When rebel groups engage incumbent governments in war for control of the state, questions of international recognition arise. International recognition determines which combatants can draw on state assets, receive overt military aid, and borrow as sovereigns—all of which can have profound consequences for the military balance during civil war. How do third-party states and international organizations determine whom to treat as a state's official government during civil war? Data from the sixty-one center-seeking wars initiated from 1945 to 2014 indicate that military victory is not a prerequisite for recognition. Instead, states generally rely on a simple test: control of the capital city. Seizing the capital does not foreshadow military victory. Civil wars often continue for many years after rebels take control and receive recognition. While geopolitical and economic motives outweigh the capital control test in a small number of important cases, combatants appear to anticipate that holding the capital will be sufficient for recognition. This expectation generates perverse incentives. In effect, the international community rewards combatants for capturing or holding, by any means necessary, an area with high concentrations of critical infrastructure and civilians. In the majority of cases where rebels contest the capital, more than half of its infrastructure is damaged or the majority of civilians are displaced (or both), likely fueling long-term state weakness.

You do not currently have access to this content.