2006 03 08
The Myth of Ethnic War
Back when I was blogging about Iraq, I made this point ad nauseum:
I won’t spell it out at length, but I continue to believe that when you have precious resources unevenly distributed, ruthless neighbours, a terrible internal security problem, decades of the worst kind of human rights abuses and grievances built up therefrom, ethnic and religious differences which are easily seized on by unscrupulous politicians, and so on, I think you have an awfully good recipe for a civil war. And I’m long past tired of people pointing to hopeful evidence and opinion polls suggesting that most Iraqis lean towards moderation. Of course they do. So did most Yugoslavs. Hundreds of thousands of them marched in the streets against Milosovic. To focus on opinion polls and the like rather than relevant structural features of the situation is to make the mistake of assuming that group behaviour is predictable simply by aggregating individual preferences. It isn’t. And that’s why I can be gloomy about Iraq’s collective behaviour in the next few years while esteeming Iraqi people and their agency as much as anyone else in the world.
The basic idea here is that Kaplanesque visions of seething, primal ethnic hatred aren’t terribly helpful in either understanding or predicting civil conflict that breaks down on ethnic lines.
Anyway, since this is something of a hobby horse of mine, it was very nice to notice this new book from Cornell Press: The Myth of Ethnic War. Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. V. P. Gagnon Jr.
ï¿½The wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in neighboring Croatia and Kosovo grabbed the attention of the western world not only because of their ferocity and their geographic location, but also because of their timing. This violence erupted at the exact moment when the cold war confrontation was drawing to a close, when westerners were claiming their liberal values as triumphant, in a country that had only a few years earlier been seen as very well placed to join the west. In trying to account for this outburst, most western journalists, academics, and policymakers have resorted to the language of the premodern: tribalism, ethnic hatreds, cultural inadequacy, irrationality; in short, the Balkans as the antithesis of the modern west. Yet one of the most striking aspects of the wars in Yugoslavia is the extent to which the images purveyed in the western press and in much of the academic literature are so at odds with evidence from on the ground.ï¿½ï¿½from Chapter 1
V. P. Gagnon Jr. believes that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were reactionary moves designed to thwart populations that were threatening the existing structures of political and economic power. He begins with facts at odds with the essentialist view of ethnic identity, such as high intermarriage rates and the very high percentage of draft-resisters. These statistics do not comport comfortably with the notion that these wars were the result of ancient blood hatreds or of nationalist leaders using ethnicity to mobilize people into conflict.
Yugoslavia in the late 1980s was, in Gagnonï¿½s view, on the verge of large-scale sociopolitical and economic change. He shows that political and economic elites in Belgrade and Zagreb first created and then manipulated violent conflict along ethnic lines as a way to short-circuit the dynamics of political change. This strategy of violence was thus a means for these threatened elites to demobilize the population. Gagnonï¿½s noteworthy and rather controversial argument provides us with a substantially new way of understanding the politics of ethnicity.