1 Even those without nostalgia for the cold war will admit that it had some moderating elements. For more than a half-century the character of the bi-polar Soviet-American confrontation protected Europe and North America from conflict. For the most part, violence and danger were relegated to regions where confrontation was not direct. The major fighting was in Asia, and never really threatened to escalate to global war. The only dangers of such escalation, apart from some heart-stopping moments around Berlin, were in Cuba, where Soviet Prime Minister Khrushchev tried to install nuclear weapons in 1962, and in the Middle East, when the United States and the Soviet Union went on nuclear alert following the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war.
In contrast to the first half of the twentieth century, with its two devastating world wars, the cold war period was marked by a stable, if tense, equilibrium. This equilibrium had a suppressive effect on ethnic tensions in Europe. The exigencies of World War II, followed by armed peace, made it easier for Josef Stalin and his successors to subdue the restive nations of the Soviet Union and intimidate the Eastern European appendages of the Soviet empire. In Yugoslavia, where over half a million Yugoslavs had been killed by their own countrymen during the war, Marshal Tito balanced off local ethnic groups, imprisoning nationalists who violated the doctrine of “brotherhood and unity.” In neither the Soviet nor the Yugoslav case, however, did the rulers “solve” the ethnic problem; as soon as the respective regimes weakened, ethnic conflicts again arose to help destroy them.
Nor was the Western camp conspicuously successful in treating its ethnic problems during the cold war. The membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO failed to prevent their war over Cyprus. And fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland began in 1969, and intermittently continued for twenty-nine years.
In the rest of the world, contrary to common wisdom, the cold war probably had more of a provocative effect on local tensions than a pacifying one. In some cases great power competition prolonged conflicts which had begun as a result of decolonization, as in the long-running and murderous civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, and in Vietnam as well. In other cases ethnic war became a test of will between the Soviet Union and the United States, as in Afghanistan, or was stimulated for ideological reasons, as with the Reagan administration’s support of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua.
In still other cases ethnic warfare, never absent from human history, erupted and continued with little interest or influence from the great powers. Major bloodletting between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi began in the 1960s and 1970s without much outside help or interference. And the world’s most savage current civil war, in Sudan, has been raging off and on, with minimal international concern, since the 1950s.
While the bipolar rivalry of the cold war failed to limit ethnic conflict, it did freeze most of the effective international responses to it. The two superpowers tended to police their own spheres, and each wielded a UN Security Council veto to keep trespassers out. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union participated to any large extent in UN peacekeeping operations. The traditional recognition of claims to sovereignty, the last refuge of third world dictators, meant that most international interventions were in conflicts between states, not within them.
UN rules ensured that intervention, when it came, would always be late. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ministered to uprooted populations only after they had crossed a border to a safe neighboring country. There were extensive rescue operations, like that of the Vietnamese boat people after the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, but millions around the globe who had failed to escape their countries were left without any help or protection. UN peacekeepers—untrained, without a clear mandate, and unarmed for combat—entered a conflict only after it had ended, and then only with the consent of the warring parties (as with the UN peacekeeping forces that have been stationed on the Syria-Israel border for some twenty years).
The early 1990s brought an increase in both the number and character of ethnic wars. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict has counted in the decade of the 1990s thirty-eight conflicts resulting in at least one thousand deaths in any one year. Almost all of them have been internal rather than international conflicts. At present writing there are no significant wars between states; all wars today happen to be civil wars.1 The volume of killing is high. Nearly one million people have been killed in Rwanda, a human disaster comparable to the ones in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Probably well over 100,000 have died in Bosnia, a large number by European standards—fewer than 4,000 died, for example, in the twenty-nine years of conflict in Northern Ireland.
The structural stability of states, which had seemed firm during the cold war, has weakened. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been destroyed. Czechoslovakia has been divided. Saddam Hussein tried, unsuccessfully, to strike Kuwait from the map. The government of Somalia is barely functioning.
The rush of events gave the nations of what is loosely called “the international community”—a phrase not in much use before 1990—little time to respond. Their conservative and risk-averse approach to ethnic warfare proved dangerously irrelevant in the mountains of Iraq and Bosnia. A broader philosophy and a more dynamic strategy became urgently needed. Miraculously, they were found. Almost unnoticed, a new approach to intervention had incrementally appeared in the past two decades—the view that the international community has the right, indeed the responsibility, to concern itself with human rights within states.
With the growing acceptance of this concept in international law and politics, no tyrant guilty of human rights violations against his citizens, no ethnic civil war with its inevitable atrocities, was any longer entirely outside the scope of the world’s scrutiny or action. The strategic reflection of this slow-motion revolution came after the Gulf War in 1991, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution (688) to protect Iraq’s Kurdish population. It made possible a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, effectively depriving Saddam Hussein of sovereignty over part of his own country.
We are now in a new global situation, where ethnic warfare dwarfs most other problems, where conflict within states is as important as conflicts between them, where states are themselves crumbling or collapsing with appalling human consequences, where cold war restraints on action by UN members have been lifted, where the Security Council is no longer immobilized but is expected to act, and where the UN’s capacity for peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention limps behind the accelerating challenges. In the last decade hundreds of scholars and public officials have poured forth books and monographs on ethnic conflict and how to deal with this galaxy of new problems. Few have probed more deeply than Michael Ignatieff.
2 Ignatieff himself is something of an advertisement for the values of genetic, residential, and ambulatory diversity. A Canadian of Russian background, he lives in London, and has studied and taught at the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and the University of California at Berkeley. In the early 1990s he traveled to Yugoslavia, Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to explore and define what he called the “new nationalism.”
The result of these journeys was a television series and a finely written book, Blood and Belonging, which contrasted civic nationalism (the belief that a society is held together by law rather than common ethnic roots) with ethnic nationalism (the assertion that a person’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen, and that the national community defines the person, not vice versa). “Wherever I went, I found a struggle going on between those who still believe that a nation should be a home to all, and race, color, religion, and creed should be no bar to belonging, and those who want their nation to be home only to their own.”
In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff explained how ethnic nationalism works, and he warned of its dangers for individual liberties. In The Warrior’s Honor he has widened the scope of his travels (to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Afghanistan), his analysis, and his alarm. The book is a collection of essays, not always closely connected, which combine superior reporting with provocative and troubling insights on the violent world we have inherited from the cold war. Ignatieff concentrates on two groups. First are the ethnic irregulars—“paramilitaries, guerrillas, militias, and warlords”—for whom savage warfare is a way of life. Second are the “Westerners who make the misery of strangers their business: …aid workers, reporters, lawyers for war crimes tribunals, human rights observers.”
For Ignatieff the “warrior’s honor,” the traditional code which implied general acceptance of rules of war, is fast disappearing—a relic of an earlier time when war between states was the norm. The irregulars who typically fight ethnic wars ignore human rights, adhere to no standards of warfare, and rarely come under the discipline of states. The result is a descent into excessive violence, barbarism, and genocide.
Ignatieff succinctly describes how ethnic cleansing—a typical aspect of this kind of warfare—becomes self-reinforcing. For the victors it “eradicates the accusing truth of the past.” The victims have fled; nobody is left “to remind the winners that someone else once owned these houses, worshipped here, buried their dead in this ground.” For the victims there is a parallel transformation. They “have lost the sites that validate their version of the truth. They can no longer point to their homes, their houses of worship, their graves, for those places are gone.”
Could vanished codes of honor and restraint be revived? One answer for Ignatieff is to recreate functioning states, in order “to secure to a single authority the monopoly over the legitimate use of force.” He is of course right—if, that is, the state in question is willing to use force legitimately. But he underrates the degree to which states are themselves guilty of the very violence he deplores, and act as instruments for dictatorship as well as for the rule of law. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are so dangerous because they control the police and armies of their respective states. If they were merely warlords, their characters would be as evil but their power would be less.
Ignatieff is at his best in describing the nationalism that motivates ethnic warriors. He recounts a conversation in a farmhouse in eastern Croatia with a Serbian irregular, whom he asks to explain his hatred of Croats. He gets three answers. First, these are Serbian cigarettes; over there they smoke Croatian cigarettes. Second (after troubled reflection), Croats think they’re better than us; they want to be gentlemen; they think they’re fancy Europeans. Third (this time, after no pause), we’re all just Balkan shit.
Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict (Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997), pp. 12, 26.↩
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 138, 260-262, 281-291.↩