Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How to Think About Ethnic Conflict

How to Think About Ethnic Conflict

I have been asked to speak to the question of the challenge of ethnic conflict in U.S. foreign policy. The subject, of course, could not be more timely because of the Balkan wars. I don’t intend to give you a remedy for the Balkan wars, but I do want to clarify one thing. We are not waging ethnic conflict, they are. Just in case there is doubt in anyone’s mind.

In point of fact, a number of different wars have been raging in the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. The first was a preventive war that did not really work. The second was a deterrent war. We are now at the phase of an extinguishing, or punitive war, meant to punish the perpetrators of the previous conflicts. Finally, we shall soon enter the phase of a war of reversal, undoing misdeeds or preparing to do so. And at the same time, we are fighting a war of alliance maintenance insofar as the health, if not life, of NATO has been called into question. If you are confused as I go down this list, I do not think you are alone. This is a rather feckless process. But it is a very important one with very important stakes. We must find a way to arrive at a definition of victory to which we can all subscribe before we are done with this chapter.

I would like to focus in my remarks on three points. First of all, some myths have arisen surrounding the idea of ethnic conflict in our foreign policy over the period of time since the Berlin Wall came down. As a result, there is a need for clearer public discourse about ethnic conflict, its place in our foreign policy, and how we might want to think about it as it impacts on our interests in the post-Cold War era.

Secondly, I would like to say a few words about the scholarly work done in the field of ethnic conflict and what it adds up to at this point in time. The scholarly and nongovernmental community generally have done quite a bit by way of researching this phenomenon. If the insights arrived at could be operationalized through the policy process-or to put it another way, if we have a foreign policy process interested in operationalizing it-we could well devise more credible and practical strategic remedies for dealing with ethnic conflict.

My conclusion concerns the strategic implications of ethnic conflict. How do we define the enemy, affect the enemy, and cope with our own limitations? How, in short, can we develop some “traction” on the ground in places like Kosovo that we seem to have lacked in the past?

Debunking the Myths

Let us begin with the myths. One myth that should be laid aside very quickly is the notion that ethnic conflict is new. It is as old as mankind. What is more, the database developed at the University of Maryland by Ted Robert Gurr amply demonstrates that ethnic conflict remained with us throughout the Cold War period, and— contrary to myth— is no more prevalent now than it was before the Cold War ended. (See his Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts, U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1993.) What is new is the way ethnic conflict has leapt onto center stage due to the structural changes brought about by the end of the Cold War international system and the European colonial system that predated it. These structural changes have promoted, or highlighted, ethnic conflict by challenging the personal identity of the masses, the men and women in the street, and encouraging them to act forcefully on the basis of ethnicity, and secondly by creating career opportunities for the would-be leaders of all kinds of new political movements, including ethnically based ones. Indeed, many of the acts presently played out on the global stage which we describe as ethnic conflict, are, in fact, more complicated.

In sum, the first point I wish to make is that we should not entertain the notion that wars of ethnicity and identity are a wholly new phenomenon. What is new is the breakdown of the structures that previously contributed to keeping such conflicts under some control.

The second myth that must be dispelled is the idea that these conflicts are so intractable as to be beyond our ability to influence. We are told that they involve ancient hatreds, primordial sentiments, and reciprocal vengeance. We are told that such conflicts, deplorable as they are, lie essentially within the sovereign domestic arena of the countries involved, and thus we have no right to intervene in them. We are told that ethnic conflicts are uniformly ugly, and that if we think for a moment that war in the former Yugoslavia is a good guys/bad guys situation, we are greatly mistaken: just wait until we get to know the Kosovo Liberation Army up close and personal. Hence, it is best to stay out. Finally, we are told that “superpowers do not do windows.” (See John Hillen, “Superpowers Don’t Do Windows,” Orbis, Spring 1997.) Leave it for the Chinese to wage ethnic conflict in Tibet, or the Indonesians to do so in East Timor, or the Italians on occasion to intervene in Albania (which they actually did rather well), or the Russians to do it in the Caucasus. Americans are both too wise and too important, in terms of our military role in the world, to volunteer to walk between dogs and lamp posts.

That attitude, too, is a myth, for the United States cannot disavow all strategic responsibility and expect to remain a great nation, a nation that will lead and be accepted by others as a leader. We cannot focus exclusively on defining ethnic threats out of existence, because they are among the primary threats that we face.

“What about ‘exit strategies’?” you may ask. “Surely we cannot get sucked into ethnic conflict unless we see in advance a way out.” Well, President Roosevelt did not go into World War II thinking about an exit strategy. We cannot necessarily wait until one side capitulates. We cannot always expect there to be mutual exhaustion or mutually damaging stalemates. We cannot wait for there to be a peace to keep. So I would attack this myth head on. Defining every ethnic conflict as “too hard” is not going to take us very far.

The third myth concerns the very terminology of ethnic conflict. It is only one label, but “ethnic conflict” can be a response to stimuli of all kinds. It can be a response to the removal of alien rule. It can be simply the playing out of political entrepreneurship. It can be a response to the creation of new economic threats and opportunities. It can be the response to, or the result of, premature elections that turn out to be one-time plebiscites in the absence of structural machinery to hold a country together in a power- sharing constitution. Ethnic conflict can arise from the collapse of a state or an empire.

It should be obvious that there are some triggers here that we should be much better aware of than we are. Quite often what goes by the name of ethnic conflict is in fact something much more interesting, complex, diverse, and case- specific, with more varied implications for policy than any distortive catch-all slogan like “superpowers don’t do windows” can cope with.

The State of the Academic Art

Now let us turn to the second topic I want to address: what we have learned from the literature, and what pertinent areas scholars have focused on. We should start by recognizing that no one has professed to come up with real “solutions” to ethnic conflict. We would be startled, I think, if they did, and in any case most “solutions” in foreign policy are just the preamble to the next set of problems. In that sense, most ethnic conflict is normal. It is natural when peoples come into contact and compete for scarce items like jobs, land, respect, or recognition that conflict will arise. And the conflict that must be worked out is usually more complex than one that takes place in a schoolyard, over who gets to use the red crayon. What is not natural, in my view, is genocidal violence. We must be very careful about the term ethnic conflict, because it does not equate to genocide. Ethnic conflict is something that needs to be managed and can be managed through various kinds of constitutional systems, military structures, and other remedies. (See William Zartman, “Mediation in Ethnic Conflict,” paper presented to FPRI Conference on Ethnic Conflict, May 25, 1999.)

Likewise, internal warfare in general, and ethnic conflict in particular, is not equivalent to interstate war. Scholars have made considerable progress in pinpointing what makes internal strife more challenging and identified some of the obstacles to resolution created by the circumstances of internal war. To begin with, many of the stakes involved are indivisible, rendering internal war a zero-sum game. Hence, security dilemmas involving trust— making military concessions or launching preemptive attacks— are even more thorny in an internal conflict than they would be in an interstate conflict, and many problems related to the conduct of disarmament and elections are very hard to resolve. Finally, there are problems created by so-called spoilers of settlements. Even when a negotiated outcome has been achieved in an ethnic conflict, people who are left out or just feel somewhat marginalized, and people who did not achieve their maximum or even minimum goals, will look for an opportunity to strike from the sidelines and undermine or sabotage an agreement. We have seen this happen in situations around the world when what we thought was a peace falls apart because some group, whether motivated by need, greed, or creed (in Bill Zartman’s evocative words) remains unsatisfied.

An interesting debate continues among scholars concerning the extent to which ethnic conflicts are driven by the instrumental, or shall we say Machiavellian, tendencies and tactics of political leaders rather than issuing from long-standing historical ancient hatreds and rivalries. We cannot resolve that debate, because it depends on the circumstances of the case. What needs fixing in the Balkans-Milosevic, the Serbs, or the history books of all the Balkan peoples? In Indonesia, are the regionalism and pressures for autonomy happening because of ancient hatreds and long-festering, previously suppressed regional tendencies, or are they a product of revulsion against Suharto and his family, or is it the case that Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 13,000 islands, is somehow an artificial creation, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the time has come for its artificiality to be exposed? These are the kinds of questions at the center of academic debates that are of particular salience to us as we try to understand ethnic conflict.

Another debate that goes on among scholars asks whether or not there is a single constitutional model that can be deployed to resolve some of these problems. Again, there is not-it all depends on the case. I simply do not believe that we can look at the writings of people as diverse as Eric Nordlinger, Donald Horowitz, Arend Lijphart, Milton Esman, Tim Sisk, and Bill Zartman and decide which one is right. (See the bibliography at the end of this essay.)

Yet another growing body of scholarship focuses on the economic roots and triggers of ethnic conflict. This is an exciting and emerging field that relates to the “greed” dimension, as opposed to need and creed. I am referring to such people as Mark Duffield, Susan Woodward, David Shearer, Bill Reno, David Keen and Mats Berdal. (See bibliography.) The main theme of their books is the criminalization of the economy in states that have forgotten how to govern or that no longer have the means to govern. In failing states or actually failed states, the government habitually distributes spoils and divides the opposition by offering different fiefdoms to different groups. That ultimately leads to the privatization of security itself in many parts of the transitional world and the third world, leading to situations that are becoming more and more frightening in terms of the weakness of the center and the potential for conflict among rural warlords.

To make matters worse, this is a problem that can splash across borders. Consider the case of Sierra Leone and the involvement of Guinea and Liberia, as well as more distant South Africans and Ukrainians, in that conflict. What is happening is a link up between diamond dealers, arms merchants, and mercenaries who are no longer needed by their home states. The large private arms markets of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union enable the funneling, in a quite purposeful way, of diamonds out and arms in, thereby creating an open invitation to spreading ethnic conflict, not only within individual countries but across borders and whole regions of the troubled African continent. The cutting edge of the literature endeavors to pull all these strands together.


Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

The examination of ethnic conflict has several implications for American foreign policy. First, it might be useful if we would think about the phenomenon we are dealing with-which is nothing less than the breakdown of empires, federations, and nation-states-before we act. We must think about how, in the present era, the breakdown of the old colonial and Cold War structures empowered challengers to governments. Whether their challenges come through information technology, the erection of new standards of governance, or new demands from donor clubs, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the ground has occurred. The disappearance of the old structures has, in short, created strategic vacuums that will be filled, in one fashion or another, by a new set of actors or by older actors marching under new flags. That is really what much ethnic conflict is all about.

Secondly, we need to reflect on the stakes. As a superpower which supposedly “doesn’t do windows,” we may be tempted to think that the stakes are low for the United States. But what is at stake in Kosovo is not just the Albanians or Serbs, but (now that we have backed into this forest without a compass) what is at stake is American leadership, the survival of NATO, and the danger that members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, will acquire something of a veto over American policy-including how we get out of the woods we have wandered into.

Think, too, about the stakes involved for the people who become victims of these conflicts. Waiting for a conflict to “ripen” will achieve nothing if the contesting leadership elites are living off the conflict. When both sides in a conflict find the status quo preferable to any settlement, the situation will never “ripen” and the humanitarian toll will mount. And the numbers of victims of these conflicts is huge: up to four million in Sudan alone over the past forty years, and countless thousands in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Indonesia, and the Balkans. Similar conflicts have raged in the South Asian subcontinent since the massive postcolonial population transfers of the late 1940s, and now that nuclear weapons have been openly thrown into the mix, the Indo-Pakistani worst-case scenario has gotten a lot worse. So the stakes are huge in moral as well as strategic terms.

The third thing we need to do is begin relating means to ends. You would think this an essential requirement of any strategy. But if we do not get the resources and the goals in some kind of relationship to each other in American foreign policy, we are going to have more and more Kosovos to worry about. This may seem a fairly obvious point, another truism out of Washington, but perhaps because of our unique global standing, as well as our post+Cold War hubris, we sometimes behave as if the laws of gravity do not affect us. Contemporary experience to me suggests otherwise. When was it that Dayton became possible? Only when the Croatian army, assisted by some NATO air power, began really to roll back the Serbs-in other words, when the means began to relate to the ends we were seeking.

Another conclusion about the implications for our policy is that we may need to think beyond mediated outcomes. Obviously, mediated outcomes are the best in some ways because they seem softer and more user-friendly. They imply an integrationist outcome after which peoples learn to live together peaceably. But is that really going to be possible in many of these situations? The ideal is already preemptive intervention to prevent bloodshed in the first place. Failing that, mediation works in certain cases, but not all that many. Failing that, in turn, we could become a bit more heartless and argue from history that the most stable outcomes are those that flow from an outright victory by one side. But do we really want to get into the business of looking at victory as a solution to ethnic conflicts? If we had done nothing in Kosovo, there would have been such a victory, and the Serbs would have produced an ephemeral stability. But that would hardly be an outcome to cheer.

Other possible outcomes include negotiated separation, separation at gun point, forced population transfers, and military intervention to reverse victories we don’t like. But none of these is very appealing either. So if we are not prepared to countenance what we are seeing out there, if we are worried about the track record of mediated approaches which are only effective in a minority of cases, if we are not good enough to do preemption, maybe we have to begin thinking a little bit more creatively about how to deal with problems of ethnic communities that simply show signs that they do not really want to live together. That is one area of thinking that needs additional reflection.

Another problem on which we need to reflect is the development of strategic traction on the ground. The way we Americans are thinking about war these days is deeply disturbing. We seem to believe that we can prepare for the wars that we want to fight while remaining ill-equipped for, and uninterested in, the kinds of challenges we will most likely face. There is an asymmetry developing between our kind of strategy, which we are seeing played out night after night and day after day with the NATO bombing campaign, and the kind of strategy which the Milosevics of this world specialize in, which affects the people on the ground, in their towns, in their homes, in their villages. We must figure out how to get some strategic traction, which in turn means being willing to accept casualties for interests that may appear to be non-vital. This point is pretty obvious, but it has taken Kosovo to teach us that high-tech warfare cannot by itself stop ethnic cleansing and genocide, even if it may impose a heavy price on the perpetrators. Overwhelming local force applied to the circumstances on the ground makes an indispensable difference, and at an acceptable cost.

Finally, we must find ways to target the people who exploit these conflicts for their own economic gain. There has been much talk about economic sanctions and how they are overdone by the United States. According to one measure, we have imposed sanctions on more than sixty different countries. The problem is that those sanctions apply to countries rather than to individuals. We now know enough about the way financial transfers work to target the bank accounts of individuals, and to find and break criminal business enterprises. But we are not doing it, even though these are the very actors who actively tear apart country after country.



Ethnic conflict is a complex phenomenon. There is no single cookie-cutter approach that will work. Dramatic differences exist between the circumstances of a Bulgaria or Kosovo on the one hand and an Indonesia on the other. Or take the case of Ireland. What accounts for the fact that the Irish conflict looks closer and closer to being finally resolved? There are some special ingredients there, as in every case. There is the long learning process, the empowerment of civil society, the role of churches in building bridges, and the role of third parties in Ireland, which makes it a promising example. There is also a combination of important nations such as the United Kingdom, United States, and Republic of Ireland, as well as the European Union coming together and in effect strengthening those parties that want peace and marginalizing the parties that do not want peace. Yet even with all these assets it is not assured.

In conclusion, ethnic conflict is a case-by-case story. I know that sounds likes a Washington answer, but I do not believe in any abstract theory of ethnic conflict. There is no substitute for knowing the facts of the case and the range of tools and instruments available to you. Above all, you must make an act of will, and be determined if you are to be effective.


Mats Berdal and David Keen, “Violence and Economic Agendas in Civil Wars,” Millennium, vol. 26, no. 3. (1997), pp. 804-5.

Mark Duffield, “The Political Economics of Internal War: Asset Transfer, Complex Emergencies and International Aid,” in War and Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies, ed. Joanna Macrae, et al. (London: Zed Books, 1996)

Milton J. Esman, Ethnic Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994); Timothy D. Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996)

Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985)

David Keen, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars, Adelphi Paper #320 (London: Oxford University Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998)

Arend Lijphart, “Self Determination versus Pre-Determination of Ethnic Minorities in Power-sharing Systems,” in The Rights of Minority Cultures, ed. Will Kymlicka (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Eric A. Nordlinger, Conflict Regulation in Divided Societies (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1972)

William Sampson Klock Reno, Warlord Politics and African States (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998);

David Shearer, Private Armies and Military Intervention, Adelphi Paper #316 (London: Oxford University Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998)

Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995)

I. William Zartman, “Toward the Resolution of International Conflict,” in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, ed. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), pp. 3-19.