The Causes and Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts

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  • Topic: Security, Ethnic conflict, Ethnic cleansing
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  • Published : June 1, 2011
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The Causes and Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts

Scholars of International Security have been trying to develop a theoretical approach to explain the causes of ethnic conflict for a long time. These studies have led to contentious debates but have also probed so deeply that their findings help shed new light on these issues, providing better understanding and possible solutions. Ethnic groups are defined as a community of people who share cultural and linguistic characteristics including religion, language, history, tradition, myth, and origin. This paper will explore the realist explanations of ethnic conflicts and then see how critical theory explanations offer new insight and answers to puzzles that could not be previously be explained. It will then explore several of the possible solutions used to end incidents of ethnic violence. Finally, it will focus on the debate surrounding partition as a possible solution to ethnic conflict, concluding that it is in fact a viable option for peace when implemented judiciously. According to realist explanations, ethnic conflicts are deeply rooted in cognitive and situational needs. In his article, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” realist scholar Barry Posen claims that anarchy creates competition and hostility between ethnic, religious and cultural groups. Ethnic fractions act to preserve their identity and physical security through the accumulation of resources and military power. Interestingly, Posen notes that social cohesion is viewed as a larger threat than material assets in military competition. Social cohesion, he claims, derives from historical accounts of identity building which often are inaccurate and biased; thus perpetuating cultural differences and hatred of the other.[1] Accordingly, ethnic tensions are inevitable but can quickly magnify to warfare when one group coerces or dominates the other militarily or ideologically. Realists, such as Posen do not ignore the fact that “ideas” are essential elements of ethnic conflict, but rather use them support the needs of power and mutual deterrence. In his article, “Symbolic Politics or Rational Choice?,” Stewart Kaufman attempts to deconstruct realist explanations of ethnic conflicts by introducing his own theory called “symbolic politics.” According to this theory, episodes of extreme ethnic violence are caused by, “[ G]roup myths that justify hostility, fears of group extinction and a symbolic politics of chauvinist mobilization.” [2] Kaufman believes that these myths produce “emotion-laden symbols that make mass hostility easy for chauvinist elites to provoke and make extremist policies popular.”[3] Both Posen and Kaufman use the situation in former Yugoslavia to validate their respective theories. According to Posen’s realist explanation, the origin of the conflict was a primordial contentious relationship between the Croats and Serbs. Due to the past violence and aggression inflicted upon them by the Croats, the Serbs were justifiably fearful for their security. Their ability to mobilize and slight military advantage prompted mutual fear and competition from the Croats, which in turn resulted in the Serbs launching what they perceived to be a preventative war. [4] Kaufman’s symbolic politics theory suggests that the conflict was not one based on group interests or material factors, but rather, “the struggle for relative group worth”[5] and that charismatic leaders such as Milosevic and Tudjman exploited pre-existing myths and symbols which appealed to the emotions of the public, in order promote their own, expansionist agendas.[6] Upon in depth analysis of both scholars’ explanations, I found each to be very similar and plausible. In my opinion, Kaufman’s “symbolic politics” theory does not undermine Posen’s realist explanation of the conflict, but rather supports and expands on it. Kaufman’s explanation appears to be more of a critical analysis which combines...
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