13533312.2021.1926236
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 20:37
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    "It turns out that ceasefire agreements fail at a rate of about 80 percent" theworld.org/stories/2016-10-20/…
    – Fizz
    Sep 8 at 20:44
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    @Fizz A success rate of 20% would certainly qualify as "often" in my book, especially since a failure in one cease fire in a conflict could be followed by a success later. If you view it per conflict eventually stopping in a cease fire rather than per cease fire, the numbers look better. On average, five or so tries gets the job done.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 8 at 20:45
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    @kandi Even if fierce military conflicts broke out tomorrow in any of these places, very few people would say that the cease fires were not more good than bad to have entered into at the time even with 20-20 hindsight. Similarly, there is always a possibility that two countries that have never had an armed conflict in the past could have one in the future. No one can perfectly foresee the future.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 8 at 21:51
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    Plenty of peace treaties have seen later wars: look at European history, e.g. after World War One. The idea that a peace treaty means certain peace and a ceasefire means certain war is nonsense.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 9 at 10:50
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Because it can stop the fighting even if it doesn't eventually led to an formal end of the conflict. Take the Korean war as an example there as an armistice in 1953 and the war has never technically ended yet the death and destruction has stopped.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Armistice_Agreement

The Korean Armistice Agreement (Korean: 한국정전협정 / 조선정전협정; Chinese: 韓國停戰協定 / 朝鮮停戰協定) is an armistice that brought about a complete cessation of hostilities of the Korean War. It was signed by United States Army Lieutenant General William Harrison Jr. and General Mark W. Clark representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korea leader Kim Il-sung and General Nam Il representing the Korean People's Army (KPA), and Peng Dehuai representing the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (PVA).[1] The armistice was signed on 27 July 1953, and was designed to “ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”[2]

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Freezing conflicts is a good thing because conflicts aren't always resolved on the battlefield. Resolving them on the battlefield:

  • Is often the most expensive way to resolve things, in terms of lives, if not money as well.
  • Typically or often leads to one side "losing" and one side "winning" (or both sides losing), while a compromise would be more balanced and less extreme for the losing side.
  • Can carry on for years, decades or longer.
  • May hurt other means of resolving the conflict. The more lives have been lost, the more people will want to get revenge for that. At some point it may also cross over into wanting to do anything to end the conflict, but relying on that possibility seems like a poor strategy.

When 2 kids are fighting, you don't just let them fight it out (at least if you're a responsible adult), you stop them from fighting and try to get them to talk it out. The same idea is here applied to warring countries.

Freezing conflicts is hopefully accompanied by the commencement or continuation of peace talks.

If each side is willing to agree to a ceasefire, this also demonstrates to the other side that they aren't fighting just for the sake of fighting and there is potentially some room for discussion and compromise.

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Freezing a conflict may help both sides save face. Both leaders can argue that they do not give up on the ultimate aim (like conquering the other country), but just agree on what is best for the moment.

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Your assumptions are not correct.

Firstly, conflicts are seldom resolved militarily. Even with one side winning the war, without a political solution the other side will plan to reverse the result. Both parties "sorting it out" militarily will not reduce the risk of future conflict.

Secondly, most frozen conflicts just do not become hot again. Often changes in the political landscape make them wain slowly.

Thirdly, new technology does not make future war necessarily bloodier. For the last decades actually the opposite was the case with armies getting pushed to oblige to international humanitarian law.

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