Thinking Small: A Trend Toward Miniaturization?

A trend in manufacturing, business, and technology is called miniaturization, whereby more tasks are done with less and less hardware. A perfect example of such a phenomenon is the progression in the hardware of computers. The foundational machines like those of Konrad Zuse, while innovative in their time, required entire rooms to house their hardware, all to produce computing processes considered very basic by the standards of today’s handheld devices. Miniaturization rests on the premise that each new generation of technology begets abilities for inventors to create even smaller, more efficient versions of the former devices. Such miniaturization may not be isolated to the advancement of technology and manufacturing processes. In fact, conflict analysts may want to adopt the trend as a way of thinking about how systems produce conflict.

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses how violence overall and specifically related to conflict has declined. His claims are based on studies like those by the Uppsala Data Conflict Program, which show a decline in the number of total conflicts. These studies note, however, that just because the number of conflicts have declined, the number of deaths related to battle has not followed suit. A potential explanation for such a trend is that munitions have increased in magnitude, that global weapons flows into unstable zones have spurred violence recorded outside the confines of what is traditionally considered a conflict, or that the conflicts which do occur tend to be more fierce than those in the past. All seem reasonable rationalizations and each may in part be true.

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Incidence of conflict has changed so that more countries are contending with violence inside their borders rather than from another state.
Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program

However, it is hard to reconcile the competing notions that the world has gotten more peaceful because of the decline in the total number of wars with the trends we see of increases in intrastate conflicts and sporadic upward spikes in the number conflict-related deaths. So what else do these notions say? One explanation is that the nature of conflict has miniaturized while the means by which humans conduct their battles have not. As can be seen, the number of minor scale conflicts has almost tripled since the end of World War II, most occurring after the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War, which removed the stopgap of superpower jockeying and allowed smaller states to confront their internal conflicts. The plethora of new, self-determined states has proved fertile ground for new conflicts to emerge. These conflicts, however, are waged by small insurgent, opposition, rebellion, or extremist groups against still-developing governments. Thus, each new generation of states begets abilities of politicians and military commanders of all sides of a conflict to create new, more minute versions of older conflicts or longstanding grievances.

Certainly, new conflicts will always find their roots in new causes. The impending ‘next generation’ of conflicts will almost certainly be about resources, regimes, and scarcity. But the conflicts of past decades, those deterministic state-creation conflicts, have begun to level off in recent years after the mid-1990s spike. Amid these changes, it has become evident that the conflicts which have their roots in state-level institutional failings or international inability to reach accord are giving way to those which start over local resource usage or political and economic disenfranchisement of certain identity groups. While the international community will always have a role to play in conflicts around the globe, it is also evident that the traditionally-conceived state has yet to devise a feasible response plan to complex conflicts in places like Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What are the implications for such microscale conflicts? The biggest, quite literally, is that the world may not see global-scale conflicts – those on the level of the World Wars and other interstate conflicts – for quite some time. Instead, the trend toward international intrastate wars may become a permanent fixture in proceedings of the UN Security Council. Instead of mediating a dispute between old Cold War opponents over geo-political posturing, the international community may find itself attempting to resolve competing claims over seemingly-remote resource – something these international institutions were theoretically designed to do.

As these new conflicts come to the forefront, another implication is that each conflict will play out on the global stage, despite its very local impact. This global stage, embodied in the auspices of international institutions like the United Nations, has become increasingly ineffectual at responding to modern crises, as the cumbersome nature of state-based policy making has impeded more substantive intervention. Hence, the proliferation of non-traditional Track II and Track III actors and international NGOs has brought forth new leaders in the conflict management profession. These actors will continue to play a role in connecting local level actors to international resources outside of the confines of state-based action. Also, unless significant advances are made in global arms treaties to stem the flow of small arms and munitions, as well as the higher capacity weapons of war, the impact of conflict – in terms of lives lost or casualties incurred – will continue at the current levels.

With the plethora of new, relatively small-scale conflicts, conflict analysts and managers will also increasingly find new avenues to engage with interlocutors, armed parties, and members of civil society. However, this will require a specialization of the field. While there will always be generalists, those who manage the operations and leadership teams of international organizations, conflict managers will be required to engage with the knowledge of topic specialists. For example, a conflict manager may be called upon to respond to an escalating situation over disputants water policies, requiring a diplomat well-versed in water management.

The miniaturization of conflicts, whereby the slew of violence emerging in recent years concentrates on local causes, could be an explanation for how the nature of conflict has changed since the end of the Cold War and for how the international community has not yet formulated adequate responses. Like technology and its consumers, the pace with which innovators have moved conflict into the 21st century has fast outpaced statecraft. What is the ‘nextgen’ conflict? Perhaps it too can be waged via the touchscreen in the palm of your hand.

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About Ian Proctor

Ian Proctor is a Master’s Candidate at American University in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program. He is completing his capstone project on conflict resolution simulations for complex emergencies environments, and is implementing the components of this project with the Consortium for Humanitarian Service and Education, with whom he has been involved since 2011. He is a Research Assistant with the United States Institute of Peace, where he co-authored USIP Peace Brief 150: “Peacekeeping 2014: An Agenda for Enhanced Effectiveness.” Ian is an AmeriCorps alumnus and attended the University of Florida for his undergraduate education, where he double majored in Political Science and History and completed his honors thesis, entitled: “Peace or Polarity: A Study of UN Peacekeeping Missions in Africa During and After the Cold War.”
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