Yugoslavia (former)

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.

�The 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.��from 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 Gagnon�s 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. Gagnon�s noteworthy and rather controversial argument provides us with a substantially new way of understanding the politics of ethnicity.

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2004 04 22
A very gloomy report on the future of Kosovo . . .

. . . here.

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2004 04 07
Wha’d’y’all want, anyway?

In a post yesterday, I complained about a remark of Matt Bivens’ to the effect that Iraqis seemed to be voting for Islamic theocracy. A commentator took that up and (as I interpret it) implied that I was underestimating the strength of support for religious extremism in Iraq, particularly the South.

I should be clear that I don’t want to deny that there is support for religious leaders in Iraq, including many who give me the willies. What I do want to deny is that it’s especially helpful to fall for reductive explanations of what is happening in Iraq, or for that matter, anywhere else. If Iraq moves in the direction of an Islamic theocracy, or civil war, it won’t necessarily be because the majority of people wanted it, or even necessarily because it was anyone’s first choice (though, obviously it will be the first choice for some people). What happens will have very much to do with who has bigger guns, better organization, a head start, better intelligence, support from outside actors, etc. It’s no good to imagine that we can just aggregate personal preferences and – presto – figure out which way things will go. That’s why poll-driven optimism is so often misguided. But conversely, we can’t look at the way things go and then try to extrapolate from that to what the individual preferences of the actors were.

In general, I think we do a very bad job of understanding how group behaviour is related to individual preferences.1 Part of that is the effect of all the simplistic talk we’re accustomed to hear about democracy and group preference. We’re constantly hearing about what the voters wanted, mandates, and so on. Much of this is perfectly sensible, but it’s also potentially misleading. And I get especially worried when assumptions about group behaviour and individual preference get tied up, as they so often do, with notions of collective responsibility.

To give one example, I (think I) recall a high ranking American official saying at the time of the Kosovo war that Yugoslavia basically deserved to get pummelled because Milosovic had won elections – as if hundreds of thousands of moderates hadn’t marched in the streets against Milosovic for years; as if barriers to information weren’t high; as if the very limited options on offer didn’t force difficult choices on people; and so on. This isn’t to sidestep difficult questions of collective responsibility for ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, but it is to reject accounts of collective responsibility that rest on the faulty assumptions I’m complaining about here. Certainly the high ranking American official was being a jackass in this case.

Anyway, I hope this explains why I’m allergic to a lot of the talk about what Iraqis want – at least when it’s not loaded up with nuance and qualification. Poll away, but interpret with great care.

1. For a wonderful recent example of this, stunning in its obviousness, and yet almost completely neglected in the commentary, see this point about the Spanish elections made by John Quiggin.

Howls of outrage (2)

2003 09 13
[Humanitarian interventions]

Among the rationale’s cited for the war in Iraq was the humanitarian one. I think many well-meaning people (including myself!) who wouldn’t ordinarily have trusted Bush to pick up their groceries were moved by this line of argument. Perhaps not moved all the way, but nevertheless moved. And I noticed a general pattern which I came to term ‘Iraqitis': the more people knew about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the more they were willing to sanction anything, just anything, to get him out of power. I think I had a touch of Iraqitis a few times during the buildup to the war, as I read Human Rights Watch reports and the like, though never severe enough to short-circuit my brain when it came to forecasting the likely outcomes of an invasion.

The same considerations moved many progressives and liberals over Kosovo: this sick in the stomach feeling that enough is enough and that force is the best option. (In fact, I think Kosovo played an important and underappreciated role in lowering – even further – the American threshold for the use of military force. Whether you supported Kosovo or not, that was one of its effects. So don’t forget to weigh it in the balance of good and evil achieved by the war.) Before then, it was the failure to act in Rwanda – and I believe that Rwanda called for a military response – that gave an extra force to the notion, as people in the West began to digest what they had allowed to happen.

Fair enough.

As I said, I’m at least open to this kind of argument, even if it’s unpersuasive in particular cases.

But humanitarian justifications for war are becoming popular enough that it’s very important now to recognize how very dangerous they can be and how open to abuse they are. What is desperately needed now is more historical context, because I think that a number of historical cases give us special reasons for humility, and special reasons to put humanitarian justifications for particular wars under intense scrutiny, even if we accept them in principle. Today, I have in mind two examples. The first is the conquest of the “New World”. This was, it is astonishing to recall, promoted by appeal to humanitarian concerns: the desire to stamp out cannibalism (save them from themselves!), whose prevalence was greatly exaggerated, and the desire to save their souls for Christianity. The Crusades were also promoted, perhaps even sincerely, by appeal to goals which were religious and moral. And we could go on.

The examples do not debunk the notion of a humantarian justifications for war. But they ought to teach us to be extremely suspicious of them.

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