Ethnicity in International Conflicts:
Revisiting an Elusive Issue
Professor Victor-Yves Ghebali,
Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva), 1998
Courtesy: Center for Security Studies and Conflict Studies
Since the end of the Cold War, the actors which currently contribute to
conflict management (major powers, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs),
have been called to cope more and more with intra-State conflicts, in which
ethnicity plays a prominent if not an overwhelming role, and less and less
with inter-State conflicts. Both phenomena are certainly not new. Ethnic
conflicts did erupt in the era of bipolarity : Biafra, Burundi, etc. As to
the decline in the number of inter-State conflicts, it was already
observable in the 80's. In any event, both categories of conflicts are now
taking place in a different world-system and reveal a somewhat different
paradigm of human violence.
The litterature on the subject has already taken considerable proportions.
In most cases, existing works address either the issue of etiology or that
of management, or some combination of both. They seldom enter in the field
of basic definitions which are generally taken for granted 1. The importance
of definitions here is crucial not just for the intrinsic sake of political
theory. It proceeds from an elementary need of clarification, necessary in
any serious intellectual entreprise. It is indeed important to define the
nature of a phenomenon whose complexity is overconfused by a fuzzy and
misleading terminology. Only after attempting a dry-cleaning of the
available intellectual tools that one could hope to come something closer to
a better understanding of conflicts waged in the name of ethnicity.
An Epistemological Confusion in Three Acts
Ethnic conflicts of the post-Cold War era reflect the
phenomenon of ethnonationalism. So, a preliminary question arises : what is
the relationship between nationalism and ethnonationalism ? But such a
distinction requires a clear understanding of the meaning of the basic
concepts of "nation" and "ethny", as well as their epistemological
interelationships. Both concepts are extraordinary elusive not only from a
common (or popular) angle, but also from a social science point of view. The
concept of "nation" is interchangeably used with at least four other basic
terms : "people", "State", "race" and... "ethny" 2. As to the concept of "ethny",
it belongs to those very notions which "nobody knows what they mean" 3. A
recent interdisciplinary debate on "Ethnic nationalism and the World
Systemic Crisis" has confirmed to what extent scholars use the same terms
with different meanings and the impossibility of generally agreed
definitions in this field 4.
All the basic words of our contemporary political vocabulary derive from
Ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks used different terms to cover the
concept of "people" under its respective political, social and
anthropological angles : demos referred to the citizens acting as political
body, while laos labelled the lower classes (or sometimes a community of
warriors) and ethnos. The latter served as an umbrella term designating
inter alia a Greek or a non-Greek community of human beings having developed
a post-tribal collective identity and living together into some kind of
socio-political organization on the basis of (true or imagined) common
descent. On that basis, an expanding epistemological confusion developed so
to speak in three acts.
The seeds of confusion (or Act I) can be traced back to the Romans which,
alike the Greeks, made use of different terms to qualify the notion of
"people". Referring to the whole body of citizens, populus was by and large
symetrical to demos. In the same vein, plebs (which designated the citizens
not enjoying a status of patricians) roughly corresponded to laos. As to the
the greek word ethnos, its counterparts were gens , natio and even...
populus itself. It is worthwile noting that the Romans did never consider
themselves as a natio (a term reserved to non-Roman persons established
outside their homeland, i.e in the Roman Empire) 5, but as as populus
(citizens of a civitas). Later on, under Christianity, the Fathers of the
Church popularized the term ethne to designate (in plural form) pagan
persons and groups - thus transforming the initial anthropological meaning
of ethnos into a marker of a religious boundary.
Under the Romans, populus (etymology unknown), gens (group of people
identified by a collective name) and natio (connoting birth) were thus
undiscriminately used to refer to a same reality 6. Of all those
interchangeable words, it was natio - leading to nation - which finally
prevailed after the fall of the Roman Empire. Over time, the word nation
signified just the population of a given country, peoples living on the same
territory under a single political authority irrespective of their origin.
Between the XVIIth the XVIIIth century, a narrower and aristocratical sense
however prevailed : the use of nation was restricted to the upper classes of
the society and people (a word directly deriving from populus) to the lower
classes 7. Until the French Revolution, the concept of nation kept its
elitist connotation, beside the technical term of State which referred to
the socio-political form of organization encompassing both the nation and
Performing Act II, the French Revolution and its aftermath epitomized the
initial confusion by introducing four new and far-reaching parameters.
First, it created a systemic link between the concepts of people, nation and
State by upgrading the first one as the supreme entity and considering the
two others respectively as its soul (nation) and flesh (State). Second, it
sacralized the people by enshrining in it the exclusive source of political
legitimacy. Third, it established a direct connection between the nation and
democracy by proclaiming that the Nation represented the whole of the people
with no social exclusion. Finally, it defined the national link as a kind of
social contract concluded between all the members of the nation as willing
individuals. As a result of this intermingling, people, nation and State
became largely equivalent in practice : hence the claim of modern States to
portray themselves as Nation-States.
In reaction to the French Revolution's ideology, an antagonistic conception
soon emerged. Pionered by the German philosopher Fichte, it defined the
nation as a collective entity of a biological (and not of a contractual)
nature which, by definition, could only be superior to the will of all of
its constituent elements. It argued that a Nation is a natural grouping
composed of peoples linked by the objective, affective and irreversible bond
of common blood stemming from mere birth.
In this epistemological space, the extraneous concept of race found
propitious ground. Initially, this concept purported two meanings. The first
was just classificatory : sort, kind, category - of anything (peoples,
objects, etc.). The second had to do with genetics, since it connoted the
idea of family, lineage, descent, generation and so forth. Beginning with
the XVIth century, a social dimension was injected into the concept : race
served to differentiate social classes and to legitimize (particularly in
France) social inequality by interpreting the latter as a consequence of the
supremacy of the victorious conquering "Germanic race" over the defeated
"Gallo-Roman race". In the Enlightment era, an additional function was
attributed to the same concept, that of describing the subvarieties of
humankind on the basis of purely morphological differences (color of the
skin, size of the head, etc.). Following the considerable development of
philology, European intellectual elites considered language as the
determinant factor of the "race" of nations, thus regrettably amalgamating
the two concepts. In sum, by the XIXth century, there were two competing
visions of the nation : a contractual version praising the subjective will
of the individuals (flamboyantly conceptualized by Ernest Renan in the
1880's) and a biological version emphasizing the fatality of birth, blood
and genes 8.
Act III, or the acme of the epistemological mess, was reached at the end of
the XIXth century when a French sociologist (Georges Vacher de Lapouge),
forged the term ethnie . The aim of that neologism was to qualify nations
which although composed of different races formed, under the vissicitudes of
history, coherent entities and whose members developed a genuine national
solidarity 9. Actually, ethnie did not add any substantial innovation in
regard to the pre-existing concepts of people, nation or race. Despite (or
perhaps because of) its fuzziness, that neologism found different uses in
the French language. Within the framework of the disciplin of ethnology
(before the latter's transmutation into "anthropology"), it served to
describe the peoples of "primitive" or "archaic" non-Western societies.
Moreover, some authors retained it to qualify group of peoples linked by a
linguistic bond. Others just used it as a mere synonym for race and nowadays
it represents a politically-correct substitute for the discredited
(biological) concept of race. In the English-speaking world, ethnicity
appeared in the 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary . As to ethnie,
it was popularized as late as 1986, with the works of the British
sociologist Anthony Smith.
Since modern biologists have demonstrated that the concept of race is
scientifically unfit to the human species, its equation with that of ethnie
became equally invalid. So, the remaining question is : what are the exact
difference (if any) between ethnie and nation ? Anthony Smith defines the
ethnie as "a named human population with a myth of common ancestry, shared
historical memories, elements of shared culture, and association with a
specific homeland and a measure of solidarity" and the Nation as " a named
human population inhabiting an historic territory and sharing commom myths
and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common
legal rights and duties for all members". Both definitions present indeed
Anthony Smith differentiates the two concepts in the
following way : "historically, the nation is a sub-variety and development
of the ethnie, though we are not dealing with some evolutionary law of
progression, nor with some necessary or irreversible sequence. While the
ethnie is an historical culture community, the nation is a community mass,
public culture, historic territory and legal rights. In other terms, the
nation shifts the emphasis of community away from kinship and cultural
dimensions to territorial, educational and legal aspects, while retaining
links with older cultural myths and memories of the ethnie " 10. In brief,
the ethnie could be considered as the primordial form of the nation : the
proto-nation. As such, it represents the basic cultural unit of human
diversity predating the nation - the latter being the modern version of the
Ethnonationalism : a Complex Variant of Nationalism
Being a specific variant of nationalism, ethnonationalism
shares with it a set of common features. However, it also presents important
qualitative differences which makes it appear as a much more complex
phenomenon than traditional nationalim.
First, ethnonationalism reflects a clearly regressive phenomenon. Assuming
that the ethnie is the archaic version of the nation, we have to admit that
ethnonationalism represents a revival of trends supposedly eradicated by
modernity. Indeed, in a number of cases, those who ignite ethnic conflicts
seem to have been driven by an overwhelming nostalgia towards a mythical era
where the national community was (or just supposed to be) a kinship group.
Accordingly, they endeavoured to deconstruct the existing Nation-State to
which they belong with no whatsoever regard to modernity assets such as
citizenship, economic benefits, external national prestige, etc. In short,
contrary to nationalism, ethnonationalism is not the product of modernity
but a late resilience to modernity, a counter-reaction to its most advanced
Second, ethnonationalism often presents so high a degree of emotionality and
non-rationality that it would not be excessive to analyze it with the
vocabulary of psychiatry. A number of post-Cold War ethnic conflicts seem to
have follow a comparable pathological general pattern. Their starting point
has been the self-overestimation of the collective identity of a given
ethnic group which asserts that its specificity is so unique that it makes
coexistence in the same Nation-State with others not possible anylonger, all
the more that its collective identity is lethally threatened by a coalition
of internal and external foes. In line with that creed, which has to do with
narcissism and paranoia and which allows it to pose itself as a victim or
martyr, the igniting group demonizes one or several other ethnic groups
living with him on the same politico-territorial unit. Resenting henceforth
physical cohabitation as intolerable promiscuity, it arrives at the
imperative necessity of restoring a mythical stage of initial ethnic purity
- thus adding phobia and delirium on the list of symptoms 11. Two cases are
particularly illustrative in this connection : the suicide of Yugoslavia and
the deconstruction of Georgia's national unity and territorial integrity.
The process which led Tito's Yugoslavia to disintegration began by the
ethnonationalistic overestimation of the Serbs accompanied by a concomitant
demonization of the Albanians of Kosovo, the Croats and the Muslims. The
first group was accused of commiting a "permanent genocide" in what
represented nothing else than the historical craddle of the Serbian nation.
The second was recalled the massacres perpetrated by the Ustasha movement
during the Second World War and also pilloried for the "forceful cultural
assimilation" of the Serb populations now living in Croatia. The third was
charged with the dual guilt of "islamic fundamentalism" and anti-Christian
Orthodoxy. Furthermore, the Serbs denounced a "world plot" directed against
the Serbian nation by a coalition associating higgledy-piggledy Germany, the
Holy See and the islamic fundamentalist States. The upsurge of Serbian
ethnonationalism resulted in awakening or exacerbating the
ethnonationalistic feelings of the others peoples and communities of
Although less complex in nature and deriving from a different problematique,
the Georgian case is by and large comparable to Yugoslavia's. On the eve of
the collapse of the USSR, Georgia's population included some 30% of ethnic
minorities mainly concentrated in the Autonomous Republics of Adzharia and
Abkhazia as well as in the Autonomous Region (Oblast) of South Ossetia. The
Soviet power created and amalgamated such entities within Georgia in order
to control (and actually neutralize) Georgian nationalism. When Georgia
proclaimed independence (1991), it immediately proceeded, under the
leadership of an ethnationalist President (Zviad Gamsakhourdia) to eradicate
the consequences of fifty years of unwanted russification and to promote
Georgian national identity at the expense of its linguistic and religious
minorities 12. The uncompromising attitude of the Georgian leadership,
opposed to any constructive dialogue with minorities accused of playing the
game of the former coloniser, fueled ethnotionalistic feelings (hitherto
dormant or rampant) in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Eventually, and amidst
bloodsheds including "ethnic cleansing", both regions seceded from
Third, and even more importantly, ethnonationalism can generate "total
conflicts" involving a particularly high degree of human barbarity. At the
individual level, this can be explained by the fact that in such type of
conflict "everyone is automatically labelled a combatant - by the identity
they possess - even if they are not" 14. At the collective level, the main
reason is that the igniting group considers itself as engaged into a
life-or-death struggle, making its survival dependent upon the total
destruction of the other(s) ethnic group(s). The argument of "salvation
through ethnic purification" helps it legitimize the inhumanity of its war
methods against harmless and helpless civilian populations. As a general
rule, conflicts waged in the name of ethnonationalism illustrate the
appalling axiom that humankind is not supposed to exist beyond the
boundaries of the ethnie 15. Suffice it to recall here that the "ethnic
cleansing" which took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995) was not the
consequence but the very objective of one (and partially two) of the warring
The abovementioned considerations show that ethnonationalism is a much more
problematic phenomenon than traditional nationalism. However, they do not
help to explain the etiology of ethnonationalism which could be accounted
for, fundamentally, to the collapse of the Nation-State or at least to a
significant weakening of the Nation-State as the basic unit of
socio-political and cultural governance.
Ethnic conflicts of the post-Cold War period have generally been encouraged
by the inability of the Nation-State to perform its fundamental natural
functions as the overriding source of law and order, economic prosperity,
social justice and collective identity. Its inability can be attributable to
two main factors (or a combination of both) : on the one hand, the
side-effects of the demise of the Cold War aggravated by the progress of
world economic globalization; on the other hand, the instrumentalization of
ethnicity by national elites in favour of specific political agendas.
The general trend in favour of democracy and political pluralism, generated
by the end of bipolarity, raised high expectations among the populations of
many States (especially multiethnic ) of the Third World. But, being often
artificial entities and whose main support came from the outside world for
purely strategic reasons, those States (plagued by corruption, inefficiency
as well as political, economic and cultural discrimination against
minorities) proved unsurprisingly unable to deliver. At the same time, the
general breakdown of law and order, following the fall of authoritarian
regimes, concurred to undermine what was still left of the States'
legitimacy and credibility. As to globalization, it did not only reveal the
decline and structural shortcomings of the State in a world economic system.
Its actual and high-potential homogenizing cultural effects incited social
groups to feel that collective identity was at risk, pushing them in a quest
for new "imagined communities" : "because of its ability (even better than
the state) to mimic the kinship and thus provide the identity, security and
authority epitomised in the family bond", the most obvious candidate for
that purpose could only be the ethnie 16. Offerring both refuge and
salvation, ethnicity plays in such cases the role of a protective shield.
However, the manifestations of ethnonationalism are not always spontaneous
and/or highly irrational. Sometimes, ethnic conflicts are just or basically
ethnicized conflicts, that is to say conflicts inspired by perfectly
rational purposes but waged (with the privileged support of medias and
transnational ethnic diasporas) in the name of irrational values. Ethnicized
conflicts are easier to understand, but raise the puzzling problem of "why
do followers follow " ? 17. In any event, ethnicity serves here as an
offensive weapon. In this connection, three cases of post-Cold War
ethnicized conflicts are worth mentioning : Yugoslavia, Rwanda and
The instrumentalization of ethnicity appears particularly blatant in the
Yugoslav case. Beyond undeniable shortcomings and flaws, the Federal
Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia constituted a viable political entity. Its
deconstruction was not the product of necessity but of strategy, the
strategy of political leaders less driven by irrational ethnonationalistic
feelings than by rational power motives. Endorsing the paranoid
paraphernalia of an intellectuals' manifesto (1986 Memorandum of the Serb
Academy of Sciences and Arts), Slobodan Milosevic deliberately ethnicized
the problems of the Serbian regions of Kosovo, Voividina and Sanjak as well
the relations of Serbia with the other Republics of the Yugoslav Federation.
To a lower degree, but with the same devastating consequences, Franjo
Tudjman practiced a comparable game in Croatia through the ethnicization of
the relations of his Republic with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In a
nutshell, Tito's Yugoslavia disintegrated under the combined blows of
ethnonationalism and ethnicization . Partaking with ethnicity, the conflict
between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is certainly of an ethnic (or
preferably inter-ethnic) nature. But in Bosnia-Herzegovina it was rather
intra-ethnic. The conflict did not oppose different ethnies : Serbs, Croats
and Muslims are branches of a same ethnie (Slav) speaking the same language;
they only differ from the point of view of religion - hitherto a veneer,
religion as distinctive factor was overmagnified for the circumstance.
In Rwanda, contrary to current popular beliefs, there is just one ethnie :
the Rwandans. Although initially coming from different origins (as in the
case of practically all Nation-States), Tutsis, Hutus and Twas speak the
same language, practice the same religion and claim the same mythical common
ancestor. It must be stressed that the basic distinction between Tutsis and
Hutus (not counting the Twas who represent 1% of the global population) has
traditionally been socio-economic and not ethnic. The Tutsis formed the
wealthy minoritary ruling elite. Tutsis who loose their cattle could be
downgraded to a Hutu status, while Hutus who acquire cattle could be
upgraded to a Tutsi status. In any event, mixed marriages were not
infrequent betwen Tutsis and Hutus.
For the practical purposes of colonial administration, the
Germans and more particularly the Belgians (when they took over) ethnicized
this traditional socio-economic cleavage of the Rwandese society.
Accordingly, the Tutsis were legitimized as proxy rulers of Rwanda on the
ground of an alleged "racial superiority" over the Hutus. When, in the
1950's the Tutsis began to claim independence, the Belgians re-instrumentalized
ethnicity in the other way around. In order to slow down the decolonization
process as long as possible, they supported the Hutus' claims for
power-sharing and transformed a basically political problem into a fierce
ethnic antagonism. Since then, and though forming a single ethnie, Tutsis
and Hutus have been ruthlessly hating each other in the name of purely
"imagined communities" 18.
The conflict about Transdniestria also belongs to the category of ethnicized
conflicts. It opposes the government of Moldova to the Russian-speaking
inhabitants of the left bank of Dniestr forming, since September 1991, a
self-proclaimed Republic. The latter includes only a small part (25%) of the
total Russian-speaking population of Moldova : indeed, 75% russian-speaking
people live on the right bank with no real coexistence problem with the
romanian-speaking population. Actually, the separatists were predominantly
former privileged Soviet officials or military officers. Secession took
place through bloodshed not (as they alleged) for ethnicity, but for
political and ideological motives : the initial intentions of the Moldovan
leadership (totally out of order today) to integrate the country to Romania
bore the risk of putting an end to a cherished communist lifestyle and a
host of appreciable privileges 19.
Whether spontaneous or instrumentalized, inter-ethnic or
intra-ethnic, conflicts erupting from the obscure nebula of ethnicity raise
for international collective management at least two main sets of problems.
In such conflicts, traditional stakes (political, economic, strategic, etc.)
decisively outweigh symbolic stakes. International mediators cannot expect
to deal here with political actors driven by fairly rational motives,
concerned by the opportunity-cost of their goals or ready to embark in a
give-and-take diplomatic process. While this holds fully true for ethnic
conflicts, ethnicized conflicts offer however some room for manoeuver.
Provided that the mastermind is still in charge, compromises are not totally
out of reach, as proved for instance by the 1995 Dayton agreement which put
a military end to the ethnicized conflict devastating Bosnia-Herzegovina
Those conflicts are also particularly difficult to manage because their
protagonists are mostly non-State actors : paramilitary groups, factions,
dissident sub-clans, warlords, etc. Non-State actors are not vulnerable to
traditional diplomatic pressure. Furthermore, they do not feel bound to
respect not only the most basic rules of international law, but also those
of international humanitarian law. As previously said, humankind is not
supposed to exist beyond the boundaries of the ethnie. The present record of
the post-Cold War practice tends to suggest that intra-ethnic conflicts
(which represents the most sophisticated form of a nations'self-destruction)
degenerate into genocides more easily than inter-ethnic conflicts.
1 For a laudable, although inconclusive, exception see Fred W. RIGGS :
"Glossary of Terms Used in this Issue", International Political Science
Review, Vol. 19, No 3, 1998, pp. 311-330.
2 Walter CONNOR : "A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group is a
...", Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 1, No 4, October 1978, pp. 377-400.
3 Pierre HASSNER : "Beyond Nationalism and Internationalism : "Ethnicity and
World Order", Survival, Vol. 35, No 2, Summer 1993, p. 49. In the 20's, Max
Weber himself recognized that this concept was "unsuitable for a really
rigorous analysis" because it simply "dissolves" when submitted to
definition (The Ethnicity Reader. Nationalism, Multiculturalism and
Migration. Edited by Montserrat GUIBERNAU and John REX. Cambridge, Polity
Press, 1997, p. 24).
4 International Political Science Review, Vol. 19, No 3, 1998.
5 Guido ZERNATTO : "Nation : The History of a Word", The Review of Politics,
Vol. 6, 1944, p. 352.
6 This confusion is particularly striking in such famous works as Tacitus'
7 In De l'Esprit des Lois (chapter XXVIII.9), Montesquieu significantly
restricted the French Nation just to the "lords and bishops".
8 The two visions did not reflect a clear-cut French/German opposition.
Supporters of the vision based on biology could be found in France (Joseph
de Maistre, Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, etc.) as well as in Germany (Fichte,
9 Georges VACHER DE LAPOUGE : Les Sélections Sociales. Paris, Fontemoing,
1986, pp. 9-10.
10 Anthony D. SMITH : "A Europe of Nations - or the Nations of Europe ?",
Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 30, No 2, May 1933, p. 130.
11 François THUAL : Les conflits identitaires. Paris, Ellipses, 1995, pp. 6,
39-40 and 174.
12 The Ossetians do not speak a Caucasian but an Indo-European language. As
to the the Abkhaz, they are a Caucasian people, but partly Muslim.
13 For more details on the Georgian conflicts, see Victor-Yves GHEBALI :
L'OSCE dans l'Europe Post-Communiste, 1989-1996. Vers une Identité
Paneuropéenne de Sécurité. Brussels, Bruylant, 1996, pp. 271& ff.
14 John CHIPMAN : "Managing the Politics of Parochialism", Survival, Vol.
35, No 1, Spring 1993, p. 146.
15 In his Structural Anthropology II , Claude Levi-Strauss actually wrote
that "humankind stops at the boundaries of the tribe".
16 David BROWN : "Why is the Nation-State So Vulnerable to Ethnic
Nationalism ?", Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 4, No 1, 1998, p. 13.
17 See Michael E. BROWN : "The Causes of Internal Conflict. An Overview",
Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict. Edited by Michael E. BROWN and others.
Cambridge, MIT Press, 1997, pp. 20-23.
18 On this complex question see the standard work by Gerard PRUNIER :
Rwanda, 1959-1996. Histoire d'un Génocide. Paris, Dagorno, 1997, 514 p
(available in english translation ).
19 For more details on this conflict, see GHEBALI : L'OSCE dans l'Europe
Post-Communiste, 1989-1996, op. cit., pp. 289 & ff.