This article questions the prevalent argument that civil wars have fundamentally changed since the end of the cold war. According to this argument, “new” civil wars are different from “old” civil wars along at least three related dimensions—they are caused and motivated by private predation rather than collective grievances and ideological concerns; the parties to these conflicts lack popular support and must rely on coercion; and gratuitous, barbaric violence is dispensed against civilian populations. Recent civil wars, therefore, are distinguished as criminal rather than political phenomena. This article traces the origins of this distinction and argues that it is based on an uncritical adoption of categories and labels, combined with deficient information on “new” civil wars and neglect of recent historical research on “old” civil wars. Perceived differences between post—cold war conflicts and previous civil wars may be attributable more to the demise of readily available conceptual categories caused by the end of the cold war than to the end of the cold war per se.
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