Frontlines to the Classroom: Will Reno Reveals the Roots of Political Violence

By Matt GolosinskiJanuary 17, 2017

“Conflict found me in Africa. I didn’t seek it out,” says Will Reno, political science.

Over the past 25 years, though, the Eagle Scout and avid outdoorsman has waded into some of the world’s notorious hotspots, coming face to face with warlords as he’s examined political violence from deep inside, including in Somalia’s badlands during that nation’s protracted civil war.

The Baltimore native began with very different intentions. He was headed to Nigeria in 1989 to study agricultural reforms — even spending five years learning the Hausa language so that he could communicate with his research subjects. Bureaucratic impediments necessitated an 11th-hour pivot in topic and locale, forcing him into Sierra Leone instead. He arrived just before that country erupted in a bloody war that would last 11 years and alter Reno’s career, once the conflict spilled onto his research site.

“This was in the days before African Internet and when a phone call to the States cost $10 for six minutes,” says Reno, then pursuing a political science doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. “There was no IRB, no Office of Risk Management at the university, and the media carried very little news of the war. I was on my own and had to rely on Sierra Leoneans for protection and advice.”

These circumstances led him to make a drastic shift in his research topic: he began studying the politics of state collapse and its aftermath.

“As a kid, I spent a lot of time outdoors camping,” says Reno, adding that later excursions included month-long treks on skis in the high Canadian Arctic and long canoe trips through Canada’s tundra. “This was hardly Africa, but the skills and disciplined mindset were valuable for dealing with wartime conditions in West Africa in the 1990s and, more recently, in Somalia and Iraq,” where he is studying authoritarian regimes.

The author of three books — including Warfare in Independent Africa — and dozens of book chapters and articles, Reno joined Northwestern in 1999 and has served as the University’s Program of African Studies director since 2012.

Because of his first-hand field experiences, Reno is able to make the frontline come alive in the classroom, where he introduces his students to the complexities of African politics and the dynamics of war and political development. Along the way, he has done pro bono work for victims of political violence who are seeking entry into the United States. He says America’s willingness to provide refuge to these people is what makes him most proud of his country.

Research News spoke to Reno about his work, including what can be done to curb the political violence — whether civil wars in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen; extrajudicial killings in the Philippines; or extremist attacks in Berlin, Istanbul, or Paris. We also discussed foreign policy challenges that may confront the new US president.

How do authoritarian regimes arise and what happens when they decline?

This question is critical to my current project in Somalia and Iraq. There are regime survival strategies in authoritarian regimes that appeared in the latter quarter of the 20th century that fundamentally shape contemporary warfare in a lot of states. The manner in which dictators used violence to consolidate regime power play out in the conflicts that attend the collapse of these regimes. There was a time in the 20th century when regime death wasn’t such a big deal: a new boss would arrive on the scene. It doesn’t happen like that now. Regime death brings prolonged disorder and struggle. This is in some respects a failure of 20th-century high modernist state-building. I also see seeds of this kind of conflict in otherwise seemingly orderly states. Saudi Arabia is an intriguing case in this respect.

What are some primary drivers of the political violence that you’ve studied?

The more I learn, the more I recognize that wars are extremely complex. This explains why good scholars can come up with contrasting interpretations concerning violence in conflicts. Social scientists are trained to look at specific slices of something as big as conflict. They might get part of it right, and that’s certainly valuable. But the student of another aspect of conflict might see a very different picture.  

I’ve come to think of violence in the politics of conflict in terms of layers of causality. There are personal interactions — the individual’s interests and motivations. Then there’s group-level violence, that may include those individuals but where the violence may play a very different role. Groups differ in this regard, too, and when one scales up, the violence in political behavior can be quite different.

Sometimes I think that literary types get it better, or at least can provide inspiration for the social scientist who is working on concept-building. My personal favorites include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In it, I see the badlands of Somalia as I personally experience it.  There is a line in that book, “When the lambs are lost in the mountain, they cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf.” I also like Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So, a journalist’s memoir of his coverage of war in the former Yugoslavia. It’s a good account of the things that happen, the opportunists who take advantage of war, and the author’s difficulty in un-remembering what he saw. Parts of Iraq are like that. The American public really has no idea.

Have you discovered commonalities underpinning conflict regardless of geography? Conversely, are there differences in how political violence plays out based on national or geographical factors?

There are commonalities. This is particularly true in how armed groups use violence tactically to communicate. They use violence in predictable ways to signal the degree to which they control territory and their capacity to obtain valid information from non-combatants. Sometimes they overplay their hand or otherwise miscalculate, with predictable results.  My experience also teaches me that the nature of the pre-conflict regime has a lot of bearing on how groups fight and in their longer-term relationships with civilians.  n a nutshell, it seems that the politics of authoritarian regimes that are prone to collapse are particularly damaging to social cohesion at a local level. This then plays out in highly fragmented conflict politics. One sees this in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and to some extent in Iraq. It also is very familiar to me from work in Somalia, a country that’s experienced more than a quarter of a century without an effective central government — a “Somali road of development” that unfortunately is becoming more common.

How can we mitigate political violence?

The literature suggests that the best way to curb this violence is to recruit a third party to intervene as a sort of hegemon that can solve basic collective action dilemmas, such as mutually hurting stalemates, or the mutual distrust between combatants that prevents agreements and leaves all in suboptimal situations. This may require the third party to intervene in an ongoing conflict to coerce “spoilers” to prevent them from disrupting progress toward a political settlement. Such thinking underlies Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows UN member states to use all possible means, including economic sanctions and military action, to enforce a UN resolution.

Chapter VII interventions include ones in Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Iraq (Oil for Food Program), the former Yugoslavia, Gulf War I, and Libya. This worked in a fashion, but also was dependent on Security Council consensus. That is not likely to happen now. In any event, after US experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that the American public would tolerate this kind of intervention.  

There is another stream of literature that holds that wars end most effectively when one side wins. I think that this is where we’re at now. The experience of Aleppo rather than the UN peacekeeping/enforcement of the 1990s probably is a better indicator of what is to come.  One group prevails, and the hope is that they are magnanimous enough not to massacre their opponents who survive the war. This was the experience of the US Civil War.

Some worry about authoritarian tendencies in the United States after the recent contentious presidential campaign. What’s your comparative view of the situation?

Unlike places where I work, the US has strong institutions and very dense civil society networks. This builds a lot of resiliency into the political system. My prediction is that Donald Trump will discover it difficult to actually operate the levers of power in Washington, many of which are actively resisting him now. For example, the CIA and other intelligence agencies and, in their own ways, other parts of the federal bureaucracy. In part, this is due to his own erratic behavior, his statements, and his lack of experience in political office. Unlike most true authoritarians, he also lacks a group of armed supporters willing to engage in violence with other Americans.

How do you expect the Trump administration will fare in managing the complexity of global affairs, including the kinds of conflicts you study?

I see the danger of Trump in international politics. His statement as president-elect already may be contributing to a crisis in US-China relations. His statements of doubt about the value of NATO have caused European countries to worry about US commitment to common defense. This is something that Russia sees too, and is actively pressing against Baltic states with various types of “hybrid warfare.” The prevalence of political appointment candidates who have significant business interests in Russia signals to many an uncritical view of Russia’s government, along with Trump’s rejection of the information that Russia played a role in the US election. The Russia hacking situation and, by extension, Trump will be under scrutiny by the Senate from day one. The conflict of interest situation won’t go away. Trump will find it very difficult to govern. Who knows what the future holds? But I think that it is reasonably likely that Trump will face a growing array of opponents, including from within his own party.

Are we headed toward a geopolitical crisis?

It is possible that there could be some kind of crisis early in the Trump administration, say a move of people in civilian clothes to occupy police stations in eastern Estonia, or a Chinese declaration that US ships will be barred from areas of the South China Sea. Leaders overseas may see an embattled president and a US political system preoccupied with domestic instability. There also will be intense pressure from some quarters in the US to act on these challenges. This contention follows from Trump’s break with the consistent US commitment that has played such a large role in deterring conflict in Europe and elsewhere since 1945. Restoring that old certainty of American commitment, or else replacing it with some other role for US power, will require a very dramatic US response. Pressure in Washington to act will be intense. Do Republicans want to go down in history as the party that lost Europe?  This is ripe for miscalculation on all sides, and therefore a very dangerous situation.

Will Reno